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Article #111, September 2006
By Bill Cook

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     Forest management practices vary considerably across forest types, site conditions, market availability, and many other factors. There simply is not any single way or best way to manage all forests, or even a particular kind of forest. While nature is a dynamic system that defies simple categorization, there remains a body of knowledge and experience that can be very effectively applied.

     In many cases, some tree species are difficult to regenerate. Nature has a lot of variables to consider. When you mate that with the number of human variables, there is little wonder that a "one size fits all" prescription is a very rare thing in forest management. In some cases and in some places, forest regeneration cannot be achieved.

     Certain trees immediately come to mind; white cedar, paper birch, white pine, eastern hemlock, oaks, basswood, hickories, butternut, and others. There are two broad categories of reasons why trees sometimes don't regenerate well. First, environmental reasons and, second, human reluctance to implement proven forest management techniques. Of course, the reasons are often inter-related.

     Environmental reasons range widely. White-tailed deer may preferentially feed on some seedlings. If browse pressure is too high, many years may pass before regeneration can grow past the height of a deer. Competition with understory plants may preclude the success of certain species of trees. Site and soil conditions may have changed, preventing regeneration. The introduction of insects and diseases can all but eliminate some tree species.

     These effects typically don't occur everywhere. The effects might ebb and flow over time. In other cases, impacts are widespread and long term.

     Examples? Well, deer browsing can easily preclude the regeneration of cedar, white pine, hemlock, and other species. Pennsylvania sedge can inhibit regeneration of not only most trees, but also many understory plants. Historic fires and changes in water tables due to road construction can alter site conditions that prevent regeneration of some tree species. Most everyone will remember the devastating effects of Dutch elm disease and chestnut blight. The emerald ash borer currently threatens similar loss in our ash resource.

     The many environmental challenges to tree regeneration represent one more good reason to actively manage forests. Nature will not necessarily produce what we want or need. Nature is not always best. Nature has also been forever altered by human history.

     Despite some of these environmental factors, the human element is more important.

     What are some of the human variables? Perhaps, the main challenge is the widespread benign neglect many forest owners implement on their forest lands. Doing "nothing" has consequences in forest composition and ecology, sometimes negative consequences. Species such as aspen, paper birch, cherry, and balsam fir disappear.

Certain insect and disease cycles can accelerate, diversity may be lost, tree stress increases, and forest vigor declines. These outcomes come as a surprise to many.

     Many tree species require bare mineral soil and lots of sunlight in order to reproduce. In nature, these conditions occur after wildfires, severe windstorms, and widespread mortality from an insect or disease. In forest management, harvest techniques mimic these natural events, but are often considered "bad" because of their visual impacts.

As more people build more homes in the forest, a whole host of problems increase, particularly the introduction of exotic pests. Broken canopies result in the more or less permanent reduction in late successional plants and animals. A well-planned timber harvest has temporary environmental impacts and resembles natural occurrences. Forests never recover from home construction and urban splatter.

     Human perceptions, values, and desires often trump science and research. This is particularly true in forestry. As a result, that lakeshore cabin surrounded by paper birch becomes a sea of broken trees and thick shrubbery because the owner chose not to open the canopy and disturb the forest floor for the paper birch seeds. White pine is underplanted at considerable cost, in less than optimum conditions, because revenue-generating methods are somehow perceived as harmful. Yellow birch is subjected to "plan B" site quality because thick mats of forest litter cover the soil.

     If someone were to stick their neck out and try to suggest a single forest management technique that would resolve most of these regeneration challenges, it would probably be a combination of timber harvesting (more light) and soil surface disturbance (good seedbeds for many species). The science is there in most cases. Of course, such suggestions fly in the face of certain visual quality perceptions. However, this wouldn't be the first case where the realities of nature and human attitudes don't match! And, it won't likely be the last. As always, work with a professional forester to help you make the best decisions possible.

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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.

Prepared by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005 J Road, Escanaba, MI  49829
906-786-1575 (voice),  906-786-9370 (fax),  e-mail:  cookwi@msu.edu

Use / reprinting of these articles is encouraged. Please notify Bill Cook.
By-line should read "Bill Cook, MSU Extension" Please use the article trailer whenever possible.

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