It was a beautiful fall day when I visited Song Memorial Forest in early October to prepare for a Mount Grace hike later in the month. White-breasted nuthatches, black capped chickadees and blue jays were clamoring all around me, plump acorns were clunking against branches and fluttering through foliage as they fell with decisive thuds onto the leaf litter, and chipmunks were incessantly making that unique chipmunk noise they make. Whether it was a chip-chip-chip or a monk-monk-monk or something altogether quite different I couldn’t be quite sure. There might be some fluidity there.
The Song parcel was purchased by Mount Grace in 2001. Initial forest management was under previous forester Glenn Freden. Glenn had been doing quite a bit of forestry for Mount Grace for many years and was also a very important mentor to a number of younger foresters including myself. Glenn designed and oversaw a large logging operation at Song around 2002. The intention at that time was to promote timber and habitat in a balanced approach that improved the growth of overstory trees by thinning around them while also establishing young trees in the partial shade of the overstory. Glenn had been instrumental along with other foresters and forest ecologists such as Bruce Spencer, John O’Keefe and founder Keith Ross in helping shape Mount Grace’s thinking about forestry, all under the direction of then-Director Leigh Youngblood, and the forest management at Song was representative of this thinking.
When I started filling in for Glenn around 2012, I had the pleasure of working with Tom Wansleben, then Mount Grace’s Stewardship Biologist and now a Habitat Biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. At that time, Tom was in the early stages of becoming a Licensed Forester, and we worked closely to develop a joint Chapter 61 and Forest Stewardship Plan to cover the next 10 years. We didn’t think any further forestry work needed to be done at that time, save for some thinning in one small stand which had not been treated in 2002. We attempted to move forward with the thinning, but, for a variety of reasons, we were not able to make any progress, and nothing was done.
Fast forward to Fall 2019, when a powerful windstorm descended upon the Orange-Warwick area. Residing in South Deerfield, I had no idea how bad the storm had been until I was called up to the Flower Hill Road neighborhood in Warwick by Song Memorial Forest abutter and Mount Grace supporters Ted Cady and Beth Anderson.
As the abutting woodlot to Ted and Beth, Mount Grace’s Song Memorial Forest had experienced quite a bit of blowdown as well. And though intending to remain passive until 2022 when it would be time to renew the forest management plan, Mount Grace was now also confronted with the decision of what, if anything, to do.
Whereas on Ted and Beth’s land the blowdown was mainly pine, on Mount Grace’s land the blowdown was mainly red oak. Some of this red oak had grown on a very fertile site and was of an excellent timber quality such that it could be counted among the most valuable timber we can grow in the Orange-Warwick area. The red oak in areas of thinner soils had a much rougher aspect, with old epicormic branching from a past gypsy moth infestation and lots of internal defect such as spider shake. At Ted’s urging, Mount Grace asked me to look into what, if anything, we should do, and whether there might be any neighborly synergy to be had given that Ted and Beth were already logging right next door.
So, in February, I walked the property alone and then with Mount Grace Stewardship Manager KimLynn Nguyen and then TerraCorps-AmeriCorps service member Corey Wrinn. We walked through areas with significant blowdown and areas that seemed hardly affected. Disturbances to the forest in Southern New England tend to be partial rather than total, and they tend to be messy rather than causing a clean slate: the blowdown at Song Memorial Forest was no different. Even in the areas of maximum damage, the damage was not total, but irregular, and included trees that were totally blown over roots and all, trees that had tipped and were now at an odd angle, and trees that had snapped off higher up. Within this mix were trees that appeared fine, including some trees that had survived the 1938 hurricane. In between the large, prominent trees was a thick layer of smaller trees, primarily black birch, beech and red maple, many established after the 2002 logging. Quite a few of these trees seemed poised to thrive and form a significant portion of a new overstory, together with those larger trees that had survived. If left alone, there was going to be a tremendous amount of downed wood and snags. In and of itself, this mix of damaged mature trees and vigorous young trees represents a wonderful and complex forest structure. Without question, leaving everything alone can be a perfectly good approach in many cases, and possibly could have been a perfectly fine approach at Song as well. But there were also notable considerations against leaving everything alone in this case.
Following those initial walks, and through subsequent communications with then-Deputy Director and now Executive Director Emma Ellsworth, Conservation Director Sarah Wells and Stewardship Manager KimLynn over a period of time, we sorted through several options. The planning took place just as COVID was causing everyone to go remote, and so instead of following up with more walks and in-person meetings, we stuck to emails and Zoom meetings.
