Simple Message Leaves Wrong Impression

April 30, 2011

Simple Message, Wrong Impression

In medieval times, celebrations of spring began by going out to the forest to "go-a-maying-” gathering greens and flowers on May Day to mark the end of winter in the Northern hemisphere. Remnants of this “greener” side of May Day are manifest in Arbor Day and the “Earth Day” tradition begun in 1970. The culturally popular environmental activism in the 1970’s succeeded in passing federal legislation for clean air and clean water. In the past decade, climate issues remain a global issue while at the local land use scale, environmental politics often become mired in a year-round mud season.

In this International Year of the Forest, land managers practicing responsible forest stewardship for a range of public values including clean drinking water, wildlife habitat, renewable energy, scenery, recreation and tourism meet a wave of public opinions whipsawed by simplified media messaging to an urban population removed from the economic production of food and wood fiber. A public audience in a society disengaged from the consequences of their own consumption is ripe to view the means of production as more the problem.

On Earth Day, one television meteorologist quipped “oh hey, it’s Earth Day today so if you have a few minutes, go plant a tree!” If only it were just that simple. The overly-simplistic feel good message doesn’t bother me as much as its unspoken corollary that if planting trees is the solution, then cutting trees must be the problem?

Planting trees is generally always good and virtuous except for the unspoken perception that cutting trees must be bad. Somehow my small farm tractor, logging winch and chainsaw are suddenly the antithesis of responsible land stewardship? Not! In order to regenerate healthy, diverse forest growth on my Tree Farm, I must cut trees.

I dedicated the entire next day to cutting trees on my backyard woodlot while thinking about it. I ran the chainsaw and diesel tractor with gusto and created a handsome pile of logs with brush stacked neatly along the edge of a former pasture. Barbed wire inside the woody weed trees – crooked red maples, white birches, red oaks and a black cherry – relegated them all to a firewood log pile.

Cutting trees bad? Not when it almost completely offsets my consumption of imported, non-renewable fossil fuels I would otherwise burn to heat my home in winter!

New sunlight now reaches the forest floor where leaves are disturbed by skidding logs. It creates a perfect seedbed for natural regeneration for pine and oak. To my way of seeing it, cutting trees is a virtue where long-term dividends through enhanced tree growth.

I tend the woodlot like a garden. Wildlife habitat can also be enhanced as remaining red and white oaks grow larger canopies which will produce heavier future acorn crops. Deer, turkeys, bears, hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, weasels and bobcats appreciate my handiwork when the acorns rain down again. As local prey populations of mice, chipmunks and squirrels spike, larger predators follow. Hardwood stumps sprout tender shoots to feed deer and snowshoe hare that are also on the local menu for larger predators.

While I have planted some trees - pines and balsam Christmas trees - there’s really no need to plant trees in our forested region where natural regeneration of seedlings is prolific. While it is good to plant shade trees in urban and suburban areas, that virtue shouldn’t exclude responsible weeding and thinning of working rural land forestland. Those details gets lost in translation.

The challenge facing landowners and the forestry community is to build and enhance public acceptance and understanding of good forest management. It’s getting harder and harder to overcome common public misperceptions fueled by simplistic “just plant a tree” messaging which inadvertently suggests cutting trees is always a bad thing.

Too often forestry for multiple benefits - is equated solely with timber harvesting. The bigger picture includes providing diverse wildlife habitats, protecting public drinking water and providing renewable local energy.

Good forestry is more than cutting trees. If more people understood the stages of regeneration with an emphasis on protection of natural resources, a more accurate public  message emerges – one that defies a 30-second Earth Day sound bite.

Cutting trees responsibly makes a more appropriate Earth Day message in New Hampshire. I know legions of photogenic folks who would wholly agree and would gladly show you around working woodlots and certified Tree Farms! What do you think?