Article #178, December 2011
By Bill Cook
What factors cause forests to change? Which are more important than others? How might humans alter the course of change?
Forests are dynamic living systems. They are continually changing. Humans have had, and will continue to have, a huge hand in that change. There are also a range of natural change factors, but the relation between them and humans can be blurred.
Ecological succession is the somewhat predictable change in forest types over a period of time, usually decades. This succession is influenced by environmental factors such as soil type, water regimes, vegetation history, climate, and invasive species. Humans affect all of these factors.
The human dimension introduces the greatest amount of unknown variability.
Forest lands are under increasing development pressure. Parcelization is the division of ownership into smaller and smaller parcels. Fragmentation is when the forest canopy is dissected for houses, lawns, driveways, and other infrastructure. Together, parcelization and fragmentation have impacts on forest ecology and the products and services that come from forests.
More human presence in the landscape increases the risk of exotic invasive species spread. We have seen this with gypsy moth, emerald ash borer, oak wilt, beech bark disease, buckthorn, and garlic mustard. There are other examples, and even more into the near future.
Invasive qualities can sometimes be encouraged among native species. Human impacts on forests have altered certain ecological characteristics that have allowed species such as deer, Pennsylvania sedge, and ironwood to sometimes become invasive. These native species have, in turn, further diminished ecological dynamics. Biodiversity has declined. Forest regeneration has failed. Habitat quality is reduced.
Climate change may also impact our Lake States forest. Climate change has been well documented but the impacts on the forests have been more difficult to discern. Future forest impact predictions are even less reliable.
Climate change is affected by changes in carbon dioxide levels, land use, natural cycles, and other factors. However, the effects are apparent with measures such as temperature, precipitation, and extreme events. Climate is complex and so is the geographical distribution of change, even across a landscape as small as a state.
Tree species in the eastern US forests do not appear to be migrating consistent with the predictions of climate change, according to a recent study. It’s not likely that we’ll see palm trees around the Lake States. However, climate change may contribute to other changes in forest ecology. Scientists are monitoring the forests.
Forest owners can best prepare their forests for change, and work with change, by actively managing to reduce environmental stress. Forest management, including timber harvest, has a proven track record for increasing goods and services, both in quality and quantity. Management also results in a more resilient and healthy forest.
Concerned about the future of your forest? Contact a consulting forester and have a discussion. You might be surprised.
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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Forest Biomass Innovation 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 906-786-1575.
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: email@example.com
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