Forest Succession Success

Reader Contribution by David Boyt
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It is always reassuring to walk through a patch of woods
that had been cut for timber and see the regeneration that takes place.  We use a careful selective harvesting system,
taking out the least desirable trees and leaving the best ones to reproduce.  After over a century of high-grading
(harvesting the best trees and leaving the culls), the balance of tree species
in our Ozark forests has been pushed toward lower-value post oak and bitternut
hickory.  White oak is valued for whiskey
barrels (still a thriving industry in Missouri), red and black oak are prized
for flooring and cabinets, and is walnut desired for gun stocks and furniture.  The timber is less valuable after each
high-grade harvest, and eventually reaches the point where the most economical
(from a business perspective) solution is to doze the remaining trees into big
piles, burn them, plant fescue, and graze cows. 
As much as I like cows and even enjoy an occasional hamburger, they will
have to graze elsewhere.  I am doing my
level best to restore our woods back toward a mixture of higher value species
that more closely resembles the forest of 150 years ago.  It will take generations to achieve.

A patch of woods that we harvested four years ago is showing
great promise.  It is on a west-facing
slope that favors white oak.  Possibly
for the first time in seven generations, we harvested the undesirable trees,
and left the best to regenerate.  The
loggers thought we were crazy, and promised us good money for the few good
trees on the site, but they are still there, passing on their genetics for the
next seven generations.

We mimic nature by creating 1/2 acre openings to allow the
understory to develop naturally, much as they would after an ice storm, tornado
or fire.  Blackberries come in first,
along with poke, multifloral rose, and grass. 
Trees show up by the second year. 
Cherry, sassafras and eastern red cedar thrive under full sunlight.  Oak, hickory, and dogwood are more tolerant
of shade, but need sunlight to grow well. 
With the new openings, they seem to pop up from nowhere.  New seedlings are only half knee-high, but
the sprouts grow much faster.  Every
spring, they sprout but die back, due to lack of sunlight.  Each time, the roots grow a little deeper,
the stem a little thicker.  Now that they
have an opening to the sky, they have shot up three times as tall as their
younger siblings.

The management has been good for wildlife, as well.  Low browse and white oak acorns are favorites
of the deer, and the blackberries, rose hips, mulberriers, cherries, and wild
grapes are food for everything from box turtles to the migratory song birds
that pass through.  There are dead
standing trees to provide habitat for woodpeckers, owls, flying squirrels, and
raccoons.  When they fall, they provide
low-rent housing for mice, lizards, and ground squirrels.  After that, mulch to help the next generation
of trees get its start.  With brush piles
and lush foliage to provide cover, I don’t see them, but signs of their
presence is everywhere.  Yesterday the
dogs scared up a couple of deer that ran right in front of me.  And the birds talk to each other around the
clock.  In the morning, the lonely call
of mourning doves; in the afternoon the bluejays squabble in the high branches
and the hammering of a pilated woodpeker rings through the woods; Whipporwhills
in the evening, and owls through the night.

It took a long time for the woods to reach the state they
are in, and it will take generations of care to restore it to a healthy
forest.  As a second generation tree
farmer (the property was bought by my parents in 1971), I am an early link in
that chain.  At a time when property is
bought and sold an average of every eight years, keeping the farm in the family
so that the process can continue is another challenge… for a later blog.