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Cutting Clear

President Harry S Truman wasn't divulging a prime deer hunting spot when he put a sign on his desk that read, "The Buck Stops Here." The quote reminded him daily that public service requires responsive leaders who will take responsibility for the decisions, policies and practices of their employees.

As Conservation Department Director, I wasn't about to pass the buck when the Conservation Department's forestry practices recently were called into question. The Conservation Department owns and manages more than 950,000 acres of land for the public, and about 580,000 acres of that property is forested. Certainly, the public has a right to an explanation of how our agency takes care of that important resource.

Some people believe that the Conservation Department makes money off forest lands in its stewardship. It's true that this agency brings in approximately $1.5 million a year from timber cutting, but it's also true that we do not allow trees to be harvested for the sake of profit. We are absolutely forbidden to do so by Commission policy, which states, "No management activity shall be conducted solely to produce Department income."

You might reasonably ask why we cut trees or allow trees to be cut at all. We do so to take care of forests and to provide a variety of habitats and optimum habitats for wildlife. John Sawhill, president of the Nature Conservancy, wrote that we "need to look at the fate of entire forests-not that of individual trees-when designing conservation strategies for our woodlands." I couldn't agree more.

A few numbers might help bring into focus the careful approach of our forestry efforts. The Conservation Department contracts for timber harvesting on about 5,000 acres of land a year. This represents less than 1 percent of the total forest land managed by the Conservation Department. If the math were simple, that would mean that we harvest our entire forest reserve on a 100 year rotation.

The math isn't always simple, however. For instance, we leave many of our forests untouched. If a forest or stand of trees is doing what we want it to do, we leave it alone.

On much of our property, we allow selective cutting only. In some stands in the Ozarks, for example, harvesters are limited to taking out scarlet oak, a species that took root after the uncontrolled cutting of the early century. This harvest helps our efforts to increase shortleaf pine and white oak, which are the original and probably optimum dominant trees for those areas.

In other cases, we allow the harvest of selected trees to either thin a forest (the alternative being a stunted forest, like having too many fish in a pond) or to remove trees that are about to die. We refer to these as "commercial thinning," not because of the profit involved, but because it makes more sense to have someone pay to cut them than for us to cut them ourselves.

The forestry practice that seems to aggravate people most is called clearcutting. This is exactly what it sounds like. Timber cutters go in and literally take every tree, leaving stumps, parts of the tops and leaf litter, from plots averaging about 15 acres. A clearcut looks pretty messy for a few months, and critics usually snap their photos before the forest has a chance to rejuvenate.

Clearcutting seems pretty drastic, but it's necessary to ensure that we have areas of new growth that some species, such as ruffed grouse and black rat snakes absolutely need. If all the forests of Missouri were of the same age or were all mature, we would have far fewer numbers of far fewer species of wildlife in the state. Lizards, songbirds, rabbits, deer and many other species depend on the browse and escape cover provided by early successional forests that result from clearcutting. We clearcut less than 1,500 acres a year, about 1/3 of 1 percent of our forests.

I have tremendous respect for our professional foresters who, guided by opinions and information gleaned from public meetings and surveys, have developed guidelines and practices that make Missouri's forests wildlife and people friendly. They also reach out to landowners to help them achieve the same goals, while increasing the monetary value of their forests. A Gallup poll taken in 1997 shows that more than 83 percent of Missourians are satisfied with the care of this state's forests and wildlife. As always, Conservation Department foresters and I encourage your input and comments about our forestry practices or any other of our programs. Please contact us by mail, phone or e-mail.

JERRY M. CONLEY

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