The Coastal Post - October, 1996

Forest Mismanagement Rampant West Of The Rockies


The current battle over the Headwaters Redwoods only serves to emphasize how deliberately backward this entire section of the United States is. During the late '40s and early '50s, it was required curriculum in Michigan schools to teach that clear-cutting was the worst thing to be done to our forests. Forty years later, West Coast forestry management has yet to learn that simple truth, or more likely, sweeps it under the carpet.

The National Park Service allows clear-cutting (even-aged harvesting) by private companies, seeing it as one of two viable options. Most private timber owners have chosen even-aged harvesting because it's the cheapest and most profitable.

So here we go again. Big money outsiders gorging on the riches of our land like their cousin vampire merchants, who sweep into a mall demanding expensive incentives, suck the neighborhood dry and move down the road 10 miles or so to do the same thing all over again.

Around the turn-of-the-century, what happened in Michigan was that lumberjacks clear-cut the entire top of the state. Public outrage was so intense, a reforestation program was soon adopted. What happened next is still in evidence. At a certain point, everything became row after row of planted or new growth pine trees.

North to Lake Superior from about Green Bay, Wisconsin, and running in a line across Travis City in Michigan's Lower Peninsula to Lake Huron is a phenomena known as the pine line. On one hand, this is a natural occurrence due to the northerly latitude and cold winters. On the other hand, these pines are a tribute to how far humans still have to go before they catch up to Mother Nature.

In some places, mile upon mile of symmetrically-planted trees are two or three feet apart with little or no meadows, open space or sunlight filtering through the branches onto the lower growth. Few natural streams meander. Animal paths are hard to establish. The trees grow so close together that there is little life, except for the tops of those cramped pines.

That's not to say the whole reseeding plan was a waste. The trees are there. And many areas have become absolutely beautiful as nature takes over to recreate her splendor. But even in the '50s, discussions were going on in the eastern and mid-western states about what to do to restore the vast forests and wildlife that once blanketed the entire Great Lakes region. Out of this came a plan of properly-managed forests.

To define this strategy, consider this quote from former Senator Hubert Humphrey when he introduced the National Forest Management Act in 1976. "The days have ended when the forest may be viewed only as trees and trees viewed only as timber. The soil, water, grasses and shrubs, the fish and wildlife, and the beauty that is the forest must become integral parts of resource managers' thinking and actions."

The Forestry Service has advised that a forest properly managed can provide a variety of habitat for wildlife, recreation, beautiful vistas, rural lifestyle, clean air, stable soil, high-quality water, jobs, and timber! But that takes management agreeing to properly manage. In that lies the problem. Private management and its cohorts in Forestry have taken the clear-cut path. It's cheaper.

We should examine the two styles of harvest management that is considered proper: Even-aged management, which is a growth and harvest cycle, and uneven-aged management, continuous growth and harvest. Even-aged management has what's called a first harvest. This is basically clear-cutting. Regeneration comes from replanting and/or from stumps and seeds left behind by the saw. As trees grow, clear cutting is less apparent and within a number of years, the area is similar to surrounding forest, ideally.

The actual results of this can be seen in Michigan and up and down the West Coast. One place where it falls apart is where areas aren't reseeded, such as the Nevada side of the Sierras. Huge pinyon forests used to cover the area, but were cut by miners 100 years ago and never fully recovered.

The argument goes that even-aged harvesting creates openings for bushes and shrubs to spring up, providing habitat for a great variety of wildlife, but this takes at least 25 years to establish. By the end of this 25-year road sign, the forest probably receives a thinning to allow the remaining crop trees to grow.

Seventy-five years after the first harvest, thinning has reduced the number of even-aged trees by 70%. The area has pretty much returned to normal and is ready to be harvested again. Uneven-aged management is what most ecologists are seeking. Uneven-aged harvesting is continuous growth and harvest, creating forests with three or more age classes of trees and always containing large, medium and small trees. Only a select number of trees are harvested a year.

The first harvest leaves standing the majority of trees, eliminating the horrible specter of clear-cutting and providing a continuous habitat for wild creatures. Those trees, chosen either singly or in small groups, create openings for undergrowth while maintaining the sheltering canopy of older, larger trees. Not only does it retain the nature functioning of a forest, it allows for recreation the entire time, and importantly, it provides continuous jobs and income for timber companies and their employees. Twenty-five to 75 years later, the forests are still viable with older trees providing an uninterrupted source of food and homes for birds and animals. Even though profits are less for individual cuttings because of the expense of selective harvesting, in the long run more profit is made because the forest is never depleted.

What's needed is for private timber companies to start practicing Silviculture, the art of managing and tending a forest by imitating nature, creating the conditions that occur naturally in forests. Certain trees, such as aspen, oak and pine, grow best with direct sunlight. Other trees, such as maple and beech, can thrive in the shaded environment of canopies. By paying attention to these differences, there can be food and shelter for different wildlife associated with different parts of a natural forest.

The Headwaters are a special place and should be left untouched, but what about the rest of the forests? It would appear that by carefully adopting this already-developed management plan, uneven-aged harvesting, our forests could last for thousands of years.