The concept of sustainability increasingly appears in discussions about natural resources, forests in particular. While the concept of sustainability is far from new, the ways in which it has been defined and applied has evolved over time.
Millions of tax-delinquent acres reverted to public ownership in the previous century. According to Michigan State University Extension most of our public lands were created to provide sustainable sources of timber and clean water, at a time when shortages of both were feared. Forest industry rapidly adopted this idea and often led the field with innovative approaches to forest management, and it continues to do so. As a result, they hold some of the finest forest lands in Michigan.
More recently, forest management objectives have become quite complex and sometimes not easily understood. We often see dozens of sustainability issues lumped into three areas; biological, economic, and socio-cultural factors. These categories of factors have become known as the "three pillars" of sustainability.
Most definitions of sustainability include providing benefits for this generation without compromising the ability of future generations to enjoy the same benefits. A wide range of benefits are listed, including such items as recreation, wildlife habitat, clean water, healthy soils, ecosystem functions, and others. Foresters deal with all these attributes and many can be enhanced with simple, old-fashioned timber management.
Wood supplies have been managed sustainably in Michigan for many decades, long before other forest benefits were widely recognized. Michigan grows about twice as much timber as we harvest and show one of the largest “surpluses” in the nation. We are far from running out of either trees or forests.
Forests play a key role in providing high quality water and Michigan has some of the finest water quality in the world. Forests and forest management play a significant role in maintaining that quality, yet timber harvest through forest management has been a small contributor to water quality problems in Michigan and throughout the nation.
Arguably, the greatest threat to Michigan forests is ownership parcelization across the landscape, usually in the form of recreational and primary homes. The simple “camps” in the woods are being replaced by an increasing number of expensive houses. This phenomenon has actually been documented in other regions of the country.
Along with the change in the appearance of these areas, restrictions on use have arrived as well. The new “camps” are more intolerant of traditional activities such as forest management, truck traffic, or even hunting. “No trespass” signs can be seen almost anywhere. To paddle many of our rivers is akin to a drive through a suburb.
The “parcelization” of forests creates ever smaller chunks, more difficult to manage, and with owners less interested in management. These ownerships include nearly half of Michigan’s forest and results in many challenges to forest sustainability and the viability of rural communities. This problem goes far beyond the scope of forestry, but impacts forestry in a big way.
Sustainable forest management planning involves an intentional framework to evaluate the effects of management, monitor trends, and provide information that will help determine if our practices are truly sustainable in the long term. A sustainable plan also has built-in mechanisms for altering management to employ new information and changes in forest use.
Charting new courses in “sustainability” is more complicated than simply producing a steady flow of timber. Forestry directly deals with all these issues. However, sometimes the process and participants forget or under value the role of wood as a commodity. The flow of timber is more than jobs and economics; it is also a key tool to providing many other benefits in a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly way.
Human demands on forests will only increase as the decades unfold. Using practices that produce a greater amount of benefits from a limited resource is important, and well within the capability of the land. But, planning must foresee decades into the future. It takes a long time to produce a set of forest conditions. Managing forest lands, especially those owned by private, non-industrial owners, are the key to sustainability. It’s also a lot of fun!