A strong voice for our forests went quiet when Mike Greason died on March 8.
Mike had a passion for forestry that invariably entered into any conversation with him. Sure, he had all sorts of other interests – duck hunting and woodworking to name just two – but even his hobbies had something to do with the woods. It is fitting, then, that he died while he was working on his woodlot – struck down by a heart attack at the age of 69. It’s even more fitting to know that he was there that day to fell some white ash trees to look for the emerald ash borer, an insect deadly to ash trees that had been found just four miles from his home in Catskill, New York. He was working in cooperation with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the agency where he had worked for 29 years before retiring in 1998 to become a private consulting forester.
A burly man with a ready smile, Mike was more comfortable in paint-splattered t-shirts than a jacket and tie, although it was the latter outfit he was wearing when I first met him at Forestry Awareness Day. This annual event, held at the capitol building in Albany, is an opportunity for those involved in forestry in New York to spend time lobbying legislators – the vast majority of whom represent urban districts and wouldn’t know a Biltmore stick from a Baltimore chop.
Mike was an apostle of good forestry who’d become comfortable in the capitol because he’d spent the latter part of his DEC career working on forest policy issues. He was as well connected as anyone at the meeting, and could have spent the time rubbing elbows with senators and commissioners, but he seemed happy instead to introduce me to the players in New York forestry circles. He saw Northern Woodlands as an ally in a shared mission to bring more landowners into the forestry fold, and he was eager to work with us.
Four years after we first met, I attended another event near Albany – the memorial service for Mike – where it became clear to me that writing about his passions could go a long way in explaining the tenets of good forestry.
Silviculture is the way
Mike believed in forestry the way some people believe in world peace. If people would just practice good forestry, we could have tremendously productive forests. He pointed out that forest exploitation did not end in the 19th century and it is still common throughout our region. For Mike, the solution was silviculture, and he lamented how infrequently it was applied, often quoting a study that showed that foresters were involved in only 22 percent of harvests in New York.
Mike led workshops, wrote articles (including “It Pays to Keep Good Trees Growing” in Northern Woodlands’ Autumn 2009 edition), and spoke out whenever he had an opportunity. He preached silviculture, defined as the art and science of growing trees for the benefit of society. Its opposite is high-grading, which removes the best trees prematurely and solely for the short-term financial benefit of the current owner.
In any logging job, financial considerations affect decisions about what to cut. It is an inevitable and natural part of the process. If the forest owner aims to make as much money as possible now, he or she will harvest the biggest and best trees of the most valuable species, and stop only at the marginal tree, the one where the cost of harvesting it exceeds the return.
If, on the other hand, a forest owner wants to improve the quality of the standing timber on his woodlot, he or she will take the opposite approach. Trees will be cut, but they’ll mostly be those that don’t have a log in them. Some valuable trees will be harvested, but only when they’re competing directly with still better trees. Removing the poor trees reallocates resources – sunlight, water, soil nutrients – to the better trees, which will use this advantage to put on even faster growth. They’ll increase in value faster because they’ve been given a better opportunity.
This is not a simple trade-off in which the payoff is delayed for a larger reward 20 years down the road. Silviculture is much better than that. Leaving the best trees standing will make it possible to have a series of harvests over time while not compromising future value. You can harvest trees that have reached financial maturity and still retain excellent growing stock for the next harvest.
While the long-term financial and ecological benefits of silviculture are clear, Greason recognized – as do many of his colleagues – that the vast majority of timber harvests are done with only short-term financial gain in mind. Parcel by parcel, our forests are becoming less productive. Considering that our forests can grow valuable hardwoods like black cherry, red oak, and sugar maple, along with white pine, it’s appalling how little value most of our forests have. Greason pointed to a study that showed that only four percent of the sawtimber trees in New York forests have a high quality log (grade 1 or 2) in them. And he laid the blame on endemic high-grading.
Why do people high-grade? Some don’t know the value of what they own. Some don’t realize that in places with healthy low-grade wood markets, there’s still money to be made cutting only firewood or pulp-quality wood. Others have an inherent frugality that keeps them from hiring a forester, even if it means considerably more income in the long term.
Prematurely removing all the high-value trees ties an owner’s hands, forcing them to cut more and more volume to make a nickel. At some point, the land’s only value will be in subdivision and development.
Most foresters find it easiest to discuss an impoverished forest in terms of dollars lost over the long haul, but Mike was quick to point out the genetic damage high-grading did to a forest stand. He was fond of using a horse-racing analogy he’d heard from forest geneticist Chuck Maynard: “After each race, shoot the winner and send his carcass to the dog food factory, and bring the last place finisher to the breeding barn. That’s what you’re doing when you high-grade.”
