What is Low Impact Forestry

Fall 2012
Sam Brown at a MOFGA low-impact forestry workshop
Forester Sam Brown explains the principles of low-impact forestry at one of MOFGA’s Farm Training Project workshops. English photo.

By Andy McEvoy

Low-impact forestry (LIF) is about balance – of ecological systems and human society; nutrient richness and capital investment; timber stand improvement and human infrastructure. Humans need forest resources for heat, building material, paper, tools and more, but we also need to conserve, or at least limit, extraction so that the resource is available for years to come.

Our current forest economy is most concerned with the immediate value of wood leaving the landing and heading to a mill, usually because the logger and landowner’s incomes are tied to that wood. LIF professionals have to be paid too – but they place equal value on the health of the remaining forest and seek to improve it while extracting enough wood to meet their needs. This is the balancing act.

One LIF pillar is understanding that any kind of forestry will leave some kind of evidence. The name “low impact forestry” acknowledges that we can choose to reduce the known harmful impacts of logging.

Poor logging can leave deep ruts where heavy equipment sank, butt scars on trees lining a haul road, broken crowns on residual trees, poor regeneration because of soil compaction, and sedimentation in waterways because of poor erosion control. Such damage persists because people continue to value immediate income – represented by a fast, high-impact harvest – over long-term viability of the forest resource. LIF practitioners use equipment appropriate to the site, seek to improve the forest ecosystem, and use financial models that encourage safe and ecologically sensitive harvesting.

Often LIF equipment looks like the equipment on any other forestry job. Some unique LIF tools exist, such as high flotation tires on heavy equipment to reduce soil compaction; but what generally makes a tool low impact in the woods is how, when and where it is used. Light equipment – animals or machinery – enables the operator to work in wetter and less frozen conditions because it causes much less rutting and soil compaction. Heavy equipment, used with LIF principles, can operate only in very restricted situations because of the damage its weight does. Massive grapple skidders and feller bunchers are best suited to well drained, frozen soils; even then they are best on sites that will be cleared or nearly cleared of all vegetation, such as house lots, development sites and field clearings.

Even lightweight equipment – tractors, draft animals, assorted small machines – can do irreparable damage if misused. Maintaining a network of roads and trails for machinery to work off of will increase the efficiency of any woods operation, but, more importantly, will reduce the impact in the rest of the forest. Containing the impact of forestry equipment to a small area enables foresters to more easily mitigate damage such as erosion, and to minimize the effects of soil compaction and residual tree damage.

Not all effects of forestry operation are detrimental. In fact, many folks prefer the term “positive impact” to “low impact” forestry because it emphasizes the good that working in our woods can do. A good, up-to-date forest management plan written by a reputable consulting forester is the best place to look for specific information about how to improve the economic and ecological value of a woodlot.

For example, forestry activity can create wildlife habitat. In southern Maine, cutting along forest margins and replanting open meadows with well-spaced groups of shrubs is creating habitat for the New England cottontail rabbit – a candidate for the Federal Endangered Species List.

A dearth of forestry activity in the past half century in much of Maine has made young, overcrowded forests abundant. Much of the rest of Maine’s forest is owned and managed by large private landowners who cut heavily and often. So, although Maine is heavily forested, it is also dominated by young, immature forests. Immature forests are as natural as old growth and necessary for many wildlife species, but the absence of large tracts of mature, uneven aged forests comes at great cost. Many species of wildlife and plants have declined in Maine because we no longer have enough contiguous tracts of mature forest.

To help revive mature Northeastern forests, LIF practitioners may, for example, harvest and market fast growing, early succession species, such as paper birch, poplar and red maple, while leaving slow-growing, late succession species, such as beech and yellow birch. LIF practitioners harvest damaged, diseased, lower value trees before harvesting large, mature trees. The goal of “worst first” logging is to leave a healthier, more mature forest that can and will sustain itself and the communities that rely on it for generations.

Choosing to abide by LIF principles in the current depressed wood market is difficult. The current economy of wood rewards primarily quantity, and even then pays a premium for only a few species. Justifying the extra costs of installing and maintaining a permanent road network is difficult; it is tempting to pass over poorer trees in favor of mature saw log quality timber – not so that the logger can make huge profits, but just to pay for the week’s fuel.

So LIF practitioners often have to work outside conventional financial arrangements. Sometimes a stumpage model may work, but often quality, ecologically sensitive work requires incentives. Depending on the difficulty of the work and the market value of the product, the logger may need to be paid hourly. A number of creative solutions are working, but each has to be tailored to the needs of the landowner and the forestry professionals. In the end, however, if loggers and foresters are not adequately compensated, we will lose an essential link – highly skilled, professional loggers – to maintaining the health of our forest ecosystem.

LIF practitioners recognize the value that their work can add to the forest ecosystem; they seek to make a living without exhausting the resource; they incorporate recreational, spiritual and aesthetic values into financial analyses of forestry; they know and abide by the limitations of their tools.

For information about MOFGA’s low-impact forestry program, contact [email protected] or visit our Low-Impact Forestry webpage.

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