It’s funny how the logging of a slope can so alter one’s sense of space as to make an area one had previously thought of as steep seem almost flat. I am just fifty feet from our property line here, on the site of a trail I’ve followed many, many times along Sapsucker Ridge, but I feel lost — literally, as in “Where the hell is this?” The old trail is blocked by piles of slash — forester-speak for the discarded tops of felled trees — as is the new haul road. Saplings lie prostrate; it was evidently too much trouble to drive the skidder around them.
The diameter-limit cutting, also referred to as high grading, does leave at least some cover for the many understory plants and creatures that need it, but it ignores the need for trees with a mix of genetics to supply seeds for regeneration. Often the smaller trees left when a logger takes everything over ten inches in diameter at breast height aren’t any younger than the big trees, they just aren’t as healthy. Planning for the future is obviously not part of the picture here. These are logging practices straight out of the 19th century.
The porcupine tree has just lost its nearest neighbors for — I’m guessing — the second time in its life; forest trees don’t get that wide a crown if they’ve spent their whole life in a crowd. Maybe I’ll start calling it the Job tree, instead — “I alone am left to tell thee.” Like Job, it’s been sorely afflicted, but the constant pruning of its twigs by porcupines living in its hollow heart has yet to kill it, and who knows — all this new light may help it survive another century. These ridgetop chestnut oaks are damn tough trees.
The chainsaws leave marks as regular as the grooves of a harrow on a fresh-tilled field. To a forester, for whom every logging operation is a timber harvest, this must be a beautiful sight. And if the deer don’t become too ravenous at any point in the next four to five years (a big if), each of these chestnut oak stumps may acquire a ring of saplings. Quercus prinus excels at stump-sprouting.
So like the old man thrown into a cart for dead bodies in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, despite appearances this tree is not dead yet! Though forestry convention has us age trees by the oldest above-ground trunk, the root system here could be several centuries old.
The physical and ecological effects of logging extend hundreds of feet into the adjacent forest. But of course neighboring landowners like us would have a very difficult time getting a judge to issue an injunction on that basis — we know this from bitter experience. The ridgetop was the only place level enough to put a logging road, but it was also the property line, so the ephemeral ponds at the top of the Plummer’s Hollow watershed, less than 50 feet on our side of the line, will be affected by runoff as well as increased levels of light and wind and exposure to invasive plants, among many other effects.
This had been the sole remaining section of woods surrounding ours not to have been logged in the last 40 years; a couple of neighboring properties have been logged twice in that period. Plummer’s Hollow has become an island of older forest habitat, simply because we have done our best to leave it alone. But we realize that’s a luxury some people can’t afford, and we can only speculate what kind of pressures must drive someone to have their cherished hunting ground lumbered right when the hardwood market is at its lowest point in decades.
They say a depressed economy is good for the environment, but here in Pennsylvania, with virtually unregulated hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the Marcellus shale formation about to kick into high gear, I don’t think that will turn out to be true. Bad as this little logging job looks, our forest got off lucky.
For more on high grading, see also my earlier post on the subject from 2006.
Don’t forget to post something about trees this month and send me the link so you can be included in the next edition of the Festival of the Trees. See my call for submissions on the coordinating blog for details.