Most forests across the Northeast got their start as even-aged forests, birthed from the abandonment of a field or an entire farm. This was common for many decades following the Civil War, through the Depression years, and on into the 1960s. All the trees started from whatever seed was in place when the cows or the plows stopped working the field. A regrowing field might have 3,000 seedlings per acre, competing with each other for sun, water, and nourishment from the soil. Without any human intervention, attrition can be expected to claim 90 percent of the trees; in 70 years, 3,000 trees might be naturally reduced to 300.
Those that survived won the lottery. They had 70 years of good fortune, and they needed it because at each stage from sapling to maturity, trees are vulnerable to damage to their roots, bole, and crown. There are many possible pitfalls to avoid: damage from insects; being stepped on, rubbed, or browsed; being weakened by drought; being crushed by falling neighbors; or losing a crown to high wind, ice, or an unseasonal snow load.
It’s not simply chance, however, that determines which tree makes it to the finish line. The trees that are well-adapted to a particular site demonstrate this by growing well. They grow vigorously because their genes provide them resistance to drought or to the effects of native insects. They may be predisposed to growing a dominant crown. It’s certainly not all determined by heredity, but good genetic traits help make these trees the winners on a given site. More important, they can pass those helpful genes along through their seeds.
By cutting some trees along the way, humans can either enhance or degrade the gene pool. In an even-aged forest, the smaller trees are not younger; they are smaller because they’ve been less successful. If you cut the biggest and best-formed trees, you remove the best genes and leave less vigorous trees to reseed. These trees would otherwise have little chance of breeding because they would languish in the understory while more robust trees ruled the canopy and dropped abundant seed to keep their good genetic lines going. Instead, high-grading escorts the losers to the breeding barn.
Another way that high-grading reduces the value of the forest is that it often alters the species composition. If all the valuable red oak or black cherry or sugar maple is removed from a stand, the composition can shift to a preponderance of less valuable species. Black birch can replace oak; beech and hophornbeam can replace sugar maple; and red maple can take over cherry stands.
The forester’s role
Cutting the right trees at the right time is the heart and soul of forestry. When Greason saw landowners tempted by a quick buck, he thought it sad that nobody had shown them a better way. When he saw foresters cut trees prematurely, it made him see red. He couldn’t understand how a forester could willingly participate in high-grading, when it is patently against the profession’s code of ethics to do so.
Greason was not at all shy about calling attention to the ways in which foresters encourage high-grading, and it earned him some enemies. He argued that problems arise when a forester’s compensation is a percentage of the harvest income. Foresters can charge for their services in a number of ways: at an hourly rate, on a per acre basis, or as a percentage of revenue from a timber sale. Greason believed that the only ethical way to charge for services was on an hourly basis, arguing that having a financial stake in what gets cut is an obvious conflict of interest. It reflects poorly on the profession, and worse, it encourages foresters to cut valuable trees that should be left standing.
Of course, nobody likes to hear their honor impugned. Foresters who charge on a percentage basis argue that landowners are often unwilling to pay up-front, and that linking expenses to income makes it possible for people to employ a forester. They point to the commission as the landowner’s guarantee that the forester will work in their best interest, since their interests are thereby the same. Further, they argue that Greason’s approach didn’t reflect real-world needs: People want and need to make money from a timber sale.
Mike once described the situation to me in this way: “When a landowner tells you he wants to make some money, the forester’s responsibility is to tell them what’s realistic. The job of the forester is to turn landowners into good stewards. Convince them to do the right thing. When a forester has a financial stake in it, how much effort are they going to make trying to change the landowner’s mind?”
All this might make it sound as if Mike Greason was against cutting trees. In fact, he started his career as a logger before going to forestry school at the University of Massachusetts in the early 1960s. When I was editing his story on retaining big trees, he regaled me with stories of big honking red oaks and sugar maples that had been cut in his clients’ woodlots. He could recite all the details: diameters, board feet, dollars. He loved seeing big beautiful sawlogs on a log truck, but only when their time had come.
Forest degradation as a consequence of high-grading doesn’t get much of the public’s attention in the forestry arena, not when there are property taxes, climate change, and invasive plants and destructive insects getting all the press. But Mike Greason argued that it should be at the top of the list, because a compromised forest undermines our ability to deal effectively with these other issues. Besides, he would say, even under the best circumstances there are limits to what a person can do about the larger issues – but landowners have total control over a timber sale.
Mike Greason is gone, but it’s assured that his influence will continue. His thinking about the future included the forestry profession as well, and he served as a mentor to many students and practicing foresters. One student, in an email message that arrived at Northern Woodlands a week after Mike died, wrote: “I suppose I had assumed that Mike would be around indefinitely, as a pillar of truth and ethics in the practice of forestry and a positive example for more students in the future. But I want people to know that he had a profound influence on the field of forestry, and his ideals will carry on.”
Stephen Long is one of the founding editors of Northern Woodlands and currently its director of publications and media.