In the realm of Low Impact Forestry it's easy to think only about the live things: the pines to save for lumber, the oak and maple that will heat your house, how to thin a stand, prune a stand, cut a stand. But the deadwood should not be overlooked; it's value for forest health and vigor is often understated.
It's a paradox, that the dead trees are bearer of so much life. From birds to bears, foxes to fishers, mushrooms, insects and bacteria, all need the deadwood for food and shelter. These different lifeforms are in turn what keeps the woods healthy, by decomposing the organic matter, adding to the nutrients in the ground and providing a habitat for new seeds to sprout. The deadwood also balance the water supply and prevent soil erosion.
The woodlot we own was cut over in the 1950's and that opened it up for a lot of fast growing but short lived balsam fir. Now we have stands mixed with dead, or dying, fir. One of the things we do when working in the woods is to clean up dead trees. We need to see what we'd like to cut now or in the future, we need to open a direction to fell those trees and a way to get to them. We need to make sure the trees we fell won't fetch on a dead one, creating a potentially very dangerous situation.
But to “clean up” dead trees can be done in many ways, and should be done with consideration and thoughtfulness. Forests in an untouched, healthy stage will keep the ground covered with leaves, twigs, dead animals or insects. Whole trees decaying on the ground or standing dead inhabited by owls or squirrels. There's no reason for us as humans to do any different; leave forest debris on the ground as you leave compost in your garden. Provide habitats for animals in the woods by leaving dead standing trees as you provide habitats for animals in your yard by putting up a birdhouse or a bunny house.
When we clear out dead trees we almost always leave them laying right there, moving only what we need to keep paths and roads clear. And no matter how we try we won't ever cut all of them out, there are just too many.
As we've expanded our clearing to clean up garden areas, we've stacked brush and dead logs in one long pile along the edge of the woods. It blends in to the background forest, it deters deer from coming into the yard and provides hiding places and habitats for all kinds of wildlife. As years pass, the brush will decompose and sink into the ground, taking the form of nutrients and new life.
To turn a wood lot into a park with no “litter” on the ground might look tidy, but is not very healthy or functional. Pretty to me is something that's natural and serve benefits to many lifeforms, as the dead and dying trees are. Next time you look at a dead tree or a log rotting on the ground; look at it as something full of life.
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