New York landowners are finding it's possible to have their forests, and log them, too. The result is an ideal alternative to sprawl.
By Jon R. Luoma
On a sunny autumn afternoon in a hardwood forest on Jimmy Bulich's farm, the ashes, hickories, and sugar maples are working their way to peak fall color, nascent reds and yellows and bronzes fluttering in the leafy canopy. Bulich raises grass-fed beef in the small pastures beside his 50-acre piece of forest here in New York's Catskill Mountains region. Most land surrounding his woods also happens to be forested, including an adjoining state preserve. On this fine day Bulich and his contract forester, Mike Greason, both in well-worn bng made foroots and blue jeans, are showing off this bit of privately owned woods to help prove a point also beicefully by scientists at Audubon New York.
The scientists recently spent three years conducting detailed surveys of birds, amphibians, and insects in ecosystems like this—the northern hardwood forests that predominate in New York State. Based on these studies, the organization has embarked on a public education program, trying to get an important message to 500,000 owners of private forest parcels in the state, a message that applies generally to owners across the northeastern United States, where forest habitats are being lost to development and sprawl. It goes something like this: If you need or want income from your land but also care at all about wildlife habitat, don't sell chunks of woodland off to be partially cleared and developed. Instead, feel free to start chopping down trees.
Well, not exactly. Actually what these scientists suggest is that landowners who are interested in cutting timber should first call in a professional skilled in sustainable forestry, who can help to develop a long-term master plan aimed at maintaining good wildlife habitat while generating income from periodic logging of some of the land's trees. The Audubon study follows similar ones done previously by the organization's scientists in neighboring Pennsylvania. But the intensive landowner education program that has sprung from the newer studies in New York could serve as an important model for the development of sustainable, science-based efforts in forests across the nation.
Mike Burger, director of bird conservation for Audubon New York, explains that the new scientific studies show conclusively that taking out a few trees from time to time—even, in some cases, taking out quite a number of trees—is a perfectly fine way to maintain quality habitat for woodland birds and other species. In fact, some forest birds, including the chestnut-sided warbler, evolved to take advantage of natural “disturbances”—fires, windstorms, disease—and these species will actually benefit from the right kind of logging. Burger adds that the serious threat to forest habitat in the region is “a growing pattern of parcelization,” in which woodlands are being sold off and converted to subdivisions, second homes (which means second driveways along with second lawns, second rounds of pesticide application, and so on), and all the related retail and commercial development that follows. “We think a lot of landowners don't know that forestry would be an alternative way to generate income,” Burger says.
“Some people think that logging inevitably means fragmentation in a forest,” but logging done right doesn't lead to wildlife-harming habitat fragmentation, he says, noting that in the populated Northeast, “permanent conversion of forest to non-forest is the real threat.”
Bulich readily agrees that the pressure on landowners to sell or subdivide for development is intense in his neck of the woods. “The real estate market has gone insane here,” he says. “We've gotten calls from local real estate companies and out-of-town investors. We've had people drive up and knock on our door asking if we'll sell off some lots.”
And yet, while every piece of land is different and it's difficult to make generalizations, Mike Greason insists that for many landowners “sustainable forest management is the best economic option.” Careful logging, he points out, can bring in a respectable, if not spectacular, stream of income over the long term. Meanwhile, a good, sustainable forestry plan can improve the quality of a woodlot for a future cut. For example, thinning a forest to promote more rapid growth of the trees that remain on the site allows for more sunlight and less competition for water and nutrients. As time passes and trees grow, a higher-quality woodlot will be more valuable.
“Even if the land is eventually sold for development—perish the thought—it will still be worth as much or more than it would be if it was exploited right away,” Greason adds. But a landowner with a top-notch woodland might also be able to sell the property to someone else interested in continuing to do forestry on the improved site.
Bulich grew up nearby in the Catskills region but worked as an engineer in North Carolina, Virginia, and Texas before buying the land here in 1998 with his wife, Micaela, also an engineer. “We knew from the start that we wanted to get some income from the forest,” he says. But how to go about it? It turned out that not long after the Bulichs bought the land, Greason, now retired after a forestry career with the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, gave a presentation on sustainable forestry at a local Rotary Club, where Bulich's father was a member.
“Our best move was finding a forester like Mike, whose outlook coincided with ours—long-term, sustainable management,” Bulich says.
