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Activities for Forest Resilience

Posted: June 17, 2014

In forestry education and outreach we need to make explicit that caring for your land to promote resilience requires active management, or manipulation, of the woods.

By Allyson Muth, Forest Stewardship Program Association, Penn State Department of Ecosystem Science and Management

I could have titled this article, “Management for Forest Stewardship,” or “Activities to Manage Your Woodlands,” or something similar, but I thought that might turn people off. As a forestry educator, my goal is to work with woodland owners so that they can make well-informed decisions about their woods – considering options available to them based on the resource type and quality, values and reasons for owning land, and hopes and dreams for the future. In outreach materials and educational programs, we often present options, concerns, and things to think about as landowners make decisions about tending the woods. What we imply, but don’t make explicit, is that taking many of these actions requires active management, or manipulation, of the woods. Many values and aspirations for the woods require cutting trees. And that’s not a bad thing.

In our educational outreach we often shy away from “management” as a word, but not as a concept. For many woodland owners, the term management implies something different than what they’re doing on their land. Management means clearcutting, harvesting for income, pruning limbs to increase clear wood and thereby timber value – different than what landowners perceive themselves doing. Yet when a natural resources professional talks about management, many of the activities that woodland owners do on their land – cutting firewood, clearing trails, putting in food plots – are also what the professionals mean. We’re just talking past each other. I don’t mean this article to address the problems with the word, but rather to talk about what active stewardship (or management) of the woods can entail.

Jim Stiehler, retired Private Lands Stewardship Coordinator from the Pennsylvania DCNR Bureau of Forestry, used to give a talk/demonstration showing how, when done correctly, timber sales represented an excellent opportunity for woodland owners to achieve their woods’ hopes (of course depending upon just what that hope was…). Unfortunately, when not done correctly, timber sales also offer an excellent opportunity to leave the woods in a less desirable state, sometimes irreparably.

Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of articles about woodlot or forest resilience in the face of change and the importance of setting up the healthiest, most diverse (both structurally and in species diversity) forests attainable so that perhaps change won’t bring total loss within the ecosystem. But what I haven’t said, and what has been strongly brought to my attention, is that, at times, creating that resilient forest includes active care, or management, to influence the future forest.

Active care to promote forest health includes things like removing invasives, especially those competing with regeneration or causing a scarcity of wildlife forage; sometimes removal is accomplished mechanically or biologically, sometimes it is most successfully done with judicious and cautious herbicide use. Active care to promote a multi-aged structure of the forest involves cutting some or lots of the overstory (big trees) to allow the next forest ,if already established, to grow (of course dependent upon the species desired – whether they need a lot of light and disturbance or a little). Active care sometimes involves removing diseased or host individuals so that major infestations do not begin. Active care can involve increased hunting pressure or deer fencing (large or small areas) to bring vegetation/consumer ratios back in balance and let desirable species regeneration occur (and by desirable, I mean both in the tasty and wanted by human meanings). Active care means a landowner might have to cut a few or many trees, we hope always with the long-term goal of sustainability in mind. It does not mean a select cut, diameter-limit, or high grade harvest where the best trees are removed and the smaller left to grow big – Pennsylvania’s forests are, in many places, all one age. Smaller does not always mean younger.

So the best option for woodland owners desiring to make well-informed decisions, to consider the future forest, and leave the best, most resilient forest after their care, is to educate themselves. Learn about what they have. Think well and hard about what they love about and hope for their land, and be prepared to talk through those emotions, ideas, and connections.

If you are a woodland owner, educate yourself about what the options are to move your forest to the place of your hopes, if that is indeed possible. Learn to understand those actions that will move the forest to that place. Work with someone you trust and who is working for you and your goals (not just the highest dollar – though dollars and goals are not mutually exclusive). The forest is a working, renewable resource, and forest products are important to our societal, ecological, and economic well-being. Move your forest to a place of resilience, even if that means taking strong and decisive actions. But do it out of a place of good information. It’s the only way we can ensure the continued care and existence of the working, beautiful, and biologically rich renewable natural resource that is Penn’s Woods.