Missouri has a wealth of woods—15 million acres in fact. There actually are more trees today than there were 50 years ago. They’re important to us all for what they provide: natural beauty, wildlife habitat, wood and enhanced water quality. Keeping all that thriving isn’t a sure thing, though. Lots of forces can fight against them (invasive insects causing new diseases, land values that make keeping the woods economically difficult, lack of having a forest plan to guide any cutting, etc.).
Since private landowners own most (85 percent) of Missouri’s woods, how they tend them will determine what’s left for the next generations. But as a private landowner myself, I know that you don’t just wake up one morning knowing how to do that. Until a forester explained to me, for example, how we could thin out certain trees to let others grow better (as a gardener I did understand that as basically weeding), I had never really thought of it for our woods. But we had someone do that about 20 years ago, and the woods became even more beautiful and healthy.
State Forester Lisa Allen noted at the Missouri Conservation Commission meeting this week that keeping woods healthy doesn’t just happen. It takes some thought and care to keep them thriving so we can continue to count on them not only economically but for all the other important things they provide, which is why Lisa’s prescription for healthy forests includes getting help from those who do—professional foresters. I suspect a lot of landowners don’t even know that those people exist.
One of the main speakers at the Missouri Natural Resources Conference last week was Brett Butler, who is with the U.S. Forest Service. He directs the Family Forest Research Center and oversees the annual National Woodland Owner Survey. It turns out that most of Missouri’s privately owned woods are in relatively small areas of 10 acres or less. So a lot of different people have a big impact on the overall health of Missouri forests. The survey also showed that aesthetics/beauty, privacy and a family legacy were the top things they value about their woods. Almost half of the forest owners are retired, so the question of what legacy they leave is a pressing one.