A few years ago I was in the field with a woodland owner and while I was evaluating his timber and making management suggestions he kept referring to the "natural" look of the timber. I came away from the meeting somewhat troubled by his use of the term "natural" in describing his timber. This was mainly because I found his timber no more natural than the parking lot of my local Wal-Mart. Rotting stumps were all that remained of the oaks that had once been the primary inhabitants of the forest stand. Years of cattle grazing had left the area barren of any truly desirable species. The young oak, ash, and walnut that should have been this land's legacy had long ago been converted to cattle manure and methane gas.
The most unsettling aspect about the description of this woodlot as "natural" was that it is representative of how most Iowans perceive their native woodlands. Because we have grown up with over-cut, grazed, eroded, and abused timbers, we accept them as "natural". This is dangerous because in accepting the condition of today's forests as natural, we accept mediocrity as the norm. We no longer know how "natural" stands of Iowa hardwoods can or should look. We are no longer even aware that our woodland's species diversity is endangered.
It is difficult to assess the recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual damage caused by our mismanagement of our woodlands. However, if we choose to think in the commercial and easily quantifiable terms of board-feet we can get an inkling of our woodlands true potential. According to the USDA Forest Service a somewhat poor oak site should yield around 10,000 board-feet per acre, an intermediate site should yield about 15,000 board-feet per acre, and the best sites should yield approximately 24,000 board-feet per acre. An unmanaged grazed Iowa timber routinely yields about 1,500 to 2,000 board-feet per acre. An unmanaged timber that has not been grazed may yield between 2,000 to 5,000 board-feet per acre. A difference of between 5,000 to 19,000 board-feet per acre. To put these figures in terms corn: we are growing 40 bushels per acre on land that in the past has produced 200 bushels per acre.
When we hear of environmental organizations fighting to save old growth timber, giant redwoods, and South American rain forests we either applaud or curse their activism and then we go on ignoring the degradation and the potential of our own Iowa woodlands. We truly do not see our forests for the trees. There is; however, a simple solution to remedy the degradation of our forests. That solution is proper forest management.
Proper forest management in Iowa's native timber stands means getting the cows out of the woods, selecting the best trees within a stand and releasing them from competition. It may also mean harvesting, but in a manner that promotes regeneration of desirable tree, shrub, and herbaceous species. Proper forest management allows society to reap the benefits of healthy forests for aesthetic, recreational, water quality, wildlife and commercial purposes. One use does not preclude all others and while each acre of managed forest may not provide all benefits at all times, it will produce those benefits at some point in time. Proper forest management shepherds and stewards our resources ensuring that they are sustainable and in keeping with the management objectives of the woodland owner.
If we practice proper forest management, our children and grandchildren will walk through healthy productive forests that hold the soil, clean the water, and provide a refuge for wildlife. They will also be employed in wood using industries that turn this great renewable resource into products for a wood-starved world. Perhaps, they will even thank their parents and grandparents for becoming wise forest stewards and applaud them for being the last generation of Iowans to accept the forest resource they were given as "natural".