Managing Our State Forests
In our last blog post, we covered the ecological role of fire in the Pinelands and the use of prescribed burns as a management technique. We know that prescribed burns are not the only management technique used in our forest, so how do we try to replicate natural disturbance events to promote overall ecological integrity and what should we prioritize in developing stewardship plans for managing our state forests?
While the type of management technique (burning, thinning, mowing, or logging) we decide to use is vital to the expected outcome – the frequency, intensity, scale, and location of a treatment is very important in mimicking natural events and maintaining ecological integrity. Some points on disturbance we should keep in mind when thinking about forest management include:
1) Natural disturbances occur randomly over a landscape and their return intervals vary greatly.
2) Areas most susceptible to disturbance events are those with older, diseased, or stressed trees.
3) Middle-aged forests that have few early successional sites are functioning as expected. Due to our past forestry and land use history, many sites that were cleared of trees have since been allowed to re-grow. Open patches will naturally occur in forests that are allowed to mature.
4) Natural disturbance events such as floods and fire may kill certain susceptible trees while maintaining their vertical profile. These dead standing trees become critical habitat for many birds, bats and insects.
5) Another important factor is the scale of our treatment areas and identifying appropriate places for that treatment in recognition of its overall impacts to the landscape.
How we choose to manage our forests has a state wide implication, beyond the Pinelands region. With recent forest stewardship plans, like Sparta Mountain, and proposed legislation to promote more forestry on state lands such as A2406, which would establish a forest harvest demonstration program in the Pinelands, now is the time to evaluate our past efforts and plan for the future. We need site specific approaches to managing both the intact and many fragmented forests we have in New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the nation.
There are several items we must prioritize when assessing our forests, particularly on state land including:
1) Prioritize areas to control invasive species. They are most commonly found in areas of human disturbance. We need to protect forests with few invasive species and recognize that the disturbance and open conditions created during forest harvests open the door for many non-native invaders.
2) Incorporate a plan for deer density in areas we plan to actively manage. Not accounting for deer and their possible management can be detrimental to the expected forest regeneration.
3) Incorporate ecological surveys and rare species occurrences with an emphasis on the life history traits of uncommon species into forest stewardship plans. Forest inventories (assessing what timber is available for harvesting) that are carried out prior to forest stewardship plans, such as those currently planned for Wharton and Penn State Forest, are focused on tree species and board feet of wood. This is unacceptable for our state lands. We must prioritize ecological surveys and forest stewardship plans.
4) Plan for additional human disturbance as a result of any management technique that opens large patches of forest. As is evident in any right-of-way or fire service plow line in the Pinelands, off-road vehicles will repeatedly access open patches of forest negatively impacting the regeneration projected in any forest stewardship plan. Ignoring this impact can compromise the effectiveness of our forest management.
5) Identify which forests actually need management. We need to identify which forests can benefit from management and which will be left alone, subject to natural disturbances and natural succession. This is just as important as deciding which technique, what frequency and what scale we decide to use to actively manage a forest.
Many factors must be considered in developing forest stewardship plans and we shouldn’t rush the process just to increase the opportunities for harvesting trees. In light of recent forestry plans, legislation and the Department of Environmental Protection’s unwillingness to address the off-road vehicle problem, we should not allow any forestry in the Pinelands until we address these current problems.