The case for sustainably managed forests

Connecticut is a state with so much to be proud of when it comes to the stewardship of our forests. The climate friendly, and socially just, conversations about forests in Connecticut must be centered on advancing multiple-use forest management.

Consider our state forests which are the oldest in the nation and were founded on the premise of restoration and sustainable management by what was then a young profession of forestry. These 175,000 acres of public lands provide sawlogs to meet international demand for housing and wood products, firewood that heats rural homes instead of oil, and sap for the production of maple syrup.

Connecticut’s forests concurrently provide natural filtering of municipal drinking water, rich recreational opportunities, abundant wildlife and biodiversity, and climate mitigation.

The Yale-Myers Forest is an example of excellence in forest management. Like most of Connecticut’s forests, it was reforested after historic grazing and clearing for agriculture. For over 100 years this forest has been stewarded by Yale foresters, who have helped it persist through hurricanes, invasive species, and development pressures, all while providing forest products and a living laboratory for research and education.

The value Connecticut’s State Forests and Yale-Myers Forest in demonstrating long-term sustainable forest management is perhaps their best superlative, and they are not alone in the state as we could just as equally highlight other multiple-use forests such as Great Mountain Forest and the many public-private municipal water company lands.

People have influenced Connecticut’s forests since our region was post-glacial treeless tundra. Taking human intervention out of the equation now would be unprecedented and reckless. In fact, this has been termed “The Illusion of Preservation” by scientists in our region because preventing forest management only results in our society’s exploitation of greater resources from less privileged and more ecologically sensitive places in the world.

Change in Connecticut’s forests is occurring whether we utilize wood resources from them or not, yet using wood is critically important for climate mitigation. Invasive pests, anthropogenic-induced climate change, and fragmentation due to development are new and increasing pressures on our forests. Forest management, including periodic timber harvesting, is the method we have to ensure that our forests under pressure will be resilient to change, and are able to develop into the forests we want and need for the future.

We have an excellent understanding of how Connecticut’s forest ecosystems function and how to use native species to regenerate natural stands of trees. Foresters in our state rarely plant trees to start a new forest, and this is because they have the knowledge to plan timber harvests in ways that favor growing native species from natural seed and seedling banks. Our forests are some of the most studied in the world, one of the fun aspects of living in a state with many universities and the oldest graduate forestry program in the country, originally known as The Yale Forest School. For over 100 years, foresters from around the globe have come to Connecticut to learn about using diversified native species and applied ecology in sustainable forestry.

Forest management and nature enjoyment are not mutually exclusive, which is one reason why foresters are documented to have the happiest and most meaningful jobs in the U.S. Forest management, with timber harvesting as one example of application, is periodic and can occur in harmony with other uses such as recreation. Even the intrinsic desire for big trees can be enhanced with management. A recent study in New England demonstrated that trees were healthier and had more carbon sequestration potential under certain types of management compared to preserved forests in which trees were not harvested.

Connecticut needs to socially and politically support sustainable forest management. Instead, there is a small movement in our state to discredit all of those amazing things sustainable forestry can do, based on a false narrative that nature only exists when it is disconnected from the influence of people. My argument is not that every forest needs to be managed all the time; it is that keeping forest management options on the table as tools allows our society to plan for the future and adapt when needed.

Nature does not exist in Connecticut’s forests without human influence: climate change, a history of colonial agriculture, invasive species, and historic timber exploitation are still changing the dynamics of our forests today. Management is what enables forest stewards to balance these adverse effects on forest ecosystems by periodically nudging the forest in a more resilient direction.

While poorly planned and implemented timber harvesting can and does occur, we should not limit sustainable management by dismissing timber harvesting altogether. Instead, Connecticut must incentivize forestry practices which promote resilient and productive forests, and especially champion these practices on our public lands.

Joseph Orefice is a Lecturer and Director of Forest and Agricultural Operations at the Yale School of the Environment.

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