A visit from Ben
Ben, the county forester, visited the other day. He was here to look at our small woodlot and make recommendations for “improving it.”
The woods are a pretty sad lot. Ten acres crammed with Virginia pine in the overstory and determined cedars holding ground underneath. The occasional anemic oak is giving it a go, skinny and straight in a race for the sun that, as Ben pointed out, it will lose unless we help out.
Why favor oaks? Many reasons, it turns out. Several hundred years ago, this was an oak-hickory forest. Many animals evolved to depend on acorn mast, leaves, and wood for food and shelter. (For more about the value of oaks, check out this article featuring oak ecologist Douglas Tallamy). Oak has greater timber value. But perhaps most persuasive, favoring oaks will increase the diversity of a woods that will, unaltered, soon resemble an overgrown Christmas tree farm.
In addition to the oaks, Ben also found tulip, hickory, and a surprising number of persimmon trees for us to help. To clarify, by “help”, I mean we will cut down the nearby pines and cedars that are blocking the favored tree’s light. This is called “releasing” the favored tree, and to release it other trees must get the chop. Several maples are also on the chopping block. Maples were not dominant trees in this area, but after clear-cutting, they are competing better with the pine and cedar than are the oaks and other trees.
Some might say that we should leave well enough alone; nature knows what it is doing. There are numerous examples of humans “improving” some aspect of nature that resulted in less than positive (or disastrous) outcomes. I definitely feel the tug of this school of thought. Plus, it would be a lot less work. But human action got us here. Ben speculated this woods was pasture as recently as 40 years ago.
As with climate change, I don’t think human inaction is going to cut it. There's a lot we don't know, but fear of our own ignorance can be an excuse for inaction. We plan to gather all the knowledge we can, to think and feel, and then to act.
Wish us luck in getting it right!