What Kind of a “Healthy” Forest Do We Want?

By John McFerrin

In all the discussion of whether we should timber in West Virginia’s state parks, there are a couple of terms that people use, saying them as if we all know what they mean.  Then confusion comes because the words mean different things to different people.  How the words are used reveals attitudes about forests and what our goals should be.

The first of these is “healthy,” along with the assertion that in order to have a “healthy” forest we have to actively “manage” it.  In the context of the discussion of timbering in state parks, this means that we have to cut down trees to maintain a “healthy” forest.

The idea that humans have to cut down trees, or do anything, to keep a forest healthy is preposterous.  Before there were chainsaws, cross cut saws, or even stone axes, there were forests.  The trees lived and died; their remains were homes and food for generations of beasts, bugs, and plants.  Their nutrients were food for the next generation of trees. They had birds and wind to scatter their seeds.  Some species relied upon forgetful squirrels to plant their seeds.  They had bacteria and a host of other tiny forest creatures to make their leaves into dirt, the foundation of the next generation.  The trees supported a huge variety of birds and other animals.

The system rolled on for thousands of years without any assistance of any kind from any human.  They were healthy.

When someone says that we need to cut trees to make the forest “healthy” they are using the term differently.  They don’t mean robust, being able to sustain itself permanently.  Instead, they mean that the forest is in a condition that will produce the maximum number of board feet of lumber.

Trees have a life cycle.  They are born, produce seeds, grow old and die.  Many species begin to hollow themselves out from the inside long before they die.  The trick in lumber production is to understand this cycle and manage the forest accordingly.  Trees hollowing themselves out may be good for raccoons but it’s not good for lumber production.  Trees that reach the end of their lifespans, die, and fall over may be good for birds, animals, and bugs.  Plants will start sprouting on the log.  Woodpeckers will come and work the stump for the grubs they find there.  Sooner or later the tree will become dirt to nourish the next generation.

To those foresters who define “healthy” as producing the most board feet, such a result is a disaster.  Trees are not supposed to grow old and die.  In a “healthy” forest, they are supposed to be cut when they would yield the most lumber.

People who believe that a forest must be “managed” to be “healthy” have a word for a forest or a tree which has ceased adding to its value as a timber tree: overmature.  When a tree is close to or past the age when it would produce the most timber if cut, it is “overmature.”  To those foresters with this understanding of what makes a “healthy” forest, it should be cut now, before it starts hollowing itself out or, heaven forbid, dying followed by falling over and rotting.

In Morgantown we have what I think of as a healthy forest, healthy in the sense of being vigorous and self-sustaining:  the Core Arboretum.  The forest that is now the Core Arboretum has been there, with trees living and dying, birds, animals, flowers, bugs, fungi, since forever.  There are similar forests in most of our state parks.  They may not have been largely undisturbed forever as the Arboretum has but they are old, mature forests that are vigorous and self-sustaining.

One of the trees in the Arboretum is (or was) what many said (there is some dispute about this) was the largest Chinquapin Oak in the world.  Had Christopher Columbus blundered into West Virginia instead of the Bahamas, he could have seen that very tree.  In 2001 it finally fell.  In its lifetime it gave food and shelter to countless birds, food and shelter to countless animals, a home to a bazillion bugs, and a drive through for the woodpeckers who came to feed on the bugs.  I have been there recently; all I can say is that it left one heck of a stump.

During its entire lifetime, it did not produce enough lumber to make so much as a bread board.

To those who define a “healthy” forest as one that produces lots of boards, this was a tragedy.  There sat a tree, “overmature” for over four hundred years, shading out trees that could have produced boards.

In the Pacific Northwest I have seen tree farms.  As one goes down the road there are signs by each big, hundreds of acres plot: Planted in 1957, Planted in 1968, Planted in 1974.  Timber company foresters will wait until they become mature (but not overmature) and gave the signal that it is time to “harvest.”  When that time comes, that plot is cut and we wait for the next one to be ready. In one worldview, that is the healthiest of forests.  It produces boards.

That is the model that most of West Virginia uses.  While we don’t do it with nearly the rigid precision of northwest timber companies, most of our timberland is left alone while it gains value.  Then the trees are cut down and the land is left alone until there are valuable trees again.

Because West Virginia does not have the rigid precision of tree farming, our forests produce more than just boards.  While the trees are reaching marketable size, these forests provide habitat for animals who thrive in grasslands, shrub, and young forests.  If all we want to have is what are called early succession forests then we can continue what we already do in the overwhelming majority of state forests.  We will have timberland that produces lumber and incidentally benefits some species.

The dispute over timbering in the State Parks is about a lot of things.  Is this just a cynical money grab by timber companies?  Is this the best way to increase tourism, or are we just eating our seed corn?

The biggest question, however, is what kind of forests do we want in our State Parks?  Do we want forests where the trees are no more than a long rotation crop, cut every eighty years instead of every year as corn is?  If that is what we want in West Virginia, we have plenty of it on private land.  If we think we don’t have enough on private land, we could do as the Governor suggests and turn our Parks into tree farms.

Or are we willing to set aside a tiny fraction of our woodland, the fraction that is in State Parks, and leave it alone?  Leave it alone to continue to grow into the kind of rare and special place that inspires awe, the kind of forest that invites comparison to a cathedral?