Doing the Forest Inventory, by Alice Henry
It’s a dance of sorts. It starts in a circle, holding hands. There’s a break, for talking. Then there are the reels through the woods, discovering the way the forest grows. It’s also a future legend that starts like this.
Once upon a time Earthaven hired a forester, Shawn Swartz (who used to be a Full Member and live here with his family), to guide us towards a forest plan. The plan is designed to inform, instruct and guide us in making choices about how to (or not to) relate to the various forest species we live with.
The first step is to agree on priorities. What’s most important—protection, product, aesthetics, wild life or education? If we manage for protection, will we also get enough firewood? If we manage for product, can we also prioritize restoration? Or the health of one product over others?
“Keep in mind,” Shawn advised, “no management—meaning the elimination of human intervention—is also a management strategy. Leaving a healthy stand alone might be the best choice, but letting the forest take care of itself can also mean letting nut-bearing hardwoods die off, while rhododendron and red maple take over.” We decided protection and product are equally “most important”; if we manage for product, we intend to do so in ways that maximize forest health.
To do a forest inventory, you have to literally take one. The idea is to get a “snapshot” of the forest, a picture of which species are doing well. How tall are the trees? How much timber is there? Are the stands of mixed age and species? What’s in the understory?
To get a fair inventory of the species in our forest, we worked with samples: one “point” for every six acres. With 240 acres designated to remain forested, we had 40 points to march to. March? More like crawl and beat a way through the thickets! And a whole lot of up and down as well, from ridge to ridge, across slopes and gullies. We’d note the parameters of all trees within range of a point: diameter, height, species, regeneration on forest floor, snags, and presence or absence of invasive species. At one point there were sizable trees, the biggest a northern red oak, diameter 17.9 inches. The understory included pipcissiwa, magnolia, silverbell and cat briar.
And so it went—eleven species in all (chestnut oak, scarlet oak, northern red oak, maple, tulip poplar, sourwood, birch, pine, hemlock, locust and black gum in various groupings) plus thickets of rhododendron and/or mountain laurel. Diameters ranged from 1.2 to 38 inches. Except for a point where there were quite a few two-and three-trunk chestnut oaks (trees that grew together and became one tree at about breast height), Shawn said no doubt this place was logged about 80 years ago.
At the last point, Shawn did a site index, an index of productivity based on age and height. He had record sheets and knowledge of what to record and why. If a tree might have logs, he would ask someone to “get the logs of that tree Marie (or Darren or Gaspar) is on.” Someone would pace off the 66 feet and measure with a special tool called a Biltmore Stick. Sometimes an experienced eye was used to estimate logs, especially where it was impossible to sight the base or if the tree had kinks, bends and flaws. Thanks to a leading teacher, or a teaching leader, we learned by doing.