The Benefits of Smart Forest Management

Thinning trees intelligently and practicing informed forest stewardship can aid fire suppression as well as providing acres of compost for your farm or market garden.

| October/November 2015

Too often, farmers and gardeners leave forestland to its own devices, as if thinning trees and strategically managing their woodlots would desecrate some sacred shrine to wildness. That woodlot out behind your garden, however, needs stewardship just as much as any other part of your homestead. The resources it offers go far beyond providing fuel for your woodstove.

A Brief History of Forest Management

This might be news to some: Dense forests were uncommon in many regions of North America 600 years ago. Some indigenous people routinely burned the landscape to control dense undergrowth and create more pasture and forage for game. Widely spaced trees grew stronger with more room to spread out and more nutrients available. (For more on Native American forest-management methods, see Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire by Stephen J. Pyne.)

New discoveries about the precolonial landscape reveal a history of meticulous attention to forest ecology with intentional manipulation and alteration of plant and animal communities. Because the brush was burned routinely, fires from such sources as lightning strikes didn’t have the fuel to become towering infernos. Rather, they were what foresters today call “cool fires.” These less ferocious fires don’t jump into the tree canopy, but stay low to the ground, where they burn brush, brambles and small saplings.

Cool fires kill primarily the weaker trees. Strong trees survive these fires and become even stronger because their competition is removed, just as garden vegetables thrive when given plenty of room and freedom from competing weeds.

If we were to close our eyes and imagine what an intentionally burned landscape looked like in the year 1500, we’d see widely spaced trees. Few trees would be crooked, diseased, stunted or otherwise inferior. Century after century, prior to European arrival, North American forests flourished under this forest stewardship. Here’s the key point: This management killed weak trees, and left superior genetic stock. Through the centuries, careful forest stewardship helped to improve genetics and create the magnificent cathedral specimens that early settlers described in their journals.

In Native American silviculture, large, widely spaced trees were a natural result of wise management. Further, native peoples used primarily small saplings and pole timber to build homes and other structures and for cooking. Without saws in their tool chests, the indigenous groups couldn’t efficiently harvest large trees. Thus, the trees they didn’t use were able to grow quite large.

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