Spreading good news about clear cuts

Feb 5, 2015

This is good for birds?
Credit Joe VanderMeulen

One of the problems in Michigan’s forests these days is there is not enough clear cutting. That might sound odd since clear cuts are usually thought of as a bad thing. But forests can get too old, at least from the perspective of migratory birds.

Once upon a time, wild fires created openings in the old growth forests, making way for new growth that provided the habitat for many types of wildlife. Today, well over half of Michigan’s forest lands are privately owned and no one wants uncontrolled fires. In fact, lots of folks want to protect all their trees.

These forests cannot support all the wildlife they once did.

“A lot of species that require young forest habitat during their life cycle are significantly declining,” says Eric Ellis, a regional biologist with the Ruffed Grouse Society. “American woodcock populations have gone down roughly by one percent a year, every year since 1968.”

Ellis is helping to create a series of clear cuts in Michigan designed to restore young forest habitat for woodcock and many other birds like golden wing warblers and chestnut sided warblers. All these species are suffering from habitat decline.

Last month, work was done in Cheboygan County. Birds migrating to and from Canada need rest areas along the way and just south of Lake Huron is a crucial spot.

“When woodcock are starting their migration – are coming across the lake – now that’s a heck of an effort to get across the lake,” says Ellis. “It’s not like they can float out there; they’re not ducks. They gotta make it all the way across and they’re looking for good habitat to land in and have cover and rest in.”

Making space for woodcock to land is a job for the Habitat Machine. That’s a bulldozer-like machine on tank treads with a spinning drum of metal teeth in front. It chops and grinds the trees in its path – leaving a woody compost behind.

These clear cuts look pretty ugly at first, but alder and aspen will sprout to reform a dense young forest within a few years. The big challenge, Heather Rawlings says, is convincing forest owners that clear cuts like this can be a good thing.

“A lot of folks don’t want to see a clear cut anymore,” says Rawlings, who is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, another partner in the project. “People aren’t harvesting their timber ‘cause it looks messy. They like the older trees, the bigger trees.”

And it’s not just about lost wildlife habitat. Forest researchers say that changing climate is also threatening many tree species in Michigan, including aspen and birch, the first trees to spring up on cleared land. Management like this makes a forest more healthy and more resilient to whatever changes will come.