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Forests through the Ages: the Importance of Young Forests

Posted by Bridgett Estel Costanzo, NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife East Coordinator on July 01, 2016 at 09:03 AM
Like other wildlife that depend on young forests, the golden-winged warbler uses openings created by natural or human-induced disturbances. Photo by Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Like other wildlife that depend on young forests, the golden-winged warbler uses openings created by natural or human-induced disturbances. Photo by Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

As a nature lover and professional biologist, I like to brag that our daughters can identify trees, birds, insects, and even snakes. But one day I received a tiny stab to my prideful heart. 

Our daughter, Natalie, had created a poster for her elementary school ecology class that had the message “Don’t kill trees!” When I saw it, I realized that in teaching her about trees, I hadn’t passed on to her an important lesson: that forests go through stages of life just like people do. 

The Importance of Young Forest Habitat 
Forests start out young and fresh, growing in leaps and bounds with abundant plant and animal diversity.  Several mid-stages of development then define what kind of forest will be established, often driven by land management decisions. The final stage can be a mature forest that is majestic and worthy of admiration, but if not monitored can become unhealthy with little value for humans or wildlife.  

Each stage of a forest, or “age class” as foresters say, provides critical habitat for wildlife. Young forests have more seeds, berries, and beneficial insects sought by breeding, migrating, and over-wintering animals. Many species of wildlife depend on young forests to reproduce. Even species associated with older forests also seek out patches of young forest to access seasonal food and cover.  

Declines in Young Forests and Wildlife Species
In the Eastern United States, wildlife populations that depend on young forests have been in decline for decades. In New England and the Mid-Atlantic, nearly 70 percent of young-forest bird species experienced significant population declines between 1966 and 2010.

In response, owners of private lands are working with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other conservation partners to manage forests on private lands in sustainable ways. These efforts benefit non-game species such as birds, turtles, snakes, and small mammals and support game species like American woodcock, wild turkey, deer, moose, elk, bear, snowshoe hare, and ruffed grouse. 

A Win-Win for Landowners
Healthy young forests are winners for people, too.  Game and other wildlife are attracted to regenerating forests. Hunters can bag a trophy buck or some other prized game in their own young forest habitat instead of having to travel elsewhere. Hunting leases can help offset land ownership and management expenses. 

Those managing for timber production are ideal participants in the creation of young forest habitat. By participating in an age-class conversion to young forests, landowners have found they can receive assistance from NRCS to reset the clock on low-value forests, re-establishing a healthier and more valuable stand of trees, and contributing to a long-term solution for healthy forest landscapes.

Three “Whys” for Conserving Young Forests 
Sometimes, landowners and communities are reluctant to cut forests to allow for regeneration, fearing lost aesthetics and lower property values. That’s why it’s important for you to remember that: 

  • Young forests are a critical need for wildlife; 
  • Regenerated sites will green-up amazingly fast and the number of trees will actually increase; and 
  • Your voluntary participation with NRCS means that you call the shots in managing your young forest. 

Think of it this way. Healthy forests, just like healthy human populations, are sustained by a diversity of age classes. Each class has a role to play in maintaining wildlife and human communities for years to come.

Assistance Available to Landowners
NRCS offers technical and financial assistance to landowners wanting to implement sustainable forestry practices on their land. Learn more by visiting or by contacting your local USDA service center

Tags: Working Lands for Wildlife, habitat restoration, forests

categories Landscape Initiatives , Discover Conservation, Environment, Plants & Animals

4 response(s) to "Forests through the Ages: the Importance of Young Forests"

Jim Holder says:

thanks Bridgett
we're having trouble with health of our forests in Az also. Trees are numerous but inhealthy, thin and dense population understory scant. Fires are helping but fuels so thick even the benefit of fire is decreased and recovery slower than in healthy forests with fire. That's in ponderosa country, in other areas One seed and Utah Juniper Invasion have produced an understory of bare ground and erosion. Huge problem.
Well that's a downer reply, appreciate your concern tho.

Evie says:

Anti-lumbering groups shut down lumbering and lumber mills, causing forest trees and understory to hugely overgrow, shutting out habitat and setting up conditions for mega-fires. Very sad. Now we have to deal with these terrible conditions...and that will take years. We need PROPER forest management by FORESTERS, not by ignorant people with a political agenda.

Holly says:

I love reading about forestry and wildlife/land management and would love to learn more just for fun. (That's how I found this blog.) Do you know of any free courses I could take or have any other recommendations for me? Thanks!

Julie Lundgren says:

In large, healthy forest landscapes, natural processes maintain openings and a mix of tree ages and vegetation structure: wind and ice storms, beaver activity, insect activity, wildfire, etc. In the northeast, the decline of young forest and species associated with it from 1966 to 2010 reflects the peak of abandoned farms and the return to forest that was the dominant land cover historically. Good management of working forests is critical, but caution is needed when considering creation of "young forest" within forest landscapes where natural processes or restoration of existing open lands in or adjacent to existing forests can serve the same purpose. Cutting patches within good quality forest without understanding impacts on the full suite of species, impacts to soils, and the real and proven threat of invasives to colonize openings can do more damage than good.

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