Private forest lands

Private forests are a huge natural resource, often underutilized, sometimes badly managed, and with an increased rate of ownership turnover.

“Moms and Pops” own almost half the forest land in Michigan. Nearly nine million acres. About 440,000 parcels. That is a lot of forest. And a lot of owners.

Nearly half the wood fiber that supports a multi-billion dollar forest products industry comes from these forest lands. It is also a lot of habitat, soil and water quality. Recreation abounds, although it is often restricted to the owners and their friends and family. A considerable amount of carbon is sequestered each year.

If Michigan follows expected national trends, we will see an accelerated rate of ownership transfer and increasingly smaller parcels. This situation has great influence on forest health, productivity, and all the services previously mentioned. Active management of these forest resources will enhance all the benefits that forests provide. Failure to manage will reduce the benefits, to both the owner and to society at large.

Many forests remain unmanaged for years, and then are sold. Often, the seller will cut trees for quick cash, or the new owner will do so to help pay for the purchase price. This is not necessarily good management (and often is not). While the practice can be damaging, the forest will eventually recover. Over time. Unfortunately, though, time is an increasingly unavailable commodity.

Both forest management and timber sales are usually more involved than most people realize. The value of professional foresters is typically under-rated. Remediation and/or litigation are unpleasant pathways, but easily avoidable.

If Michigan is to utilize forests to advance our economy and improve our quality of life, then private forests will need to be better managed. Forests are vital to the survival of any society, along with many other things. A lack of forest resources has contributed to the decline of several prominent civilizations over history.

There is a strong connection between a well-managed forest resource and a vibrant economy. In some cases, people believe management is bad for a forest. Or that “natural” provides more benefits. In certain philosophical circles this might be true, but not within the realm of economics, the environment and society.

The sustainability of traditional forest products and environmental services has long been researched, and continues to be researched. More recently, forests have been increasingly considered as sources of renewable energy. Using wood to heat buildings is an easy and natural fit. This does not include those dirty backyard stoves (which have a place). More advanced technologies can be employed under a range of conditions to generate electricity, transportation fuels, and a variety of chemicals. They can also be poorly employed.

Forests will certainly not overcome all of our societal challenges, but they can be a remarkable asset, if we choose to use them wisely. Forests have ecological limitations, indeed. However, Michigan remains a long way from approaching those limits. The choice is ours. Consider the alternatives.

For more information about Forestry in Michigan, visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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