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Let 'Em Grow?
Article #237, July 2016
By Bill Cook

Simple questions sometimes have rather complicated answers and there may actually be several answers, or potential outcomes.  Forest management is this way, with answers that incorporate far more than just trees, or even forests. 

     Why can’t we just let the forest grow naturally?  This is a common question.  The shortest answer is; “We can’t afford to”.  That’s not merely a matter of money.  It’s more a matter of goods and services, some of which we need in order to survive as a species. 
     Let’s examine that word “naturally”.  What is or is not natural can be argued.  However, most people might agree that “naturally” means without further human intervention.  Many people may not realize that the forests of today are largely a product of historical human intervention, catastrophic intervention, with significant differences in composition, structure, and function from the forests of, say, two hundred years ago.  In this way, our current forests are far from “natural”. 
     Suggesting that the forest develop “naturally” could be considered an impossibility.  Nevertheless, a “let ‘em go” preference involves a set of presumptions and, probably, the lack of a clear future vision.  The most significant presumption, perhaps, may be that “natural” is good.  What, precisely, does “good” mean? 
     Here is where we get into what might be called philosophical considerations.  The notions of “good” and “bad” regarding natural processes are largely romantic products of human perception.  This is not to say these perceptions are unimportant.  However, care should be taken when applying them to nature in pragmatic ways.  Whatever someone might think is “good” will not likely be the path a forest will take if left unmanaged. 
     Daniel Riskin wrote a book titled “Mother Nature Is Trying to Kill You”.  He thoughtfully and humorously teases apart the idea that nature has any benevolent or nurturing attributions.  He points out that nature doesn’t give a wit about humans and argues that our survival is more of a battle with nature than a cooperative affair. 
     Building on Riskin’s ideas, forests suffer from having an inherent visual quality that appeals to human creativity and inspiration.  Unfortunately, visual quality is a particularly poor measure of ecological integrity.  We tend to believe that what looks good, must be good.  And then, what looks bad, must be bad.  Nature doesn’t care what we think.  Forest management relies upon much more than visual quality, although many times that is what rules the day, despite many values to the contrary. 
     A person could argue that a certain forest equilibrium was present before Euro-Americans flooded into what was to become the Lake States.  That presumes the native tribes had little influence, which is not accurate, but that’s another story.  Our current forests might eventually develop some new state of equilibrium but it wouldn’t the be same as before.  Those days will not be seen again, even if humans disappeared from the planet. 
     If left to itself, what sort of future might the forest have?  This question brings us back into the realm of science.  Future forest conditions can be predicted with a reasonable amount of certainty, even when multiple pathways are possible.  Different forests will have different pathways.  Foresters and forest ecologists are knowledgeable about these sorts of things.  Their crystal balls are based more on science than mysticism. 
     Various factors exert pressures on the forest that affect future conditions.  Lifespans of trees, regeneration, deer browsing, shade tolerance, insect and disease agents, disturbances, exotic species, stand histories, climate change, and current conditions are some of those factors. 
     One thing is absolutely certain.  The way that a particular forest appears today will not be the way that forest will appear in the future, especially without management.  Forests are remarkably dynamic ecosystems. 
     Will benign neglect produce a future forest with a desirable set of attributes?  Probably not.
     Abraham Lincoln once said that; “The best way to predict your future is to create it”.  Reforming that idea, the best way to produce a set of future forest conditions is through forest management. 
     The hard part of this concept is to agree upon what mix of forest conditions we want to have.  These are decisions made at a higher altitude than simply implementing a forest management plan.  Regardless of the particular vision, or visions, we can obtain more goods and services through management.  Nature does not serve us.  However, we can use our knowledge of natural processes to achieve more and better outcomes beneficial to humans.
     There are more and more people every year.  The amount of forest that is open to management is shrinking.  It’s not too difficult to envision a line graph where these two lines cross and problems develop.  In this way, forest management is more of an imperative and a social responsibility, not that every forested acre needs to be actively managed.    
     Wood is the single most environmentally responsible raw material at our disposal and is essential to our survival.  Wood comes from forests and forests provide a host of essential environmental services beyond wood.  Forest management is what ties all these things together to help secure a better future for both forests and human generations to come. 
     Can we just let our forests grow without intervention?  Certainly.  However, our children and grandchildren will likely suffer the consequences. 

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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 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

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