PRESIDENT’S MESSAGE: What are “Healthy Forests”?

Pres Msg            “I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”

Aldo Leopold, Axe-in-Hand

Some people are under the false impression that the only component of a forest for which RGS and AWS are interested is young forest habitat. Those people are mistaken. As described in our mission, we are dedicated to preserving our sporting traditions by creating healthy forest habitat for ruffed grouse, American woodcock and other wildlife. A healthy forest cannot be comprised exclusively of young forest habitat any more than it can be covered entirely with old growth trees.

No single forest type, by itself, offers the healthy sustainability a forest ecosystem gains from the extensive diversity of plant and animal life provided by a range of forest types within a single forest. There are different ways to define a healthy forest, but the key to promoting abundant wildlife (and ultimately, sporting traditions) is through a range of age classes that provide diverse forest structure and species of trees to sustain diverse wildlife populations. A healthy forest – one composed of a well-balanced range of age classes – also provides a consistent supply of services like water quality, yield and quality of wood and non-wood products, and wildlife habitat, all of which impact recreational, scenic, cultural and economic values. An ecosystem is comprised of biotic and abiotic factors functioning harmoniously and constantly seeking equilibrium. Ecosystems can be extremely small like a rotting log or landscape-scale encompassing entire watersheds.

Habitat Specialists

The key to relating the importance of healthy forests, by focusing on age class, community, and species diversity goals, rests in basic forest ecology. Forests are dynamic systems driven by the “competing” processes of succession and (historically) disturbance. As disturbance resets successional pathways, it allows disturbance-dependent plant and animal species (blackberries, ruffed grouse) and communities (aspen, oak and beech) to remain a vital component of the forest.

As human development has fragmented the landscape and motivated practices like aggressive control of wildfire, the natural forms of disturbance that historically shaped wildlife and wildlife communities of eastern forests have been substantially inhibited. As a result, we are seeing broad shifts toward older forests composed of later-successional species. Impacts on species associated with young forests are wide-spread and well documented. Succession moves forests forward, toward not only older classes, but also domination by certain species not well adapted to disturbance. Without disturbance we lose diversity, and we disrupt the conditions to which our forests are adapted on the landscape scale. In the absence of natural disturbance, the need to introduce disturbance to maintain diversity, or forest “health” is paramount. In that context, active forest management is not only good for particular species, it is mimicking natural processes that foster diversity across a landscape.

Declines in young forest habitats/communities/species is a conservation issue on par with recognized threats to other communities like wetlands, native grasslands and shore lands. While this is increasingly being recognized by resource scientists and managers, it has been a tougher sell to the public than have pleas for conservation of wetlands and grasslands.

We believe the reason for this tougher sell is that wetland drainage and grassland conversion result in dramatic changes that are readily perceived by the public, who are then eager to support wetland/grassland or species-specific conservation efforts.  A maturing forest, to most folks, is still a forest.  It requires more education and outreach, and a much more nuanced and detailed message to get them to understand the plight of young forest plant and wildlife species dependent upon early-successional communities.

Furthermore, for some “wilderness” and “old growth” advocates there is a fundamental interest in simply protecting trees, and we see in that growing mindset a similar issue to those opposed to hunting and other forms of wildlife management: the public increasingly relates to “conserving” individual animals and trees, rather than considering what is needed to conserve wildlife populations and forest communities. It’s not an easy task to get them to think on a larger-scale, and accept that to conserve populations and communities it is not necessary to save every individual – and that approach can in fact be detrimental.

Ultimately, the choice of whether or not to engage in active forest management is not just a choice between young trees or old trees, but because of succession processes it’s also a choice that can cause broad shifts in forest communities. Even the towering old growth “tree cathedrals” that many seek to create through formal wilderness designations crumble at the advance of pine beetles, gypsy moths, woolly adelgid and subsequent wildfire. There are ecological, recreational, and cultural benefits to representing these characteristics somewhere in our forest planning, but while this “wilderness character” does not last forever at a fixed point on the landscape, wilderness designations do.

Thus, the preservation of forest areas behind the cloak of non-use designations is neglect, not respect as these supporters often contend. Not managing is a human-caused impact just as much as managing is, and neither choice absolves us from the responsibility of considering and CHOOSING how we will affect our forests or other ecosystems.

For RGS and AWS, our keen focus and advocacy for young forest habitat must be viewed within the context of the entire forest ecosystem. Managing forests to sustain a well-balanced range of age classes is not motivated by preferring one age class over another, it is simply a commitment to ensuring the cycle of succession and disturbance continues to sustainably produce diverse forest ages, structures, species and the associated diverse wildlife species and services. It is true that the young forest habitats and wildlife that are so important to us depend upon our intervention through intentional management, but they also depend upon these cycles continuing to play out across the landscape. In choosing to manage a piece of the system without consideration in how the flow of biotic and abiotic factors is interrupted is not responsible management, nor does it demonstrate an understanding of forest ecosystems. Each of us must hold ourselves accountable to the collective responsibility we have for the needs of the entire forest ecosystem. This should be true for all of us regardless of whether we advocate for young forest habitat or single-mindedly campaign for wilderness or old growth.

Timber management is the tool which today’s forests require to withstand threats from wildfire, insect and disease, invasive species, and diminishing biodiversity. However, maintaining sustainable forest management programs and managing woodlands for timber production requires an infrastructure be in place to accomplish treatments over a larger landscape or encompassing an entire ecosystem. Continued wood supply keeps mills running with accessible timber contracting and trucking infrastructure, making these more readily available to all landowners within the region to apply treatments associated with forest health issues. The lack of continued timber harvesting on USFS lands has all but destroyed the existing infrastructure in many regions, making commercial forestry economically unworkable.

As a conservation organization, our responsibility to wildlife and our sporting traditions has not changed regarding our obligations to the generations that follow us, but the way we approach this responsibility may have to change. Our message, which is a model for science-based conservation of natural resources, should also be a message for citizenship and for stewardship. By doing so, we engage every individual in pursuit of their outdoor traditions as we all work together to achieve healthy forest ecosystems.

For more information on RGS/AWS programs to create healthy forests, visit


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