LANSING -Access to forest education and management assistance is one of the biggest hurdles for private forest owners, experts say.
Privately owned forests account for nearly 65 percent of the state's 19 million acres of forestland, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Non-industrial owners have 8.4 million of them.
Lauri Elbing, a policy associate for the Nature Conservancy, said most non-industrial owners list recreation and aesthetics as their main interests and that most owners manage their property to meet those goals.
The owners of private forest lands in the state of Michigan, such as the Upper Peninsula woods pictured above, would benefit greatly from education on how to best manage the acreage, experts say. About 65 percent of the state’s 19 million acres of forestland is held privately. (Journal photo by Danielle Pemble)
However, that approach often results in owners applying no forest management at all, or only responding to pests, diseases and invasive species - often after the damage has been done.
She said that such poor forest management decisions result from a lack of access and knowledge about technical assistance.
Rick Lucas, district forester for the Osceola-Lake Conservation District in Reed City, said technical assistance programs from the DNR, U.S. Department of Agriculture, county conservation districts and private consultants often receive low legislative priority and are victims of budget cuts.
He added that cooperation among these agencies, special interest groups and the forest industry is necessary to make technical aid readily available.
"What's lacking out there is a spearheaded effort to point everybody in the same direction, to pique their interests in the value of being an active decision-maker for their property," he said.
He said studies show that only 15 to 20 percent of private owners seek professional assistance when making decisions about their forests. The rest contribute to some of the greatest dangers to private forest health.
"Doing nothing on your property can be a real threat in that you're not recognizing insect and disease potentials, invasive plants and other threats that we're very concerned about," he said.
The president of the Michigan Forest Association, Collin Burnett of Parma, said that some owner inaction is due to misinformation.
"There's a lot of inaccuracies, particularly in our younger school system, that works against us very badly. Frequently kids are taught that it's not good to cut a tree, and basically it depends on the whole complex interaction of a forest," he said.
He said that effective land management tries to mimic the ways nature manages forests on its own. For example, the survival of some species that many forest owners desire, such as oak and walnut, require the removal of old growth, which nature does through natural disasters and fire.
Bill Botti, executive director of the Forest Association, said lack of thinning - failure to remove old growth - is a big problem because it creates crowded conditions that prevent quality trees and plants from growing.
A related problem is the lack of markets for thinned-out trees and plants in Michigan, he said.
"In some parts of the country where there's a market for biomass fuel, the material can be thinned out and sold, but in most places in Michigan we don't have that kind of market and so the woods are overcrowded," he said.
Burnett, who owns about 400 acres of forested land, said priority should go to owners who lack experience managing a forest.
The range of private owners goes from people who are expert forest managers with an understanding of what's going on in the ecology of the forest to brand-new owners, he said.
"Our problem is getting the relatively uneducated folks educated to the point where they have a concept of what's going on in the forest," he said.
Burnett advises new forest owners "to make it their business to learn about forestry and how forests work.
"The wise thing to do would be to learn first."