Wednesday, April 8, 2009

It's OK to Cut Trees!

Article #141, February 2009
By Bill Cook

Why do so some people seem to believe that cutting trees is bad?

Trees provide essential raw material for thousands of products that Americans use every day. As a nation, we are huge consumers of wood. Wood is the most environmentally-friendly raw material available, by a long shot. Metals, coal, oil, and concrete all have significantly larger environmental, energy, and carbon footprints than wood.

Trees are renewable. Unlike other raw materials, they just keep growing back, at least in North America. With management, forests remain healthy, vigorous, and continue to produce all the values we have come to cherish, including wood.

Trees provide an incredibly rich economic base, especially in rural areas. Too often, the loggers, foresters, and mills are taken for granted. Yet, they make up the backbone of our economy in many counties. Recently, wood-based mills have closed or curtailed production. Local economies have been affected.

It seems the word "economy" has taken on increasing amounts of negative images, but that simply isn't correct. Economy simply means the ways in which we all survive as a collection of communities. It makes a lot of sense to base an economy on local resources, rather than those from far away. Using local resources keeps more money local, and attracts money from other places.

Trees in managed forests provide habitat diversity for the largest number and greatest variety of wildlife and plant species. While a portion of our forest should remain in older, less vigorous conditions for biodiversity, the managed majority of our forest base will provide more abundant habitat for birds, game species, and long lists of relatively unknown fauna and flora.

Trees in managed forests are healthier than in unmanaged forests. With the past three dry growing seasons, some of the unmanaged forests are beginning to decline while the managed forests remain relatively healthy and vigorous. Stressed trees are more vulnerable to attack by insects and diseases. Simply look along some of our highways.

Trees in younger forests accumulate carbon and produce oxygen at a greater rate than old forests. Photosynthesis collects carbon/releases oxygen and respiration does the opposite. Trees require both processes. Older trees and older forests sometimes respire more than they photosynthesize. Older forests also have greater populations of decomposers, which release carbon.

Trees and forests are ever-popular places to recreate. Large trees make for impressive visual quality, but the majority of our forests that attract millions of visitors every year are young to middle aged. However, the reproduction stages of even-aged forests (fresh clearcuts) attract complaints, regardless of how necessary such management is from an environmental point of view.

Trees help maintain soil and water quality, even in the freshly clearcut and regenerated forests, such as aspen. The protection of soil and water resources has long been a target of timber harvesting. Some might argue that protection measures have grown excessive, especially considering other threats.

Trees have attracted a growing interest in producing energy, oils, and many chemicals. Some technologies have been used for a long time. Other technologies are new or emerging. Woody biomass will likely help replace some of our fossil fuel consumption, which if done properly, will end up a great practice in the long run, and for many reasons.

Less than a generation ago, most people understood that cutting trees was essential if we are going to enjoy all the thousands of products made with wood. With nearly a century of research and experience, foresters know how to sustainably manage forests and all their values. They've actually been doing it for decades. So, why is it that so many people seem to think cutting trees is a bad thing?

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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at or 906-786-1575.

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