Woodcraft 24: Stewardship

8 11 2014

“It looks like you never cut your forest down,” I observed.

“Well, Konrad, there is a difference between cutting down trees and cutting down the forest.  My father had opportunity to cut the whole thing down when he took possession.  He could have done what so many of the big lumber barons did do here in the Great Lakes states and again in the states of the Southeast.  He could have cut all the best trees for furniture and woodwork.  He could have cut all the good trees for lumber.  He could then have cut all the fair trees for pulp and paper.  All the poorest he could have cut for posts, for firewood, for charcoal.  Then he could have sold the land for farming.  That’s called mining the forest: log it and leave it, taking what it has and giving nothing back.

“That’s what happened in the northern portion of this state.  Loggers came in and mined the trees.  Then farmers came in and mined the soil.  And there was devastation.

“But your great-grandfather didn’t do that. Not only would that have been bad business, as he would say, but also bad stewardship. Three sections of land came into his possession, almost as a gift.  Perhaps it was an act of Providence working through an act of the Devil.  At any rate, he had three sections of land.  The common man in America could only hope and strive for such an estate, and maybe, just maybe he could attain it.  The common man in Germany had no hope for such an estate.  My father got one, and he was going to take care of it.

“As I said, Konrad, there is a difference between cutting down trees and cutting down the forest.  One may cut trees without killing the forest.  It’s rather like your mother cutting roses or zinnias or pansies.  She can harvest flowers for placement in a vase; she doesn’t have to kill the entire plant to do so.  If she takes care of her roses, those plants will live for years and years, providing the sights and scents of beautiful flowers season after season.  So it is with a forest.  Come along.  Let’s walk, and I will explain.”

“How are you doing, Grandfather?” I asked.  “You’ve been walking a long way already.  And that peg leg…”

“I can do this, Konrad,” Grandfather insisted.  “But how are you?  You’ve been walking quite a way.  And that rucksack…”

“I can do this,” I echoed.

“Very well, then.  Let’s go.”

We walked.  In time, we passed through a stand of red pines.

“Pruning,” Grandfather said.  “That’s what can be done to improve the quality of the lumber inside a tree trunk.  Cut the lower branches off as they die back because they get too much shade and not enough light.  Branches may be pruned while they are still green, too.  Pruning them while they’re small in diameter means that the knots in the wood will be small. They won’t be as deep in the wood, as well.  The trick is to prune as many branches as possible without taking too many and slowing the growth of the tree itself.  In addition, one must prune properly so that the tree can heal itself as quickly as possible.  One must minimize the risk of infection by disease.

“In a similar way, one can improve the quality of a stand of trees by the careful cutting of individuals.  Come with me to the higher ground outside this plantation.”

We walked to a stand of oaks located on some small, steep hills.

“You can easily see that these trees are not as fine as most of the ones we’ve seen elsewhere.  This is because the site is poor.  The soil isn’t as good.  The availability of water isn’t as good.  So we get trees that aren’t so good.”

The oaks stood short with most of their trunks curved or bent or twisted.

“What kinds of trees are these?” I asked.

“Black oaks mostly.  A few northern pin oaks.  On this site, these trees will never amount to much.  That is, they have little commercial value.  One may need the land, though, to produce something of commercial value.  Red pines could do fairly well here.  Red pines have more value than scrub oaks.  One may, therefore, decide here to do a clearcut.  One could clear all these oaks off and replant the acreage with pine seedlings.  And that’s what I did back there on the ground that’s not so steep.”

I looked back into the evergreens.

“I clearcut the scrub oak and planted red pine seedlings. Then over time, it’s thin the plantation.  One usually plants more trees than the site can handle as they get older and older.  One assumes that a certain number of seedlings and saplings will be killed by drought and by various pests.  As the remaining trees grow, they start to crowd one another.  They need to be thinned, the way your mother thins sprouts out of her flower beds each spring.  Trees thinned early can go for pulp and paper.  Trees thinned later can go for posts and poles.  All the time, it’s do the necessary pruning.  Eventually, one harvests pines big enough for lumber.  Then plant again.”

“But you didn’t do that here,” I said.

“No.  Too steep.  Clearcutting is often hard on a landscape.  Not only does it make the land look like a terrible battle has been fought, it makes the land more prone to erosion.  Runoff from rain and snowmelt will scour the unprotected soil and send it where it doesn’t belong: into rivers and lakes.  Besides, I wanted to keep some of this land in scrub oak because of the other plants and animals that like it.

“Now, some sites are so poor that only jack pine will grow.  Jack pine is good only for pulp and paper — thinking commercially, of course.  They are relatively fast growing.  One can manage them almost the way a farmer manages crop fields.  Clearcut the stand for pulp.  Burn it over to get the seeds left behind to sprout.  Jack pine cones must be burned to get them to open.  That’s why jack pine is known as a fire species.  It pioneers areas that suffer forest fires.  Let the trees grow several decades.  Then clearcut them again.

“One can do something similar with aspens.  Aspens can be cut the way farmers mow hay fields.  The aspens will sprout and grow back, replacing the grove that was cut.  The grove may be cut again and again, the trees used for pulp.”

We entered a stand of trees populated with larger oaks, red and black.  “Trees that are sick and dying can be cut and hauled away to the mill: trees likely to pass infection on to others nearby and trees infected, but don’t yet show obvious signs of being sick.  These can be cut to protect the others, and it can be done while the wood inside is still good, or at least fair.  I have had to do this here, for example, because of oak wilt.  I have done that with American elms because of Dutch elm disease.

“Such harvests are called sanitation cuts.

