Thoughts on Conservation
by Ashley Peters
Conservation often requires cutting trees down instead of planting them, and we need more people telling that story.
Forests are my first love, conservation-wise.
I, unexpectedly, came to bird conservation through a fascination with forest management. Having grown up in an Iowa farming community, I would have never guessed that my passion for conservation would be sparked in the forests of Alaska and Minnesota.
I’m writing about this because, when I tell people I work for the Ruffed Grouse Society & American Woodcock Society, they sometimes ask, “Why?” – I’ll answer that in a little bit.
For 60 years, RGS advocated for science-based, active forest management. That advocacy can be challenging because nuanced, complex messages have to compete with simplified, one-size-fits-all messages. For example, Save the Trees.
The Save the Trees message is a mental monolith, easy to remember and messaging like this is successful because it’s simple. But anyone who has spent time in the field knows that conservation is very rarely simple.
When a preservationist philosophy is applied too broadly, and without nuance, it’s detrimental for forest-dwelling birds that rely on a diversity of tree age structures. The ruffed grouse, American woodcock, golden-winged warbler and many other forest wildlife populations have suffered as a result.
As the saying goes, “Little trees deserve hugs, too.”
Conservationists have occasionally needed to protect and preserve forests in the face of mismanagement. However, members of RGS & AWS are spreading a message that complicates certain simplistic, prevailing narratives. Grouse and woodcock conservationists want to keep forests on the landscape no matter what, so in that sense, I suppose we want to save the trees. However, responsible timber harvests and science-based forest planning call for a nuanced approach.
Just about anyone can sense that forests feel like eerie ghost towns when they lose their populations of grouse, woodcock, deer or songbirds. However, you have to be an astute conservationist to notice a lack of habitat diversity or lack of food sources that, ultimately, lead to population declines.
When I first entered the natural resources field, I misunderstood the difference between preservation and conservation.
The Chainsaw Conservationist
My affinity for forest conservation was unexpected because I grew up in the middle of endless rows of corn and beans and gravel roads, where trees are hard to find. My childhood was spent visiting friends’ farms where they harvested crops, and my teenage summers included a lot of roguing beans and detasseling corn. I was fortunate to grow up near Pine Lake State Park, though, where I fell in love with the wooded areas that hugged the lake; a stark contrast to the yawning, wide-open agricultural fields.
In 2008 after graduating college with a degree in communication, I moved to Alaska to work for a conservation corps crew that contracted with the U.S. Forest Service and other state and federal agencies. At 22 years old, I didn’t fully understand what I was about to do, but anything was better than working several uninteresting, part-time jobs. I’m glad I made that decision, but I had a lot to learn.
Upon applying for that conservation corps, the images dancing through my mind were tree plantings and park beautification. However, the Alaskan forests where I was working didn’t need more trees.
Training sessions were spent learning about forest management guidelines and policies, chainsaw maintenance and safety, the physics of bent branches and proper felling techniques. Land management agencies had an insatiable backlog of work, and I was there to assist. In addition to the forest thinning that needed to be done, there were plenty of alder patches to be cut and trails to be cleared.
The first time I felled a tree, I felt like an imposter. To the untrained eye, I was a sawyer fully geared up: bright orange helmet, tan leather gloves, orange kevlar chaps and steel-toe boots. In reality, I was still conflicted about what I was doing, even as I stood beside a 30-foot western hemlock, looking at the rumbling machine in my hands through my helmet’s safety screen. The heavy helmet jabbed into the back of my head, and the earmuffs pressed tightly into the sides of my face. The supervisor gave me the ok.
As the blade met the tree trunk, I took a deep breath: the notch, the back cut, add the wedges. Finally, that first tree fell, rushing me with the smell of coniferous needles, freshly cut wood and bar oil and gas, all swirling on a chilled wind. My coworkers got to work bucking the tree, and I was left standing there, somewhat in shock.
