As a nature lover and professional biologist, I like to brag that our daughters can identify trees, birds, insects, and even snakes. But one day I received a tiny stab to my prideful heart.
Our daughter, Natalie, had created a poster for her elementary school ecology class that had the message “Don’t kill trees!” When I saw it, I realized that in teaching her about trees, I hadn’t passed on to her an important lesson: that forests go through stages of life just like people do.
The Importance of Young Forest Habitat
Forests start out young and fresh, growing in leaps and bounds with abundant plant and animal diversity. Several mid-stages of development then define what kind of forest will be established, often driven by land management decisions. The final stage can be a mature forest that is majestic and worthy of admiration, but if not monitored can become unhealthy with little value for humans or wildlife.
Each stage of a forest, or “age class” as foresters say, provides critical habitat for wildlife. Young forests have more seeds, berries, and beneficial insects sought by breeding, migrating, and over-wintering animals. Many species of wildlife depend on young forests to reproduce. Even species associated with older forests also seek out patches of young forest to access seasonal food and cover.
Declines in Young Forests and Wildlife Species
In the Eastern United States, wildlife populations that depend on young forests have been in decline for decades. In New England and the Mid-Atlantic, nearly 70 percent of young-forest bird species experienced significant population declines between 1966 and 2010.
In response, owners of private lands are working with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other conservation partners to manage forests on private lands in sustainable ways. These efforts benefit non-game species such as birds, turtles, snakes, and small mammals and support game species like American woodcock, wild turkey, deer, moose, elk, bear, snowshoe hare, and ruffed grouse.
A Win-Win for Landowners
Healthy young forests are winners for people, too. Game and other wildlife are attracted to regenerating forests. Hunters can bag a trophy buck or some other prized game in their own young forest habitat instead of having to travel elsewhere. Hunting leases can help offset land ownership and management expenses.
Those managing for timber production are ideal participants in the creation of young forest habitat. By participating in an age-class conversion to young forests, landowners have found they can receive assistance from NRCS to reset the clock on low-value forests, re-establishing a healthier and more valuable stand of trees, and contributing to a long-term solution for healthy forest landscapes.
Three “Whys” for Conserving Young Forests
Sometimes, landowners and communities are reluctant to cut forests to allow for regeneration, fearing lost aesthetics and lower property values. That’s why it’s important for you to remember that:
- Young forests are a critical need for wildlife;
- Regenerated sites will green-up amazingly fast and the number of trees will actually increase; and
- Your voluntary participation with NRCS means that you call the shots in managing your young forest.
Think of it this way. Healthy forests, just like healthy human populations, are sustained by a diversity of age classes. Each class has a role to play in maintaining wildlife and human communities for years to come.
Assistance Available to Landowners
NRCS offers technical and financial assistance to landowners wanting to implement sustainable forestry practices on their land. Learn more by visiting nrcs.usda.gov/wildlife or by contacting your local USDA service center.