The Ugly of Forest Management

Think for a minute about pre-European Indiana. Indiana was 85% forestland. Trees were everywhere. You may have heard this phrase, but I want you to picture it. A squirrel could climb up a tree along the Ohio River and then cross Indiana from tree to tree and never touch the ground. Picture that, tree to tree across Indiana. What did you picture? Did you picture a squirrel in a 3-year-old baby tree? Or did you picture a squirrel in a big mature tree with spreading branches?

We are conditioned to think that pre-European Indiana was uniformly blanketed by old growth forest. True, there would have been a lot of old forest in Indiana pre-European settlement. But there was also a lot of young forest, burned over forest and tornado damaged forest. The forests of Indiana are disturbance loving ecosystems. They were before European settlement and they still are today.

In March 2012 an F4 tornado ripped through Clark State Forest with winds exceeding
200 mph. The tornado laid flat big trees and snapped over other trees. The tornado cleared
a swath of over 1000 acres of forestland in minutes. It was ugly.

Do you know what was there the year after the tornado?

A one-year-old forest. The next year, some plants did well, some did not. Some birds loved it, some did not. Some animals were displaced, some were not. But the forest lived on. No species went extinct. The forest system was resilient. So it accepted and absorbed this disturbance. Birds like eastern towhees, yellow breasted chats, whip-poor-wills, and indigo buntings very soon occupied the area. What looked like devastation to us was beautiful to these birds. But it can be ugly to us. It changes what we know, changes what we may love.

Good Forest management is a controlled disturbance meant to mimic a tornado, a fire, an ice storm or straight line winds. We use timber harvesting to change the light levels in the forest, to stimulate regeneration, and to change the very structure of the forest. But it can be controversial, it can be hard to understand, and it can be ugly.

When we cut timber there can be cut trees strewn about the forest, there is big machinery moving through the woods and occasionally residual trees are damaged or even knocked over. If the forester decides to create an opening in the woods, it can be shocking to walk out into. And there are roads. To get the equipment in and the trees out we have to build roads that are sometimes dusty, muddy or contain ruts and water. They are ugly.

But as with the tornado, or ice storm, or timber harvest, the forest lives on. What we see as ugly, may be exactly what certain plants, or insects, or animals need. When we create an opening, there are many native seeds that have lain dormant in the soil for years. Now is their chance to grow and flourish.

When we harvest timber, we can take a forest, a beautiful forest, with tall trees, dense overstory and habitat for many species, and turn it into an equally nice forest, benefitting those animals that need disturbance. For example, studies have shown that a managed forest with a more open understory and space around canopy trees creates foraging and nesting habitat for cerulean warblers, a species thought to have declined at least in part because we haven’t been disturbing our forests enough and in the right way.

Many times, we deaden trees as part of our forest management work. We kill them to let in sunlight and mimic what fire would do to thin barked trees. In one case on land I manage, a tree we intentionally deadened became a priority one Indiana bat maternity colony. There may have been over 90 federally endangered Indiana bat pups raised under its bark. That’s 90 federally endangered bats alive and well because we disturbed the forest. Now is their chance and there’s nothing ugly about that!

Disturbance to the forest is ugly. Timber harvesting is ugly. There is no way around this. We like big trees and shady woods. But what we like does not always fit the needs of the forest or the species that depend on that forest. We have changed the landscape in Indiana. It was probably never true that a squirrel could go from the Ohio River to Michigan without leaving a tree. But it is true that disturbance does not function within the forest like it once did. We may not like forest disturbance, we may not like the looks of a timber harvest, but there is a kind of beauty in giving those species that depend on it a chance at survival. Even if it is ugly to us.

The Woodland Steward newsletter gives you the information to make good management decisions and helps you understand why we manage the forest, even if it is ugly. Thank you for supporting the Woodland Steward Newsletter. We have included a donation envelope in this issue of the newsletter if you would like to continue receiving the newsletter and help us print and mail three issues a year to landowners across Indiana