Bulich's patch of woods is hardly wilderness. Like much of the forest in the northeastern United States, it is regenerated woodland—second growth that was last cut decades ago. Here that long-term, sustainable management is based on Greason's master plan. The first logging occurred in 1999, and was aimed mainly at thinning out some of the least healthy and vigorous trees—trees that nevertheless had value as saw timber. New rounds of similar thinning cuts will come every 10 to 15 years. The point, Greason explains, is to take the very long view.
“The next sale,” he says, “will bring a higher price, and we'll still be leaving the best trees.” With each passing year, the forest will have increasingly valuable timber. Now, only about a half-decade since that first cut, most casual observers wouldn't know the land had been recently logged, although the signs are there, like the neck-high thicket of slim sugar maple saplings that can be found growing in a gap where a couple of trees were brought down.
Today a half-million owners of private nonindustrial forest- lands (meaning lands not owned by pulp or timber companies) in New York control more than 70 percent of the state's woodlands. But data collected by the state's Department of Environmental Conservation show dramatic changes in ownership patterns, a signal of “parcelization” and habitat fragmentation. In 1980, for instance, the average family-owned woodlot in New York was 24 acres. That's now down to an average of 18 acres.
Mike Burger notes that Audubon New York isn't advocating mowing down the last remnants of old growth anywhere. These northern hardwoods are almost entirely regrown forests that rebounded after being leveled by settlers and lumberjacks decades or centuries ago. Woodland ecosystems evolved to recover from natural disturbances. These forests steadily bounced back as farms were abandoned for more fertile lands in the Midwest and as the lumberjacks moved westward, too.
In this process, which ecologists call forest succession, abandoned grassy pastures, for instance, quickly revert to fields of broadleaf plants—“forbs” to a scientist, although some might call them “weeds.” During the ensuing months and years, shrubs invade, followed by the seedlings of sun-loving “pioneer” tree species, such as aspen or pin cherry. The seedlings turn into saplings and, eventually, a new young forest. In time, shade-tolerant species like sugar maple and beech that grow beneath the canopy of pioneer species push their way through. The process of change and succession in the forest never stops. Even in the most stable-seeming mature forests, wind, fire, lightning, disease, competition with more vigorous trees, or simply old age can bring down trees, creating sun-filled gaps where succession can restart. As Bulich puts it, “A forest is a dynamic thing. Whatever you do or don't do, in time it's going to change.”
There's a great deal more of this ever-changing forest in the state of New York than there once was—two and a half times more than in the late 1800s. And much of these reincarnated forests have matured dramatically from their early successional days.
That doesn't mean that all is perfectly fine. While forest recovery has been spectacular in some ways, serious and extensive trouble spots remain. In one of the worst, least sustainable, and all-too-common logging practices, called high- grading, loggers chop down the biggest, best, and most valuable trees, a practice that's often based on the mistaken assumption by landowners or loggers that they are merely removing the oldest trees. In fact, some trees in an “even-aged” forest will grow more rapidly and vigorously than others based on their superior genes, or on the available moisture or nutrients on the particular site where they grow, or on a combination of favorable factors. High-graders tend to saw down and haul the healthiest, hardiest trees, leaving behind scraggly or even diseased growth—“the junk,” as Greason puts it. In New York, studies show, about 13 percent of forestland is in exceptionally bad shape because of unsustainable forestry practices like high-grading.
Yet millions of acres of moderate to high-quality forest remain on private lands. In 1999, in an effort to help protect more of that forest as vital habitat, Audubon New York kicked off a forest diversity stewardship program. The intent was to use science to learn more about how logging might affect non-game wildlife. The group also planned to begin the process of educating landowners about how best to provide high-quality sustainable habitat if they did decide to log their lands.
The initial field studies were conducted by Burger and former Audubon scientist Mitch Hartley, who now works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The scientists focused a key part of their studies on birds, which function as valuable living monitors of ecosystem health and change. Various bird species, as the scientists noted, use all parts of the forest, from the ground to the canopy, from tree trunks to branches. Changes wrought by forest management would be reflected by changes in bird populations.
The scientists also chose amphibians: red-backed salamanders, the most abundant vertebrate in these forests, as well as dusky and spotted salamanders and wood frogs and spring peepers. Amphibians, too, can indicate ecosystem changes, since they rely on invertebrates for food and are sensitive to changes in moisture. Additionally, the researchers surveyed carrion beetles, which depend on the tissue of dead vertebrate animals and thus are good indicators of the abundance of a forest's animal life.
