Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
Science is a wonderful thing. As time moves on, in a single direction, Science, as an endeavor, corrects past misunderstandings. Unfortunately, corrections seldom hit the headlines. Rather, corrections slowly backfill our store of knowledge eventually coming to the fore, at first in odd places, and finally become generally accepted.
Last October I wrote an essay here entitled “About those claims of declining bird populations due to ‘climate change’“ . The popular press and environmental activists were making wild claims about declines of bird populations over time. The bottom line of the essay was that changing land use, and the persistent drought in the southwest, was generally responsible.
(Well, that and free-roaming domestic cats who wreak havoc on ground- and low-nesting birds in urban and suburban areas.)
My sons are hunters in the area known as Upstate New York – generally, any part of New York state north of the NY/NJ megalopolis. When I visit in the summer, I get a hunting license so I can tag along with them while they walk the wild woods of the Catskills. Getting a hunting license means I also get a copy of the current year’s “New York: Hunting and Trapping Official Guide to Laws and Regulations”. In this years edition, we find on page 74 an article titled “The Young Forest Initiative”.
(Yes, I know, I am supposed to tell you about the birds…I’m getting there.)
The Young Forest Initiative is designed to handle a particular environmental problem in New York State: the lack of forest clearcutting has resulted in a serious decline of some species of birds and small mammals that require young forests – sometimes called transitional forests. The article leads with:
“DEC’s [Department of Environmental Conservation] Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources (DFWMR) recently launched the Young Forest Initiative to considerably increase habitat management on Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) for wildlife that need young forests. Important game species like American woodcock, ruffed grouse, and snowshoe hare all rely on this disturbance-dependent habitat, as do many at-risk species such as New England cottontail, golden-winged warbler, and many charismatic and well-known songbirds such as brown thrasher and eastern (“rufous-sided”) towhee. Population declines of these species are attributed to a lack of habitat that they require for foraging, cover, nesting and raising young. To address this issue, the goal of the YF Initiative is to create, restore and maintain habitat on WMAs so that 10% of the forested area can be considered young forest.”
What has caused this loss of habitat?
“Historically, natural disturbances such as fire, flooding, insect outbreaks, or environmental engineering by beavers, as well as human-caused events like logging and farmland abandonment, created young forests. Decades of suppression of these natural processes and changes in human land use have resulted in a landscape that is largely mature forest.”
To correct this lack of young forest, the DEC says:
“ Today, active land management is required to maintain young forests throughout New York’s landscape. DFWMR is working with the Division of Lands and Forests to ensure that there is ample habitat for young forest-dependent species. Forest regeneration cuts — such as clearcuts, shelterwood cuts, and seed tree cuts, as well as salvage operations following natural disturbance — are one of the tools that land managers use to create a diversity of habitats and forest age classes.”
The bottom line is that the shift away from clearcutting to harvest timber and create pastureland and farm fields, along with suppression for forest fires and, in many areas, removal of “pest beavers” to prevent their dam building which floods the property of rural homeowners, as happens in my area of the Catskills, has resulted in the seemingly good situation of New York state having “mostly mature forests”. However, a homogenized environment is not what wildlife needs. It needs all kinds of habitat niches – including clearcut and burned over areas, beaver-dam created meadows as well as mown hay fields and highway roadsides and fence line hedges.
Here in New York State we find the following situation: “New York state is 63 percent forested — forests cover 18.9 million acres of our 30 million total acres. Much of this land is privately owned and managed for wood or pulp. Most of the land owned by the state is forested.” Of that almost 19 million acres, only 350,000 acres are considered “old growth” (containing a natural succession of trees, oldest being 180 to 200 years old). For us here in New York, that means that the clearcutting of the 1800’s and 1900’s removed most of those 19 million acres of trees. In my area of the Catskills, forests were removed for building materials, both local and to build New York City, to access bluestone deposits (made into sidewalks and curbing for NY City), burned for charcoal, and to create endless, almost continguous, pastureland for sheep and cattle. In fact, in my particular area near the Catskill Park, one finds nearly all the woods are crisscrossed with old stone fences that once separated fields and pastures and whole woodsy neighborhoods are built on tailing piles from old bluestone quarries.
All that change – from mature forest clearcut to make to pastureland, later abandoned back to young forest and, in many areas now, back to mature mixed hardwood/softwood forest – produced magnificently varied habitats for wildlife here. As I highlighted in last October’s essay, the recent declines in some species – remember, most species are increasing – are due to land use changes such as the abandonment of marginal farmland and pastureland – but another change has been in the slowdown – almost a complete stoppage – of the clearcutting forested areas.
Now with the Young Forest Initiative, New York’s DEC is initiating clearcutting five and ten acre plots to restore the natural balance to the environment, making living and breeding spaces for the wildlife that needs transitional and young forest habitats to be successful. Their goal is to have 10% of their managed forests in the process of transitioning from clearcut to young forest to mature forest, all at varying stages over time.
The Bottom Line:
The current view of environmentalists seems to be that change itself is bad, that it is our duty to preserve things the way they are today (or return them to the way they were “when I was young”, or “in my grandfather’s day”). This view slops over into the reports of such groups as the Audubon Society which cries disaster when bird populations are found to be changing — decreasing in some areas – when in fact, bird populations are doing what they always do, they change in step with the changes of their environments.
New York state’s Department of Environmental Conservation has a better idea – stop preventing change, initiate change to improve the environment for native species. Rather than decry clearcutting and the harvest of trees, step up clearcutting, it is not destruction but creation, to make room for species that need those re-growing young forests to prosper.
How cheering to find common sense and applied science overruling the madness of “Stop Everything” we hear so often from the overwrought but under-thinking.
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Author’s Comment Policy: This essay is not about Global Warming, Global Cooling, Carbon oxides, or Climate (changing or not). I am not generally qualified to respond to questions about those subjects and won’t do so.
I will be happy to answer your questions about the essay above or the original essay last October. I like birds.
Anyone foolish enough to take the bait to talk about my opinions on free-roaming domestic cats and their effect on bird and small mammal populations should be prepared to suffer the consequences (chuckle…)
I look forward to reading your comments shared here.
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