Finding Our Way in the Woods
The forests teach us lessons – every day – if we’re paying attention. Over the years I have noticed that there are certain aspects of forest work that are particularly rewarding and enjoyable, while others are just the opposite. Paying attention to the underlying differences between the two I have concluded that work in the forest involves working with two, fundamentally different, systems – what I have come to call “up cycle” and “down cycle” systems. What began as intellectual musings – helping the hours on the noisy wood splitter go by more quickly – has grown into a simple concept that provides central guidance to our silvacultural choices. I am confident that others have already framed and articulated these concepts better than I, and I look forward to learning from them.
From the day a chainsaw or a truck is first started it is headed downhill. Though its functionality will hopefully remain high for some time, after initial break in, it will be on a downward slope toward eventual mechanical death. Though the rate of decreased functionality will vary, the same is true of any non living item. Noticing my own dimming eye sight, thinning hair, and waning strength, I realize that the same is true of any individual organism – following its initial increase in functionality through maturity.
But the forests have taught me that in the life of the family forester the inevitable frustrations of working with down cycle systems may be offset by the pleasures of working with up cycle systems. I’m encouraged to find parts of the forests where in the place of declining functionality, productivity, value, and resilience, I see all four qualities on the rise. The positive feelings that come for this realization invite me to explore further.
Looking more closely at different parts of the forest, and particularly areas where we have logged in recent years, I see that there are some sites where our choices have created definite down cycle conditions and others that are encouragingly up cycle. The down cycle sites are ones where, if we take no action, the site’s functionality, productivity, value, and resilience to disturbance will be on a downward trajectory unless we intervene – often forcefully – to get the site ecologically back on track. Much of this is driven by the aggressive colonization of invasive species such as scotch broom, but also includes the relative ecological impoverishment that we observe when we have converted older, mixed forests to even-aged, monocultural plantations. Up cycle sites are distinguished by the opposite conditions – without our intervention, the site’s functionality, productivity, value, and resilience to disturbance will increase. Because experimentation has shown us that the practices of clear cut logging, that are the common approach in our region, leads – on our lands – to troubling down cycle conditions, we’ve been motivated to continue, in a more strategic way, the experimentation with alternative silvacultural approaches that we started over twenty years ago.
This experimentation may be improved by acknowledging the characteristics that the ecological communities of forests share in common with human communities. We all know of examples of human communities that either do, or do not, have the resources and complexity necessary to resiliently repair itself, without intervention, following a disturbance (EG – hurricane Katrina, closing of a major employer, collapse of a nearby fishery….). There is obvious potential for symbiotic support between growing up cycle forests in partnership with neighboring up cycle human communities. The individual trees that we plant and the children that we raise will come and go, (just as we will) but on our watch we have the opportunity to shape resilient, up cycle human and ecological communities that will endure long after we are gone.
In the “toolbox” of the forester’s silvacultural options we find many possible approaches – shelterwoods, patch cuts, thinning from above and below and in varying levels of intensity, variable retention, and clear cuts ……. . From the many options, how do we choose which on is best suited to our situation? An obvious basis for choice is deciding which approach is most likely to achieve the outcomes that we want – “desired future condition” in forestese. Our goal is to maintain/create the maximum up cycle conditions in the most efficient, expeditious, and cost effective ways. While the observation that “if you don’t know where you are headed any road will do” suggests that once you know your destination, the choice of how to get there should be clear, we find that careful experimentation is needed to assess which of the many silvacultural options will work best for us. The choices are made additionally complex by the appreciation that due to site to site variations, even within our small forests, results on in one stand may not be applicable to others.
From Theory to Practice – We are putting these concepts and approaches to work by taking two, sequential steps. The first is to organize our multiple silvacultural options into a simple framework, represented in the diagram below. Instead of limiting ourselves to the nine boxes, we look at the X and Y axis as continua allowing infinite options and variations. We have over fifteen past logging projects that are examples spread across the matrix. The second step is more challenging, due to the difficulty of quantifying outcomes. With both the logging projects that we have completed over the last twenty years, and those that we plan to do in the future, we will assess them in terms of two variable: 1) the strength of up cycle produced, and 2) the cost of the project. This can be plotted, in a generalized way, on the graph below. We aim to use these two tools in combination to build useful, new knowledge about how to get the greatest up cycle results per dollar invested. Of the many ill defined elements of this approach, the most challenging will be finding ways to quantify up cycle conditions on any given site.
Foresters will always base their decisions on a blend of science and intuition. Nevertheless, it is our hope that by clarifying our ends and means, and combining this with systems for evaluating the relative costs and benefits of our silvacultural choices, we may give ourselves, and those who follow, a basis for “finding our way in the woods”. If we are successful, the discouragements that come with our inevitable involvement with down cycle aspects of the forests will be offset by the rewards of living with and contributing to resilient up cycle systems, ecological and human.
Silvacultural options from the matrix above have been plotted on the graph below, based on actual experiences we have had over the past twenty years. Because the quantification is highly subjective, due to our current inability to assess relative “upcycle” results, the representation should be considered more conceptual than objective. Never the less we have observed significant differences in both costs and benefits between the various strategies we have experimented with. Our monitoring program is designed to shed more light on the specific outcomes and we are beginning to get results that will be useful.