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​What are the problems threatening the future of our woodlands?

The concern about the condition of and the future health of NY’s woodlands starts with the realization that even though about 65% of NYS landscape is wooded, according to a 2009 survey by Cornell University and a 2010 study by The Nature Conservancy, most of New York’s forestland is not producing viable regeneration for future, diverse, healthy woodlands.

Problem #1: White-tailed Deer

The healthy, sustainable carrying capacity of a forested landscape for deer varies around the state; but is generally between 5-15 deer per square mile. That said, prior to European settlement, the deer population was balanced and stabilized by subsistence hunting, predators and natural "winter kill”.

As human populations grew and spread, agricultural development and subsistence hunting pressures increased, and essentially removed both deer and their predators from the landscape in most of New York by 1900.

Large-scale abandonment farmland through the 1st half of the 1900’s led to the second-growth woodlands dominating NY’s landscape today. As of, about 100 years ago, tree seedlings and saplings (the favorite food for deer) started to emerge, and in the absence of natural predators, and very limited hunting, the inevitable happened: the return of deer populations to their former range. Their habitat requirements were being met there, so they re-populated their former range. However, their former predators did not.

Consequently, by the 1950’s, deer populations had not only recovered across the landscape, they also exploded to levels as high as 50 per square mile in some areas, far exceeding the carrying capacity of the forest. The ecological consequences to the forest, and the deer themselves, were not understood at the time. Furthermore, the state game regulating agencies felt pressured to accommodate the desires of hunters, who wanted to see a lot of deer in the woods. As a result, the deer populations continued to grow.

By the 1970’s, forest owners, foresters, academics, the wood products industry, state regulators and the US Forest Service had become aware of the devastating effect excessive deer populations were having on woodlands in Eastern States. Starving deer had consumed most of vegetation they could reach, including the seedlings and small saplings of desirable tree species. The desirable regeneration was replaced by shade-tolerant species which are unpalatable to deer. Those plants include beech, striped maple, hay-scented fern, and several invasive species. Often referred to as “interfering vegetation”, they shade out more desirable tree species, thus limiting diversity.

Problem #2: Interfering vegetation

Unfortunately, due to the excessive white-tailed deer population, interfering vegetation is now so well-established in many woodlands that the germination and healthy development of desirable tree seedlings is limited, and sometimes prevented. And, despite the efforts of state regulators to manage the deer population with woodland health in mind, regeneration problems persist in most areas of NY State.

Problem #3: Unsustainable tree-cutting (harvesting) practices

Many second-growth forests have matured and have undergone harvesting activity.

Unfortunately, some harvests have employed unsustainable harvest practices such as "diameter-limit cutting", or the removal of all trees over a certain size. This is one form of "high grading" which, although it may maximize immediate financial gain, may remove genetically superior seed trees from the forest, making regeneration difficult or impossible.

The challenge is to educate the forest owner about the benefits of accepting less immediate income in exchange for a larger and steadier stream of income from the forest over time.

When a landowner embraces that idea, and works with a professional forester, everyone benefits: the landowner, the forest industry, and most importantly the woodland.

Solutions are Available

Cornell, Syracuse and Penn State Universities, as well as the DEC and US Forest Service have been researching these problems and testing solutions for 30 years. Elements of the solution include:

  • control of the local deer population
  • control of interfering and invasive vegetation, in many cases, with the purposeful, judicious use of herbicides. (see The Great Glyphosate Debate)
  • Employment of silvacultural practices to provide sunlight necessary for the development of desirable tree species

The Window of Opportunity is Closing

Many of the trees in our current woodlands will have reached maturity within the next 50 years. If regeneration is not accomplished before the vigorous, seed trees are gone, many of the forest benefits we currently enjoy, will not be available to future generations. Through its RNYW initiative, NYFOA is working to educate woodland owners about long-term woodland viability and sustainability. But, NYFOA is not just reaching out to woodland owners. NYFOA is seeking alliances with other stakeholder organizations and is prepared to engage the general public. The intention is to increase awareness of NY woodland health: past, present and most importantly, the future

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