Changing Forests in the Great Lake Region: Threat or Opportunity?

Steve Kariainen is Great Lakes Director for Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities

Change is nothing new to the forests of the Great Lakes region of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The forests are relatively young, having developed in the wake of the most recent glacial period that ended around 10,000 years ago. A host of ongoing changes in forest composition in the roughly 100-century post-glacial period continue to this day which are the result natural (biological, meteorological, geological, etc.) forces. Human caused changes in forest composition are generally thought to have been of little consequence prior to white settlers arriving to the region in the early 1800’s. But the human caused (economic, technological, political, etc.) changes to the region’s forests that especially impacted forests in the 100-year period between the Civil War and World War II have overshadowed natural changes.

Logging and lumbering really took off after the Civil War, as both federal and state governments worked to encourage settlement and development of nation’s interior. White pine made up the majority of the harvest in the early years, as it was lightweight, strong, and the logs could be floated to the mill. Steam powered sawmills burning waste wood then replaced water powered mills. Railroads connected sawmills with cities and ports. Pine was king until early in the 20th century when many lumbermen had either moved west, changed careers or upgraded their mills and logging crews to handle hardwoods. Fires in pine slash were frequent, with a few catastrophic fires changing large parts of the forest far into the future.

Early in the first half of the 20th century, federal and state forests were established in the region. Several state and federal parks were designated, and numerous forest conservation effort were initiated by both public and private entities. After the Great Depression, tree planting, timber stand improvement and fire protection work done by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) helped to restore forest lands and protect them for the future. By the end of World War II, use of gas and diesel-powered trucks helped to efficiently transport logs from the woods to mills, providing timber for hardwood sawmills, veneer mills and pulp mills.

The post-Civil War history of the Great Lakes region forests is one of periodic boom and bust. It’s a tale filled with blood, sweat and tears. It’s a story of continual change to the forests, with much of the change driven by economic and technological factors influenced by public policy decisions around taxes and regulation. It’s a story with many chapters about the all forces, faces and factors that played key roles in forming the forests we have today.

The forests we have today in the Great Lakes region continue to change – to some extent as a result of natural change agents – but largely because of human caused factors. The region’s forests are growing twice as much timber annually as is now being harvested. Forests are rapidly aging and becoming more susceptible to insects, disease and windthrow. There is both an opportunity to, and a need to, increase the region’s harvest level to more closely balance growth and removals. Failure to capture this opportunity will ultimately lead to increased forest mortality, threatening the future ability of the region’s forests to sustain human and natural communities.

Changing Forests in the Great Lake Region: Threat or Opportunity?