The scientists sampled four general habitat types: mature uncut or lightly thinned forests; moderately logged sites, where 20 to 30 percent of the trees had been removed; heavily cut sites, where 40 to 60 percent of the trees had been logged out; and recent clearcuts, where the forest was in the early successional stages of recovery.
So which type of cut proved to be the “best” for diversity and abundance among the animal species they studied? In regard to amphibians, abundance dropped steadily as the forest was cut more intensively, falling most sharply in the clear cuts, to one-third to one-fifth of the levels in the mature forest parcels, but apparently rebounding again as the forest matured.
For the carrion beetles and the birds, however, the answer to the question of which type of forest was best appears to be something like: “all of the above.” Carrion beetle abundance was similar in all forest types. The research also supported earlier science showing how birds' habitat preferences can vary widely. Winter wrens, black-throated green warblers, and Blackburnian warblers, for instance, show a strong preference for mature stands of forest. Chestnut-sided warblers and black-and-white warblers tend to thrive in more open areas.
The study also yielded some surprises. When the researchers looked, for instance, at a group of birds that favor mature forest, they found the birds were equally abundant in the moderately logged stands. Although the sheer numbers of birds normally associated with older forests dropped dramatically in the recovering clearcuts, some of these birds could still be found in these more open areas.
The studies also confirmed that cutting parts of a forest landscape more aggressively can be a boon to some species, including the chestnut-sided warbler and the rose-breasted grosbeak. Both species, which thrive in and around brushy open areas, have actually experienced steep population declines across their ranges as forests have matured.
The bottom line? Burger says, “I've seen landowners contemplate logging on their land for economic reasons but hesitant to do it because they're convinced that logging destroys forests and devastates wildlife. Our data show that this just isn't true.” He also cautions, however, that “our research was conducted on forested landscapes, always in a matrix of forests. You can't extrapolate any of this to a landscape fragmented by development.”
As Mitch Hartley puts it, “The value of a tract of forest to wildlife, managed or unmanaged, is largely a function of what's around it. A small tract surrounded by no other forest is of limited value to many species.”
Other cautions are probably in order. Wildlife managers have known for years that opening up forests can boost the populations of some game species. But the notion of promoting habitat for “wildlife diversity” has also been used as a sop for destructive tomfoolery, including aggressive logging programs that don't take into account the habitat needs of other species that might require large, contiguous tracts of mature trees. And it sometimes can be a particular problem to give a boost to one already overpopulated species that thrives on the abundant low-lying browse in earlier successional forests: the white-tailed deer. Like many of his rural neighbors, Bulich helps actively control the local deer population with hunting. “In areas of abundant deer, foresters should plan cuts carefully in order to make sure that adequate regeneration will follow the harvest,” says Burger.
As Mike Burger sees it, the Audubon New York research opens up a whole world of options. Owners who simply want to leave their land alone, he says, are doing no harm to birds and other wildlife. But landowners who want to do some logging can still do a great deal to maintain habitat. Burger suggests basing decisions on what might be locally unique on one's land. For instance, if a forest has a small stand of needle- leaf coniferous trees (hemlocks, spruces, or pines) on a landscape of mostly broadleaf hardwoods, retaining the conifers will benefit species like Blackburnian warblers, which prefer them. A well-thought-out partial cut can provide enough sun for a new shrub layer, which is just the kind of structural diversity preferred by such species as the black-throated blue warbler.
Even heavy cuts can sometimes have their place. For instance, some patches of high-graded and genetically degraded woodlands are in such deplorable condition that a forester might advise clear-cutting and restarting from scratch.
Regardless of the condition of the property, landowners should always seek professional help, says Greason, warning that he's run into far too many cases of landowners trying to “go it alone.”
“The rule of thumb,” he says, “is that you'll get about one-third the value of the timber they take out if you go that route.” And he reels off a series of stories about landowners who have innocently agreed to let loggers remove trees larger than, say, a foot in diameter, only to discover—after their lands were stripped—that most of their trees were in that category. “If a logger knocks on your door with a fistful of dollars,” he says, “just don't lose control.”
Contributing editor Jon R. Luoma's book The Hidden Forest: Biography of an Ecosystem is scheduled for re-release early this year by Oregon State University Press.