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Clear Cutting & Forest Management

Spring-Summer 2010

As property owners and visitors to Beaver Island we are all responsible for the management of the natural resources on our property and the public land on Beaver Island. I personally feel it is important to manage natural resources. Indeed, there is evidence that human societies have manipulated this very Beaver Island ecosystem for many centuries to improve their lives. The important thing about natural resource management is that you must work in harmony with nature, nurture the entire ecosystem and the cycles within it that have evolved over millennia. Throughout history, societies that have not followed this practice have failed, every time.

Clear-cutting a beech-maple forest is not working with nature. Clear-cutting is only necessary as a tree removal strategy to allow trees that have minimal shade tolerance to regenerate, like aspen and birch. Historically, Michigan had a small amount of aspen forests but today it is a more dominant forest type due to clear-cutting. Historically, Beaver Island was dominated in the interior by a beech-maple forest. It is important to know what was here before today because then we know what type of biological community can sustainably exist here.

A beech-maple forest is a complex community that is the habitat for many of the food webs that sustain the natural systems over all Beaver Island. Clear-cutting (when foresters completely remove the entire tree community) destroys this valuable biological community. In a mature beech-maple forest you find logs and snags (standing dead trees) which may seem useless but in fact are of the utmost importance. Logs and snags are the base of many food chains. This means all the critters that live in and under them are food for other things which in turn are eaten by additional things, etc. If you get rid of the logs and snags in the forest with clear-cutting there is nothing to feed the food chains on the Island.
An important and often over-looked benefit in a mature beech-maple forest is the water reservoir that logs and snags provide. Turn over most logs in a beech-maple forest on Beaver Island and you will find red-backed salamanders and countless other animals but you will also see white growing roots from neighboring trees. These flipped over logs which can have 50% water content or more provide a stable source of water to the trees. (Be sure to flip them back over after you observe this little niche of nature.) Do you remember the drought a few years ago when the trees started losing their green leaves in the summer? A mature forest that has lots of logs and snags would be less susceptible to drought and be able to support animals through these hard times. Moreover, those soggy logs and snags and the cool shade mean that a beech-maple forest is one of the most fire resistant communities in Michigan.

For Beaver Island residents, it is important to understand why the practice of clear-cutting beech-maple forests on public or private land is not a benefit. Some people think that the only way to get young growing plants is to clear-cut a forest. Why do people want young growing plants, you ask? So that animals, especially game animals like deer and turkey and ruffed grouse can use this part of the ecosystem. The problem with clear-cutting is there can be consequences that could degrade or even destroy the natural beauty on Beaver Island. Clear-cut areas have increased soil erosion, lowering the productivity of future forests. Most soils on Beaver Island are not the best to begin with and clear-cutting will make them worse. Besides degrading the soil, clear-cuts are disturbed areas which invasive species tend to thrive in. Moreover, beech-maple forests that have been clear-cut were healthy communities which have evolved over centuries to be more resistant to insects and disease. Clear-cutting is like amputating a healthy limb.

Every time you clear-cut you have more soil erosion, and I think everyone agrees aesthetic views are compromised by clear-cutting. This means clear-cutting is not good for the tourist industry, because who wants to take a vacation to look at it? Like it or not, tourism is an important part of the economy of Beaver Island that supports many services we all can rely on. Furthermore, it has been shown that logging wastes left behind after clear-cutting increase fire, insect and disease problems. Sunshine in the open area (clear-cut) dries out the wood making it easier to ignite/burn. No one will benefit from a forest fire on Beaver Island and clear-cut areas increase fire risk, whereas an intact beech-maple forest has a very low fire risk.

Regardless, I am sure someone will say there is plenty of beech-maple on the Island; we can remove some percentage of beech-maple. Something similar was said about passenger pigeons before they went extinct. Besides, beech are already suffering, most likely from beech bark disease which is a fungal disease transmitted by a scale insect. The last thing we need is to indiscriminately remove healthy disease resistant beech trees from the Island.

To recap: clear-cutting goes against the natural system that exists on the island, causes soil erosion, is ugly to look at, removes healthy disease resistant trees, provides a place for exotic plants to grow, increases fire risk, and with snow even fails to feed deer in winter when food is most needed. Clear-cutting a beech-maple forest does not seem like a wise use of our resource. I hope no one on the Island would condone clear-cutting as any advantages are far outweighed by the many disadvantages. Of course clear-cut logging is easy to do and the most efficient way to convert trees to CA$H, but in a beech-maple forest it puts the desires of current users ahead of the needs of future users. People who want to help Beaver Island in the short and long term need to protect remaining beech-maple forests. If everyone takes a scientific look and sees the Island not as a fragmented patchwork of natural and economic resources but as a whole ecosystem, we should all end up happy.

This does not mean clear-cutting is always bad. Clear-cutting may be used on private or state land that is aspen dominated. According to the DNRE there are around 1000 acres of aspen on Beaver Island, and in my view these are the ONLY areas where clear-cutting should even be considered.

I think a big reason clear-cutting is so prevalent is that its real advantage is that anyone can do it without any forestry training. The problem with this is that a great many environmental problems result from attempts to oversimplify nature’s complexities. I hope no one would say, “We thought about doing things right but it seemed hard so we did what was easy.” We are talking about our forests, AND our children’s forest and their children’s…

Using forest harvesting methods other than clear-cutting does take a bit more time and knowledge, but provides ample habitat for game and non-game wildlife and opens up so many new possibilities. For example, it can be written in a management plan to leave some healthy straight trees (with their ‘good genes’) in some areas as a seed source, or leave some snags for housing animals, or removing diseased trees to cut down on the spread of the disease. These types of tactics would increase the forests’ value to wildlife and humans monetarily.

Good forest management in a beech-maple forest is more about what is left behind than what is taken out. The benefit of this is that large healthy trees and snags (biological legacies) can be left in the forest. This means we will be improving the habitat for all creatures over time. This should be the goal of Island management to use AND improve all our resources.

Eric R. Myers, Ph.D. Forestry

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