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Where I Stand: What I learned about forest thinning — it is not a single snapshot

I have been thinning forests for over 50 years, and I have learned a few things.  When I start, I remind myself that I am affecting the forest for future benefit, and that plans for forest changes may not come to fruition for a decade or more. The sweat and toil are not instantly rewarded.

After thinning, I understand that the first impression of the forest is brown disarray – brown stumps, brown disturbed soil, brown ground, brown branches. There may be damaged brown trees that do not recover.  Ugly it often is.

After several years, my mistakes have become obvious and my general feeling is usually that I should have removed more, not less. Ground changes have melded in the new green forest.

After a decade, the forest structure is established in larger trees of desirable species, complete with reestablished wildlife and bird populations.  The green can almost be overwhelming, and this is the time at which people may say that it is a ‘lovely natural forest – I hope it never changes.’  This is when prescribed fire can be an effective tool in maintaining openness and keeping out invasive or unwanted species, but be aware that it will be black for a season and that black char may be obvious on tree trunks.

After two decades without intervention, nature has redone it – adding new plants, new growth, and even some dead trees.  The forest is green and full, even crowded, and ripe for wildfire.  It is time to thin again.

Practicing effective forestry is not embodied in a single snapshot or a sound bite.  It requires dedicated long-term focus in biology, soil, ecology, and engineering.  It is always challenging and getting more so as the effects of climate change emerge.

Despite its inherent difficulties, changing colors, and long-time frame, I think that there is little that is more rewarding than to see the land respond to the efforts expended toward growing a healthy, resilient, and wildfire-free forest.  Given our wildfire history and the increasing threats to our forests and to ourselves, it is time to engage more completely in shaping our future forests.

Don Gasser

Registered Professional Forester

2 thoughts on “Where I Stand: What I learned about forest thinning — it is not a single snapshot

  • Thank you for your thoughtful and expert instruction. The image of my generation’s hippies clinging to trees and our daily dose of extinction level warnings about how we manage forests never seems to come from the people at ground level. The whole kerfuffle is dominated by voices that have become so disconnected from the natural world that the process of death, essential to renewal, is deemed somehow avoidable. We would rather settle for “pretty” until it kills us rather than find true beauty in the natural cycle simply because it takes too long. I am reminded of a quote from the artist Gauguin (paraphrase): “Ugly can be beautiful, pretty never.”

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