Guidelines For a Healthy Forest

Forests are complex ecological systems composed of many living and non-living components. As demand for forest products increases, forests face greater threats. In order to make good management decisions, it's essential to understand that your forest's value extends far beyond the trees and far beyond your generation.

At one time most of the eastern United States was forested with patches of prairie, glades, wetlands and areas disturbed by wind, ice and burning. Human development, agriculture and deforestation dramatically changed the landscape. Today much of the land is in fields, towns, industrial sites and homes with patches of forest and wetlands. In fact, less than one-tenth of 1% of Kentucky's land is in its natural state.  According to the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission “When compared to the seven surrounding states, Kentucky has protected the smallest percentage of its land.”

John Muir quoteAs a landowner this presents both a challenge and an opportunity. It's worthwhile to understand some of the principles that ecologists use when determining how to best maintain and restore healthy ecosystems.

 

Preserve Biodiversity

Whenever possible, small, biologically diverse natural communities should be protected. A depression in the forest floor may be a breeding site for amphibians. A dry ridge may support a rare tree or shrub and the species that go with it. Just because an area doesn’t look like the rest of your property doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. Likewise, preserve diversity and structure of vegetation, or the full complement of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants present in a natural community. Leaf litter and dead logs are also valuable for enhancing small animal habitat.

 

Maintain and Restore Continuous Areas of Forest

If your land is part of a large tract of uninterrupted forest, you have a rare treasure. It likely supports many different ecological communities and a rich diversity of plants and animals. Central Appalachia even boasts some forest types that are globally recognized for their significance and rarity.

In addition to providing habitat for a wide array of native plants and animals, a continuous forest also benefits the water quality and water flow on your property. A lush forest canopy helps to regulate stream temperature and protects surface water. Large forests filter ground water and when needed act as giant sponges, absorbing overflow in rainy periods then releasing water gradually in drought-like conditions. This  provides a healthy habitat for plants and animals, and is key to regulating ground water flow. An understanding of Landscape Ecology and Ecosystems Management is helpful to managing forestland in this way.

Even though forests regenerate over time, land ownership patterns make it difficult to reassemble a fragmented tract. Forest clearing for roads, agriculture and housing interrupts ecological communities and habitats, so it's important for adjacent landowners to work together either by mutual or contractual agreements to keep individually-owned large tracts together.

Reforest portions of the landscape that are best suited to forest. It's likely that portions of your land were once used for small agriculture or livestock operations. Reforestation allows this land to return to its natural forested condition. When reforesting it's important to use more than one species and select species that are native to your region. The Kentucky Division of Forestry has tree seedlings native to your area available (502) 564-4496.

Maintain as many small patches of forest as possible. A small patch of forest is better than no forest at all. Even a small patch or forested corridor will provide habitat not otherwise available in a field or pasture. Small patches can also protect landscape features like sinkholes and erodible soil.

Maintain and create corridors between forested areas along streams and rivers, fence rows, and natural features. Even small corridors provide a valuable wildlife highway for mammals, amphibians, and reptiles that travel on the ground and have limited mobility. Forest corridors are particularly important along streams, fences or between forest patches.

To further encourage wildlife, you can feather the edge between two habitats, such as forest and field. Feathering, or allowing adjacent land on either side of the corridor to regrow, provides a gentle transition that deer, songbirds and quail are drawn to. The regrowth will be a different age than the corridor and provide a step-wise progression into the next habitat type.

Maintain or restore a variety of natural community types and the full structural diversity of forest communities. Small different natural community types and the ecotone should be protected. A small depression in a woodland may be a breeding site for amphibians. Likewise, a dry ridge may support a rare tree or shrub and the species that go with it. Remember that just because an area doesn’t look like the rest of your property doesn’t mean that it doesn’t belong.

 

Large format version of the Large Forest Blocks map (PDF 2.4 Mb) courtesy of the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission.

 

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