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You can have your forest and use it, too

March 11, 2011|Celeste Maiorana
  • A portable saw mill turns a log from a blown-down oak into boards, which will eventually be used for flooring.
Photo by Celeste Maiorana

Recently I read a column about the origin of the phrase "You can't have your cake and eat it, too." Apparently the phrase originated with the eat before the have — "You can't eat your cake and have it, too."  While you might debate the best order, the point is that sometimes you have to make a choice between two options, each of which excludes the other.

This might often be true, particularly as regards to cake, but it is not always true of natural systems. Take a look at a forest ecosystem. Managed well, forests are more like the fairy tale pot of porridge that never gets empty.

Forests produce such an abundance of foods and materials that they can be used for human purposes without harming either their very important function in providing clean air and water, or their ability to provide food and habitat for a host of other creatures

After every windstorm you can collect fallen branches for firewood. Forests produce nuts, berries, roots, sap and mushrooms for food and other purposes. Leaves, bark and roots provide herbs and spices. Many medicines have their origins in trees and other plants. Forest habitats support an abundance of fish, birds and mammals, which can also provide important food sources for those who wish to consume animal products in a local, low-impact, sustainable way.

Harvesting at a sustainable rate allows you to return to the forest season after season, year after year, without depleting these resources.

However, forests are not static. They will change over time as species succeed each other and trees mature, die and decompose. Even if no one cuts down a tree, a violent thunderstorm can sweep through a region toppling hundreds, even thousands of trees — old giants and smaller ones are crushed or shattered in their fall. No matter how much we might want to, we really can't preserve them.

But we can manage forests, individually and in total, so that we conserve all their stages and purposes. Individual trees can be harvested and small sections of forest can be removed as long as we ensure that re-growth and regeneration keeps up with removal. Blow-downs and dead standing trees can often be salvaged for high-quality wood products.

Like nature, we should plant extensively and take away a bit here, a bit there. We should make sure that our forests have a wide variety of tree species so that they might be a little less vulnerable to climate change and the appearance of new pathogens and predators.

Because of past overuse and abuse, some forests must be set aside for minimal disturbance to protect the remnants of old growth systems and the endangered species that reside there.

And in our own private forests, we should always use good management practices, developed with the aid of a licensed private or state forester. Doing so will ensure that steep hillsides do not erode, stream buffers are protected and the forest will continue to function optimally.

In this way, we can continue to have our forests and use them, too.

Celeste Maiorana is a member of the Washington County Forestry Board:


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