All about the (real) green: How forestry is about community impact, not financial

Think that recently clear cut forest in your community is a darn shame? It might not look lovely, but the forest management practice is crucial to healthy trees, wildlife and communities in Northern Michigan. 
A growing group of outdoor recreation tourists has been filtering into local shops, restaurants and hotels in Grayling over the last few years. They've come from all 50 states and at least a dozen countries to participate in the second fastest growing hobby in the U.S. But unlike snowmobilers or hunters, these visitors can be difficult to spot, despite their numbers. They're birders, and they flock to Northern Michigan for one reason: to spot the rare Kirtland's Warbler.

"It's no longer just little old ladies in white tennis shoes. It's both male and female, and the average age is dropping too," says Michigan Audubon Executive Director Jonathan Lutz. "When they walk into a restaurant, you might not identify them as birders."

Lutz estimates around 700 birders a year for the past decade have participated in the Kirtland's Warbler Tours now administered by Michigan Audubon in Grayling, and lately that number has grown to 1,000. What does the community have to thank for those birder tourism dollars?   

Great forest management is the answer. The Kirtland's Warbler almost went extinct when human behavior interfered with their ability to find their ideal habitat. Though often viewed negatively by the public, the practice of harvesting jack pine forests helped this endangered species make a comeback from just 167 singing males in 1987 to over 2,000 today. And with their comeback have come the birders.

Not a bad victory for foresters. But from clearcutting to thinning, forest management is often misunderstood by those who benefit most from the beauty and health of the forests. In fact, great forest management isn't just for the birds--or to keep government officials busy--but has a major economic impact in communities throughout Michigan.

A Misunderstood Practice

Michigan Department of Natural Resources District Supervisor Bill Sterrett comes face-to-face with forest management misperceptions all the time.

"People usually are not very accepting of what we call 'clear cut,' when we remove all the trees," he says. "Yet, that's part of the life cycle of a forest for many tree species."

Not only do people find clear cutting disruptive to their picturesque views and favorite recreation spots--downsides to the practice Sterrett agrees aren't ideal--but the DNR also faces skepticism in terms of their motives.

"Many times we get the comment, 'You're simply doing this for the timber producers who come in and they pay you these big bucks. You're just big government supporting your salaries,'" Sterrett says. "But there are continual threats to the health of the forest, and our job as foresters is to keep that forest healthy."

Ecological Benefits

Trees, Sterrett explains, are a lot like people. They have life cycles, are affected by disease--and modern life has had an impact on their health. Forest fires and wind events were an important part of that life cycle. The health of the trees, as well as wildlife, like the Kirtland's Warbler, depended on them. For the safety of the humans who live and recreate near trees, however, society works to suppress fires. So other actions must be taken to replace those destructive events in forests' life cycle.

Hence, clear cutting and thinning forests. And while the DNR does work with private companies that harvest that wood on the open market, he says clear cutting and thinning does not stem from monetary decisions.

"As foresters, we are very cognizant of the fact that if we manage this resource wisely, we can also harvest from it and get these products that are valuable to society," he says. "But our treatments are based on forest management principles that are designed ultimately to keep the forest healthy, diverse and sustainable."

Economic Benefits

That doesn't mean economics aren't an important part in forest management. Quite the contrary--and anyone who loves their wood flooring, furniture, homes, and even their toilet paper, wouldn't want it any other way.

"We rely on wood products for what we do," says Sterrett. "But we can't get flooring out of old trees that are crooked or diseased or has rot. Foresters can catch that sweet spot [in the life of the trees]."

Why does that matter to Michigan communities more than the rest of the wood product-consuming world? Because, according to the DNR, the forest products industry contributes $16.3 billion to the state economy each year and provides more than 77,000 jobs, from lumber workers to mill employees.

And that's not even counting the economic impact forest management has on Michigan tourism. Our diverse variety of beautiful, healthy forests are a part of the state's appeal to visitors, as are the wildlife they support--like the Kirtland's Warbler.

"The conservation of natural resources is without question connected to the health of this region's communities," Abigail Ertel, Kirtland Warbler Coordinator for Huron Pines, told the Roscommon County Voice about the return of yet another tourism opportunity created by the songbird's return, "and the Kirtland's Warbler Festival is a great way to showcase this important relationship."

From tourism to jobs to the preservation of the state's millions of acres of forest and the wildlife within them, proper forest management is crucial to communities all over Michigan. For all the misconceptions about clear cutting and the temporary unsightliness of the practice, the benefits are like those birders in Grayling, quietly doing great things for the economy, even if they're difficult to spot. 

This story is a part of a statewide Forest Management Community Impact Series. Support for this series is provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and edited by Natalie Burg.
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