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  • Gloria Flora

Collaborating with Your Forest

by Gloria Flora

Excess low-hanging branches, dead wood, and smaller trees can increase the risk of fire.

ARE YOU ONE OF THE BLESSED HUMANS who live near or within a forest you steward? Lucky you!

You are in a partnership that has boundless benefits. But that also confers a responsibility to work in collaboration with your forest for the benefit of its network of life, including yours.

Before we take a look under the hood at the nuts and bolts of human-forest ecosystem collaboration, context is required.

And if learning engaged humility is on your bucket list, you are in the right place as we pay homage to the towering denizens of the forest.

Research and human experience confirm that trees provide: shade, nutrients, humidity control, food, shelter, nesting platforms, fodder, fiber, fuel, building materials, mitigation of noise, toxins and light pollution, privacy, water cleansing and weather management as well as inspiration and beauty. Trees propagate, share resources, communicate and release a plethora of nutrients, even for decades after death.

Not bad for starting with nothing but a seed, air, water and sunlight, and help from a formidable list of minute nonhuman benefactors!

These magnificent structures, miracles of quantum physics, work at the most elemental level, converting energy to matter. Natural disasters have underscored that trees hold soil, hillsides and deltas in place preventing erosion and flash flooding. Trees gird coastlines, forming bastions against inland flooding from storm surges while mitigating sea level rise.

Trees suck carbon dioxide out of the air, store it and in return, release pure oxygen. One large tree can remove 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually and

supply fresh air for a family of four—every day!

If that weren’t enough, these forest benefactors redistribute soil moisture to aid adjacent plants, communicate through mycelial threads and aerosol chemicals – many we haven’t even named or described yet. Trees develop defenses against insect and diseases and share their strategies with other trees.

The psychological benefits of trees, many just recently understood and acknowledged by mainstream science, are myriad. A single hour walk in a forest can reduce your cortisol levels for a week. In inner cities, even being able to see trees from a residence reduces domestic violence by 40%. In short we become better, happier people in the presence of

trees. Amen.

Trees play major roles in producing the free benefits of nature, that humans cannot reasonably emulate, but upon which our lives depend, ecosystem services. Ecosystems services are key to creating a decision framework for what you should and shouldn’t do in a forest.

The magnificence of trees humbles us to the size of a small ant, but they are just a part of the complex matrix of life in these gatherings we call forests. What goes on in a forest at every level—ground, stem and canopy—is equally amazing. Forests teem with life, sustain themselves and all their individual inhabitants, who in turn, work together to promote and sustain life on the planet.

We citizens of the forest, who respect and embody permaculture ethics, take these forest lessons to heart. We understand we need to collaborate with the forest biomimetically, to promote and sustain life with beauty, cooperation and communication so all can thrive, and where all so-called wastes become resources for rebuilding.

Getting to Know Your Forest

Once we grasp the magic of forests, we know where we stand under that canopy of green: we’re an influential part of the community who needs to be a positive influence. Key questions we need to ask:

1. How do I get to know my forest better?

2. Where has my forest been and where is it going?

3. Can I introduce change and still protect and promote ecosystem services?

4. Can I add benefits that complement the health and well-being of other plants, animals (wild and domestic) and my family?

5. How do I apply biomimetic solutions, that is, what Nature does?

Each of these is worthy of a lengthy discussion. But let’s look at a few tips to get started.

Permaculture teaches us that ‘patient and thoughtful observation’ (PATO), remains Step One in gaining understanding of a setting, situation or circumstance. And that certainly applies to your forest.

Perhaps you’ve already completed a solid site assessment of your property. Climate, elevation, slope, aspect, moisture and wind patterns, and soils all influence where certain species prefer to grow, and thrive. Combinations of these factors create what are called niches or habitats.

Site assessment data and maps will facilitate habitat identification as well as help predict reactions you can expect from your interventions even as forests constantly evolve within dynamic conditions and inputs. Forest habitats are generically classified by their moisture regime—dry (xeric), moist (mesic) or wet (includes riparian) — and the general temperature—warm, moderate, or cold. These combos will point you in the right direction. But learning the actual species present will allow more precise choices. If you already know your resident species, way to go! If not, tree and plant identification books or websites for your region are great, but a local who knows the forest will guide you faster, confidently.

