THE UNSUNG RESOURCE
Article #26, August 1999
By Bill Cook
Natural resources occupy an ever-increasing amount of attention in the press, legislature, and armchair banter. Battles rage about topics such as deer issues, biodiversity, sustainable forests, and much more. Throughout this torrent of fact and opinion, I would add the need to consider soils. After all, soils provide a basis from which the more controversial elements of the biota depend.
Soil genesis is usually one of the more mundane subjects natural resource students have to cover at the university. Ten thousand years ago, the glaciers scraped away the surface of the earth we now know as the Upper Peninsula. The mantle of ice carved out a new beginning. Over the millennia, weather, water, forests, and other vegetation have created the soils we see today. Soil genesis is a very slow process. There is a lesson in this.
Forest soils are different from other kinds of soils. And there is a wide variety of soils that support forests. The productivity of a forest is largely dependent on the fertility and characteristics of the soils. The quality of wildlife habitat is also correlated with soil. Hydrology, or the study of water and water movement, is intimately linked with soils.
I had a professor in school that could tell you the carrying capacity and rack potential of deer by looking at a soil sample. He particularly impressed me when I was with him in Germany one summer. The resident forester showed him a soil sample from miles away, and this professor described a first generation conifer stand planted on an agricultural site. He was correct. And he had never been to Germany before. That’s when I started to really believe in the importance of soils.
Now, compared to other land uses, forestry is usually kind to soils. Nevertheless, we need to be careful. Road building associated with logging generally has more impact than the logging itself. Although, we have come a long way in the U.P. to improve our road building habits. As private forest owners, we need to consider how our activities will affect soil characteristics. I cringe whenever I see topsoil carted away for someone’s landscaping project.
Research remains inconclusive about the impact of heavy machinery on soil structure. If too many soil pores are closed, then water and roots will have a harder time making their way through the soil. Fewer plants grow and most will experience a harder time growing. At what point will compaction become a problem? And how many years might soil compaction remain a problem on a given site? What constitutes a “problem”? There remain many questions without complete answers. At least we know things such as lighter, sandier soils are more resilient that heavier, siltier soils.
A lot of attention is paid to “riparian” areas, those lands of variable width that border waterways. Soils that erode into lakes and streams can have dramatic affects on aquatic systems. However, the movement of soil within the rest of the forest also has importance. Too much soil movement downhill will leave higher areas less productive. Poor forestry practices, or normal practices under an unusual weather event, might contribute to the displacement of valuable nutrients and disruption of soil structure. We need to be careful on steep slopes. Consider what will happen during a heavy spring melt.
The bottom line is to consider soil quality when planning management activities on your property. Actually, consider all the natural resource impacts of your management decisions. After all, someone down the road will inherit the results of your actions. I like to think it’s best to leave as many options open as possible.
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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 906-786-1575.
by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005
J Road, Escanaba, MI 49829
906-786-1575 (voice), 906-786-9370 (fax), e-mail: email@example.com
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