Thinking proactively is important in forest management and planning

Most of us have busy lives and sometimes unplanned events occur. Oftentimes dealing with these events causes us to be reactive. While understandable, reactive actions are usually less than optimal. And rarely are reactive actions based on the best available information.

For those interested in 21st century forest and wildlife habitat conservation, thinking proactively is important because of the connectedness of ecosystem components. Actions can have unintended consequences. Like the medical world, forest management could be viewed as a “do no harm” endeavor. However, deciphering what harms a forest ecosystem requires an understanding of the science that underlies these professions.

Local responses to non-native (exotic) forest organisms provide useful examples of reactive responses. All exotic species are not the same, nor are the impacts that they have on forest ecosystems the same. Some exotic organisms are more of a threat to the workings of our forests than are other organisms. Many professionals therefore like to talk in “gradients or “probabilities” or “likelihoods” and avoid absolutes or value-laden terms such as “catastrophe”, “devastation”, “wiped out”, etc.

Gypsy moth and oak wilt are exotic organisms that negatively impact primarily deciduous forests in northeast Lower Michigan. Management aimed at reducing the effects of both organisms can be reactive or proactive.

Gypsy moths impact a broad range of tree species and forest types, but the caterpillars prefer forests dominated by oaks and aspens. While gypsy moths rarely cause direct mortality to healthy, mature trees (Forest Science, 1999, 45:74+), the caterpillars do cause defoliation and their feces covers decks, vehicles, and other items. A drive through northeastern Lower Michigan impacted by gypsy moths the last few years illustrates the low rates of mortality. Most trees have survived the outbreak and are back to doing what trees do, producing energy via photosynthesis and emitting oxygen.

Oak wilt is a fungal pathogen and typically impacts oak trees in the red oak group; white oaks are less susceptible. Mortality rates tend to be very high, but variable (Plant Diseases, 2011, 888+). Oak wilt can spread from tree to tree by interwoven roots or by insects moving from tree to tree. Forests dominated by red, northern pin, or black oaks can be significantly impacted by oak wilt.

What might proactive management look like?

In cases where gypsy moth treatments may have an effect, unless a monitoring program or a comparison between treated and untreated areas is done, one cannot state anything regarding the effectiveness of a given treatment. Treatments designed without monitoring of efficacy leave us guessing at what caused any response observed.

In regards to oak wilt, misinformation can be spread when there are financial interests in removing trees. In some instances, oak wilt is not even nearby, but landowners have been told that they must act immediately and cut all oak trees. And too often logging of oaks of any and all species occurs without a plan in place regarding what the desired future condition of the forest might be.

To be more proactive in these situations we all must first acknowledge that forests are not agricultural systems, nor are they landscaped yards, nor are they like us. They are complex ecosystems with intricate relationships among living and non-living components. Forests also don’t function on the same time scales as humans. We must think and act differently when we work with forests.

Next, we should manage forests for complexity and natural diversity. Gypsy moth and oak wilt both prefer forests we have created over the past 100 years: oak-aspen dominated, species poor overall, and generally simplified. One of the better ways to mitigate for both gypsy moth and oak wilt is increase tree species diversity in all layers of the forest. More exotic species will arrive at some point. Diversity allows forests to adapt to many types of change.

Landowners should also be skeptical of the qualifications and potential conflict of interests of those giving the advice. Most professionals will readily provide their qualification and references. Also, be skeptical of information that guide actions; there are rarely quick or simple fixes to complex problems. Websites from educational institutions and government agencies usually contain better information than does Facebook or word of mouth.

More on proactive vs reactive forest management can be found on this University of New Hampshire site here: https://extension.unh.edu/blog/2019/10/reactive-vs-proactive-forest-management

Greg Corace is the forest and wildlife ecologist for the Alpena-Montmorency Conservation District. For more information, including programs discussed in this article and assistance and guidance with forest planning and management, contact Greg via email (greg.corace@macd.org) or phone (989-785-4083).


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