Grants to Boost Young Forests in NH

By David Brooks, Concord Monitor.

When it comes to convincing the public to support the ecosystem known as early successional forests, Scot Williamson of the Wildlife Management Institute knows he’s got a problem.

New England cottontail

Young forests are valuable to the New England cottontail, the subject of a $175,000 grant to help University of New Hampshire researchers study how to track the elusive rabbit’s population./NH Fish and Game

“They’re ugly,” he said Tuesday.

That name doesn’t help, either.

“You won’t hear me say ‘early successional.’ You’ll hear me say ‘young forest.’” he said.

Indeed, YoungForest.org is the name of a website created by the institute and a number of other partnering organizations to help convince people that healthy forests in New Hampshire and other locations need trees with a mix of ages – even if that requires cutting down a lot of trees now and then so that new ones can grow.

“We don’t have a lot of age diversity in our forests,” said Scott Hall, a senior bird conservation biologist for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), noting that most of New England’s forests were cut a century ago for logging or farmland and have since grown back. You have “a resilience problem when all the trees you have are 60 to 100 years old. You need more diversity.”

The topic came up last week when NFWF said it was giving about $1.2 million to 10 environmental projects in New England, combined with $1.4 million in contributions from private partners, including Eversource.

Several projects focused on the effects of successional forests. In ecological circles, “succession” refers to the gradual replacement of one type of ecological community by another in the same area – in this case, trees growing up in areas that had been cleared by human activity, fire, flooding from beavers or other causes.

Young forests, defined loosely as those with most trees less than two decades old, are valuable for a number of species that depend on the plants, insects and animals drawn to them.

Those species include the New England cottontail, a small rabbit that is the target of restoration efforts in southeastern New Hampshire, a project that received $175,000 in NFWF grants. The grants will help University of New Hampshire researchers study how best to estimate the population of this elusive rabbit in 28,800 acres of restored habitat, using capture-recapture methods and “pellet surveys,” in which piles of rabbit fecal pellets are collected or counted.

The American woodcock, a popular game bird, also requires young forest habitat.

Getting $103,000 is an ongoing UNH project studying songbird populations in rights-of-way for power lines, to see how they can function as long, skinny strips of young forest.

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Young forest springs up following a clearcut timber harvest in New Hampshire./Hunter Carabee

A summer’s worth of counting and banding songbirds caught in nets underneath Eversource transmission towers in Strafford found at least 68 species in the brushy, tangled growth, according to UNH graduate student Erica Holm, working with professor Matt Tarr.

“It seems that the rights-of-way contribute as many species as a clearcut,” she noted.

The counter-intuitive idea of the environmental benefits from huge powerline towers reflects the complexity of creating and maintaining young forests. For one thing, those forests don’t stay young for very long – and when the trees get too big, the environmental benefits change.

Williamson said the Wildlife Management Institute’s goal is to have 10 percent of forestland in the region be young forest – the best they’ve done so far is 6 percent in some areas.

And, “In 10 or 15 years, it’s going to be gone. This is not something we can do once and stop,” Williamson said. “We’re always thinking, ‘Where can we go next [to] have a constant supply of this habitat?’”

In New England, that requires dealing with private landowners, convincing them to cut down the mature trees and put up with scrubby, bramble-filled properties that don’t have obvious value.

“It’s tough to sell the first three years after a clear cut,” Williamson said.

“Commercial forestry has to be the driver on this,” he added, noting the effect of commercial firewood prices on woodlot owners’ decisions on whether to cut mature trees.

“When the firewood market goes down, we just sit on our heels,” he said.

But he argued that education can change people’s views about the value of even the ugliest of scrubland.

“There was a time when people were afraid of wetlands,” Williamson noted. “Old-growth forests were once regarded as a waste of the value of the forest. Native grasslands – another area that we didn’t use to think had any value.”

The grants were awarded through the New England Forests and Rivers Fund, a public-private partnership.