A Tompkins County forest management plan was approved by the legislature in 2007. It was recently reviewed and updated by the county Department of Planning and Sustainability. This January a bid was released to actively manage the forests and remove even-aged Red Pine trees that were planted as a monocrop plantation around 1930.
At the time, the pine were planted to regenerate lands that had been decimated by poor farming practices and aggressive logging in the 1800s. However, they can’t prosper in the local clay soils so they have very shallow root systems, significantly reduced carbon sequestration, and are prone to disease. To this day the pine comprise 70 percent of the county forest softwood stands, blocking native hardwoods from establishing in the canopy and thus preventing the transition to a healthy mature-age and species-diverse forest.
There is an initiative to stop the management plan and leave the woods alone to transition over time, but scientists have said that this could take over a century, and the process can lead to other ecological problems such as widespread disease and soil erosion. In the meantime, the Red Pine have significantly reduced carbon sequestration in comparison with the native hardwoods that would otherwise be growing there. The management plan would couple the Red Pine harvest with selected White Ash soon to be destroyed by the Emerald Ash Borer and selected other hardwoods that are in decline or diseased.
What is critical that we all understand is that centuries of misuse and alteration cannot be “erased with time.” It took me almost a decade of working in the field of ecology to realize and accept this fact. I started out with a romantic and idealistic view of resource management. I inherited the attitude of a generation that believed, “people are bad for the environment.” As I gained experience working as a professional resource consultant, it became clear that in the northeast, human stewardship was necessary for proper natural resource management, and in many cases, the relationship that people have with the land is the key to effective management.
Just because we have made poor management decisions in the past does not mean that we cannot make intelligent decisions for our future. We are past the time of inaction and past the point where simple preservation will revive our forests. It has been proven through decades of scientific research that the negative effects of decades of misuse can be mitigated rapidly through sound management. Just like in the field of wildlife biology, we have learned that time, emotion and sentiment cannot fix what we have broken.
The forest management plan that has been written for Tompkins County is a step forward towards effective and responsible stewardship.
All 29 of the forest stands considered in this phase of the management plan have been severely altered by human activities, and in many cases they are plantations of trees that would not “naturally” be growing there, namely non-native Red Pine stands that cannot thrive in our local clay soils. The forest management that is recommended in the 2019 Tompkins County Forest Management Bid is designed to speed up the recovery of these forests, allowing the native hardwoods, which much more closely resemble the original forests of these areas, to regain a solid footing.
Yes, these forests will eventually revert back to the original forests over time if nothing is done. I have personally seen areas that have been left to allow nature to take its course. The path back from where we have left these forests is long and very difficult. Intelligent management can allow our forests to heal much quicker, and at the same time, we can manage for higher diversity and faster carbon sequestration to address the acute issues of climate change that we face today.
A Red Pine plantation (which dominates the softwood stands in the county forests) left to “revert” with no management may take centuries before it is a healthy, diverse native hardwood forest again. In the meantime, we see these plantations often go through periods of widespread decline and disease. The longer we let these trees suffer through this period of decline without intervention the more time is wasted where hardwoods could be flourishing and the greater the rate of decline in carbon sequestration that is so desperately needed to counter climate change.
We need to consider the current state of our forests and apply our scientific understanding of how best to manage these complex systems. Right now, we have an excellent management plan in place that will benefit our forests much more than hurt it. And it will certainly benefit it more than doing nothing.
There is a movement to stop all active management in the county lands of the Newfield area. The message is that all the stands must be preserved as-is because old growth forests must be preserved and fostered. The movement seeks to halt all present and future forest management. This includes thinning in several stands that are currently dominated by Red Pine and are not old growth at all. This would mean that these pine would be left for centuries significantly delaying the very desired old growth forests from manifesting. If we romanticize these non-old growth stands and mistakenly misclassify them as hardy mature old growth forests we will prevent the very outcome we all seek.
I am a native to Tompkins County and grew up playing in these very forests that are the focus of this debate and I strongly support the plan to manage the forests and be the environmental stewards that these forests need.
If the county receives a forest management bid, it will be voted on at the Planning, Development and Environmental Quality Committee meeting at 2 p.m. Jan. 24.
You can find more information about the Tompkins County management plan at www.healthytompkinsforests.com.
Lance Ebel, owner of Newleaf Environmental