Keeping Forests Together

Responsible forestry can help keep our woods healthy.

When John Scanlon was a teenager he was thrilled to learn that yes, one could actually make a living by working in the woods. That moment, combined with a love of forests cultivated over summers spent camping and hiking, set him on a path toward a career in forestry.

Today, John helps manage 160,000 acres of state wildlife lands in Massachusetts — and his job involves much more than cutting down trees. spoke with John to find out how forestry and conservation work hand-in-hand to protect forests from invasive species, reckless development and climate change.

“We have to ask ourselves: if we’ve already invested nearly a century in this tree, can we afford to give up another three centuries of its natural services?”

John Scanlon
Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife forester

How did you first become interested in forestry?

John Scanlon:

I probably would’ve never entered this field had it not been for the Boy Scouts. My first camping trip as a scout was an eye-opening experience. It made me think, “Wow, you can actually be outside. I wonder if you can work outside?”

What’s a typical day like for you?

John Scanlon:

I’m responsible for managing forests and abandoned agricultural fields on 160,000 acres of state wildlife lands. In a given week, I might be in the field identifying invasive species to remove, handling a timber sale or struggling to keep pace with the mountains of email it takes to stay on top of forestry issues.

What is sustainable forestry?

John Scanlon:

Traditional forestry focuses on what you take out of the forest, but sustainable forestry focuses on what you leave in it. It means considering not only the value of wood in the marketplace, but also its value for things like wildlife habitat and clean air and water. At the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, we focus on habitat, not economic return.

Take an 80-year-old oak or cherry tree. Sure, those trees might be valuable for their wood, but they could also produce acorns or cherries for another 200 years. And even after a tree dies, it can provide cavities for birds and fallen logs for salamanders.

We have to ask ourselves: if we’ve already invested nearly a century in this tree, can we afford to give up another three centuries of its natural services?

When we do cut trees to provide young forest habitat, we focus first on identifying and keeping existing trees that provide the best food, cover and structure for wildlife over the long run.

What’s the biggest threat to Massachusetts forests?

John Scanlon:

Even when you consider all the various threats — from invasive species to climate changedevelopment is still the leading menace. When you develop a plot of land, you not only lose that particular piece, you fragment the surrounding lands, too; they become forested islands in a suburban sea.

Without those large areas, wide-ranging species like moose, eagles and black bears disappear and so do much smaller species, including some migratory songbirds. Standing in a patch of fragmented forest, it might not look any different than a healthy, connected forest but the song of the black-throated blue warbler would be missing.

How does the Conservancy’s work intersect with the work you do?

John Scanlon:

The Nature Conservancy has been an invaluable ally in land conservation. Other organizations and land trusts have played important roles, but the Conservancy’s landscape-level thinking is analogous with our approach: we’re both striving to help forest landowners across the state keep their forests as forests.

What’s special about Massachusetts’ forests?

John Scanlon:

Massachusetts is a natural meeting place for northern hardwood trees like beech, birch and maple, and eastern broadleaf trees like oak and hickory that are more southern. We’re a tiny state but we’re rich in tree species.

Ten years from now, where do you hope Massachusetts will be with regard to its forests?

John Scanlon:

I’d like to see more people recognize and appreciate the services that forests provide — like clean air and water — and support incentives that will help forest landowners keep their forests as forests.

Forest conservation can also be a major tool for confronting global climate change. To be developing our forests now, when we need them the most, just doesn’t make sense. We can do much better than this.

Do you have a favorite tree?

John Scanlon:

I have to admit that I do. Though I’ve seen giant sequoias and Ponderosa pines, I’d be lost without the smell of boiling sugar maple sap in the spring and the emergence of its bright orange leaves in the fall. I couldn’t imagine a season without sugar maples.



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