Tuesday, October 5, 2021

When doing your best means doing nothing

Painting: Dawn Loading by Kathleen Kolb

Painting: Dawn Loading by Kathleen Kolb

“If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.” David Henry Thoreau’s statement, funny in a way, also brings to mind the grave harm done to cultures around the world by Western powers in the guise of “helping” them. In a less horrific sense it applies to how we’ve “assisted” nature to disastrous ends. Cane toads in Australia, mongoose in Hawaii, Kudzu in the Southeast, and Asian harlequin ladybeetles that invade our homes each fall are a few examples of being too helpful.

I get a lot of questions from folks who’ve recently purchased a few acres of forest or home on a wooded lot and want to know if they should clear brush, thin trees, or do other things to improve the woods. It’s a fair question, and an important one.

Just to clarify, as an arborist I specialize in trees in the human landscape, whether they’re naturally occurring or intentionally planted. A forester manages tree communities on a larger scale for commercial ends. There’s enough overlap in training and skillsets, though, that I feel able to provide general guidelines. 

While I have tremendous respect for commercial forestry when done with integrity, its principles are sometimes at odds with preserving the well-being of small woodlots and backyard forests. One of its main concepts is Timber Stand Improvement (TSI), which encompasses things like removing unwanted species and thinning around high-value trees. At its best, TSI can increase the annual growth rate of desired trees from about 1% in natural settings to perhaps 9%. 

This is great for improving timber value and maximizing profits. However, TSI doesn’t necessarily make forests better. In fact, if not done carefully it can reduce overall plant and animal diversity, degrade habitats, and remove genetically superior stock that should be left to propagate. TSI is a tool to achieve specific ends which must be well-defined before changes are made to any stand of trees, regardless of size. I’ve found it’s hard to un-cut a tree. Just saying, in case that was your backup plan. 

If you have an acre or three of forest, the best way to improve it is generally to leave it alone, a strategy which becomes more appealing the older I get. Dead standing trees and trunks (snags) are vital habitat for roughly 30 bird species that either nest in cavities or take shelter in them. A lot of what appears to be brush is native understory plants such as leatherwood, witch-hazel, moose maple and ironwood. Downed trees and branches decay at varying rates, gradually returning nutrients and carbon to the soil.

Leaving the forest alone applies to motor vehicles during wet-soil conditions. Even heavy foot traffic can damage sensitive areas in springtime, so keep to trails. It’s imperative that timber harvesting be done when soils are either dry or frozen. Today’s heavy skidders weigh three times what they did in the 1980s. I’ve seen waist-deep ruts left by these machines; damage of such magnitude will take centuries rather than generations to recover from.

Invasives to look out for

Take heart, you vibrant young folk with infinite ambition who find leisure frustrating (yeah, I was there once) – there may be chores in your woodlot that cry out for attention. Not all “brush” is in league with puppies and Christmas. Invasive honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) bushes often lurk in otherwise intact forest systems. If your back is OK you can easily uproot honeysuckle, the simplest way to eradicate it.

An understory tree called buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) is likewise moving into our woodlands. Impossible to pull, you have to cut it low and cover the stump with black plastic for a couple years or apply the herbicide glyphosate (20% concentration) to fresh stumps. Buckthorn and exotic honeysuckles alter soil chemistry to weaken endemic plant species, and neither has fruit which is healthful for birds. 

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolate), an invasive biennial, is a fragile and edible herbaceous plant. Doesn’t sound dangerous, but it’s a wily woodland adversary and managing it is not straightforward. Small infestations which have appeared within the last few years can be hand-pulled in early summer. Five to seven years of meticulous hand-weeding are usually enough to wear out the soil seed bank.

Conversely, established and widespread patches should be ignored, or at most, kept from expanding. Garlic mustard poisons its root zone to suppress native plant germination and growth to the point that it kills itself in about ten years. Pulling entrenched garlic mustard prolongs infestations well past the ten-year mark, and the annual soil disturbance causes untold ecosystem harm. A large-scale garlic mustard invasion is a call to action for the lazy, if such a thing is possible.

Helping nature can mean sweating or staring at treetops, as long as it’s informed by solid research. Let’s tread lightly and with humility as helpers.

For more information, visit New York State Integrated Pest Management’s page at https://nysipm.cornell.edu/ 

Paul Hetzler is an ISA Certified Arborist and a former Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator. 

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at PaulHetzlerNature.org or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

5 Responses

  1. Vanessa B says:

    Thank you Paul, this was a lovely read! Coming from an avid reader who has had a lot less time to read than she likes. Have you read “The Overstory” by Richard Powers? I think this novel may just have changed all of American thinking on this topic. It hit my corner of the environmentalist world that hard. Powers has a new nature-inspired book out that I will get to in due time.

  2. Boreas says:

    I come from the do-nothing camp. My small (wet woodland) plot has numerous dead snags, leaners, widowmakers, and fallen logs. All have a place in a natural forest. I also have Pileated woodpeckers, ‘coons, fisher, fungii, and wet and presumably healthy soil. If I made it look nice and dry, it would lose much of its diversity and its appeal to me.

    My only wish is that the plot wasn’t browsed to death by ungulates. Adding a few big predators would help with that.

  3. JB says:

    Great to see an article like this! I subscribe to the belief that leaving things alone will ultimately help native fauna more than any other course of action, supporting populations of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects from the “bottom-up”, for there is no doubt that the best thing to do to help floral and fungal diversity in a Northeastern forest, which our native fauna have evolved to depend on, is to do nothing. It is so true that many of the innocuous looking shrubs and woody plants can represent quite a diverse assemblage of species; I have even found Shepherdia canadensis, a very rare native for Saratoga County, hiding within a thicket of invasive Elaeagnus umbellata, with nearly identical leaves and branches, and weedy Lonicera spp., with very similar fruits. That kind of thing happens a lot. And almost more easy to overlook are the extremely diverse understory forbs of the Northeast, which often tend towards ephemeral, whether you’ve got a classic mesic calceraceous understory (very interesting) or an acidic upland Adirondack assemblage of circumboreal, alpine and Northeastern endemics alike (equally interesting). All of these organisms depend on forests, which we cannot have if we cut them all down.

  4. JT says:

    Interesting article. 25 years ago, my thought process was as you explained, performing TSI to favor the better quality trees to prepare for a logging operation in the future. I learned my lesson by removing poorer quality trees for firewood, opening up the canopy, but I did not address the buckthorn problem first. All those seeds from the purple berries exploded into thousands of seedlings when the soil warmed up. I have read they can remain viable for seven years or more. This is in the front half of the 60 acre woodlot. The back half has no buckthorn, It could use a thinning but I have adopted your philosophy that doing nothing is the best management plan.

  5. Hi Paul, thanks for this article. It makes me think of my own evolving understanding of the forest. When I painted the large oil painting you lead this article with I was fascinated with the work of harvest on the forest, with respect to the skill and intimacy those who did that work had with the woods. I still have those feelings but the next paintings I do will be of individual trees, portraits of elders. It is a shift of focus for sure. I am also reminded that when I owned a few acres of woods I felt I ought to be doing something to maintain or improve it. A friend told me the forest was fine without me. What a relief. I had plenty to do maintaining myself!

    May I ask where you got the image file of my painting?

    Kathleen Kolb

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