Decatur Needs to Rethink Harvesting Trees

In the midst of finals week for school I learned that the city of Decatur is planning to harvest trees on city property and sell the lumber.  The money would then be used for beautification projects.  The profits for the lumber appear to be split 50-50 with the company harvesting the trees, so the amount the city walks away with isn’t substantial.

I have several concerns about this, of course.  If you’re not already aware from my blog postings over the past 4 years I am a natural resources major and forest ecology is certainly something that I have learned a great deal about.  I can say with good certainty that most of the forests in Decatur are not in good shape.

Before European settlement fire shaped the natural habitat in Macon County.  Trees that were fire-resistant survived, most notably oaks.  Maples, which are killed by fire were thinned out. Fire in the tallgrass prairies carried the fire into the woodlands.  Much of Macon County was oak savanna and along the Sangamon River was dense woodlands of various species.

Today, there are almost no oak trees regenerating in our forest  because there’s too much shade for oak saplings to establish.  Oaks need sunlight to grow.  Our forests are densely shaded and maples love the shade so they are taking over.  Throw in thick, impenetrable thickets of honeysuckle and few trees of any species are growing in the most infested regions.  The forests are basically becoming a monoculture of a single species which reduces biodiversity and the availability of food for wildlife.

The city has one thing right about their plan.  The woodlands in and around Decatur need to be thinned out but they’re thinning out the wrong species if they care at all about ecology and sustainability.  If we harvest the oaks, there will be almost no oaks at all in our woodlands within the next few decades.  The same can be said for walnut and hickory.  I can take you through Garman Park and show you exactly what is wrong with our forests very quickly.

Maples are not invasive species or undesirable species but they need to be managed.  They simply take over if fire or other means aren’t used to control them.  If we had plenty of oaks and other commercially desirable species in our forests, I wouldn’t be opposed to harvesting some.  Trees are a renewable resource after all but not under the conditions they’re growing in today in Macon County.  In about 50 years, they’re will be no more oaks in many of our forest even without harvesting them for lumber.  Young oaks simply are not growing in most areas.  Period.

Other cities do harvest trees for profit but these are generally trees that are storm damaged or are potential hazards to structures or people.  I think it makes sense to sell lumber and firewood in these cases.

If you want to see how oak woodlands should be managed, visit Rock Springs.  Walk past the pine forest and look how the conservation district burned the understory of the forest on the other side.  Not only will oaks and other species be able to grow but also native woodland wildflowers and forbs that are ecologically valuable.  Fire may not be the best choice in more urban areas but mechanical thinning can be used to achieve similar results.

I hope that the city reconsiders their plan once they understand the ecological consequences of their actions.  I’ll be sending all the members of the council a message.

 

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