If I loved trees, wildlife habitat and wild places so much, how could I also enjoy cutting trees? Asking that question and learning that lesson was one of the best things that happened to me as a young conservationist.
Despite my qualms, living in the woods and being a sawyer suited me. I adored the wide-open spaces under the canopies of impossibly tall trees, but I also deeply appreciated the crowded thickets, the tangled Devil’s club mazes, and the thick woods that provide protective cover and life-sustaining food for wildlife.
After 10 months in Alaska, I moved and worked for Conservation Corps Minnesota in Superior National Forest. Between 2008 and 2009, I cut down a lot of trees and, with each tree that fell, so did my preconceptions of what it meant to be in conservation.
Ambassadors for Diverse Forests
Last year, RGS & AWS President & CEO Ben Jones was interviewed in a Forbes article by Chris Dorsey, and this quote bears repeating:
“Humans have eliminated many natural factors that rejuvenate forests,” said Jones. “Beavers seen as a nuisance, fires snuffed out, storms more likely to impact human developments than initiate new forest growth and the like. To keep our forests healthy, we now have to emulate natural disturbances through forest management.”
“People often equate the destruction of the Amazon rainforest or logging of old-growth redwoods with all forests, but when it comes to many of the timberlands of North America, cutting trees is not only good for forest renewal, it’s beneficial to many species of wildlife from deer, turkeys and grouse to myriad neotropical birds, butterflies and other animals. This is to say nothing of mitigating the impacts of invasive pests, disease and forest fires.”
Within the grouse and woodcock hunting community, most people understand this and accept it. However, outside of our community, there’s a lot of misunderstanding. In fact, I misunderstood forest management before my first-hand experiences and my conversations with forest managers.
Part of the reason I chose my career in conservation communication and marketing is because of the need to spread accurate information. Science is an incredible resource, but often, science requires nuances and caveats that can be confusing to people who are new to the conversation. That’s where clear, consistent communication and personal storytelling can make a big difference.
Our community is full of remarkable storytellers. I regularly hear anecdotes about grouse and woodcock hunting that make me cry laughing, or just make me cry; comedic stories about missed birds and heart-wrenching dog stories about last hunts. I am convinced that hunters search for tales more than we seek tailfeathers.
For friends and family who don’t hunt, we can find ways to introduce them to the importance of well-managed forests and tell them about the challenges we are facing.
For example, I love spring birding in the same woods where I enjoy fall hunting. Birding treasures like black-and-white warblers, blackburnian warblers, scarlet tanagers and golden-winged warblers grace the trees of forests where grouse and woodcock thrive. If habitat for grouse and woodcock disappears, so does the habitat for a number of brilliantly-colored songbirds.
Every member reading this magazine can help ruffed grouse and American woodcock, especially by spreading the word that the decline of these species is an underreported crisis. Social media certainly has its downfalls, but it can be a powerful tool for good when appropriately utilized. I applaud those of you who are already engaging your entire network, even beyond other hunters.
We need to regularly ask ourselves: What can I do to advance healthy forests within my community?
Consider giving your friends memberships to RGS & AWS so they can read the BellwethereNews, read this magazine or join our members-only Facebook group to learn more about forest habitats. Your excitement is the fuel for this movement, and the only way we’ll make progress is by coming together around the work and spreading the word.
Whether it is an Instagram post, a Facetime with a close friend or an email exchange with your aunt, I encourage you to express why you care about well-managed forests.
When acquaintances ask why I work for RGS & AWS, I tell them about our fight for healthy forests and abundant wildlife. I talk about my passion for woodland landscapes that host ruffed grouse and American woodcock, alongside songbirds that fly thousands of miles to enjoy the same habitat.
Most of all, I talk about the people. RGS & AWS have some of the most passionate conservationists I have ever met, and the stories they tell are what inspire me to continue hunting and advocating.
Forest conservation needs us now more than ever – we can be beacons of information for that cause. In 2021, the 60th anniversary of RGS, we need to keep telling our stories.
The future of our forests depends on it.