Too Many Trees? An Open Letter

[Some years ago I sent a letter to an outdoor columnist of my acquaintance in responseDSCN3400 to an article he wrote for local newspapers. The article was called “Too Many Trees,” and I thought of it recently as I stood in my pine and spruce grove contemplating how to thin the trees so that native species might diversify the acreage. I decided to recast my old letter in an open format to create, again, a bit of healthy discussion….]


I usually find your outdoor essays entertaining and informative, beyond criticism, but after reading your recent “Too Many Trees” I felt the need to contact you and to state my fear that you had crawled to the far end of a rotten limb.

DSCN3403You mentioned Rick White’s bird study in a blow-down area where he and other observers learned that certain species suffer population loss as the forest succeeds, or recovers, the open ground. White’s study reinforced our knowledge that various species require open habitat for feeding, nesting, and survival. It would be wise, in any further analysis, to guard against oversimplification and the utterance of foolish statements.

Many of our northern forests are declining in size and health. Their loss has an impactDSCN3413 on songbirds and other forms of life. Studies suggest that there’s an overall reduction in songbird populations that depend on the deep forests of North America. Some of that reduction is due to the clear-cutting of tropical forests in the southern hemisphere where “our birds” spend the greater portion of each year. When Rick states that we can help the birds by clear-cutting, I’m pretty certain he’s referring to those species that depend on open habitat, and not to species that require woodland to some degree.

DSCN3376To fragment a mature forest by construction of roads and clear-cuts takes a toll on songbirds such as wood warblers, vireos, thrushes, flycatchers, tanagers, and a host of others. It robs them of nesting grounds and sets them up for predators and parasitic species like the non-native cowbird.

I agree that some of our state and national forest lands contain expanses of only one or two types of trees. They are timber factories stripped of natural diversity. A healthy forest, on the other hand, contains a great diversity of flora, and if you advocate the clear-cutting of healthy forests you invite environmental collapse. Think about what happens when heavy rains wash the soil from clear-cuts into those brook trout streams we love to fish.DSCN0761

Some species benefit from clear-cutting (formerly benefiting from fire and blow-downs), and they might be species beloved by upland hunters. But to announce wholesale that a region contains “too many trees” reminds me of the Rochester columnist who recently campaigned for a hunting season on hawks so that songbird numbers would increase.

The guy apparently never heard of “nature’s balance.” He probably enjoyed Ronald Reagan’s oft-quoted declaration that “one tree is just like any other.”

DSCN0752And Chris, were you kidding when you said, “for all intents and purposes, our woods are empty”? Holy crap, my woodland plot is full of life! Sure, in winter the birds are few and far between. Small creatures are mostly hibernating, or as groggy as a frat boy on the morning after an initiation.  But even now, in the “dead of February,” we could sneak around the forest and find their small apartments, and even wake them up if we were so inclined.

DSCN0754The other day I was standing in my dense grove of red pines and Norway spruce. The people who had lived here before had planted these trees shoulder to shoulder. I want to thin them out a bit and bring diversity with the growth of native species. There’ll be none of that calculated and efficient clear-cutting employed by some of our baser logging outfits. I’ll leave some of my pretty reds and Norwegians, but I want to give the natives– the white pine, sugar maple, shagbark hickory, and others– a chance to return.

I have a vision where “… the woods are lovely dark and deep…” I don’t think I’m being sentimental when I say that trees can be cut with sensibility and compassion. They are lively when left to the ways of nature. They’re alive even in winter, when they sleep.DSCN3362DSCN3406

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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8 Responses to Too Many Trees? An Open Letter

  1. Junior says:

    You managed to zoom in pretty close to that deer. Nice thoughts on this issue. Another angle related to erosion: If the soil quality is compromised, you don’t maintain the ability to regenerate the same kind of growth. Aside from the obvious aesthetic and biological implications, clear-cutting would make it nearly impossible to produce good lumber from that land for the foreseeable future.

  2. Thanks there, Junior. The deer are pretty tame around here, of late. You’re right about the problem with clear-cutting, it makes no sense except to the big lumber companies that save on expenses. If they bother to replant the compromised soil, it’s usually with the fast-growing mono-crop that gives them the biggest yield. Biodiversity suffers.

  3. You might be interested in reading about the efforts of the Tall Timbers Research Station down here. They are trying to restore the longleaf pine savannahs and do it in a way that the timber can be sustainably harvested.

  4. Sounds good, Jim. The longleaf is another tree of interest, so I’ll check out the Research Station project.

  5. Going to pass this along to twitterville and facebook land. Good words, and you even included a little Robert Frost. Who could ask for more, logic AND poetry!

  6. David,
    Twitterdom and fb land are 2 countries I’ve never really traveled in. Thank you for the passport! Glad you like a little Frost there on the overall pumpkin. Always appreciate your work, and help.

  7. Alan says:

    Walt again you have got us thinking.
    On a wildlife management area here They are attempting to reestablish the American Chestnut.
    Seems there was as much opposition to doing it as there was support.
    Great deer photo.

  8. When people get me thinking, Alan, I try to get them thinking, too– it’s good exercise between the fly fishing therapies. The American chestnut was a wonderful and critical component of the old American forests, and I can’t see why folks would be in opposition to the Chestnut Federation (?) in their work of trying to reestablish the tree on a wildlife management area. They’ve developed a strain of the chestnut that has a chance to reestablish itself, and from what I’ve heard, it should be encouraged. Anyway, thanks again for reading, Alan.

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