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Cranbrook Lecture Series

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Forest Management Specialist Jon Fosgitt shares his views on how restoring forest diversity can improve forests, forestry practices, and local economies.

The Nature Conservancy:

Why should we care about forests as a conservation strategy?

Jon Fosgitt:

When you look at a forest, it’s easy to think it’s just a collection of “stuff.” But, forests as a whole should be thought of as a massive living, breathing thing. Consider a forest as a really big filter, like lungs for our Earth. Trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, cleaning the air we breathe.

One of the greatest things about the Great Lakes is our freshwater. Forests are largely responsible for keeping our waters clean; they filter rainwater and runoff from surrounding grounds before it enters our rivers and lakes. Forests also provide critical habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals.

Additionally, our forests are centers for commerce and recreation. The timber industry in Michigan alone puts about $3.5 billion into the state’s economy each year. Recreational activities like hunting, fishing and birding also bring millions of dollars to our Great Lakes states each year.

Lastly, when we talk about climate change, one of the culprits, of course, is carbon dioxide. One of the best things we can do to hold off changes in climate is to protect large, intact, vigorous forests.

The Nature Conservancy:

How have forests in the Great Lakes changed?

Jon Fosgitt:

In the 1800s, many of the forests in the Great Lakes region were cleared. This happened because of the emerging cities and towns all across the Great Lakes combined with the need for timber used for construction and heating homes. The Great Lakes provided easy transportation for shipping that timber across the region.

The woods were cleared very quickly, and the trees that regrew in these cleared areas were short-lived species like aspen and birch. They grew quickly, got really tall and provided lots of shade, which is where the trees we see today began to grow. Short-lived tree species usually die off at around 60 years old. When they died off, the trees in the shade became the prominent species. This succession led to the development of our modern forests.

In the mid-1900s a lot of research was developing about how to manage forests, and our modern forestry practices grew out of this time. This research, and the practices that grew out of it, focused on maximizing growth and yield of forested stands. For our northern hardwood forest, a system was developed where a small percentage (20% - 30%) of a stand was harvested on a continuous 10-year rotation. This system of “select cutting” has been proven to maximize growth and is still in wide use today.

This system on modern forest management has done a good job of encouraging forest growth and vigor, but in some cases ecological function has been reduced. We think of these forests as a uniform “middle aged” forest. What we have lost is diversity in both structure and species composition. It is that loss of diversity that we are targeting with our restoration practices.

The Nature Conservancy:

What are we doing to restore and manage forests today?

Jon Fosgitt:

We’ve developed a new way of measuring the ecological attributes of forests. For example, one attribute is looking at how many snags per acre are in a forest. Snags are old, dead standing trees that provide critical habitat to many species. After looking at a series of ecological attributes, we develop a plan to encourage tree species and structural diversity. We always let science be our guide.

In our Two Hearted River Forest Reserve project in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, for example, we’re monitoring regrowth in gaps or holes in the forest that we created in an effort to replicate what the forest looked like at one time. We’re hoping that by creating these gaps we’ll see the regrowth of native species such as yellow birth and white pine, which are nearly gone from the current landscape.

It’s important to think of forests like your financial portfolio. Imagine if you went to your retirement planner and said, “I want to take all my 401K money and invest it in Facebook.” He’s going to fall out of his chair and say, “No, you need to diversify your investments or it’s going to fail.” We need to do the same diversifying with our forests.

The Nature Conservancy:

How does climate change influence forestry management techniques?

Jon Fosgitt:

Climate change is a big threat. We know the forests and its species are changing because of it. We’re developing a plan that is designed to adapt to all these changes. Promoting forest diversity and protecting a forest’s ecological function are some of the best things we can do to protect it from the impacts of climate change, i.e. invasive plants, insects and diseases.

The Nature Conservancy:

Are there any other threats to maintaining healthy forests?

Jon Fosgitt:

Fragmentation and parcelization are also threats to the work we do. As these forest lands are sold and bought, their size keeps getting smaller and smaller. Protecting large-scale forests is important to the work we do, so we’re trying to work with partners and private landowners to implement conservation easements on their land and help ensure we continue to work at a large scale.


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