Peter Stangel is an expert birder who has spent his life working to conserve bird habitats, and — for the past 10 years — forest habitats in the South specifically. When Peter bought his 100 acres of pine forest in coastal South Carolina, it was a “very densely stocked, dark forest with almost no understory, habitat or aesthetic appeal.”
He wanted to thin it—removing some of the smaller trees to allow others to grow bigger, to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor and stimulate plant growth, and to create habitat for birds and other wildlife. Due to the lack of markets for the small trees that would be thinned, he could not find anyone who would perform this service on his property for a percentage or even all of the value of the harvest. He finally secured a small grant to help cover some of the costs and paid for the rest out-of-pocket—an approach that is unlikely to be available to many small landowners.
This is a problem.
Since the Great Recession knocked back single family home construction by over 60%, demand for forest products is down and this has created a cascading effect of mill closures. All over the country, land owners literally cannot manage their forests properly because there is no market or place to send their thinned timber. Especially here in the Southeast, where private landowners own 86% of forests, and 2/3 of them are families or individuals -- essentially the forestry equivalent of the family farm.
James Cummins is a conservation policy expert and Executive Director of Wildlife Mississippi. He says, “One of the things most needed is to help educate people and change their hearts about this issue because most people think too much logging is bad, but now it is precisely a lack of logging that is threatening forests in many places.”
Nature abhors a dark forest
What does timber removal have to do with excellent wildlife habitat? Almost everything, as it turns out. But don’t trust me, and don’t trust the timber industry. The folks who recognize the need for increased timber removals by a variety of means are wildlife scientists, birding enthusiasts, and conservation initiatives like the Longleaf Alliance who have been working for more than a decade to bring back longleaf and other types of forest communities in the South. But let’s give the timber industry credit, they too are looking to manage their forests for the benefit of wildlife, through research and initiatives such as the North American Forest Partnership. The NAFP wants you to understand the mutually beneficial relationship between the forest sector and those who simply love a forest by being "forest proud."
Decline by lack of a thousand cuts
Southern pine forests are dominated by one of four species (longleaf, shortleaf, slash, and loblolly) and are often called “open pine.” Open pine is one of the most beautiful forms of pine forest, known for its open structure — maintained by fire, thinning, or selective harvest — that allows dappled sunlight to support a diversity of grasses and flowers in the understory, where a lot of the habitat value happens.
Yet, according to a draft rapid ecological assessment conducted by the the Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks Landscape Conservation Cooperative, about 25% of a 180-million-acre region in the central southern states is pine forest, but only 4% has an open canopy. An even smaller amount, 1%, can be considered high quality open pine habitat.
What is the answer?
There are many, thank goodness! Increased use of timber for beautiful buildings, even skyscrapers, will lead to better economics for landowners (not to mention carbon sequestration) and increased timber removals, thinning, and even prescribed fire, which in turn will lead to better wildlife habitat and more beauty in the woods. The U.S. Forest Service has programs and Natural Resources Conservation Service has programs that encourage and assist private forestry. State agencies also recognize this issue. The bottom line, as explained by Darren Miller, a Certified Wildlife Biologist with Weyerhaeuser Company, is that “landowners, who own over 80% of southern forests, must be able to derive economic gain from land ownership or it will likely be sold and converted to other uses." That’s why if you love the woods with their birdsong, frog voices, deer, lizards, snakes, butterflies, and spring wildflowers, you should buy more wood (the kind grown in America). Bumper sticker explained!