Article #233, April 2016
By Bill Cook
Sustainability has become a popular catch-word, often without specific definition. In many important ways, forest management has long-applied sustainability concepts that have only more recently become the focus of public discourse.
The concept of sustainability increasingly appears in discussions about natural resources, forests in particular. While the concept of sustainability is far from new, the ways in which it has been defined and applied has evolved over time. Change produces opportunities as well as conflict.
Millions of tax-delinquent acres reverted to public ownership in the previous century. Most of our public lands were created specifically to provide sustainable sources of timber and clean water, at a time when shortages were feared. Forest industry rapidly adopted this idea and often led the field with innovative approaches to forest management, and it continues to do so. As a result, they hold some of the finest forest lands in Michigan.
More recently, forest management goals have become quite complex and sometimes not easily understood. We often see dozens of sustainability issues lumped into three areas; biological, economic, and socio-cultural categories. These categories have become known as the "three pillars" of forest sustainability.
Most definitions of sustainability include providing benefits for this generation without compromising the ability of future generations to enjoy the same benefits. A wide range of forest benefits are listed, including such items as recreation, wildlife habitat, clean water, healthy soils, ecosystem functions, and others. Foresters deal with all these attributes and many can be enhanced with simple, old-fashioned timber management.
Wood supplies have been managed sustainably in Michigan for many decades, long before other forest benefits were widely recognized. We grow about twice as much timber as we harvest and show one of the largest “surpluses” in the nation. We are far from running out of either trees or forests on a statewide basis.
Forests play a key role in providing high quality water and Michigan has some of the finest water quality in the world. Forests and forest management play a significant role in maintaining that quality. While forestry activities sometimes undergo severe scrutiny, they have been a small contributor to water quality problems in Michigan and throughout the nation. Too often, there are elephants in the closet that are largely ignored.
More recently, the role of forests in climate change mitigation and adaptation have become increasingly important. Forests, especially managed forests, sequester huge amounts of carbon. Wood-based thermal energy production, especially when displacing fossil fuels, does much to reduce the carbon and energy “footprints” of a facility. Wood carbon is part of the carbon cycle. Fossil fuel carbon is not. That alone, puts wood-based thermal energy ahead in the game.
Arguably, the greatest threat to Michigan forests is ownership parcelization across the landscape, usually in the form of recreational and primary homes. The simple “camps” in the woods are being replaced by an increasing number of expensive houses. This phenomenon has actually been documented in other regions of the country. Along with the change in the appearance of these areas, restrictions (both legal and social) on forest use have arrived as well. The new “camps” are more intolerant of traditional activities such as forest management, truck traffic, or even hunting.
The “parcelization” of forests creates ever-smaller chunks, more difficult to manage, and with owners less interested in management. These private ownerships include nearly half of Michigan’s forest and result in many challenges to forest sustainability and the viability of rural communities. The challenges goes far beyond the scope of forestry, but impacts forestry in a big way.
Counter-intuitively, perhaps, is the threat to forests from the loss of forest industries, as evidenced in states such as Colorado and New York. Management of forests requires the harvest of trees; for wood production, forest health, forest restoration, habitat improvement, water quality, and many other forest functions. Without a market for wood products, management for these goals will all but cease. Wood, of course, is an essential economic commodity, but forest management has a much greater number of dimensions.
Sustainable forest management involves an intentional framework to evaluate the effects of management, monitor trends, and provide information that will help determine if our practices are truly sustainable in the long term. A sustainable plan also has built-in mechanisms for altering management to employ new information and changes in forest use.
Charting new courses in “sustainability” is more complicated than simply producing a steady flow of timber. Forestry directly deals with all these issues. However, sometimes the process and participants forget or under-value the role of wood as a commodity. The flow of timber is more than jobs and economics. It is also a key tool to providing many other benefits in a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly way.
Human demands on forests will only increase as the decades unfold. Using practices that produce a greater amount of benefits from a limited resource is important, and well within the capability of the land. But, planning must foresee decades into the future. It takes a long time to produce a set of forest conditions. Managing forest lands, especially those owned by private, non-industrial owners, are the key to sustainability. It’s also a lot of fun!
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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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