Into the Woods: Messy is good

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We humans have a very strange idea of what a well-tended woodlot should look like. To many people the epitome of good forest management is the image of towering overstory trees over a bare forest floor, their sightline is dotted with massive, evenly-spaced identical trunks. Landowners show me the portions of their woodlots that look like this with pride. They tell me they have cleared all the “brush” from the understory of their forest or that they have removed all dead and dying trees from their woods. To them, this looks “clean,” well-managed, intentional. To me, while I can appreciate the aesthetic pleasure that this type of forest evokes, this type of forest looks one-dimensional, sterile.

I have encountered this situation often and have struggled to efficiently communicate why this is the case to landowners, land managers and loggers. De-programming this idea in difficult, running against many deeply ingrained aesthetic sensibilities. Which is why, when I heard one of the landowners in my county say “messy is good,” I committed it to memory.

“Messy is good” (MIG) does not mean we should approach forest management unintentionally. To the contrary, MIG is a philosophy that requires us to be even more tuned in to the way that forests work and not just the trees; we must consider wildlife, insects, plants, soils, fungi and all the other factors that allow forests to actually function and grow trees. MIG recognizes that to manage for holistically healthy forests, we must re-program our sense of what a well-tended woodlot looks like.

Forestry as we know it was brought to our country around the turn of the 20th century by Americans who had studied in Germany, where intensive forest management had been practiced for centuries. They brought with them the concept of the “regulated forest,” areas where all factors are controlled to grow trees as efficiently as possible. This amounted essentially to “taming” of our natural forested ecosystems, replacing them in many cases with intensively managed tree plantations whose sole purpose was the production of timber. We now know this management philosophy, while it works to grow trees quickly and appeals to our sense of “neatness,” doesn’t necessarily grow healthy forests.

In the name of “cleaning” the forest, landowners often remove dead trees standing and on the forest floor. While these trees may seem to be an eyesore or make it difficult to walk through the woods, they are actually performing a variety of important functions for forest ecology and wildlife habitat. Standing dead trees are often called wildlife “hotels.” They host insects associated with wood decay, which provide forage for woodpeckers, which create cavities that are host to a variety of birds and mammals, from fishers to chickadees to flying squirrels. Fallen trees and branches on the forest floor provide cover for species such as ruffed grouse and snowshoe hare, in addition to providing long-term sequestration of carbon and building soil.

The other misconception about the “clean” forest is the idea that all forests must look like a plantation. In Vermont, natural even-aged forest is exceeding rare, and is almost entirely the result of pasture abandonment, tree plantations and intensive (human) management. Forests like this lack species diversity, with only a few tree species present, and also lack structural diversity, which can be defined as the presence of an array of trees of different sizes, heights and arrangements. These failings mean that we are providing only a bare minimum of habitat conditions in our forest.

It has taken a fair amount of re-programming to shift my idea of what a well-managed forest looks like. Now, I appreciate the beauty of areas with many different species of trees of different shapes and sizes, interspersed with periodic dead standing trees. I look for the trunks of trees decaying on the forest floor and for patches of young, middle aged and old forest, and areas where all of these age classes are mixed together. This type of forest may seem “messy,” but it is actually the definition of health, a natural, healthy forest, supporting all the parts a robust forest ecosystem. Messy is good!

Ethan Tapper is the Chittenden County forester. He can be reached at 585-9099, at ethan.tapper@vermont.gov or at his office at 111 West St., Essex Jct.