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Managing for Healthy, Diverse Forests

Webpage Header Health Forest

Story by Justin Fritscher; Graphics and Illustrations by Cat Bailey and Jenn Cole

This story is also available as a multimedia story. VIEW HERE.

Close your eyes and imagine you're in a forest. What does it look like?

You may be picturing a very old forest with big trees and an open forest floor that is easy to navigate.

But as you know, we have forests of all shapes and sizes. And that's a good thing. Healthy forests, just like healthy human populations, are sustained by a diversity of ages and types.

Each stage of a forest, or age class, provides critical habitat for wildlife.

Each stage of a forest, or age class, provides critical habitat for wildlife.

In many parts of the United States, forests are becoming largely homogeneous, or uniform, and in places like the Appalachian Mountains, young forest and mature, old growth forests are in short supply.”

A lack of diverse forests has negative impacts on wildlife and the economy, as different age classes support higher biodiversity and provide a more sustainable source of income for forest landowners.

Landscape-level clearing of forests in the late 1800s and early 1900s created a landscape of even-aged forests. Nowadays, unsustainable logging, mineral extraction, development, fire suppression and invasive plants continue to threaten the diversity and health of Eastern forests.

Historically, fires, storms, floods and other disturbances altered forests, making room for new, younger trees to sprout.

Young forests have more seeds, berries and beneficial insects.

Young forests have more seeds, berries and beneficial insects.

Managing for Diverse Forests

So, how do you get new, young forests and older forests? You actively manage for them, through timber harvests and a number of other forestry practices.

But how can cutting trees be good? I grew up in the 1990s; I remember Fern Gully. And who hasn’t read The Lorax?

But forestry practices, when done right, are not only good – they’re essential. Through the use of sustainable forestry practices, forest landowners are able to compensate for lack of natural disturbance.

During a harvest, residual trees are left behind.

During a harvest, residual trees are left behind.

When cuts are used, they’re not done at the landscape level but in patches, creating a mosaic of forest age classes.

Conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in his book Game Management that the use of tools that can destroy the land when used poorly can greatly help the land when used creatively. Two of these tools include the ax and fire, which are at the bedrock of good forest management.

Benefits to Landowners and Wildlife

Managing for healthy, diverse forests benefits native wildlife. An array of wildlife, including game and non-game species, benefit from forests with vigorous plant communities, including grasses, forbs, trees, and shrubs. NRCS works closely with scientists to measure the response of species to conservation practices, and they’re noticing positive responses from wildlife in managed forests.

Golden-winged warbler, ruffed grouse, white-tailed deer and wild turkey are among the many species that benefit from forest management. Golden-winged warbler, ruffed grouse, white-tailed deer and wild turkey are among the many species that benefit from forest management.

Families, hunting clubs, and other private forest landowners managing for timber production can benefit from sustainably managed forests. People have even found they can receive assistance from NRCS to “reset the clock” on low-value forests, regenerating a healthier and more valuable stand of trees, and contributing to a landscape of healthy forests and diverse age classes.

John Hoover (photo 1) and Mike and Laura Jackson (photo 2) are among many landowners in Appalachia who are using sustainable forestry practices recommended by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

John Hoover (photo 1) and Mike and Laura Jackson (photo 2) are among many landowners in Appalachia who are using sustainable forestry practices recommended by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. 

Conservation Choices

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recommends a number of sustainable forestry practices to forest landowners. These practices provide landowners with a number of choices, depending on the land and a landowner’s goals.

They include: brush management, herbaceous weed control, forest stand improvement, early successional development and managementupland wildlife habitat management, tree/ shrub establishment and prescribed burning.

Assistance Available

NRCS and conservation partners work with forest landowners to plan and implement these practices that benefit a variety of species. This assistance includes the development of a custom forest management plan as well as financial support to help cover part of the costs of implementing the practices. Technical and financial assistance is available through the Farm Bill.

Donald Love (right) worked with NRCS to manage for young forest habitat in Pennsylvania. NRCS State Conservationist Denise Coleman (left) and other partners visited Love's forest to see the improvements made through sustainable forestry practices.

Donald Love (right) worked with NRCS to manage for young forest habitat in Pennsylvania. NRCS State Conservationist Denise Coleman (left) and other partners visited Love's forest to see the improvements made through sustainable forestry practices. 

While sustainable forestry practices are available to forest landowners nationwide, NRCS has two targeted conservation efforts that aim to help landowners manage for young forests to benefit the golden-winged warbler, which has suffered significant population declines over the past 50 years. Because much of the bird's habitat falls on private lands, forest landowners are playing an important role in helping the bird recover. 

Through the Working Lands for Wildlife partnership and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, NRCS and conservation partners are helping landowners manage for young forest habitat in the Appalachian Mountains and Great Lakes region. 

To learn more about assistance, contact your local USDA service center or download our Conservation Choices for Wildlife - Golden-winged Warbler booklet.