Forests are in trouble, but people can help

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Tompkins Weekly 5-11-15

By Steve Gabriel

Around the world, traditional and modern cultures have long valued systems that either make productive use of existing forests or grow new ones with a mixture of beneficial tree crops, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. In other words, agroforestry, forest farming, and forest gardening are not new concepts, but in many senses the way people grew and gathered food and other materials for much of the time humans have spent on earth. In the eastern forests, for example, much of the assumption is that Native American tribes roamed the woods, mostly foraging from the bounty that primeval forests offered them. In actuality, while the native populations certainly wild crafted and hunted for some of their needs, there is ample evidence that they also both cleared forest entirely, as well as cultivated a mosaic of woodland areas, orchards, and forest gardens.

As settlers arrived in North America in the 15th century and began to dominate the landscape, a new cultural context and attitude began to infiltrate the land, perpetuated largely by the notion that land could be owned, and that to own one must “improve” the landscape, defined by Europeans largely as clearing trees off of the land entirely. This approach, coupled with a general fear of the wild-forested landscape began a cycle of rapid forest decline and with it the viewpoint that the most valuable land was that which could be tilled or grazed. This further expanded as settlements grew and forests were harvested en masse for building new towns and as a key export to Europe, which had long ago deforested its landscape.

When the larger patterns of forest use over the past several hundred years are examined, the state of American forest use can best be described as devastating. Comparing the US censuses of 1810 and 1880, it’s easy to see a dramatic shift in attitude. The earlier census talked of the almost burdensome nature of the forests, which were viewed as obstructing the ability to cultivate land in traditional fashion, with the plow. By 1880, the tone had changed signifi05-19 Shii Bowlcantly, as the author noted that forests in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana were depleted beyond much marketable value. Another report from the same time frame claimed “the states of Ohio and Indiana…so recently a part of the great East American forest, have even now a greater percentage of treeless area than Austria…which have been settled and cultivated for upward of one thousand years.”

Another study, which looked specifically at land use in Tompkins County, NY from the years 1790 to 1980 using land survey records, aerial photographs, and field work noted that “Forest cover dropped from almost 100% in 1790 to 19% by 1900 then increased to 28% by 1938 and over 50% by 1980”. While the percentage of forest cover has indeed increased across much of the cool temperate US, due largely to the abandonment of farmland, this isn’t to say that a recovering forest has any degree of the same value and integrity of the ancient forests, most of which are long gone.

The perception that has pervaded each new generation since the arrival of European settlers is that forests appear resilient and can handle the type of harvesting that “takes the best and leaves the rest.” (high-grading) Little effort is made on the ground to define and create limits for what a sustainable harvest looks like. Make no mistake, this is a choice, not a necessity of management. Timber, firewood, and other forest products can be harvested sustainably, with benefits to the forest ecosystem. As one example, the Menominee tribe in Minnesota has been harvesting their forests sustainably for hundreds of years. The tribe harvests, mills, and sells wood, and their forests actually increase in the stocking rate; that is, the amount of wood that can be grown per acre.

We need to greatly expand out relationship to the forest, and see the wide array of benefits from stewarding them. In addition to sustainably harvested timber and firewood, forests can be managed for an incredible array of foods, medicines, and functional products. Some of these include forest grown mushrooms, fruits like elderberry, paw paw, and aronia, nuts including hickory, walnut, acorn, and chestnut, and medicinals like ginseng, cohosh, bloodroot, and trillium. Species like black locust, alder, willow and many others can be used for a variety of construction and craft products. Animals can enjoy respite from the hot summer months and be managed in woodlands, too. The possibilities are endless, one just needs to see the forest for more than just the trees.

The Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute is offering a Forestry and Agroforestry Short Course from July 24 – 28. The course will be based at Wellspring Forest Farm in Mecklenburg and travel to many sites. Visit local old growth and heritage forests and farms and practice tree ID, stand assessment, marking, and felling techniques. Learn about forest medicinals, and visit farms practicing silvopasture and mushroom cultivation. The course will be co-taught by Steve Gabriel and renowned forester Mike Demunn.

Steve Gabriel is a local ecologist, author, educator, and farmer. This article was adapted as an excerpt from Farming the Woods, a book he co-authored with retired Cornell professor Ken Mudge in 2014. Learn more and contact Steve by visiting

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