Forest restoration and thinning operations

Forest restoration initiatives reduce wildfire risk and produces responsible timber

by Michael Smith (Veshengro), RFS, RFA, EcoFor

Forests that are overcrowded with small diameter trees are more susceptible to devastating wildfires, as smaller trees act as kindling to fuel the blaze and as veritable ladders that allow flames to reach the forest canopy. In addition to that the misguided practice of leaving tree crowns and branches as “habitat piles” (for the wildlife, as the greenies keep crying) creates even more fire ladders and thus danger of such fires. Furthermore those “habitat piles” also are a source of tree diseases.

Since 2010, high-intensity fires have burned more than 5 million acres of forest lands across the western and central United States. But prevention of forest fires spreading is only one issue that is being dealt with by thinning and other proper forest and woodland management measures. The other is to allow light in and also stop trees damaging each other.

What is forest thinning?

Thinning of woods and forests has nothing to do with clear-cutting, as some people think, and it is also not harmful to the woods and forests. The opposite rather. But often it is very difficult to get misguided greenies to understand and comprehend this because they have read and read books and such that claim that cutting down any tree of any size and age is bad for the environment.

Nobody wants to clear-cut the forests, as that would be rather counterproductive. But there is a way to thin the forest that is healthy for the habitat, healthy for the forest and protects the forest from catastrophic fires and also to create valuable habitat for wildlife.

A woodland or forest whose canopy is too dense does not allow enough light to penetrate for other things to grow and the same goes for too much undergrowth. Both are not beneficial for the woods nor the flora and fauna. But this is something that people often do not understand in the same way as they do not understand that paper is not bad either.

So, what good does thinning do?

To put it simply, when a fire moves through an overcrowded forest, in which trees are spaced very close together, small diameter trees act as kindling to fuel the blaze and as veritable ladders that allow the flames to move up into the forest canopy, causing widespread devastation that can decimate thousands of acres at a time.

On another level thinning improves the environment of the woods and forests and thinning out the small trees allows the bigger trees to grow stronger, better and healthier.

The woodcutters of the future are not clearing the forest, they are creating it. They are really the artists of the future forest. Every decision they make about what tree to cut and what to leave is something we'll be living with for the next 50 years.

But this has always been the case in proper woodland and forest management in Europe, including and especially in Britain.

Britain was once an island of forests – despite the fact that some wish to claim that the woodland cover of the British Isles was but a small percentage by the beginning of the year 1000 only – and the foresters and woodsmen have always had the best interest of the forest and the woodland in mind. After all it was also what made them money, but never by clear-cutting.

Reusing all that wood

In America in the '80s and '90s, forests were managed for timber and woodcutters went in, took out all the big trees and what was left was burned. What was once piled up and burned needs to be made into wood products.

There has also been a similar management, as regards to thinning in recent decades in Europe, in that most of the thinned timber was simply burned on site. Not so much, I hasten to add, where coppice workers were doing the work of thinning as to them any wood is being looked at as a source of income and this is the way it should be. Nothing, as far as possible, should be wasted.

Through partnerships with local businesses, small diameter trees like those being thinned must be reused for loads of useful applications, including furniture and housewares, fencing, cabinetry, pallets and even prefabricated homes and bridges. And where all else fails there is always firewood and charcoal.

In the USA thinned trees are also used to create oriented strand board (OSB), a popular building material that is also used for furniture and other applications. Wood pieces that are too damaged to reuse for these purposes are made into mulch, sawdust and pellets for wood-burning stoves.

We all have a stake in the future of our forests and our woodlands, but not everybody recognizes it. So, we help people understand the importance of that, but it's not enough just to create a sense of urgency. We want people to feel an understanding of what needs to be done, and provide them with an opportunity to learn.

Personally I have encountered misguided greenies who do not understand nor wish, it would seem, to understand that woods and forests need to be managed to thrive and this is a shame and with some of them even the best intention of enlightening them are, unfortunately, unsuccessful. But, we must continue this effort in the same way as we must manage our forests and woodlands in the proper manner for the benefit of everything and everyone.

© 2013