New Hampshire has always been of two minds about our forests: Do we keep or do we cut?
Forests shape our economy and we want to use them, but they define our personality as much as anything does and we want to enjoy them. Those two desires have been in conflict for centuries and the climate emergency has only added urgency to it, as well as more complexity.
Consider the discussion taking place around Lake Tarleton, a small undeveloped lake west of Mount Moosilaukee on the edge of the White Mountain National Forest.
The U.S. Forest Service is proposing the Tarleton Integrated Resource Project on 755 acres of property that they own around the lake, part of their policy of revisiting National Forest property every few decades. The project has been the subject of much debate for more than a year – the Forest Service says they’ve got 604 “unique comment letters” in a comment period – which led them to make some adjustments and open a second, 45-day comment period that ends May 1.
The office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, will make the final decision about what to do after that. No matter what happens, logging is unlikely to take place this year, Brown said. Details about the draft proposal are online at fs.usda.gov/project/?project=56394.
The project includes a number of things including the expansion of an abandoned apple orchard for wildlife habitat, some road upgrades and a boat ramp, but the bulk of it involves doing logging in 690 acres around the lake. This will produce about 5 million board feet of sellable timber, which isn’t huge by commercial forestry measures but certainly isn’t small, and the Forest Service says it will give them the opportunity to improve the health of the woodlands. We’ll return to that last point in a minute.
Pemigewasset District Ranger Brooke Brown notes that, like virtually all forestland in New Hampshire and New England, “it was heavily logged” many times in the past. They’re not sure about when the last cutting took place but this isn’t old-growth forest.
And this isn’t a national park. As the sign says, the White Mountain National Forest is “land of many uses,” with logging for timber on the list.
Opposing the project is a group of folks called the Lake Tarleton Coalition, most of whom live in the region or have paddled in the lake and walked the trails around it. They argue that the number of people who recreate in and around pristine Lake Tarleton – which, unlike many New Hampshire lakes, is not ringed by homes – make this a terrible place to do any logging.
“You walk around the back of the lake and you think you’re in a primeval forest,” said Peter Faletra of Warren, one of the Coalition organizers. His wife, Elaine, wrote an opinion piece in the Monitor opposing the project, which led Jasen Stock, director of the NH Timberland Owners Association,to write one supporting it.
“Why would you choose to jeopardize the enjoyment that thousands and thousands of people use? .. I would put it in the same realm as Franconia Notch, those scenic areas. We would like it to be re-categorized as a scenic area,” he said.
There are arguments here that are specific to the situation, such as what was promised when the Forest Society bought the land in the 1990s, but at the center we have the cut-or-keep debate.
The Coalition argues that basically there should be no logging at all in the area to allow nature to heal and thrive even as people enjoy the area.
“That forest is on the rebound and – if you left it alone, that forest would do well,” Faltera said.
The Forest Service, like most foresters, says that keep-or-cut is a false dichotomy – that to keep woodlands you must sometimes cut them.
The argument is straightforward, if painful: Humanity has made such sweeping changes to the environment – altering the age makeup of forests, importing invasive species by the truckload, raining acid down from the sky and twisting the very seasons of the year – that the natural world hardly exists any more. It certainly can’t thrive without active management, which can include large-scale logging.
“We are mimicking some of those natural events,” said Brown of the draft plan. “We mimic some of these storms, targeting species that are maybe not as resilient, allowing them to thrive, and really targeting the species that should be out there.”
“By managing the forests we’re creating a diverse landscape, with different ages of forest, so different wildlife likes it. … Vegetation removal can also help with climate change – creating a variety across the landscape that allows for a forest to be stronger when diseases come along.”
Faletra disagrees with their assessment. “The world of science has moved on but the forest service has not,” he said. “The bureaucracy is moving along with its own inertia. It has policies and they move like a bulldozer.”
In particular, Faletra pointed to the need for forests to help mitigate the climate emergency by maximizing the amount of carbon they take from the air and store in their biomass. This can increase the value of letting more trees get old, he said, providing another argument against logging.
As for myself, I don’t know enough about this site to make a judgment but I do understand the debate.
I’ve been dismayed when logging happens on places where I hike – a good logger leaves behind plenty of branches and wood known as slash to help wildlife and regrowth, which is ugly and disruptive to humans – and I am sympathetic to the desire for preservation of what sounds like a gorgeous piece of New Hampshire. After all, the Forest Service has millions of acres of other forests in New Hampshire to cut.
I’ve also talked with many forest biologists over the years about how logging, even to the point that it seems like a “clear cut” to us amateurs, can make the forest healthier over the century-long lifespan of trees. And as I watch billions of board feet of ash trees in the state die within a few years because of an invasive beetle while wondering what the next ecological disaster will be, I can’t help but feel that standing back and admiring is no longer an option.