A New Approach To Forest Management

One of many Thoreau maxims that still rings as true today as the day it was uttered is: “It’s not what you look at the matters, it’s what you see.” Enter forest management as we’ve all come to know it.

What has become clear to me over the past 10 years, beginning with the Greenfield biomass battle but dating back much further relating to fish- and, especially, wildlife-restoration initiatives, is that rarely is the forest managed for the health of the forest itself. No. We have grown to accept the concept of forests managed first and foremost for the timber and construction industry, then to bolster habitat for deer and grouse and turkeys and bears and moose and elk and you name it – that is any fish and, particularly, wildlife populations important to sportsmen ringing the till for hunting and fishing licenses. Get the point? Our forests are being managed as economic commodities, not for optimal health of the ecosystem and, in the long run, our planet.

For nearly 40 years, in conversations with foresters focused on building wildlife populations like, for instance, deer, I have been told that we need young forest and fresh growth. Thus the 60- to 80-year harvesting cycles with small, coordinated patches of clear cuts to stimulate growth of whitetail and, say, ruffed grouse populations. That’s all well and good if your goal is to produce more deer and partridge for hunters, and timber profit to defray the expense for managing public and private woodlands. But now, with climate change and carbon reduction on the front burner, there’s a new school of thought focused on building old-growth forests for the benefit of the earth, its air and waters.

So, there you have it. Not what you’re looking at. What you see. Get it? Synonymous with “in the eye of the beholder.” Do we want to manage our forests for economic profit and/or selected fish and wildlife populations important to license sales, or for the health of forests and, in the long run, planet Earth? I guess the relevant question becomes: Is there some way to reconcile this conundrum? Are old-growth forests compatible with good hunting opportunities? That is, can we build forests which simultaneously filter, absorb and store atmospheric carbon to slow earth’s accelerated warming, retain water resources and hold back potential flooding while maintaining adequate wildlife populations for hunting? The answer appears to be yes, if you can screen out a loud chorus of vociferous objection from the timber industry and sportsmen’s groups drawn into the battle by targeted lobbyists’ rhetoric. You know the cry: “The tree-hugging establishment is  taking  our land, reducing our deer, elk and bear populations and, ultimately, our guns will be taken, hunting abolished. It’s all hyperbole planted by crafty, well-paid spinmeisters hired to drum up loud, knee-jerk, sportsmen’s support for the captains of the timber and fossil-fuel industries rolling in greedy, green cabbage.

We’ve all read about how destruction of South and Central American rain forest removes the earth’s lungs, accelerating global warming and contributing to air and water pollution; however, a glaring misconception about this perilous issue is that such forest destruction is far away and not our doing. Wrong on both counts. In fact, most of the Western Hemisphere destruction has been bankrolled by U.S. investors; and, get this, according to Dogwood Alliance watchdog Scott Quaranda, “Forest disturbance from logging in the United States is quadruple that of South American rain forests and is degrading the nation’s potential forest-carbon sink by at least 35 percent.” Furthermore, the latest Environmental Protection Agency data on greenhouse-gas emissions calculates that U.S. forests are removing a mere 11 to 13 percent of our atmospheric carbon emission, which represents “half the global average of 25 percent and a fraction of what is needed to avoid climate catastrophe.”

Quaranda’s International Day of Forests (March 21) comments relied heavily upon a damning Dogwood Alliance report co-authored by Executive Director Ms. Danna Smith and Dr. William Moomaw. Smith has been on the front lines of U.S. industrial logging for more than 20 years. Moomaw is professor emeritus of International Environmental Policy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, founding director of Tufts Center for International Environmental and Research Policy, the Tufts Climate Initiative, and co-founder of the school’s Global Development and Environmental Institute. So, both forest experts are focused on forest and planet health. Count them among a growing 21st-century fraternity of scientists advocating mature, old-growth forest as a remedy to global warming.

Perhaps the prime example of a largely intact Northeastern forest is the approximately 3.2-million-acre Maine North Woods, which is gaining increased protection. That includes the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument approved by the Obama administration in 2016. That 87,500-acre parcel, donated by Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby, is already committed to the old-growth template as activists work to pull in more of the Maine North Woods. Michael Kellett, executive director of RESTORE: The North Woods, remembers the heated political battle fueled by aggressive opposition from paper companies, lumbermen and sportsmen alike. Yet he likes to point out the positive feedback that’s coming back his way these days, “even from some of our loudest opponents who now understand we’re not trying to take away their hunting privileges. They’re giving us really positive feedback about forests managed for the benefit of the forest and our planet.”

The North Maine Woods is a work in progress that’s making gains in the public-perception arena, and in the long run may bode well for a local old-growth forest like that of the Mohawk Trail. Yes, we have a nature’s classroom on old-growth forest right here in our lap, where people can take a walk and experience a forest that’s more mature than most. People who frequent those Charlemont woods made famous by lecturer and guide Bob Leverett say you can feel the difference, the magic.

Meanwhile, not far south and west, the Peru State Forest is under attack. A proposed state Department of Conservation and Recreation plan aimed at Garnet Hill, would log this parcel containing timber that has not been cut in 80 to 100 years. The plan is to clear-cut 58 acres of red pine plantation, three acres of Norway spruce plantation, and cut up to 88 percent of a 205-acre northern hardwood stand, where “undesirable” beech trees are targeted for poisoning. Friends of the Peru State Forest say, “over our dead bodies.” So, it’ll be interesting to see what happens there.

The Friends and other activists say the forest is valuable as it sits and will become much more important as a carbon filter and water-retention resource as it continues to mature. Proponents of the DCR plan say aggressive logging will improve the ecosystem by thinning and clearing forest to stimulate wildlife-friendly regeneration, and in the process remove dangerous forest insect (red pine scale, emerald ash borer) and disease (beech bark disease) threats. Opponents say forests are very good at managing themselves and need no human intervention; that disease-resistant individuals (often wise old trees) emerge from within the infected forest to fight off disease, while insect-infested trees give of a scent to attract woodpeckers and other insect predators.

This collision of old and new forestry-management theories and views is right here in our own neighborhood, and worth keeping an eye on. Interested observers who want to bone up on this cutting-edge argument can find more than enough scholarly reports to keep them busy for weeks and months, if that’s where they want to go.

Search them out and stay tuned. I’ve been digging into the topic, among others.

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