Old Man Winter (AKA, “The Polar Vortex”) has arrived in The Lake States Region
The forest products industry in the Lake States Region has always been a somewhat seasonal activity and dependent on winter – a time when the ground freezes solid and the entire forest can be accessed – to be a time when logging activity peaks. The duration of the prime winter logging season can vary from year to year, but for much of the region generally runs from late December to early March. Forest Inventory and Analysis data from USDA Forest Service shows the Lake States Region forests as being very diverse in terms of tree species, landscapes, and forest ownerships. Forests include 58 million acres of timberland, and net annual growth of 1.75 billion cubic feet – more than double the current annual average timber harvest. Average annual mortality continues to rise across the region as the forest ages and many timber stands become excessively dense. There exists a tremendous potential for future expansion of the forest products industry in the Lake States Region to increase thinning and regeneration harvests, captures a greater portion of the annual forest growth, reduce annual mortality, and to sustain the health and vigor of the forest.
Over my more than 40 years in the industry, I have seen some remarkable improvements in both the equipment used in timber harvesting, and in the skill set of today’s typical logger. Modern logging equipment has a much lighter footprint than the machinery widely used a generation ago. The cost and complexity of the new equipment demands a highly skilled operator, trained not only in production, but also trained to recognize when and where he should not operate, thereby minimizing the potential for adverse environmental impacts.
Despite improvements in logging equipment and logger training, agency guidelines, policies, and regulations limiting harvest activities to periods when the ground is frozen have proliferated in the Lake States Region. Concerns about possible rutting, soil compaction, spread of invasive species, damage to residual trees, impacts on threatened or endangered species, spread of forest pathogens, etc., are often cited as reasons for limiting timber harvests to the winter season only.
There is no doubt that some benefit may result from restricting timber harvests in certain situations to frozen ground conditions. But there is also a substantial cost associated with limiting timber harvests to only a small fraction of the calendar year. And the cost of seasonal restrictions affect all parts of the wood supply chain. Costs for landowners, loggers, truckers, and mills are all driven up when their ability to harvest is limited by well-intended regulation. Having a forest that can only be harvested during the winter will not attract much sorely-needed investment required to capture the Lake States Region’s full forest potential.
Winter will always be the “prime time” for logging in the Lake States Region. For many agency foresters, winter seems to be the only season when logging it is permissible. If the Climate Change Crowd is correct about warmer and shorter winters in our future, the Lake States logging industry could be in big trouble. Unless, that is, we get help from agency foresters or from “Old Man Winter”.