A Healthy Forest is a Happy Forest

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Image by Bill Klase

On a recent visit to property of a landowner (let’s call her Shelly), I was asked a number of times about the health of certain trees.  Now, this was by no means an unusual request, and in fact I can’t remember a time I wasn’t asked whether a tree looked sick or was going to die soon during a walk through a landowner’s forest.  More often than not, after a brief investigation I am happy to report that the situation isn’t serious, but is in fact a naturally occurring phenomenon.

For Shelly, there was nothing wrong with one of her trees of concern, and the other tree was a bit stressed due to the drought we have been experiencing.  She was relieved of course, and wanted more information about common health issues for her forest and what she could do to maintain the health of her forest.  So I told her about the three things any landowner can do to have a healthy forest:  monitor, diversify, and promote vigorous growth.

The first thing to do is to monitor for any health issues in your forest.  This means being aware of the condition of your trees, changes in your trees, and the plants growing around your trees.  Look for groups of similar trees that may be dying.  Death is a natural process in the life of a forest, but groups of trees may indicate the presence of insects or disease.  Learn what invasive plants may be in the area, and control them early.  Once these plants establish themselves, they are very difficult to get rid of and they will prevent young trees from growing in your woods.  How often you get out and monitor your stand is up to you, but at a minimum once in the early spring, around mid June, and in the fall.  Spring and fall are good times to find invasive species.

Next, manage for a diversified forest.  By promoting diversity, your forest will be better able to withstand the invasion of one insect or disease, and won’t harbor a large population over the long term.  A diverse forest contains different species, age classes and forest types.  That means a mixture of species and amongst all the different species an age mixture from seedlings to large, old trees plus a few dead trees.  It also means your forest will have areas of young, densely packed trees, old scattered trees, and open areas with no trees.  These kinds of diversity are not only good for maintaining the health of the trees, but also support a more diverse spectrum of wildlife.  It also adds a great deal of visual variety.

Finally, manage for a healthy and vigorously growing forest.  That means removing trees that are crowding the best trees and those that are weak or diseased and may not live another five years.  Insects and disease, in general, target trees that are weak.  Weak trees are those that are being out competed by other trees for light and nutrients.  If you are looking to harvest some trees for firewood or clear a lane in your forest, take the trees that are diseased or thin out the trees in areas that are overly crowded.

Now, these tasks may seem daunting, but are actually easily integrated into the normal activities you are most likely already doing on your property.  For instance, do you normally walk or ride the trails in your forest?  If so, these are great opportunities to monitor for health issues.  Also, these activities can be easily integrated into any management plan you might already have for your forest.

Once I finished the description of steps she could take to maintain the health of her forest, Shelly was a bit overwhelmed.  However, she realized she could enlist the aid of other family members (who are already actively utilizing her forest) to help accomplish these tasks.

If you would like more information on the risks to your forest and what might be ailing your trees, visit these websites on forest health and invasive species.  Also, if you suspect an insect, disease or invasive plant is in your woods, talk to a forestry professional.  You can find a forester by visiting the WI Department of Natural Resources Private Landowner Assistance website.  Early detection and control are the best ways to handle any damaging outbreaks.

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