Certain combinations of trees and shrubs occupy and dominate the same habitat types. Habitat typing is a way to describe and predict the forest that does, or eventually will, dominate a site, assuming minimal interference. Although it sounds complicated initially, learning the habitat types of your forest will be a boon in understanding it.

Every region has its own set of habitat types, developed by observing specific species assemblages within given moisture and temperature regimes. Habitat types are named

by their dominant tree species and the dominant understory, referred to by code in capital letters, in two groups of four letters each, based on the beginning letters of the botanical

names of the dominant tree and understory shrub or forb. For example PSME/PHOP tells you that the dominant tree is Douglas fir (Psuedotsuga menziesii) and the understory shrub, ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius). You can look up this habitat type and learn a plethora of information: typical site conditions, soils, vegetative composition, resilience, wildfire frequency, productivity, tree density, age classes, stand structure, and wildlife use.

Changes in elevation, aspect, slope and soils change the type of trees and understory growing there. When the dominant tree changes, your stand or habitat type changes. With

knowledge of your habitat types, you can map them as an overlay on your site assessment and marvel at the alignments!

Pine forest with arnica

If DIY doesn’t appeal, professional foresters from one of the forest landowner assistance programs of your local conservation district, state natural resources department or Extension service all provide free site visits and assistance in identifying species, habitat types and health issues. These are great resources, but your permaculture ethics and principles-based objectives for your forest will drive your choices. Don’t let anyone talk you into actions that don’t align with those objectives.

Your Forest Past, Present and Future

Next consider where your forest is on its way to climax, that is, old growth. Sadly, 97% of old growth in the U.S. has been cut since white settlement. Do we need to even say it? Don’t cut old growth. Period.

Likely your forest is on its third or fourth regrowth, but a helpful reference in what your forest wants to be comes from learning its Historic Range of Variability (HRV) in terms of fire frequency, the ratio of trees to openings and vegetative patterns over the landscape. These factors can be derived from historic accounts, tree ring fire scars, and old photos.

HRV is one tool to understand how to move forests towards greater resiliency.

Stream in forest
This riparian forest has a flowing stream.

Because of 100+ years of active wildfire suppression and climate change, most forests are well outside their HRV, tending to be denser, dominated by less fire tolerant species, stressed due to increased competition for nutrients and water, trunks to beyond the dripline and limbing low branches to at least 8’ in height, is not only a good practice for reducing wildfire risk but also reduces competition for nutrients and moisture, adding drought resilience.

Just as in breaking up vertical continuity in fuels, consider the horizontal, that is, dead limbs, and other flammable materials on the forest floor. This material is great for recycling nutrients, providing microsites for germination, shading, and erosion control but too much cancels out most of those benefits and creates the potential for very hot burning conditions. Removing some of it will break that continuity and reduce fire danger. But leaving a diversity in size, distribution

and various stages of decay scattered about is good practice. Resources listed below can help you determine the amount to leave.

As important as a forest’s history is its Future Range of Variability (FRV) is perhaps more important. Take a deep breath because this is hard to hear. Research strongly suggests

that climate-induced changes and the accompanying weather perturbations (weird weather at weird times) severely impact native vegetation that has evolved and adapted to specific

conditions over eons.

Phytomigration, the natural process of vegetation moving as a result of habitat changes over time, is an amazing form of adaptation. However, most habitat conditions now are changing significantly in a matter of decades. Predictive models in the West show that native trees that abound here will find the habitat conditions in many areas they call home will be less than 50% suitable in just 10 to 40 years. Some ubiquitous native species will likely wink out in the next 60–80 years. They just can’t move fast enough.

Climate change, biodiversity loss, natural disasters and wild weather are already here, it’s already happening. So here you sit, trying to make the connections between HRV and FRV and land somewhere in the middle in what you choose to add or remove from your forest.

