Dead trees have value, too!

Leaving dead and dying trees in a forest ecosystem can have positive benefits.

Yellow birch saplings growing in a row from a decayed aspen log. Photo credit: Mike Schira l MSU Extension
Yellow birch saplings growing in a row from a decayed aspen log. Photo credit: Mike Schira l MSU Extension

Often landowners, in their management of forested holdings, focus too much on income by trying to squeeze every available penny from their ownerships. Disregarding the big picture in the interest of short-term profits can negatively affect ecosystem health and long-term successes.

A forest landowner’s desire to maximize income should be tempered with an effort to promote a sustainable resource. Too often, there is a desire to harvest as much as possible before it “goes to waste.” Older stressed trees along with dead and dying trees left following harvest activities can add to the overall ecological health of timber stands.

Standing dead snags provide nesting and roosting sites for both birds and mammals. Once on the ground, trees, logs and top material provide shelter and habitat for additional wildlife species. Michigan has developed guidelines in which it is suggested 1/6 to 1/3 of harvested tree material (not including stumps and roots) be left as residue to maintain both wildlife habitat and soil productivity.

Some tree species depend on decaying wood for seed germination and seedling development. Examples of species benefiting from decayed wood seedbeds in the Lake States region are eastern hemlock (Thuja canadensis) and yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis); without organic seed bed materials, adequate moisture and light these species would have difficulty regenerating naturally.

Along with other state agencies, Michigan State University Extension is suggesting firewood from woodlands and yards not be moved around the state in an effort to prevent the spread of damaging insects and diseases. Simply leaving these dead and dying trees to be reincorporated back into the forest ecosystem may be the safest and best course of action for forest owners.

Most of the nutrients that release back into the forest soils from decaying trees are contained in leaves, needles and small twigs. Although removal of pulp, log or firewood shouldn’t have a drastic impact on future nutrients available for growing stocks, leaving at least some woody material behind will provide habitat as well as providing material for carbon storage and recycling nutrients thereby helping sustain forest ecosystem health.

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