By John S. Powers, Wildlife Biologist
Forests cover approximately two-thirds of the land in Alabama, encompassing more than 22 million acres. Approximately 71 percent of that acreage is held by private, non-industrial landowners. Moreover, the forest industry is a major component of our state? economy. Timber harvesting, transportation and exporting of wood, and the manufacture of wood based products are all major activities in Alabama and provide jobs for at least 170,000 citizens. Obviously, forestry and its associated industries are important to our state and its people. Just as clearly, forestry and its associated management practices are of critical importance to Alabama? wildlife.
Life is full of choices. We each face a multitude of them on a daily basis. What will we have for breakfast? What will we wear today? Some choices are a bit more long term and are, thus, considered more important. What sort of automobile will we purchase? Which house will we choose to buy? Who might we choose to marry? Some landowners feel that they have an additional choice to make with regard to land management on their property. Forestry or wildlife? In reality, however, this is one of those choices which isn? a choice at all. Wildlife, in broad terms, will persist regardless of whether land is managed with an emphasis on timber production or not. At the same time, forest management involves a host of both short-term and long-term decisions that directly affect which wildlife species will occur on a given piece of property and in what numbers.
Forest management "hits wildlife where it lives," and its impact on wildlife cannot be minimized. The importance of forest management to wildlife lies in its effects on habitat. The term "habitat" denotes what sorts of food, water, and cover exist in the environment and how these components are distributed. While every piece of property provides habitat for wildlife of some type, not all habitat is created equal. Different wildlife species have different habitat requirements. The activities involved in forest management directly affect the nature of the habitat present on a given piece of property and thus directly affect the types and variety of wildlife species which the property will support. In truth, forest management equals habitat management, which, in turn, equals wildlife management. Thus, forest management and wildlife management cannot be separated.
For landowners with an interest in both timber production and wildlife management, the choices never cease. Fortunately, land management as it pertains to forestry and wildlife is not an either/or proposition. Whether land is managed primarily for timber production or with wildlife as its first priority represents a continuum. A forest manager? choices regarding site preparation, stand composition, thinning, burning, and harvest regime will determine where along this continuum a given piece of property falls.
Broadly speaking, forests comprised of large, even-aged tracts of a single tree species will support a more limited array of wildlife than forests that provide a variety of stand ages and, better yet, a variety of tree, shrub, and herbaceous plant species within forest stands. Habitat diversity is the key to providing the variety of resources (food, water, and cover) near each other that wildlife species need to exist and flourish. Happily, timber production and habitat diversity are not mutually exclusive. Some trade-offs may have to be made, however, because forest management that promotes habitat diversity may result in some reduction in timber production and an accompanying loss in financial return.
Sacrifices in production and profit may make timber management with an emphasis on habitat diversity seem too costly for some landowners to consider. For many, though, the choice is not difficult at all. Alabama's wildlife has value all its own. For some, forested land managed with an eye to producing a diversity of wildlife habitat can provide enough monetary return from hunting lease fees to balance sacrifices made in timber production. For others, hunters and non-hunters alike, the recreational and aesthetic value of having a diversity of wildlife on their land provides returns that money can't buy.
Life is filled with choices. Thankfully, the choice between forestry and wildlife does not have to be made. Alabama's forest landowners have an unusual option--they can readily choose both.