Here at TerraFlora, the native climax species most at risk on our property are lodgepole pine and western larch. Over the last ten years, both species have become visibly more stressed, diseased and even dying. In working with our forest, where thinning is necessary, distressed members of those species are the first to go. However, some snags contribute critical wildlife nesting and foraging habitat. Learn which snags (by species, size and location) are important to leave in your forest, optimally ~5 per acre.

Although choosing native species for reforestation remains the preferred strategy, permaculture principles suggest that we seek and accept feedback. The feedback resonating

from many ecosystems confirms the models and predictions, that only natives that can withstand drier conditions are likely to remain native. Specimens from a different – and drier - habitat type than is present and even non-natives from more southerly latitudes could be more successful now.

Research confirms that species—plant and animal alike— are moving poleward and up in elevation, trying to keep up with rapidly changing conditions. When we help those species

leap frog by planting them in more pole-ward and higher elevations, we could be speeding their journey and survival. That practice is called assisted migration. It’s unsettling to be

changing the population composition and thus dynamics but these are unsettled times.

Developing an Action Plan

Let’s first acknowledge that there are dozens of actions that could be taken. Permaculture’s mantra of “It depends.” certainly fits here. And you could chose to do nothing. But if your observations point to insect and disease issues, die-off due to drought, impenetrable undergrowth impeding wildlife and human movement, risk of catastrophic wildfire or other

issues leading to a downward health trajectory, then action could be necessary. Now for some further planning.

Thinned forest
View of a forest that has been thinned to reduce forest fire risk.

In large acreage forests, more trees might be cut than you can use. Selling them is an option. Be aware of state forest practices law that require permits and best management practices on private lands if any of the harvest is intended for commercial sale.

First, list basic mandatory principles. There are always

exceptions such as if trees in any of these cases are so dense that they negatively affect or stunt each other, clearly disease ridden or unstable, threatening human safety or important infrastructure. Letting trees fall on their own is an option if the impacts are acceptable.

Retain large trees. Size, defined by ‘diameter at breast height’ (dbh) and height, is dependent on your ecosystem and average size of the largest trees. These trees provide important seed sources and many benefits for the forest community. In our Intermountain West forest type, 18-21”+ define retention trees. Another good rule is “Respect your elders.”

by not cutting any tree older than you are.

Avoid working in wetlands and riparian areas. The ecology of these ecosystems contributes directly to the health of groundwater and maintaining biodiversity. Using any heavy equipment in these fragile areas compacts soils and disrupts flows. If treatments seem necessary, get professional advice.

Enhance biodiversity. If you’re making select removals based on species, don’t take all of one species out unless it is an invasive and its elimination would benefit the whole community.

Introduce age class diversity. Likewise if you are targeting specific-sized trees (fire risk reduction focuses on removing trees <8” dbh), don’t take them all out. Allow those that are not directly under larger trees to remain.

Mimic nature. Nature does not line trees up like cornrows. Nature does not create large opening with sharply defined borders (like most clearcuts). Thinning within a broad spacing range and punctuating leave areas with small patchy openings (called ‘skips and gaps’) benefits wildlife and forest health, enhances diversity and looks great!

Honor aesthetics. If what you’re planning or doing looks bad, quite likely it is ecologically bad. Beauty is an essential component to human happiness and typically reflects harmony and balance. Nature doesn’t do ugly and neither should we.

Plan ahead. Even if you are only harvesting firewood, make a plan. When and where will you tend over the next 5 years, the next 25 years? For forests over 10 acres, you might want to consider a forest stewardship plan. Most states actually require these if you want to apply for state or federal financial aid to help reduce fire risk on your property. Typically, you’ll need to hire professional help for that.

Goat in forest
Goats are notorious for eating a very wide range of plant material and can be used to reduce undergrowth.

Speaking of professionals, if you do take advantage of Extension or conservation district programs that assist small forest landowners by providing advice, remember most of these folks are trained as foresters. The advice they give might be weighted towards traditional forest practices with an emphasis on timber economics. But more often nowadays, foresters respect land owners’ amenity objectives. If your intent is to protect forest aesthetics, wildlife and biodiversity versus turning your forest into a tree farm, do not follow advice that pushes you towards the latter. Find a professional who can work with you and help you chart a path to your goals. Organizations, such as the Forest Stewardship Guild, can connect you with foresters who understand and share those values.

