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To Kill a Tree

Jul 24, 2009

ForestI receive occasional contacts from Missourians who are lamenting the harvest of trees or the use of herbicides on trees. There seems to be a belief among some that no trees should ever die an unnatural death. When my children were in grade school, I remember them telling me that I shouldn’t be cutting down trees for firewood, although they didn’t shy away from the woodstove on a cold winter morning. I think the message that tropical rainforests are being cut at an unsustainable rate has led to an unwarranted concern for trees in Missouri. As a botanist for most of my career, I think I have as good or better an appreciation of trees than most folks. But it troubles me that society has gone so far in the direction of tree worship.

It might surprise most people to learn that Missouri has more trees in the state right now than it has probably ever had. Our position on the continent, between the prairies to the west and the forests to the east, puts much of our Missouri landscape in a tension zone between open grasslands and dense forest cover. The amount of forest in the state has fluctuated through time based on climate, the prevalence of fire and the amount of clearing done by humans. When the first Europeans arrived in Missouri and wrote descriptions of the landscape, more native grasslands remained and forests were not so densely stocked with trees as they are today.

In the last century, Missourians have migrated from small farms to cities and formerly cleared lands have grown back into trees. It is routine to see forests growing in areas that were cultivated fields a century ago and signs of old homesteads in rural areas where no one lives today. Natural openings that were once maintained by fire (prairies and glades) have grown up into forests or thickets of eastern red cedar. We have added more than a million acres of forest in the last 30 years. Each year Missouri forests grow more board feet of timber than is being harvested, leaving us with a net annual increase in the resource.

Of course, all forests are not of equal value, neither to our native wildlife nor as marketable forest products. Recent decades find Missourians moving back to the country, with large blocks of timberland being divided into smaller ownerships. Owners of smaller forest tracts, living on their property, are less likely to manage their acreage in such a way that native, oak-dominated forests can be sustained.

Let’s accept the fact that there is no shortage of trees in Missouri and continue to manage forests for their wildlife values and for sustainable timber products. For management advice, contact a Missouri consulting forester or your local MDC office.

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