Let’s cut down all the big oaks and make some money! Maybe even enough to pay taxes for a decade or two. They’ll grow back… won’t they?
You’ve heard of clearcutting. But these days, private land in the northeast is much more likely to be subjected to what’s called high-grading, usually defined as “taking the best and leaving the rest.” The results may not look too bad from a distance: the smaller and more deformed trees remain to give the illusion of a healthy forest. Cut-and-run loggers easily convince landowners – most of whom do want to do what’s best for nature, according to surveys – that the forest will come back better than ever, and that wildlife will prosper in the meantime. It isn’t true.
Open up the forest canopy, and whistlewood, a.k.a. striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum), springs up quick as a whistle, prolific as the white-tailed deer – which, like most other wildlife species, find it unpalatable. So if the deer are too numerous, as they currently are in most parts of Penn’s Woods, a second high-grading follows the first. Sure, deer are beautiful. So is whistlewood. So are the people filling all the new housing subdivisions…
Given a more balanced deer herd, the land responds to acts of rape by arming itself with thorns: blackberry, raspberry, greenbriar, wild rose, black locust, or – as here – devil’s walking-stick, a.k.a. Hercules’ club (Aralia spinosa). All these species live fast and die young, preparing the way for longer-lived species and beginning to restore the ravaged soil. Most, including the devil’s walking-stick, are a bonanza for wildlife; this is why small openings are a valuable part of the forested landscape. After those openings close, however, it will be decades before their new coterie of trees can equal that initial burst of wildlife food. A poletimber stand can be as barren as a desert.
Tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima) stretches green birds’ feet toward the sky. This Asian native often invades disturbed areas, spreading in clonal mats that crowd out and poison the competition – and poisons are the only real way to get rid of it. Tree-of-heaven snaps easily, giving off a cloying, peanut-brittle odor, and easily re-sprouts. One secret to its success: the huge masses of wind-borne seeds, which, since they don’t need the help of wildlife, don’t provide much nutrition. Its “heaven” is the fundamentalist missionary’s pie in the sky, stealing all the sun from what’s left of those heathen oaks.