What we see is not necessarily what we get when it comes to healthy forests and forest ecology.
Visual quality is a particularly poor measure of ecological integrity. Unfortunately, it is often used to make judgments about the condition of our forests.
According to Michigan State University Extension, There are cases where visual quality is low but ecological integrity is high, as well as the other way around. Nature does not much care about how we see the forest. The fancy word to describe this human-centered perspective is “anthropomorphism.”
In the first case, for example, take a clearcut in an aspen or jack pine stand. Usually, the visual quality is rather low during the first couple of years after such a harvest. Yet, in order to maintain these stands, a catastrophic disturbance is needed. Nature typically used things like wildfire and massive insect outbreaks. The clear cut regenerates the stand without the losses associated with a wildfire or insect outbreak and provides revenue for the landowner and products to society. That is a multi-win situation.
Without catastrophic disturbance of some sort, certain forest types will decline over time. Such disturbance not only regenerates shade-intolerant trees such as aspen and jack pine, but it also provides habitat for a wide range of species, both plant and animal. These are typically different suites of species than what were there previously, but such a change, temporary as it might be, often introduces more diversity. This is especially true if you are one of those species that thrive in very young forest stands. Just ask a harrier or a big-leafed aster.
Catastrophic disturbances, of the normal kind in the Lake States region, do not result in any permanent decline in the quality of soil, water or air. Temporary carbon losses from the soil are quickly recovered and the resulting young forest typically sequesters considerably more carbon than it did prior to the disturbance. The carbon that was harvested as forest products may have a long storage life, depending upon what the forest products were manufactured into, that significantly offsets much of the carbon emissions within the United States.
In the second case, a thrifty stand of northern hardwoods (sugar maple, basswood, beech, yellow birch, etc.) with an open understory presents a park-like appearance that many people would rate with high marks for visual quality. However, biologists might refer to such a forest stand as an “ecological desert.” Without an active understory, an entire range of species is missing, resulting in less diversity and dysfunctional ecological dynamics. Northern hardwoods are supposed to have an understory of tree regeneration, shrubs, spring wildflowers and the animals associated with such a stand structure.
Oddly, a red pine stand (natural origin or plantation) with little understory might also be an ecological desert, but this is the way red pine often grows naturally. If the stand lies within an ocean of aspen and northern hardwoods, the red pine represents an increase in community diversity. This would be a good thing. As a stand changes with time, more light reaches the forest floor and an understory develops. Different expectations at different life stages. Not surprisingly, many rules of nature are not exactly “hard and fast.”
Foresters are the professionals who are trained in forest ecology and understand how to manage a forest to bring about an increased and enhanced set of benefits for forest owners and to the larger society as well. A century of applied forestry and generations of foresters have had a lot to do with building the rich forest of today from the emaciated condition following the historic logging and burning of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Some take our forests for granted. It is rather easy to underestimate the role of forests in the health of our environment, economy and culture. Yet, the record speaks for itself many times around the world and throughout time. It is usually a mistake to use visual quality as a measure of forest quality. After all, since when does appearance speak to the inherent qualities that lie within?