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Taking A Stand
Article #340 November 2022
By Bill Cook

The Michigan Society of American Foresters has adopted three position statements that don’t entirely conform to mainstream media messages.  One speaks to deer overabundance, another about the use of prescribed fire, and the final one for increasing the use of wood for heating and cooling. 

    The Michigan Society of American Foresters (MSAF) has “stepped up” to advocate a few potentially unpopular directions to help enhance the health and future of forests.  Each position statement brings to bear a breadth of science, and centuries of collective field experience. 
    There is little that can be said about deer that won’t raise the hackles among plenty of people.  Perhaps, that‘s why many organizations step around the issues in favor of something that won’t embroil an audience, somewhere. 
    The MSAF states that most of Michigan forests have long-suffered from negative impacts of deer overbrowsing.  This concern goes back at least until the 1960s.  Although, the snowbelt along Lake Superior is a major regional exception. 
    Deer are efficient browsers with distinct food preferences.  Favored plants, including most tree regeneration, have struggled.  Less favorable plants, including exotic species, have gradually occupied more space on the forest floor.  It’s naturally difficult for most people to see what is not there but should be.  But much of our forest lacks valuable components, due to deer pressure. 
    These changes in composition have let to altered forest structures and functions, often working in concert with other factors, such as invasive species and climate change.  There are other drivers in forest systems, but deer are the “elephants in the closet”. 
    The MSAF offers some practical solutions that will not be politically popular, at least among hunters, a powerful natural resource lobby group.  Yet, the MSAF membership has a much higher percentage of deer hunters than the general population.  Might that say something? 
    In the second position statement, wildfire and prescribed fires have been part of the Lake States forests for centuries.  A few of our forest systems are adapted to fire events, and some of our forest management systems mimic these events.  However, there are certain functions that fire can provide better than other tools. 
    The main problem with prescribed fire, and wildfire, is the ever-growing presence of people in the woods, or more accurately, their homes and structures.  Building protection eats up more suppression dollars, at the expense of larger control and forest protection.  Prescribed fires have increasingly difficult challenges with nervous neighbors and smoke management.  The forest suffers from this urban sprawl and “urban splatter”. 
    The third position statement promotes the huge potential for deploying existing advanced technologies for heating and cooling.  This “thermal energy” is rarely addressed in mainstream media, where electricity production dominates, with transportation fuels at a distant second when gas prices are high.  Yet, in Michigan, about forty percent of energy dollars are spent on thermal energy. 
    Using wood, especially for “district energy” systems, is quite efficient, very clean, has stable pricing, is locally sourced, and has lots of room for expansion while enhancing forest values, both monetary and non-monetary values.  Natural mortality consumes more Michigan wood volume than harvesting.  Some of that wood volume, erstwhile destined for mortality, could be re-directed into thermal energy, with great benefits to both humans and forests.
    However, the real advantage to wood-based thermal energy is the substitution of fossil fuels. 
    Wood combustion releases more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels, but that’s not the salient issue.  What matters is that burning wood displaces fossil fuel consumption. 
    Wood-based carbon was recently taken from the atmosphere and is part of the Earth’s natural carbon cycle.  Wood-based carbon emissions, in a simplified description, goes back into trees.  Fossil carbon comes from outside the natural carbon cycle and it’s that imbalance that causes so much fuss with climate change. 
    If society is interested in curbing climate change, then forests are a huge part of the equation.  Much of the harvested wood goes into long-term storage, such as buildings and landfills.  Harvesting and using wood creates more opportunity for increased carbon sequestration, and uses far less processing energy than any other raw material (another carbon advantage). 
    The new forest absorbs yet more carbon, especially among those middle-aged forests.  A clearcut aspen stand today will be at its peak sequestration rate just about the time the climate models hit their most critical point.  Could be good timing, for those that think strategically in the longer term. 
    The Michigan SAF is one of the primary associations that represent forests and forestry.  It’s part of the national professional society, rooted in science and practice, that goes back over a century.  You can find the position statements at michigansaf.org
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Photo caption:  The MSAF has written position statements for deer overabundance, use of fire, and wood-based thermal energy. 

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.