Thoughts on sustainable forestry

I attended the Sustainable Forestry Initiative meeting in Charlottesville today.  My part consisted of a few short comments about tree farm, and I do not going to talk about that or report on the meeting itself, but listening to the discussions gave me a few insights and ideas that I do want to mention in an informal way.  I am also leaving out names and attribution, not because it is a secret – on the contrary, these meetings are open – but because I am mixing my own impressions and not reporting only theirs.

Converting pine buffers to hardwood
Virginia best management practices (BMPs) say that we should leave riparian borders along streams, lakes and wetlands. These are places where we do little or no harvesting.  The intact forest protects the waters of the Commonwealth, provides places for wildlife (wildlife corridors) and adds to the diversity of the land. During our recent harvest in Freeman, we cut in around 65 acres, but left around 25 acres untouched as stream management zones/riparian barriers, i.e. almost a third of our land is off-limits.  I am glad to do this, and I am proud that it is a general practice among Virginia landowners.  I think the SMZs are among the most beautiful and interesting parts of our tree farms.
There are some very big loblolly pines in our SMZs. My guess is that that they are more than 60-70 years old, maybe more.  I noticed that many are in straight lines, indicating that they were planted – in less enlightened days, they planted right up to the streams – but I did not give it much thought.  At the SFI meeting, they were talking about the subject of pines in the SMZ. Left to its own devices, the SMZs are likely to develop into hardwood forest, since these areas would have been wet and not as likely to burn as in southern pine ecology.  It is natural from the ecological point of view.  The pines represent a medium succession environment.  Pines would grow naturally after a disturbance and gradually be shaded out absent another disturbance.  This might take a long time, not decades but into the century mark.  But it can be a problem for forestry.  How?

Persistence and proliferation of old-growth pines
Loblolly pines are prolific seed producers.  In a natural system, they seed into disturbed areas and quickly establish a pine forests as an early step in natural succession.  This is what the big loblolly pines in the SMZs do.  The problem comes with our own use of adjacent land.   A harvest is a disturbance, the kind that the loblolly will naturally seed.  We don’t want them.  We usually replant with genetically improved pines.  These grow faster and straighter, and they are much more resistant to disease and rust fungus.  The volunteers will NOT likely outcompete the planted trees, but they will compete with them, weakening the whole system. The thickly growing trees are more subject to blights, especially the southern pine beetle.  It would be easier if the big loblolly were not in the SMZs, within range of our planted pines.

BMPs allow us to harvest the big pines in the SMZs and that might be a good strategy.  I did not do it this time because of weather.  I asked the logger to get the big pines IF and only if it would not create significant damage to the soil and water. There was a lot of rain this year, and the logger decided that he could to go into the SMZ without creating a lot of tracks and erosion, so he left them alone.  I am glad he did not get them.  Some are very majestic.  They are on their way to being old-growth. Eventually, the hardwoods will come to replace them.  This will not happen in my lifetimes, but that is okay with me.

The cleansing fires
I have a plan for the seeding – fire.  When we burned the longleaf in 2017, I saw that the fire killed almost none of the longleaf (grateful for that) but almost all the volunteer loblolly.  If we start burning at around 4 years and then do it every 3-4, we will control the volunteers in the same way nature would have done.

Speaking of SMZs, externalities and riparian tax credits
I mentioned how we do not harvest in stream management zones and how that might put a significant part of our land off-limits.  I only recently learned about Virginia tax credits that you can get for NOT harvesting in SMZ.   This is fair, IMO, since we pay the property taxes on land that we do not use and by its non-use provides useful benefits for the larger community, at least for everybody who needs water.  This year, we got a credit on our Virginia taxes for not harvesting in our SMZ.  The agreement is that we did not harvest this year and will not harvest for at least 15 years.

The guy from DoF told me that very few people know about and even fewer take advantage of the riparian tax credit, so my ignorance was common.  They are trying to get the word out.  Protecting a SMZ is what economists would call a positive externality.  Negative externalities are easy to find.  Your neighbor’s charcoal grill belches smoke into your bedroom window, for example.  Positive externalities are harder to see, since we often take good things for granted.  The riparian tax credit is a good example of a small-scale public-private partnership.  The landowner does his part by protecting the SMZ, for which the government compensates him for the public good.

I learned that I was completely wrong about something I thought I knew, confirming the old adage that “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you; it is what you know that ain’t true.”
There was an Obama era regulation that regulated even dew points and intermittent streams on private lands.  I was worried about this regulation, since it seemed to me that I could not reasonably understand and comply.  I talked to somebody about it (the old talked to “some dude) who told me not to worry since I was too small a fish to be bothered.  This as cold comfort.  I don’t want to break the law and be safe only because I am obscure.  But I was less worried because I heard (again the “some dude” news source) that the Trump folks had rescinded.  They did not.  But not to worry.  Virginia is subject to WOTUS, but I am not as long as I am engaging in forestry activities and conforming with Virginia BMP.  Virginia BMPs are considered sufficient to be in compliance with the rules. The rules may still be rescinded, but whether or not they are, it will not change my behavior or responsibilities.  So I fretted about something not a problem.

Challenges of a good economy – labor shortages
Unemployment is so low that it is hard to find people to do the necessary work.  This may impact how and if we can take advantage of all our forests resources in Virginia.  A shortage of truckers is a long-term problem, as is a shortage of cutters and workers to run heavy machinery.  The trees can wait, but they cannot wait forever.  They continue to grow and develop.

Ironically, trees can get TOO big to be useful.  Saw timber is processed in mills that are set up to take trees that are not too big and not too small.  The Goldilocks tree is 28-34 years old for loblolly.  If they get too big, some of the really straight ones can be used for utility poles, but the less perfect ones are wasted or they are cut up and make into chips or pulp, a less valuable use.

Those big pines I talked about up top in the SMZs are probably already too big to be commercially viable.  This is okay with me.  As far as I am concerned, they will live out their lives and die naturally in around 100 years. By then they will just be big pine remnants among the hardwoods.  Or maybe the whole climate will be so different that it is not something I can conceive. This is not a worry for me.

Solar – not so green as you think
A distressing development is that forests in Virginia and North Carolina are being clear cut and converted to solar farms.  This is to provide “green power” to the likes of Google or Facebook.  I hate this.   If you clear cut a forest, you have not destroyed it unless or until it is not allowed to come back. Nothing is eliminated until it is replaced.  The solar farm destroys the forest and eliminates it by replacing it with those panels.

I just don’t get it.  There are acres and acres of parking lots not only near but in cities.  It gets pretty hot around here in summer.  It would be nice to have some shade.  I look for shady places in parking lots, usually w/o success. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a solar array to park under, kill two bird (and no trees) with one stone?  Why not?

We heard about 6000 acres bring cleared in Spotsylvania County.  This may be the biggest intact woodland in the county.  At least half of this will be converted to a solar farm.  Just say no.

Anyway, these are the ideas I took from the meeting.  I contributed little but got a lot. Glad they let me stay.  The meeting was at DoF in Charlottesville.  It is a two-hour drive, but the road Hwy 29 is a pleasant drive. Reminds me of going to get Mariza at UVA, so generally nice memory.