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Article #114, December 2006
By Bill Cook

     America losing its forests is a myth.

     The same is for about Michigan and across the Lake States. In fact, dozens of countries around the world are experiencing increases in forest area. Some of this growth is due to plantations, which some folks would argue isn't really forest. However, most of the increase is due to natural forest recovery.

     Granted, much of North America's forest was rolled back two hundred years ago, after rebounding from indigenous human deforestation of centuries before that. Europe lost much of its forest by the fourteenth century; with the Mediterranean, China, and much of Asia several centuries earlier. So, any increases might be better called recoveries.

     This new-ish trend of increasing forest area in many countries has occurred in the past, but it's contrary to the norm. Globally, forest area has ebbed and flowed over time, but it's usually ebbed. Our planet continues to see overall declines in forest area, but recently at a much reduced rate. If it weren't for losses in Brazil and Indonesia, we'd actually be in the black.

     What is deforestation?

     Essentially, it's a change in land use from forest to something else. Historically, agriculture has been and still is, by far, the major cause of deforestation. We all need to eat, so that's probably an acceptable reason. Yet, here in the Lake States, agricultural acreage has declined. Like elsewhere across the continent, forests lie in wait for the opportunity to re-take acreage that was once taken away. Of course, growing crops for energy might reverse the reforestation trend, again.

     Deforestation also occurs with urban sprawl and urban splatter, now the major cause in the Lake States. Each new home, business, road, golf course, and other development involves deforestation when the development is placed in a forest. Historically, ship-building, fuelwood, mining, railroads, and other activities contributed to deforestation. Over the centuries, humans have not been particularly kind to forests. We could do better. Today, land use issues are growing increasingly important. After all, it's the future that's at stake.

     Harvesting timber, through forest management, does not cause deforestation. Many folks find this surprising. If you think about forests having economic value, which they do, it makes sense to maintain those timber resources. Without wood, we'd be in a world of hurt. Countries with better economies are also better with their forests. Naturally, there are many non-economic values. These also contribute to maintaining forest area.

     Even an aspen clearcut cannot be called deforestation. In the same breath that you say "cut" . . . nature is saying "regeneration." That clearcut harvest not only provides fiber that we all use, just like food, but it also provides the environmental conditions for many of our forests to better reproduce themselves. Harvest and regeneration are two sides of the same coin. If that sounds odd, remember that forest management didn't make up the rules of nature. Forestry simply uses them. It's pretty interesting stuff.

     An increase in forest area is good news, but it's hardly the whole story. Forest values are not evenly distributed. Some areas are more critical. There is also a long list of other forest characteristics that should be used to determine the "goodness" and "badness" of forest use or deforestation. Forests vary by species mix, age, stand structure, site protection, distance to water, presence of rare ecological aspects, recreation use, visual quality, and many other criteria.

     We are fortunate, here in the Lake States, to live in a forest-rich part of the world. Perhaps, too many of us take that for granted. It's easy to do, and it's easy to let those benefits slip through our fingers. History shows that happening over and over again, often to the demise of a culture. As Arthur Standish observed about England in 1611, ". . . no wood, no kingdome . . ." Being forest-rich provides a greater incentive to manage and maintain these resources better. Forest management will help guarantee a better future, not work against it.

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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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