Words from the Woods: Environmental Benefits of Active Forest Management

Gutchess Lumber Co., Inc.’s “Words from Woods” series consists of a monthly article written by our fifth-generation President and Chairman Matthew Gutchess. This is the third article in the series.

In my job as President of Gutchess Lumber, the two questions I am most commonly asked—primarily by those outside our industry—are these:

Number One: “Why does the Gutchess logo feature a pine tree, given that your company primarily manufactures hardwoods?” Number Two is inevitably some variation upon: “Your company must plant an incredible number of trees to replace those which you are cutting down, right?”

I might take a look at Number One in a future installment, but for the moment I’d like to write a few words about Number Two. GLC has been turning standing trees into lumber in central New York for at least 117 years and counting. Surely the only way to stay in business that long is to replant regularly upon completion of a timber harvest, much as a farmer might plant corn, soybeans, or similar crops every year?

Trees have been in existence for 350 million years (give or take), according to our fossil records. Life had not existed for long on Earth’s landmasses before the first trees sprang up. Forests evolved over time, enduring shifting global climate extremes of hot and cold, of wet and dry but also adapting to sometimes rapid and dramatic changes in localized conditions, such as floods or wildfires. While individual trees die, forests themselves have evolved great efficiency at seeding the ground with their eventual successors. In eastern North American hardwood forests today, new generations of shade tolerant species like sugar maple or beech wait patiently to exploit a small break in the canopy, while the seeds or nuts of shade intolerant species like cherry or walnut can’t accomplish much until some sudden transformation floods the ground with sunlight (but then, it’s off to the races!)

The point is, for 350 million years, as continents collided and came back apart and glaciers advanced and retreated, forests marched across the landscape regenerating themselves by themselves. The species which survived did so because they were by and large phenomenally good at regeneration. Humans weren’t around to plant or replant anything until the last few tens of thousands of years, or about the last tenth of one percent of the great unwritten history of forests. While humans can, and do, harvest hardwoods in an environmentally responsible manner—the overwhelmingly common practice today across the eastern half of the United States with which I am most familiar—when it comes to hardwood stands, we tend to be much less efficient than the forests themselves are at deciding how and where and which types of trees should regenerate below the overstory. Our efforts to “outsmart” hardwoods at their own best reproduction fail as often as not.

Even following the heaviest of hardwood timber harvests—“even age” versus “uneven age” active forest management strategy—the trees felled for lumber, firewood, or other end uses have seeded the ground below them and, if the soil isn’t eroded, invasive species and deer haven’t completely taken over, or nobody is financially motivated by high property taxes or other factors to create a new parking lot, native forests rapidly return, and well within human lifetimes. This happens time and again and is easily demonstrable in our records. One hundred years ago, following a brief 19th century period of extensive clearing for agriculture, New York State was about 20% forested. Today’s commonly accepted figure for total NYS forest cover is 65%. Except for a few stands of softwoods here and there, humans did not have the free time or energy to replant the 14 or 15 million acres which would have been required. For the most part the trees did it themselves, and did so far more effectively than we could ever hope to do.

Gutchess Lumber has owned parcels of timberland since the 1950’s which we’ve harvested in some cases five or six times, each time with an environmentally and economically responsible eye out for future forest health and future value through future harvests. The trees continue to come back strong.
The truth of this seems counter-intuitive—or even impossible—to many outside the industry, perhaps with visions of The Lorax and a permanent-looking cartoon field of desolate tree stumps rooted firmly in their minds whenever they think of forestry. To people commuting past familiar hillsides at 55 miles per hour, our forests can appear as static entities when actually they are highly dynamic environments – continually changing, continually growing, and continually pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere at greater or lesser rates. My own 35-acre woodlot—to which my blog will likely return next month—is the best example of this I know of.

Fortunately, the natural regeneration of our forests is observable, beneficial, and best of all explainable and understandable by anyone with or without a silvicultural degree. Judging by the sheer frequency with which I hear Question Number Two, the hardwood industry—and indeed, anyone who cares about the woods—must find ways to improve public awareness of how responsible forestry works. The environmental and economic stakes are too significant not to make the effort.


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