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2018-06-13 / Columnists

Just Bill

Forests Could Have Much Longer Life
Musings from the Mind of Bill Diem

I have been reading and writing about forests often in the last few months. And today we’re driving on an expressway that passes through a big one in the middle of France. For a while all the trees were birch. Then they were all conifers of some sort. Now it’s mixed hardwoods.

The trees I’m seeing are all more or less small, ordinary trees like I might see in the eastern U.P. There are no old adults, trees that are a few hundred years old.

I’m reminded that it will take at least 500 years to turn a forest of today into a virgin forest. In hardwood areas of Luce and Mackinac counties, a climax forest would be beech and maple. These two breeds would grow taller than their competitors, and in their shade, others like oaks and elms would not grow.

White pine was the climax forest in soils that were adapted to them, but the clear-cutting of the 19th century and fires that followed put the land back hundreds of years. We still have beech and maple forests around us, but only the occasional lonely white pine.

Michigan is lucky to have Hartwick Pines, a virgin forest even if it’s also park-like today. France, Germany and the rest of Western Europe have good forests, but they are all managed in one way or another, mainly for economic reasons, meaning timber and recreation.

Germany is starting to protect a small percentage of its forests as totally natural areas, meaning it will not interfere with fires or allow any logging or road building.

We try that in Michigan sometimes—letting a forest fire burn, for example—but it always results in some controversy. After a forest fire that we let burn, we sometimes lose a cabin or three. It’s hard to make rules that future generations will obey.

I think I understand how hard it is to allow a virgin forest to make itself. Trees have a lifespan of about 400 years, or about five times longer than we people. We don’t really see them growing like we do our own kids.

Now think about dogs. Our lifespan is about five times longer than theirs. If they study humans, they would understand completely our lives, which change more slowly than theirs.

In a dogs’ life, a human would grow from infant to about 15. The second fifth of a human lifespan might be the most useful to a dog, when men are between 15 and 30, and the third fifth, 30 to 45, is not bad either. Dogs could make us play with them, walk them, take them hunting, etc.

But if dogs could control our lives, they might forget about humans after age 45 and cultivate only for the first three-fifths of our potential life—essentially how we manage forests, harvesting trees as soon as it’s profitable to make paper or 2x4s.

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