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Biodiversity in your back 40 and back yard

Family forest ownership occurs for a range of reasons. A 2016 paper in the Journal of Forestry indicated that, for those family forest owners queried in a national survey, the top five of 10 reasons for owning forestland were, in ranked order: beauty, nature, legacy, privacy, and investment.

Although not listed as an ownership objective in the Journal of Forestry study and rarely discussed at the local level, management of family forests is nonetheless occurring alongside a worldwide decline in biodiversity.

While species extinctions often occur in remote, species-rich corners of the Earth that few of us visit, populations of many plant and animal species all around us are also declining. For instance, the World Wildlife Fund’s 2020 “Living Planet Report” indicated reduced populations for many species of wildlife relative to population levels observed in the 1970s. In other words, for much of the lives of those reading this column, many species of wildlife (especially uncharismatic, nongame species) have become increasingly scarce.

Why is that happening?

Different threats to biodiversity have been identified, and these threats impact values shared by many family forest owners. At the most basic level, complex ecosystems are being simplified due to human population growth and associated changes in land use. For the most part, managed, human-dominated ecosystems are less complex than the unmanaged counterparts they replaced. A red pine plantation is fundamentally different than a fire-maintained red pine forest, for instance.

Reduced complexity leads to reduced niches or specific habitat conditions for some species of plants and animals.

Fortunately, in many instances, restoration of complexity and biodiversity is possible and can occur in conjunction with other ownership goals (values). Moreover, a wealth of information exists to guide management in this context. Family forest owners (and those with back yards, too!) can manage for greater complexity and biodiversity on their property.

The first step in managing for complexity and biodiversity is understanding a property’s limitations based on soils, sunlight, and water. If soils are sand, clay, or a loamy mix, different native plant species may be adapted for the site.

Light conditions are also an important consideration. Some plants need more sunlight than others. Other plants want more shaded conditions.

Finally, some plant species require more water than others, and some species like dry conditions.

Work with those species best adapted to the overall soils on a property and do not try to force native species (or worse yet, non-native species) on sites in which they are poorly adapted. A good website from the Upper Peninsula related to those issues is https://tinyurl.com/y64z9zs5.

The next step is to promote a range of sizes and age classes of vegetation somewhere on a property. That will promote a layering effect and microsites for other plants and animal species.

Younger trees are also important as future replacements for mature trees. While older trees inherently provide more shade or seeds, they may be more prone to diseases or other stressors. For instance, gypsy moth (lymantria dispar dispar) caterpillars defoliated many trees in Northeast Michigan in 2018-2020. Older trees, and those stressed by a lack of water or other factors, may succumb to the mix of stressors. In that and other instances, a diversity of plant (tree) species of different ages increases the overall vitality of a property and reduces the risk of an entire property being adversely affected by a single pathogen.

Finally, find somewhere on the property to allow natural processes to occur unimpeded. In that area, vegetation may grow, die, and decay and provide conditions for a suite of plant and animal species that flourish in such conditions. That may be where mushrooms grow on a rotting log or where salamanders may be found under decaying leaves.

Although tough to put into practice in all instances, landowners should move away from the concepts of “manicured” or “park-like” if they share objectives related to biodiversity. Complexity and biodiversity are inherently chaotic and messy. Sometimes, “do nothing” is the proper management action.

Different professionals with different educational backgrounds can be called upon for assistance and advice on managing a property for complexity and biodiversity. Foresters deal with larger parcels through infrequent, broad-scale activities, while arborists, horticulturists, and landscapers tend to work with smaller properties that are managed more often and more intensively.

When working with those professionals, landowners must try to articulate their goals (values) as clearly as possible. It is never too early to start thinking, planning, and acting for the changing world ahead.

Greg Corace is the forester for the Alpena-Montmorency Conservation District. For more information, including sources used in this article, Greg can be contacted at greg.corace@macd.org or 989-356-3596, ext. 102.

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