Implementing Active Forest Management to Improve Wildlife Habitat at the Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary
Southern New England forests are naturally resilient and adaptable, growing at varying rates and supporting a constantly shifting mosaic of native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. Strongly influenced by soils, climate and topography, the plant communities that grow here dictate the structure and function of the habitat and the types of species that may benefit as a result. Trends in regional land use have also had a major effect on the average age of these forests, another important habitat condition. In general, Southern New England forests have been ageing since the mid-1800s, with notable setbacks caused by the Industrial Revolution and the Chestnut Blight. Today the vast majority of the region’s forests are at least 75 years of age. Only a very small portion of the region’s forests are either very young or very old.
In order to address one of these habitat gaps – the region’s lack of older forest habitat – Norcross has intentionally adopted a management philosophy on portions of the sanctuary that encourages the natural development of “old growth” forest attributes and minimizes fragmentation. One of the beneficial attributes of the sanctuary’s mature, oak-dominated forests is the production of acorns which are a significant source of one of nature’s most essential needs – food. Over time and influenced by natural disturbances like ice storms, hurricanes and insect and disease outbreaks, these older forests will begin to accumulate organic material and take on a more complex structure. Some of the notable animal species that prefer older interior forests include sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, pileated woodpecker, hermit and wood thrushes, black and white warbler, ovenbird, Canada warbler, scarlet tanager and southern flying squirrel. These unmanaged forests also act as biological reserves and may represent increasingly important laboratories for the future study of ecological processes in the absence of human intervention.
Many of these small mammal and bird species became established on this landscape during periods of widespread agriculture and land-clearing. Back when New England was only 30% forest these species were thriving in abandoned fields and shrubby young forest environments. Since then, species like brown thrasher, rufous-sided towhee and New England cottontail have experienced significant population declines associated with predictable habitat change as our forests mature.
So, there are two ways to create this young-forest habitat; find a field and let it grow, or plan some tree-cutting to stimulate natural forest regeneration. Regenerating forests are typically composed of dense growths of shrubs and hundreds, sometimes thousands, of tree seedlings growing on each acre. Foresters and wildlife biologists use the scale and concentration of tree-cutting to influence how densely the forest regenerates, what tree species grow, and the wildlife habitat values that are anticipated as a result.
By actively managing portions of the sanctuary with a variety of sustainable forestry principals, we can positively influence the wildlife habitats this land provides. As a significant land owner in the region, what happens in our forests has influence beyond its boundaries. Our inability to control what occurs beyond our borders provides added incentive to ensure that the management of the sanctuary provides significant benefits to the wildlife, Norcross’s conservation mission, and the local economy. To the extent that we may be able to influence the actions of other private woodland owners in our communities, we are preparing to provide practical educational opportunities that we hope will lead to better management practices across the entire landscape.
Interested in learning more about ecological forestry? We are lucky to have partners and friends in the Northeast that put the forest first. Three such organizations are The Forest Guild (forestguild.org), New England Forestry Foundation (newenglandforestry.org) and American Forest Foundation (forestfoundation.org).