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A Tale of Two Trails
Article #346 May 2023
By Bill Cook

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  It was the age of building, it was the age of decadence.  It was the epoch of futuring, it was the epoch of retrenchment.  It was the season of enlightenment, it was the season of darkness. 

    There are two contrasting hiking trails that help illustrate the current era of conservation.  One runs through forestland [un]managed as wilderness.  The other wends its way among stands carefully tended by forest keepers. 
    Trail One meanders through history as written by loggers of a century ago, similar to nearly all Lake States forests, although today, most visitors would hardly be able to read this landscape.  The forest has slowly been working to bury all evidence of the violent past.  In some areas, the deep, dark senescence of trees, at the end of their time, pervades the forest.  In other areas, the cast of characters has evolved along a predictable timeline producing less evocative woodlands.  Sweeping vistas are grand.  Rivers rush.  Waterfalls spill their goods in dramatic fashion.  An especially scenic area, to be certain. 
    Trail Two saunters through a similar landscape.  The forests are varied in terms of diversity and function.  Stewards have regenerated many stands, maintaining particular kinds of habitat.  Other areas have been thinned to allow more vigorous growth among the residual, and to nudge composition to a more desired outcome.  A few pockets sport big trees of long-lived species.  Others support tall pines, planted nearly almost a hundred years ago by the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Others yet, harbor grouse and woodcock. 
    Trail One has grown popular and is well-advertised.  Sometimes, for a short time, on the shoulders of winter, a quiet hike remains possible.  However, solitude is just about impossible during the green season.  One of the primary trailheads sports thousands of daily visitors drifting through clouds of DEET, cameras clicking, and litter strewn along braided trails as trampled mudholes are circumvented.  Raised voices along the pathways replace the sounds of birds and gentle scufflings of small mammals on the forest floor.  Parked cars extend over a mile up the rough gravel road.  Boat motors are a nearly constant din.  Wilderness?
    Trail Two is not well-known.  I seldom meet other people, although on occasion, the sound of a car or truck can be heard coursing down a county road.  All the expectations of a few days on a backwoods trail are soon met.  The small lakes and wetlands drift past, witness to a well-managed and productive forest.  Each time I backpack this trail, a new management practice has been applied in one place or another.  I particularly recall a decadent stretch of jack pine sprawled across a sand plain.  It was clearcut.  Now, the young trees brush my pack as I walk through the ocean of green.  In the spring, the white and pink blooms of trailing arbutus testify to rejuvenation. 
    For me, Trail One represents conservation dysfunction or, maybe, more social dysfunction?  As beautiful as it might be, that beauty has been compromised over the past two decades by both benign neglect and human overuse (misuse?). 
    Trail Two possesses a wilder character, a stronger sense of solitude, even with the regular forest management activities.  But, it’s those very management activities that help provide an additional layer of intrigue.  I can easily “see” the design where the forest has been and envision where it has been prompted. 
    The upshot of this comparison reflects the differences among managed and unmanaged forests, and one’s ability to discern a subtle and oft-unsensed aspect of forest recreation.  Could it be that people are motivated more by labels than by what the labels claim to represent? 
    My reticence to visit the “Trail Ones” of the world has occasionally garnered accusations of intolerance and anti-social malevolence.  That may very well be true.  All I can say is that I’ll prefer the occasional drone of a wood processor over a carnival atmosphere any day.  I would rather walk solo on an occasionally rutted haul road than mingle with the rambunctious parade of leafpeepers and trophy collectors.  
    I have laid behind me thousands of backpacking miles over five decades.  As I grow old, my remaining backpacking years are few.  As a result, I am more particular about quiet, among other experiences.  Silence is more than the absence of sound.  I enjoy observing the work of forest managers in the broad forest, not so much the Disney World frenzy of popularized attractions. 
    Forest management helps keep forests as forests, as opposed to other land uses, and contributes largely to forest health and human economy.  Maintaining forest area, especially with managed forests, is a critical solution to many of the environmental challenges of today and tomorrow.  Through this ambiance of promise I’ll continue to tread lightly, and quietly. 
    If you are fortunate enough to own a piece of forest, perhaps seeking the perspective of a forester, or two, may help unlock the rewards and satisfaction of management.  If you don’t own a forest, perhaps an inquisitive exploration of the millions of acres of public forestland might be enlightening.  You might just wish that you could have become a forester yourself!

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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.