How Much Is Needed?

Nature Once Made Plenty of Young Forest

It's hard to know how much young forest existed in North America before European settlement. Such habitat grew up after Native Americans burned woods to improve hunting and clear land for farming.

Young forest habitat

Young forest grows back quickly after natural disturbances or humans' management activities such as this timber harvest in New Hampshire./H. Carbee

Wildfires and storms leveled many forested acres. Huge complexes of beaver dams were built and then abandoned when the rodents exhausted their food supply and moved on. These factors gave rise to large expanses of densely regrowing trees and shrubs.

Later, settlers cleared forested land for agriculture, lumber, and fuelwood; by the early 1900s most such areas had returned to being young forest. Around the middle of the twentieth century, up to 60 percent of woodlands may have been young forest. The populations of many wild animals increased thanks to the abundant habitat -- but by 1960 those populations were falling fast as the habitat became older woods.

In the 1990s biologists began studying the remaining young-forest habitats and their dwindling wildlife. Research showed how necessary such habitats are to many animals and plants. Yet recent conservation efforts in the East have focused mainly on preserving older forest, of which many thousands of acres have been protected.

Things Have Changed

Today, disturbances caused by fires, farm abandonment, and beaver activity have all but ceased. Clearcut logging continues, but it has fallen out of favor and even been banned in some states.

Golden-winged warblers nest and feed in young-forest habitat.

Many birds need young forest, including the golden-winged warbler./L. Johnson

In the Northeast, three quarters of all shrubland and young forest is privately owned. As the number of individual landowners has risen, these habitats have been broken up into smaller parcels that are much harder to manage regionwide. And many of these lands are getting too old to provide homes for young-forest wildlife.

The fact is, you don't need to own a lot of land to make a real contribution to wildlife. Even "patch cuts" as small as a couple of acres, created through timber harvesting, can provide homes for wildlife. In some areas, private landowners have banded together to achieve the greatest results from their habitat-making efforts.

Scientists agree that we need to use habitat-management techniques, founded on research and carried out with foresight and care, to keep enough young forest for wildlife's sake. Some of this work is being done on public land, including wildlife management areas and state forests. Wildlife-oriented organizations are joining in the effort. Towns and counties are making young forest to help our native wildlife. And more and more private landowners are creating and renewing young forest on their working farms and woodlands.

How Much Young Forest is Needed?

Maybe the best way to gauge how much of our woodlands should be managed for this type of habitat is not through any estimate of pre-settlement acreage -- but rather the amount of young forest needed to preserve rare and declining wildlife for our children and their children. Today, more than 60 mammals, birds, and reptiles are classified as Species of Greatest Conservation Need in our region because their numbers have fallen as the amount of young forest has dwindled.