But you don’t necessarily need a professional forester to take action. Common sense, permaculture principles and hand tools can guide you. Please don’t use a chainsaw or drop trees if you don’t know how: injury or death, your own or others, is a very possible outcome.

forest vista
A forest vista in the western US.

Permaculture Principles: Forest Management

Observe and Interact/Design from pattern to detail: Using PATO to develop objectives and refine ecosystem-based treatment parameters constitute the initial steps in collaborating with your forest.

Obtain a yield/Use and value renewable resources and services: Mimic nature in the techniques and patterns that you apply. Solutions that protect and support ecosystem services yield benefits for you and the whole community.

Use and value diversity/Integrate rather than segregate: Steps to maintain or enhance biodiversity likewise yield benefits for all plants, animals and humans. Managed correctly,

your poultry and livestock can create co-benefits for them and the forest. Adding diverse trees and shrubs that produce additional food can bring even more benefits to all forest


Use small, slow solutions: Over time, slow steps to clean up your forest, like cutting and piling excess brush, can be undertaken. Brush piles should be small, manageable, and placed in open areas where, if you decide to burn them, the heat will not damage the canopy. Learn the top-lit conservation burning technique to create biochar, or leave the piles for small mammal habitat.

Catch and store energy: Your contributions to better forest health allow trees to mitigate heat by providing shade, store carbon and energy by optimizing photosynthesis, and then

graciously surrendering that energy, oxygen, carbon and nutrients to plants and soils benefitting wildlife, soils, plants, fungi and microbes, and through conversion, to food, fiber,

medicine, biochar and firewood for humans.

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: The first targets for removal would be trees that are weak, broken or diseased. Take a few, clean up the debris, and see how the forest


Produce no waste: Slash (debris left from your work that’s more than the forest floor needs) can give you firewood, raised bed framing, supports and poles, wood ships, mulch, erosion control, hugelkulture materials (hardwoods preferred) and biochar.

Use edges and value the marginal: Nature doesn’t do squares, blocks or perfect circles in forests. Feather the edges of patch cuts. Encourage ecotones (the transition zones from one ecosystem type to another) for their richness, diversity and wildlife habitat.

Creatively use and respond to change: Patches of wind throw (trees blown down by uncharacteristic winds) or pockets of disease suggest creating openings. Clean the area up, leaving some debris in ground contact for nutrients and micro-climate enhancement. Monitor for invasive weeds and you’ve just created a mini-pasture for wildlife.

Garden in forest clearing
A garden in a forest clearing: an ancient pattern.

More Information

The intricacies and beauty of the evolution of life and function within a forest fills volumes. An article this brief that touches primarily on the tree component of forests barely does justice to the miracle of these ecosystems. Analogous to the parts that comprise a tree—20% roots, 60% trunk, 15% stems and 5% leaves—we haven’t even gotten out of the leaves in this discussion! Δ

The following resources will expand your knowledge of forests from multiple perspectives: fun places to start are fine books of fact-rich fiction like The Overstory by Richard Powers,

and non-fiction storytelling such as Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Susan Simard, and The Man who Planted Trees: A Story of Lost Groves, the Science of Trees, and a Plan to Save the Planet by Jim Robbins.

Resources providing education and assistance can be found on these websites:

Forest Stewards Guild:

Your state’s extension service (for example, Forestry Education and Assistance for Washington Forest Landowners): for-washington-forest-landowners

Your state department of natural resources landowner assistance program:

USDA Forest Service private landowners programs and education: landowner-resources

USDA Forest Service Forest Stewardship Program:

Writing a Forest Stewardship Plan (WA example):

Gloria Flora is a regular contributor to this publication. She is dedicated to sharing practical information about plants, tools, and life-saving strategies for people aligned with permaculture. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and tends to a beautiful


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