New Yorkers think of the Adirondacks first and foremost as a preserve, but working forests on private lands have always been an important part of the Park. There has been a sea-change in ownership in recent years, with timber investment firms now controlling the bulk of working forests. And harvest rates throughout the Northeast have been steadily increasing.
So much so that logging rates are at unsustainably high levels in many places. This is most readily apparent to the public in the growing acreage of clear-cuts in the Adirondacks and Maine. But it doesn’t take clear-cutting to overharvest a region’s forests. Forest biomass is declining in Connecticut due to high-grading—the highly selective logging of just the largest and most valuable trees. To most foresters, that is a far worse sin than clear-cutting.
There is no question that wildlife differ in their preference for different stages in forest succession. But the most pressing issue related to wildlife and forests is quite simply the overabundance of whitetail deer, and the effects of their browsing on tree regeneration. Less than 10 percent of northeastern forests have seedling and sapling densities sufficient to not limit forest productivity. And over half of forests have such sparse regeneration that it would be classified as regeneration failure. Some foresters appear to believe that clear-cutting can help, by promoting enough regeneration that it overwhelms the deer. The data show just the opposite. As the intensity of a harvest increases, the percent of stands with regeneration failure also increases.
There are many other challenges facing the management of the private forest lands in the Park. Beech bark disease continues to ravage a species that has been the dominant tree in the Park for thousands of years. Researchers have only recently begun to search in earnest for an effective biological control. Foresters have had only very crude tools to work with, and appear to favor clear-cutting—sometimes accompanied by use of herbicides—in the hope that it will reduce the distinctive sprouting by beech. I’ve seen little evidence that this strategy is successful. And unfortunately, beech sprouts are the seedlings most likely to grow rapidly enough to escape browsing by deer.
Foresters will argue that clear-cutting can be a valuable part of a management plan. There is no question that it can be profitable, at least in the short term. The challenge is not with a single clear-cut, but with the cumulative impacts of too many clear-cuts. This is an issue that transcends individual ownerships, and rightly belongs in the purview of the Adirondack Park Agency. I’ve seen little evidence that they have the capacity or will to address it.
To my mind, an even larger challenge facing Adirondack forestry has been that too much of the management relies on old and outdated science. There has been an almost complete collapse of the forestry research infrastructure that would allow managers to incorporate the wealth of ecological research done in recent decades into new silvicultural methods to address the many threats our forests face, and to manage them for the wealth of ecosystem services they provide, including wildlife habitat. Clear-cutting may be a time-honored method to a forester, but its only obvious benefits are that it is simple to implement, and profitable. New management approaches could do so much better.
Charles D. Canham is senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.
Photo of Bicknells thrush by Jeff Nadler.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.