By Bill Cook
MSU Extension Forester/Biologist, retired

During any growing season, the forest stage is munched upon by a revolving cast of critters, from Anthracnose to Zorapterans. At times, a poster child or two captures our attention, then it fades away. But “they” are always there.

There are many hundreds of species that feed upon trees, from the tips of their leaves to the roots underground. Trees are giant salads of living tissue, and lots of tasty dead tissue, too. All of these “pests” contribute to a working forest community and, for the most part, are intrinsic elements of a healthy forest.

There are some species that regularly get out of line, but they are put back into their proper places by the checks and balances of their neighbors. Such is forest ecology.

Then, there are truly scary things.

In the bigger picture of space and time, I perceive six major threats that drive forests hard enough to knock them entirely off-kilter. These “big six” are not independent variables but, rather, often work together to present dead-serious long-term threats to our northern forests.

As a headliner, these six are deer overbrowsing, exotic invasives, climate change, loss of forest industry, forest parcellation, and benign neglect. Each of these are well-backed by the literature of science and experience of professional resource managers, but not all of them have found their way into the ranks of social acceptability.

Maybe a seventh threat could be a lack of human perception?

Deer overbrowsing may be the most controversial among the forest killers. Bar-room arguments roar with great fervor. Deer are beloved creatures and there’s no shortage of entwinement with our culture. Only in the snowbelt of the U.P. is deer browsing—more or less—in-check with natural systems.

Deer are capable of eradicating multiple generations of forest seedlings and suites of understory plants. Once in a while, this isn’t bad. However, the chronic pressure exerted by too many deer degrades the forest landscape. The only other species that can perform this act of “terra-forming” is Homo sapiens. People.

Less controversial, the battle against exotic invasives has more popularity, as it establishes a clean line between “them” and “us”. Emerald ash borer is clearly bad. Monitoring against the Asian longhorned beetle and hemlock woolly adelgid finds little opposition. Sometimes, control or eradication practices raise the hackles among people, but generally speaking, fighting invasive species is perceived as a good thing.

The changing climate has a mixed bag of acceptance and a somewhat limited tool kit of mitigation strategies. Most people nod their heads when considering forests as an important element in addressing climate change, especially among the carbon conversations. However, some of the practices are sketchy in the public eye. Forests are slow to change under different climate regimes. They’re not as flashy as changes in bird migrations, breeding zones, and melting glaciers.

Forest damage due to a loss of forest industry is counter-intuitive for many people, especially those that consider cutting trees an evil act. However, forest management remains a critical element addressing many environmental challenges. And, you can’t manage forest without cutting trees, and you can’t cut trees without having a vibrant market. It’s the forest industry that pays for management and the ability use forests to help humanity.

Forest parcellation is an ownership thing, purely based on human expansion and the desire to have the deed to a bit of Eden. Our ad valorem tax structure is a mighty weapon in the fight to chop-up forestland into unmanageable bits and pieces. This is particularly true of riparian forests, that especially rich wildlife habitat along rivers and lakes. People like riparian habitat, too.

Benign neglect is the final piece in the “big six” that I describe as long-term major threats to northern forests. It’s pretty much the attitude about letting nature take its course because “nature knows best”. This romantic ideal is not at all supported by science or experience, but it remains quite popular. Our forests were severely beaten-up a century ago. They’ve been further disturbed by pressures since then. In a very real sense, our current forests, as pretty as they might be, are far from “natural” and will never again possess the full set of descriptors of those pre-EuroAmerican forests.

Letting forests “go” versus managing them for a variety of goals, including forest health, is an obligation, in my way of thinking. Our species has messed-up these forests and that sorta means we should be doing our best to repair as much of the damage as possible. That means management.

It’s also worthy to note that our society and economy are quite dependent upon the goods and services that come from forests, especially wood and clean water. Wood has long been the most environmentally-friendly raw material available.

I once saw a t-shirt that read; “Do you know who your farmer is?” I smiled as I thought of the complement; “Do you know who your forester is?”

Forests and humans have a close relationship. We need them, although they don’t need us. It behooves our species to take care of one of the hands that feed us.