RED PINE AND DIVERSITY
Article #59, May 2002
By Bill Cook
During the days of the Civilian Conservation Corps, many acres of abandoned fields were planted to red pine in an attempt to restore forest cover and provide jobs for an ailing nation. Tree planting was considered a wholesome activity and red pine was a good thing.
Many of these plantations can still be seen today. Some have been well managed, yielding much satisfaction and good financial returns. Others have been neglected, become overcrowded, or succumbed to alternative land uses.
Red pine remains an excellent commercial timber species. It grows quickly and has few insect or disease problems. The red pine forest type occupies less than five percent of Michigan’s forest, but it’s the sixth most common species in Michigan and number eleven in the U.P. About 80 percent of red pine grows in red pine stands. The rest grows in stands dominated by other tree species.
Today, some people view red pine plantations as biological deserts with little value to the landscape. Indeed, some plantation areas are large enough to have diminished the habitat quality for part of the landscape. Some of these plantations were converted from a mix of hardwood forest types.
Habitat values were compromised for timber values. In the big picture, this may not be a negative trade-off. If we can accept farms and housing in the landscape, we should be able to accept intensive forest management. And arguably, a large plantation will yield more forest values than a corn field or a housing subdivision.
It is true that fewer species are typically found in red pine stands, natural or planted. For the most part, there is only one tree species. There is not much brush, referred to as “vertical structure,” which is valuable habitat for many species of birds and small mammals. But diversity is more than a species count.
Compelling arguments for biological diversity can be made regarding red pine. Of particular interest are communities that are relatively rare in the landscape or communities that provide uncommon habitat attributes. Adding red pine stands to the landscape usually increases the level of landscape diversity, especially in the Upper Peninsula.
Red pine also provides some valuable habitat attributes, such as a haven from severe weather and a tree canopy dominated by conifers. By extending perspectives beyond stand boundaries, genuine contributions to landscape diversity can be seen, especially in older stands.
While few, if any, animals are actually restricted to red pine habitat; many species will prefer red pine for part of their life requirements, for the seeds, the protective cover, or another attribute. While the list of habitat benefits may not be long, the relative importance of these values is quite high. In this way, plantations contribute to overall biological diversity.
Red pine plantations are “monotypes”, a vegetation type dominated by a single species. A monotype is neither unnatural nor undesirable. Low species diversity is not necessarily unstable. There are many examples of natural monotypes. A half century of healthy red pine plantations is encouraging.
Plantations may not meet some definitions of an intact forest, but they are closer than an abandoned pasture and look better than some “scrub” forests. Of course, old fields don’t always need to be reforested and “unattractive” forests often provide important habitat diversity elements. However, the idea behind plantations is not necessarily to create a forest, but to produce fiber and provide visual quality.
Red pine is a valuable commercial species and a beautiful tree. Most folks enjoy the “park-like” openness and appearance, especially when the trees reach larger sizes. People tend to like the park-like conditions and there are few sounds as restful as breezes in the pine tops. Red pine plantations, interspersed across an entire forest, are good examples of sustainable forestry and sound ecosystem management.
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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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