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Valley News – Biodiversity walk spotlights managing forest for more than the trees

HAVERHILL — Jim Frohn, who talks as he walks through forests for a living, wants to ensure that they remain as diverse as possible.

Not unlike communities of people, diversity keeps the woods healthy and interesting.

A field specialist (he identified himself simply as “forester”) for University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, Frohn led a workshop Wednesday to teach landowners and conservation professionals how to manage property to promote habitat for wildlife diversity.

The walking tour, hosted by the Grafton County Conservation District, was held on farmer Russ Keniston’s property, much of which is managed for agriculture.

“You can manage for ag and for wildlife,” Frohn said. “They’re not mutually exclusive, and in fact they can be very compatible.”

The Grafton County Conservation District, a partnership of federal, state and area agencies, assists those interested in land conservation with technical, educational and financial services.

In any ecosystem, all species are interconnected directly or indirectly. In the kinds of healthy ecosystems that the conservation district encourages, maintaining species diversity results in more efficient, productive and sustainable land.

“The more diverse plants are, the more diverse insects are, the more diverse songbirds are,” Frohn said.

Land management practices jump-start diversity.

Zoe Eisenpress, a conservation planner for the New Hampshire Association of Conservation Districts, moved to New England from Hawaii a few years ago. She joined Frohn on his walking tour to get a better grasp on New England habitats. In her new position, she “has to become a generalist of everything,” Eisenpress said. “I need these kinds of events to catch up.”

New Hampshire is about 85% forested, the second-highest percentage in the country after Maine, and 90% of Grafton County is timberland. Grafton County Conservation District, through its partnerships with the National Resource Conservation Service and Cooperative Extension, hopes to maximize species diversity in and around those woods.

Dense woodlands support a different array of species than open fields.

“A lot of it depends on what we as landowners, birders, hunters, want for wildlife, and like a lot of things, the more diverse the better,” Frohn said.

Frohn led the group from the old log landing on Keniston’s property down the skid road — on which heavy equipment lugs downed timber from the woods — and into denser forest, stopping by a stand of aspens.

“Whenever we see aspen in the overstory, it means at one time there was a major disturbance,” Frohn said, noting the tree’s green, toothy leaves.

Aspen is a pioneer species and often found in early-successional habitat — land in the first stages of recovering from a disturbance, like a harvest or a big storm.

Frohn discussed how he could read the forest and trace out how species composition reflect changes in land use.

“By looking at all this, we can piece together the history of land management,” Frohn said.

Land management practices result in certain species compositions. The forests on Keniston’s land have been harvested many times, so the property is replete with earlier successional habitat, full of shrubby undergrowth and trees like quaking aspen, sugar maple and white ash.

“Most of the forests we’re dealing with in New England aren’t pristine, old growth, untouched forest. Most were or are agricultural, so we have lots of even-aged forest after they were abandoned,” Frohn said, noting that second- and third-growth forests don’t have so much diversity. “Old growth forests are valuable especially for their structural diversity, and the key is to have a lot of different things going on on your land.”

Pointing to a standing, rotting oak, Frohn emphasized that timber can be harvested thoughtfully, in a way that maintains important features of older forests — the holes in the oak are likely used as animal dens. Big, standing dead trees don’t have so much financial value, but they can be ecologically critical, and come harvest time, it’s worth marking off a few for preservation, Frohn said.

“Harvesting doesn’t have to mean you’re totally knocking everything back to square one.”

Moving out of the forest into a hay field, Frohn began talking about enhancing diversity in more open habitat. To keep fields agriculturally productive while also species-rich, Frohn suggests a rotational mowing practice, which would mean keeping some areas un-mowed between mowed patches.

“If you’re keeping a field totally mowed all the time, you’re basically perpetuating a lawn,” Frohn said. “If this were being managed solely for wildlife, you’d mow it only in the fall, after the songbirds have flown south. But this is a working field.”

Frohn also highlighted the sliver of land that exists at the edge between the field and the forest.

“That’s important habitat zone, but some edges are better than others,” Frohn said.

He advocates a “feathered edge,” which is a softer division of field and forest that creates a hybrid area between the two habitats. “Something that likes the field isn’t going into a narrow, hard edge, but field- and forest-dwelling species like to use a feathered edge,” Frohn said.

By sending experts like Frohn out into the field for assessment visits, the National Resource Conservation Service and Cooperative Extension provides funding and technical assistance to landowners for practices like rotational mowing and feathered edging that promote species diversity.

Everyone gets a good walk in, too.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at 603-727-3242 or fmize@vnews.com.

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