How the Conservancy Manages Forests

In Nature Reserves & Easements, Past News, Property Maintenance by couchiching

Hearing the snarl of a chainsaw coming from within conservation lands, would usually be cause for alarm. But not so, at least in this case, as the winter months have been an excellent time to conduct a bit of forest management, and the removal of a tree or two is sometimes the best thing to do.

A great majority of the conservation lands that are managed by the Couchiching Conservancy contain woodlands. These forests may be magnificent hardwood stands, thick cedar swamps, or a wonderful mix of both conifer and hardwood; two properties even have those arrow-straight rows of planted pines. No matter what the composition, each forested area is closely monitored and managed by Conservancy staff.

Part of the mandate of the Conservancy is to protect land for all time. Therefore, some may think, surrounding it with the proverbial ‘fence’ to keep people out and wildlife in, would be the logical thing to do. However, our properties are also meant to be places where people may visit to appreciate nature, and better understand the ecology of the region. In this case, walking trails have been planned and laid out to provide visitors with an access to the woods.

The trail planning process is, in itself, a forest protection mechanism. By routing the trail away from sensitive areas (water springs, unstable slopes, rare plants, etc.) the interactions of people with the natural environment can be somewhat controlled. However, once a trail is officially laid out, there comes the due diligence to maintain the trail as a safe venue.

Despite our best intentions, the passing years have created changes within the woodlots, and, unfortunately, the trail sides may now be lined with a scattering of dead trees: white elm, American beech, butternut, aged white birch, diseased maples, and very old white pine and red oak. A variety of diseases, and damages from insects, have caused a decline in health to some species, and the local forests have become a dangerous place to be on a windy day!

The trail planning process is, in itself, a forest protection mechanism. By routing the trail away from sensitive areas (water springs, unstable slopes, rare plants, etc.) the interactions of people with the natural environment can be somewhat controlled.

The challenge of property maintenance is to provide, as much as possible, a safe setting for your outdoor experience, yet not bring in bulldozers to pave a walkway, or to cut down every tree within falling distance of the trail. To find the middle ground of this, it’s a bit about compromise, and a bit about common sense.

Grant’s Woods, one of our most popular sites for visitors, is currently closed due to extensive renovations that are occurring at the parking lot, office, and along the trails. Taking advantage of this lull in visitor activity, a recent inspection revealed 38 trees that can be considered hazardous to a safe trail system. Some of these are critical, in that the next strong wind may further topple them over; some are of moderate concern, in that they look suspiciously weak and should be dealt with as soon as possible; and a few are just now showing signs of weakening branches and must be closely monitored. Here is that challenging balance of taking trees out to protect people, but not clear-cutting the forest.

Trail maintenance, like all stewardship initiatives, requires funding, whether to cover staff time or to hire arborists to handle the more dangerous trees. The Conservancy is very fortunate to have Davey Tree Experts as a corporate sponsor, as they will assist with the dropping of those particularly critical hazard trees. Call in the experts when the job calls for expert experience!

A dead tree is an integral part of the forest’s ecology. At every stage of growing and dying, and decomposing, a tree provides certain elements to the nearby wildlife and plant communities. Fungus breaks down the cellulose, insects burrow within, woodpeckers chip away rotted wood to catch the insects. Cavity-nesting birds, like kestrels, chickadees, and woodpeckers use the still standing dead tree as a home, and flying squirrels, bats, and raccoons live inside the bigger hollow ones.

Once the tree hits the ground, the rotting continues, releasing nutrients back to the environment. A well-rotted log can be home to salamanders, centipedes, chipmunks and jumping mice. Hence, our policy is to leave a fallen tree on the ground, rather than remove it for firewood.

Each property we look after has a 5-year management plan, outlining the uses and intents of that particular property. By reviewing these documents at regular intervals, the plan can be altered to address such things as beech bark disease, butternut canker, invasive plant ground cover, or trail usage. Each property has its own story, and as stewards of those lands, we have to keep the story alive, dynamic and functioning as best as nature will allow.

Written by David J. Hawke, Stewardship Program Manager.

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