What is Low-Impact Forestry?

Fall 2021

By Noah Gleason-Hart

“Low-impact forestry is all about logging with horses, right?” is a question I often hear when I talk about the work I do at MOFGA with the Low-Impact Forestry (LIF) Program. It’s a question I always appreciate, both because it highlights how low-impact forestry is perceived within the larger community, and because it provides an opportunity for me to more fully explain LIF. 

A diverse, multi-aged managed forest in central Maine. Logan Johnson photo

Simply put, a horse is an extraction tool — a way to remove logs from the forest. No more and no less. Because of their relatively small size and agility, in the right financial circumstances they offer a unique opportunity to carry out careful, precise harvests. They certainly deserve a larger role in the woods. 

However, low-impact forestry is defined not by the tools we use, but by the outcomes we leave behind in the forest. We need the right equipment — like horses, tractors, cable skidders and forwarders — to produce those outcomes, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. The perfect equipment can still carry out exploitative logging if the operator is not careful or if the management strategy focuses on short-term profits. Ultimately, compatible equipment is a necessary but not sufficient condition for low-impact forestry.

If low-impact forestry is not defined by the tools we use, then what is it about? At its core, it is a lens through which we can view human-forest relationships. It examines the question, “How do humans interact with forests in ways that are constructive, rather than destructive?”

In an effort to clearly answer this question, LIF’s steering committee — a volunteer body composed of foresters, loggers and land stewards — has worked over the past year to create a series of 10 principles that define the LIF program. Our goal is to lay out a philosophical framework for the low-impact forestry approach to human-forest relationships, describe the outcomes of positive, careful human intervention, and provide a toolbox to help reach these outcomes.

The first two principles explore the foundational assumptions underlying low-impact forestry and may be helpful as we try to answer the question, “What is LIF?”

Growing high-quality hardwoods in southern Maine. Molly Nelson photo

1. LIF recognizes that forest ecosystems are more complex than we currently understand, and therefore operates with caution and humility as first principles.

Management decisions made today have decades-long repercussions. By proceeding cautiously and acknowledging that humans do not have a complete understanding of forest ecosystems and the impact of management, LIF centers the needs and constraints of natural systems.

2. LIF believes that wood products can be grown and harvested in a way that maintains the other ecosystem benefits and values fully functioning forests provide.

LIF believes that human impacts are not inherently destructive; by working within the limit of natural systems, humans can manage forests in a way that provides human benefits while maintaining or enhancing ecosystem functions.

There are several key takeaways from these two principles.

The first important concept is that LIF believes that humans are not inherently destructive. We are certainly capable of exploitative action, but exploitation and no human intervention are not our only options. There is a middle ground. Disturbances, like fires and windstorms, occur naturally in forests and, at its most basic level, logging is another type of disturbance in a forest ecosystem. With thought and care, we can craft logging disturbances that positively impact ecosystem function and mimic nature while still producing products for human use.

Harvesting a small woodlot utilizing a cable skidder. Kyle Farrington photo

To do this in your own forest, you might decide to encourage old-growth characteristics. You could cut groups of lower-quality trees to increase species and age diversity in your forest, or thin around healthy vigorous trees to grow large trees faster, and leave those large trees uncut in perpetuity. Some or all of the trees you cut could be turned into forest products that meet human resource needs while displacing other non-renewable materials; a win-win.

The second concept is recognizing the limits of natural systems. LIF asks that managers hold space for ideas that initially seem mutually exclusive. On the one hand, we ask you to recognize that forests are tremendously complex systems that we are just barely beginning to understand. At the same time, LIF contends humans, if thoughtful, can interact with forests in tangible long-lasting ways. To do this, we have to recognize that natural systems have limits, and we can’t allow our need for forest products to push forests beyond those limits. On the ground, this might mean setting aside a third of your forest as an ecological reserve where you never carry out harvesting of any kind. It could also mean recognizing that your forest is not yet ready to be harvested, or that a light-intensity harvest might be the best course of action.

Finally, be humble. The opportunity to manage a forest is a gift and a tremendous responsibility. We owe it to the forest and to future generations to do this work thoughtfully, carefully and well.

You can find the other eight principles on the Low-Impact Forestry Program’s page of the MOFGA website. Look for an in-depth discussion of other principles on the list in future editions of The MOF&G. 

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