Cutting Down Trees Isn’t a Bad Thing!

timber harvest
Contrary to common wisdom, a younger forest produces more food and contains more animal species than a mature forest. Photo: Brent T. Wheat

Cutting a mature tree, let alone an oak, seems like a sin to many hunters. Few trees in Midwestern forests and woodlands provide the same abundance and nutrition to both game and non-game birds and animals as oaks. Often acorns are seen as the lifeblood of hunting season. Many a hunter has placed their deer stand based on the availability of a hot section of forest where the acorns are dropping. More than one hunter has called foul when they see small sections of their favorite woodland logged and resulting brushy areas beginning to grow. Actually, what may be happening is just the opposite.

Often the disturbance in the woods or forest you hunt is the result of trained managers working to improve wildlife habitat. Cutting trees, prescribed fire, injecting trees to create snags all increase the diversity of what’s available for wildlife in a forest. Many wildlife management practices are disturbance dependent.

There are very few “virgin” woods and forests in the Midwest. Cutting and clearing was common a century or more ago. Some of the cutting was to clear the land for agriculture, some for timber harvest and some for firewood. Then, in just a few decades, most of the cutting slowed and in the last several decades has nearly come to a halt on many public lands as the result of bureaucrats tailoring management decisions to political whims.

The result is many stands of trees are now roughly the same age. As those trees mature, they create a closed canopy that shades out smaller trees, shrubs and grasses.

It also makes the woodlands more susceptible to wildfires. You don’t hear of forest fires so much here in the eastern U.S. but they happen. In many cases the increase in tragic and damaging fires in the western part of the country is the direct result of a hands off approach to forest management, allowing even age stands to flourish along with the resulting build-up of available fuel on the aging forest floor.

Stands of even-aged oaks with a closed canopy may look good for a picture or even be a good place to set up and hunt during hunting season, but the habitat must provide for wildlife year-round. A closed canopy forest with little or nothing growing at ground level other than tree trunks leaves little for deer, squirrels, turkeys and other birds and animals to eat except for the few months out of the year when acorns are abundant. Animals need food and shelter at ground level throughout the year to survive. A closed canopy woodland doesn’t provide that.

Thickets and brushy areas may not be as visually attractive to people as tall stands of mature trees, but they’re exactly what wildlife need during part of the year. A diverse mix of habitat types is what is most beneficial.

Making small cuts of one to four acres or opening overcrowded areas where some trees are in poor health puts sunlight on the ground and promotes the growth of herbaceous vegetation, as well as the next generation of desirable oaks and other beneficial trees.

State DNRs employ foresters who will examine privately owned woodlands and can prescribe management techniques- including cutting or thinning – to enhance the overall health of the forested area for both the trees and wildlife. Farther south in the state (with a greater percentage of forest acreage) there are private forest consultants who will do the same thing and more.

In many cases, there’s enough value in the trees needed to be harvested as lumber, veneer, firewood or other uses to pay for the needed management practises.

A wise saying about trees goes: When is the best time to plant a tree? The answer is: Twenty years ago. The second best answer is today. Along that same line of questioning: When is the best time to cut a tree? The best answer to that question could also be “today,” especially from a wildlife point of view.

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