Mount Grace considered a range of options ranging from 100% no-cutting i.e. leaving everything alone to various intermediate levels of cutting to rather heavy cutting. There were pros and cons to each of the options. Mount Grace chose to go with one of the intermediate options. One of the challenges a forester faces in helping a landowner plan forest management is to develop management approaches that match the landowner’s ideas or philosophy. While some owners may have a fairly clear focus, others may not. There can be stark differences but also a lot of nuance in and among options. Mount Grace is a complex organization with many realms of activity and many participants. In the end, taking into account Mount Grace’s established interests in local and sustainable resource production, habitat and biodiversity, its role in education and outreach, and its evolving thinking of resilient landscapes as part of a response to climate change, including the role of revenue in helping Mount Grace continue its mission, we chose, under Emma’s direction, a course that seemed to best reflect all of those ideas in this particular situation. The plan, which has been implemented, included a mix of cutting and no-cutting. The results can now be experienced in person on the ground. The attached pictures provide an additional overview.
We knew that the cutting would focus on blowdown areas from the October 2019 storm, and also on areas of crowded mature trees. And we knew that an important objective would be to try to ensure that young oak trees would become established and form part of the new overstory in the blowdown areas. But as important as it is to figure out what you are going to do, it is even more important to figure out what you are not going to do. Before any cutting was laid out, the no-cut areas were established. These tended to be wetter areas along streams, seepy or ledge slopes, as well as a mature hemlock, hardwood and pine stand and a very nice hillside of mature hardwoods.
Within the area slated for cutting, the focus was, again, on figuring out how much to not cut, i.e. how much to retain as many trees as possible – whether live, dead, standing or down – while still accomplishing the objective at hand. In addition to ensuring conditions for the establishment of young forest with an oak component, our goals included improving the future health and growth of already-mature trees in some of the areas that had not experienced any appreciable storm damage.
One interesting consideration in all of this is the question of salvage: what should a woodlot owner do when valuable timber is damaged? Just because nice timber blows down or is otherwise killed or damaged by storms, pests or pathogens doesn’t necessarily mean one has to cut it. But by the same token, if a woodlot owner places any degree of emphasis on promoting local economies and sustainable resources, they will probably want to have a good reason for not cutting the useful timber and firewood, or at least for not cutting some of it. And perhaps there is a very good reason for not cutting any of the damaged timber at all. Each case needs to be evaluated uniquely.
At a different time or in a different place, people might wonder why we here in Western Mass would let a natural resource go to what could be perceived by some as waste. We do have a certain luxury − perceived at least if not entirely real − of obtaining resources from multiple sources: we can get heads of lettuce from our own town or from California, boards from a regional woodlot or from Siberia − the list goes on. So we never depend on the lettuce or the timber from one specific spot. Probably the best we can do is to try to settle on a decision that makes sense in light of the values we hold or are trying to live up to. In that sense I would like to think that Mount Grace has struck a nice balance in this case in the question of how much timber to salvage.
The act of planning forest management necessarily occurs at an abstract level, but it is important not to be too rigid in applying it. At Song, the footprint of cutting outlined during the planning phase ended up shrinking during the implementation phase when, in the very detailed process of tree-by-tree marking − and when considering the project as a whole − in certain areas it seemed that the benefit of not-cutting would outweigh the benefit which, in the planning phase, it had seemed the cutting would offer. In that sense, with adjustments and tweaking based on what you find on the ground, the fine-tuning of the plan continued right through the implementation phase.
Though a woodlot owner may have clear ideas about what not to do, there may be no perfect answer to the question of what to do. Oftentimes a number of good options may emerge from a process of thoughtful consideration as you weigh parameters such as habitat diversity, sustainable resource production, resiliency and climate change, and somewhat more abstract ideas such as overall water quality protection or how people will experience the forest in any given year, season or time of day. Regardless of whether any of those options are pursued, or not pursued, there are always trade-offs. Even the option to leave things as they are comes with trade-offs.
In terms of the logging itself, I am extremely happy with the work that Warren and Jason Spaulding did, and I can’t thank them enough for their great attitude and skill, even when confronted with leaving some of the nice timber on the ground which, when you see it just lying there, is not always easy to do.
In terms of neighborliness, we were very grateful to both Ted and Beth, our eastern abutters, and Dave Ray, our south-western abutter, for letting us use log landings on their land. This saved us from having to re-open the 2002 log landing used by Glenn Freden which, by now, has grown back in. The generosity of our neighbors also helped save us from having to cross any stream on the Song parcel. It is unusual to have three abutters joining in on a forest management project, and it was nice to experience this neighborhood-level cooperation.
The turnout for the Forest Management Walk on October 28 was excellent despite the cool, damp weather. Most of the fall foliage was down, but the oaks still had full crowns of reddish-brownish-golden leaves. On the walk we saw that logging as part of managing a forest does not have to mean logging all the acreage or managing it all in the same way. In this recent round of logging, about 37 acres, or about 44% of the acreage, was “no-cut”. In the areas where cutting did occur, some of the cutting was thinning (about 39 acres) and on about 7.5 acres the cutting was cut heavy enough to create an irregularly shaped early-successional opening that will fill with young trees. For those who were not able to make it to the walk, there are a number of pictures with captions included here for your enjoyment.