Managing forests to maximize benefits and renewability

Published 2:42 pm Monday, October 31, 2022

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Everything we consume comes from the earth. Some consumables are easily stored while others perish or dissipate quickly. Some consumables are renewable over days, months, years, or even decades. Other consumables take millions of years to renew, if ever.  

Animals in nature mainly consume renewable products (atmospheric oxygen, water, plants and other animals). Initially (tens of thousands of years ago) humans only consumed renewable products. But now our society has become quite comfortable by consuming non-renewable products. Still, with careful management society can maximize the usefulness of our renewable resources and therefore minimize the use of finite resources. In particular, forests provide a palette to explore the balance between commercial use, non-commercial benefits, and accelerated renewability.


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Forests provide a good model for managing a resource to provide maximum renewability because they lie on a spectrum between renewable and non-renewable supply. Forests provide both material for products (timber, paper, cardboard, etc.) and for energy (firewood, charcoal, wood pellets). They breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen while storing the carbon in wood. In addition, forests provide space for recreation and aesthetics. How we manage those forests determines where they lie on the renewability spectrum.  

The eastern seaboard was non-renewably cleared of virgin forests for energy (firewood and charcoal) and timber products over a hundred years ago. The clear-cutting practices were only renewable over generations (50+ years in Polk County) and often degraded water quality. Property development eliminated the forests altogether in many cities. Even today much of the Amazon forests are being cut and burned to make way for development. But, there is a better way to manage our forests!  

We start by maintaining medium-sized tracts (20 – 100 acres) that can support a homestead and still provide room for commercial timber production.  

Next, we sustain the forest by harvesting selectively. Before timber cutting starts, a forester walks through a tract identifying a few trees per acre to be kept. The forester then cordons off about a 100ft streamside zone to protect water quality from possible timber operation runoff. These two activities result in a forest that regenerates in just 20 years while providing balanced forested and open areas for increased aesthetics, wildlife food/shelter, maximum carbon storage, and general recreation.   

These enlightened management techniques can change forests and other assets to provide both commercial benefits (cash, jobs) along with 

non-commercial benefits such as aesthetics, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, and recreation. 

As much as I hate to say this, the reality is that land must be able to ‘pay its way’ in some way to pay property taxes year after year. Thankfully North Carolina has a special property tax bracket for farm and forest land, which is considerably less than the residential and/or commercial tax rate. Because of this lower tax rate, working citizens can actually afford to hold onto their land and not sell it for development. Rather than demand county services like schools, police protection, or emergency services, working sustainable forests provide life and fresh air for us all now and for many years to come.

Next time you see a well-managed sustainable forest, give thanks. It certainly makes the deer and forest creatures happy!