“Trees infested with damaging insects may also need to be cut and hauled away.  Many trees can repel, or at least tolerate, insect pests, but not always.  Sometimes, if a plague is underway, the trees must be cut and hauled while the wood is still of some merchant value before it’s thoroughly despoiled.  I’ve done that at times for spruce and for fir, for birch, for tamarack.  I’ve done that for stands that have been infected with root rot, such as tamarack. The trees are done for, so one may as well harvest them.

“Doing so is called a salvage cut. The idea is to get what good wood there is remaining before it’s further infested with insects that like to eat dead trees, and before it is infested with fungi that like to rot dead trees.”

We entered an area that had no canopy.

“A bad storm blew through here some years ago,” Grandfather said.  “It knocked down many nice trees. These had to be harvested quickly and taken to the mill.  But you can see that new trees are growing.  Nuts were already in the ground, ready to sprout at the time of the storm: hickory nuts, walnuts, butternuts, and acorns.  Other seeds flew in on the breezes: birch, willow, cottonwood, aspen, maple, ash, and elm.  Birds planted some: black cherry, hawthorn.

“And what you see brings us again to selective thinning.  There is enough space here, enough sunlight and water and soil for all the small trees now, but not for long.  In the years to come, these trees will be crowded, and they will struggle and strain for resources.  In selective thinning, one moves in and cuts out the trees considered undesirable so the ones considered desirable can grow better.  Thinning takes out poor trees so that fine trees can grow taller, faster, and stronger.  Here, one may decide to thin out the butternuts in favor of the walnuts.  One may decide to thin out the boxelders in favor of the sugar maples.  One may decide to thin out the hawthorns in favor of the cherries.”

We walked into another section of oak woods.  This had a number of white pines mixed in with the various hardwood trees.

“You see the pines,” Grandfather said.  “Now, if one were to decide that the white pines were most important, one could perform a seed-tree cut.  The oaks would be harvested, leaving behind the tall pines.  These would be allowed to produce seed.  Nature would scatter the seed over the acreage, and new pines would start growing and get themselves well established.  The old pines could then be harvested before they get too old.  The new pines would grow fairly quickly because the old oaks wouldn’t be present to give them too much shade.”

We came to a stand containing a wide variety of trees, all of various sizes.  Ash, elm, walnut, and cherry grew with hackberry and hop-hornbeam, as well as basswood.  Oak and hickory, however, dominated the overstory.  Sugar maple composed much of the understory.

“Here,” Grandfather said, “one may decide to perform a release cutting.  If, for one reason or another, one prefers maple to oak and hickory, then one will cut the oaks and hickories to give the maples more light.  That would release them to grow faster.  The maples, however, can tolerate less light.  They will still grow, even if more slowly, and eventually take over.  As it is now, someday this will become a stand of maples.

“Oaks and hickories cannot tolerate shade as well as maples; oak and hickory seedlings cannot grow under them.  So, if one wants this to continue being a woods of oak and hickory, then one must thin the maples so that new oaks and hickories can grow in their place.  Even then, many of the old trees must be cut to allow enough light for the young ones to prosper.  But not too many.  It would also be good to leave enough trees to provide enough shade to keep pioneer trees and shrubs from moving in and crowding out the younger generation.

“I can mention the shelterwood cut.  That’s a technique of harvesting trees that removes a large number, but also leaves a large number.  Here, for example, the first shelterwood cut would remove all the maples and other undesirable trees, and also a large number of the oaks and hickories.  Those cut go to the mill and to market.  Those left produce seeds for a new generation. Those left then protect the newer, younger trees from too much heat or too much wind, and from invaders.  Here, these large trees remaining would allow enough sunlight into the forest to allow the younger generations of oaks and hickories to compete against those maple seedlings trying to make this into a maple grove.

“One can think of shelterwood cuts as harvests that remove trees generation by generation.  Loggers come in one year and take a certain age group out.  Ten, twenty, forty years later, loggers come back in and take another age group out.  The kind of stand is maintained as desired.  Nature isn’t allowed to convert the stand from oak to maple, or from pine to oak.”

“Foresters seek to encourage fine trees, especially those with market value.  They seek to help them thrive.  They want them to be as robust as possible while they grow to maturity.  Good mature trees have the most good wood for converting into an array of wood products. They are thus the most valuable.

“However, mature trees don’t stop growing: they can grow old and become overmature.  The problem with that is the risk of disease and insects.  Old trees are more susceptible to problems.  Pests have an easier task afflicting overmature trees.  Such trees, when so afflicted, get spoiled.  Some, much, or most of the wood gets spoiled.  So the idea is to harvest the trees when they are as big as possible, but before they get spoiled.

“Here, in this stand, one may decide to perform selective cutting.  As I see it, that’s the technique of harvesting best suited for these hardwood forests, and it’s the type of harvesting I prefer.  In essence, it follows the example of nature while at the same time trying to improve nature’s performance.  Diseased and defective trees are removed more quickly for the benefit of the better trees.  Large old trees are removed before they become decrepit. They are carefully cut and hauled away while they still have merchant value.  They don’t just die and waste away.

“In selective cutting, certain trees are carefully selected, carefully removed.  Trees continue to reproduce themselves, so artificial planting after harvest is unnecessary.  Trees continue to protect themselves from wind damage by providing their own windbreaks.  Moreover, the risk of fire is smaller because not a lot of slash is left behind after logging.  Even so, some slash remains to rot and replenish the soil.  Only the logs get taken.

“And, what is most important to my way of thinking, the forest itself remains.  The nature of the forest remains.  The quality and characteristics of the forest remain.  The sequence of change, the pattern of growth and development, the ecological diversity, the environmental cycle, all can continue.”

 

woodcraft 8

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