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Article #102, January 2006
By Bill Cook

    Timber harvesting simply is not a high priority among most of Michigan's family forest owners. Some would argue that it is becoming an even lower priority as time passes. Let's look at how we know harvesting is a low priority, and then consider whether that's a road we want to follow.

    A huge survey of private forest owners was published in 1994. Yes, that was a long time ago, but the study demonstrated some clear conclusions. Smaller, more recent studies echo similar results.

    First, most of Michigan's 335,000 owners ranked timber harvest low among reasons to own forest. Maybe that's because almost half the ownerships were under ten acres? Maybe because many of those small parcels are bought-up through urban splatter?

    Second, among the fewer owners with large acreages, timber harvest ranked high among priorities. That means most of Michigan's private forest acreage is owned with a high interest in timber harvest. It seems many reviewers underestimate the potential impact of the "fewest who own the mostest".

    The U.S. Forest Service and other agencies keep track of what is harvested and from which ownership the harvest comes from. Among all the ownerships across the upper Lake States, the Michigan family forest category is dead last in terms of timber harvest. That's a bit surprising, as most of the acres are owned by people who rank harvest as a high priority. Could it be that survey responses don't necessarily reflect what people actually do?

    Michigan families own nearly half of our 19 million acre forest, so the low level of harvest has a profound impact on forest industry. It also has a profound impact on the ecological integrity of the forest and the lifestyles of everyone. Oftentimes that impact is negative, contrary to ownership objectives. "Natural" is not always desirable. But that's another story.

    Michigan has one of the largest timber "surpluses" in the nation. We grow far more wood volume than we harvest. We have been doing so for decades. We're certainly not running out of forest, trees, or wood volume. So, family forests are not exactly conserving a resource in short supply.

    In fact, they are contributing to the shortage of "available" timber by refusing to harvest trees. This places more pressure on public and industrial forest lands. Of course, there are interest groups successfully working to further reduce harvests from public lands. So, public foresters often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Meanwhile, fiber costs increase and a major Michigan industry declines.

    This squeeze has profound economic impacts, especially in our rural areas. Fiber costs in the Lake States are among the highest in the world. This makes doing business all the more difficult for loggers and mills. The American Forest & Paper Association identified fiber costs as the single most important factor in global competitiveness. Losing jobs and industries in these times of austerity, especially in rural areas, is not something we can afford. And yet, Michigan mills continue to close.

    Keep in mind the decline of the industrial infrastructure translates into fewer management choices in the forest. Less management will generate an entire suite of economic, social, and environmental challenges for our children and grandchildren. The massive wildfires in the western states highlight that lesson. Insect and disease epidemics are more likely here in the north, especially from exotic species. But, that too, is another story.

    Only 10-15 percent of family forests employ the services of a professional forester, according to the folks who work in the area of private forest assistance. That percentage is a lot lower than in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

    You would think a person with timber, potentially worth tens of thousands of dollars, would seek expert advice. Don't most people seek professional advice when managing other huge assets, such as retirement accounts and investment portfolios? And, what about all the non-timber values? Most forest owners are not foresters or ecologists. Paying for services would be a good investment.

    In the absence of professional expertise, it's not too surprising when misunderstandings occur between loggers and forest owners. The majority of loggers are highly-trained, honest, and hard-working businessmen. Of course, there remains a smaller group of predatory loggers that take advantage of the ignorance of forest owners. The unethical practices of these few loggers increase forest owner reluctance to harvest and generate more than its fair share of bad press.

    It's also not too surprising when lack of management leads to forest changes the owner did not intend. Wildlife habitat will change, often unfavorably. I hear this all the time in relation to deer. Beech bark disease and emerald ash borer wreak havoc. Buildings in mature jack pine plains and balsam fir stands are at high fire risk.

    There are many, many good reasons to plan for and harvest timber. There aren't many good reasons to maintain private reserves, especially when nature often pushes the forest in unexpected and unpleasant directions. Forest management and timber harvest are part of the solution to a wide range of environmental, social, and economic challenges. They are not part of the problem.

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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at cookwi@msu.edu or 906-786-1575.

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