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It's About Time, It's About Space
Article #336 July 2022
By Bill Cook

Time and space are key elements in forest management but they do not always sync well with human schedules.  These “temporal” and “spatial” differentials become the source of many natural resource conflicts. 

   Trees take a fairly long time to grow, some species more than others.  Forests take an even longer time to fully develop, and they regularly change over time, sometimes gradually and sometimes violently. 
   The human measure of time runs considerably shorter than that of forests, unless you’re a forester, logger, or perhaps, another breed of natural resource person.  One who replants forests often understands the forest time frame.
   Most humans function within units of days and hours, not decades or centuries. 
   The partner of time is space.  Humans tend to pass judgement based on a peculiarly small sample of what they can see, such as the areas around their residence (cities, for the most part) or along highway corridors as we travel from place A to place B. 
   If forests could talk, they might advise us about patience and tolerance and broader perspective. 
   Why does this matter? 
   I suppose the classic case study would be to consider a clearcut in aspen or jack pine.  Or, one of these forest types that experience widespread mortality from wildfire or a massive attack by an insect or pathogen outbreak.  In the short term, it looks like devastation.  However, in the forest time frame, it is a disturbance essential to renewal for those kinds of forests and all their denizens. 
   Another example might be the historic recovery of forests after the brutal decades of wanton harvest and massive wildfires.  Through management and natural recovery, we all benefit from today’s “secondary” forests.  Nothing we do today comes close to the scale of what was done 150 years ago.  Today, we hold different values, have far more knowledge and experience at our disposal, and work far more strategically. 
   Returning to that clearcut or wildfire on your own forestland, or in a favorite forest place, this visual change evokes emotions among those of us who typically view the world in a time frame much shorter than that of a forest.  Of course, disappointment is entirely understandable.  We’ll not likely see “what was” again in our lifetime.  At least not in that place. 
   However, part of the forest aesthetic is to appreciate and admire the process of forest dynamics.   “Aesthetic” is a poor synonym for visual quality, for which the word is commonly misused.  Knowing more about how a forest “works” can engender a much elevated sense of satisfaction than merely how a forest “looks”.   An analogy might be judging a person solely on how they appear.  People are more than their mere appearance, and so are forests. 
   This deeper esteem is a large part of why I love being a forester and wildlife biologist. 
   Our case study of a “devastated” forest is actually a crucible of renewal and exciting change.  Long-oppressed plants burst into life, often with colorful blooms.  In “devastated” jack pine stands, this is where the blueberries thrive.  The matrix of wildlife shifts to take advantage of the new forest, new food sources, and different habitat structure.  The concert of spring birds takes-on a different sound. 
   The huge influx of sunlight changes life, then attenuates for at least a few decades.  This is a good thing, and wonderfully remarkable. 
   Gradually, in our time frame, the trees resume their dominance.  Highly vulnerable in the beginning, most baby trees die.  However, more than enough usually survive to restock the forest.  Once the trees reach heights of ten to twenty feet, the riotous cacophony of sun-loving plants begins to fade, as shade from the tree canopy suppresses their growth and abundance for many decades to come. 
   The observant will see forests in various stages of development while rolling along highways and byways.  Recently, I drove over 12,000 miles throughout western Canada, Alaska, and the northern tier of U.S. states.  I saw tens of thousands of acres burned by wildfire just last year, and then those burned ten years ago, and then those burned decades ago.  There were also vast areas of taiga that were seemingly untouched.  It was an excellent lesson in temporal and spatial characteristics of forested landscapes.  It was also humbling. 
   Such is a healthy matrix of area and age classes. 
   Along with the “temporal element” of forest ecology, the under-appreciated “spatial element” also adds to natural resources conflict.  The sort of “visual quality” that many people prefer always exists somewhere, often close by, but not always right where “we” might want it.  I suggest this is a rather self-centered viewpoint imposed upon nature. 
   Forests don’t much care about what “we” think about their appearance.  In fact, forests don’t care or think at all.  But they do morph and evolve over time . . . and space. 
   However, people sometimes grow upset and ornery when “their” forest visual quality changes in a manner they consider unattractive.  Too often, these folks fail to embrace the whirling dervish of forest dynamics that occupies vast landscapes. 
   Humans tend to exist in the immediate here and now.  Forests do not.  Forests play the long game.  So, conflict brews when forest managers “spoil” a particular “here and now” that then can generate conflict and criticism.  And, so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut said. 

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Jack pine natural regeneration after a wildfire.

Aspen sprouts following an aspen clearcut. 



TRAILER- This website was created by a consortium of forestry groups to help streamline information about forestry and coordinate forestry activities designed to benefit the family forest owner and various publics that make up our Michigan citizenry.  This website is maintained by Bill Cook, Retired Michigan State Extension Forester/Biologist.  Direct comments to cookwi@msu.edu or 906-786-1575.