Maintaining Ohio’s forests with European ecological forestry

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European ecological forestry
Jim Gresh tells visitors from the East Central Ohio Forestry Association how an area of forest was logged in a way that minimized damage to the black oak trees that remain standing in that area. He said using the European method of ecological forestry also reduced the cost of logging compared to methods traditionally used in the United States. (Barbara Mudrak photo)

When Jim Gresh asked some loggers to look at the forest he and his wife, Heidi, had bought in Tuscarawas County, they all said he should call them back in 20 or 30 years. That’s because it’s a young forest that grew up on former farmland and pasture. 

Older trees that would be profitable for timbering were few and far between. But Gresh didn’t want to pursue the methods of managing forests for profit that are preferred in the United States. 

“I love the forest. I hunted when I was young,” Gresh said.”I wasn’t interested in clear-cutting.” 

Continuous cover forestry

Instead, he began to learn about European ecological forestry, also called continuous cover forestry. In some parts of Europe, they have practiced those methods for nearly 200 years. 

He showed some of the results of those methods to other members of the East Central Ohio Forestry Association when he hosted their July meeting at the Tuscarawas County property. 

In the European system, “the tree canopy is maintained permanently,” he explained to visitors. Harvests take no more than 20% of the standing volume of trees, while the maximum gap made in the canopy is 1.3 acres. 

“In the American methods, eventually you’re going to do a big harvest,” he said. In the European method, “harvesting is more like thinning. We stress small, frequent harvests.” 

In the Tuscarawas County forest that the Greshes bought in 2011, and at the five other forests they have purchased since then, the diameter of about 1,000 trees is measured once a year. These measurements must be taken at a certain height on the trunk and must be accurate down to the millimeter. 

This tells the Greshes and their forester, Ed Romano, which trees are not growing well. And, as opposed to traditional methods that aim to harvest trees of the highest value, those poorly-growing, low-quality trees are the first to go. Or, they may decide to open the canopy in a certain area to let in more light and allow a certain group of trees to grow faster. 

“We’re constantly improving the quality of the forest,” Gresh said. “In 20 years, we’ll have a better forest than we would have had if we’d done nothing.” 

Letting nature work

The European method is aimed at “protecting and restoring diversity in the species of trees, and letting nature work,” he said. The Greshes use no chemicals to control invasive species. The benefits of permanent canopy cover include moderating temperatures and keeping the forest more humid. 

“That lets things decay, and the nutrients go back into the soil,” Gresh said. “When trees decay, the microbes feed birds, salamanders and other wildlife.” This also makes for better soil quality, he added. 

With the canopy intact, there is less leaching and erosion. Other benefits for forests managed in this way include higher water quality, more wildlife diversity, less chance of trees being downed by wind and better wood quality, he said. 

“The goal of the European method is ecology,” Gresh said. “We’re trying to make forests that are better for biodiversity; for migratory birds, vertebrates, invertebrates, even the fungi and microbes beneath the soil.” 

European ecological forestry
A trail camera captured a doe and fawn traveling through a forest in Tuscarawas County. Owners Jim and Heidi Gresh say the European method of forestry used on their property creates “niche habitats” that support different types of wildlife, encouraging biodiversity. (Barb Mudrak photo)

Not coincidentally, Gresh is in the last year of earning a degree in conservation ecology from Malone University and part of his research for the degree focuses on migratory birds. One study of forests in Europe where continuous cover is practiced shows migratory bird populations increasing each year. Bird populations in other parts of the world are almost universally declining. 

Challenges

The European method poses challenges to loggers, who must use smaller equipment and find pathways to marked trees without damaging others. Plus, targeting mostly low-quality trees does not provide a lot of economic incentive. But the Greshes have found several loggers willing to work with them. 

They’re doing one or two small harvests a year, alternating between the six forests they own in Ohio. And they do want those forests to be profitable. 

“By doing frequent, small harvests, we get some cash now as opposed to waiting for a big harvest decades from now,” Gresh said. “In the past six years, we’ve harvested and sold more than 690,000 board feet of hardwood,” he said. “You have to look at the total economic value.” 

The Tuscarawas County forest is also enrolled in the Current Agricultural Use Value program, so they get some benefits from that as well. 

“I was impressed with the quality of the trees,” said Alan Walter, who has been in the East Central Ohio Forestry Association for 20 years and is currently its treasurer. “The trunks are very straight with few defects.” 

Knots are made where branches come out of the tree trunk, he explained. They are not desirable in wood flooring, and especially not in paneling and furniture, which require veneer-quality wood. Trees that produce veneer-quality hardwood can be worth 100 times more than those used for regular lumber, he said. 

Thinning the forest with small, frequent harvests should produce some of those highest-quality trees given enough time, Walter said. “If there are fewer trees per acre, there are more resources per tree,” he said “Thinning the canopy allows for the growth of trees. In Ohio, the limiting factor in tree growth is sunlight.” 

One forest that Walter has owned for 30 years has been harvested only once in that time. But with mostly young trees in the 120-acre forest he was touring, “the options are kind of limited.” 

“He’s using techniques that are unusual in the U.S. but he’s going into it with eyes open, collecting data and pushing the boundaries of the European method,” he said of the tour guide. “It looks like it will probably work for the type of young forest that he has here.” 

Walter thinks the European method could be used successfully in Ohio, especially as large farms are split into 20- or 30-acre parcels, which he called an “unfortunate trend.” 

“In those cases, there can only be small harvests,” he said. “You can’t fill up a log truck with the smaller acreage, so it may have to go that way.” 

European ecological forestry
Members of the East Central Ohio Forestry Association stop at a stand of black cherry trees as they tour a forest in Tuscarawas County owned by Jim and Heidi Gresh. Gresh explained how they use the European ecological method of forestry, which involves frequent, small harvests and preserving the canopy. The forestry group normally meets at the Dover Public Library the first Wednesday of every month. (Barbara Mudrak photo)

A new world

The Greshes originally bought the Tuscarawas County property as a place to gather and visit with their adult children, most of whom live and work far away. But it was there that Heidi found a new passion — wood turning — and where she and daughter Katia began creating jewelry made of natural materials. 

Learning about forestry from Romano, and about the European method, opened up a new world for Gresh. He had retired after 33 years with the Timken Company, including six years as president of the company’s operations in China. Then he spent three years as executive director of the Timken Foundation. 

But instead of taking it easy in retirement, he began serving on the board of the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District and working on yet another college degree. He joined forestry associations in Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as conservation forestry groups in the United States, the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe. 

He’s managed to visit some of the groups and tour forests they have managed. The Greshes are looking at purchasing more forests, perhaps including some with older trees. And they are hoping their use of European methods of ecological forestry will make those forests productive and profitable well into the next century. 

As Gresh, 61, summed it up: “I’m not too worried about ‘game over’ for at least 100 years.” 

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