Mr. Haadsma owns 20 acres of woods on the outskirts of Grand Rapids, Michigan. His property and home are located in an ambiguous zone of real estate that’s neither rural nor suburban, and certainly not urban. His property is close enough to the city that he can drive into town to go to work and not feel as if he’s spending half his life on the road, but far enough away that he feels like he’s making an escape. He considers his 20 acres of trees a little piece of paradise. It’s where the sound of the highway still drones in the distance, but he no longer needs to raise his voice to be heard when the family gathers outdoors on the patio.
Mr. Haadsma called me to have his woods inspected.
Because inspections mean different things to different people, I ask clients like Mr. Haadsma, “What are you trying to achieve? Do you want your woods managed for timber production, to create a wildlife habitat, or maybe both? Do you want to create a park-like feel to your land, where the undergrowth is cleared so you can walk unencumbered? Do you prefer leaving it natural? Is there anything specific you need?”
As it turned out, Mr. Haadsma wasn’t interested in growing timber, though when I mentioned the trees could be worth some money, the thought did give him pause. He eventually replied, “No, I’m not really interested in harvesting my trees and definitely not looking to remove all of the underbrush.” He paused for a long time, clearly struggling to put into words exactly what he wanted.
I rescued him with, “So you basically want to know if your trees are healthy?”
“Yes! That’s it,” he said, with obvious relief in his voice. “That’s exactly what I want. I just want to be sure everything’s all right.”
Mr. Haadsma isn’t alone. Lately, people like him have been requesting something new: all they want to know is how healthy their parcel of woods is, and if there are any problems like invasive species, diseases and infestations.
Mr. Haadsma is part of a growing number of knowledgeable property owners who understand that given the dramatic changes that occurred to their land, there may be problems. What I mean is, they understand that their property was clear-cut at some point in the distant past. They realize the stumps were likely blown up and burned to create the original homestead and farm. Over the ensuing decades, the countryside has evolved into its current patchwork of unmaintained fields and woodlots. They’ve read about invasive species and the devastation they cause. They worry about global warming. Times have changed, and they know it.
Mr. Haadsma’s request for a simple tree checkup is actually a reasonable one.
But I think his request goes deeper than that.
Nearly all of the Midwest was once forested. The trees were all logged-off. The regrowth was cut again. People don’t own virgin forests anymore. What little is left of old growth trees was set aside long ago in small preserves.
Without being able to properly articulate it, Mr. Haadsma realized that without some help, there is little hope his woodlot will return to anything that resembles a virgin forest. The changes to the land are so sweeping and so pervasive that, in fact, it’s unclear what woodlots will evolve into, even if left undisturbed for many decades.
Yet, despite being well aware that their land has drastically changed from those pioneer days, many landowners still hope their land can return to something that resembles pristine. They hope that their woods will reach a certain type of vitality. Some dare to hope it will once again resemble a land their forefathers knew.
I enjoy talking with landowners like Mr. Haadsma. They’re interested in hearing about their trees. They like talking about their property. They tend to want to do what is right.
Most clients like this are also realistic and pragmatic people. After a short conversation, they quickly grasp that they need to settle for growing a healthy, sustainable woodlot versus trying to recreate virgin forests. The question they then ask is, “What is a healthy forest?”
That’s a difficult question to answer.
The water we drink may be healthy, but we understand that it’s tainted. We purify the water to “acceptable health and safety standards.”
The soil supports life, but has been worked and reworked.
Today’s trees no longer tower over us. Our notion of what an old tree is has even changed. I can’t count the number of times someone’s asked me to remove a 30-foot pine because it was “getting too big.” Their notion of an old tree is a 40- or 50-foot specimen. When a tree reaches 80 feet, I’m often asked if the tree has reached its full life expectancy. “Shouldn’t we remove it before it starts to die?” They’re surprised when I tell them that a 100-foot white pine is barely middle-aged.
Further illustrating the changing times, 30 years ago I rarely received a call like Mr. Haadsma’s to address forest health. Instead, I was frequently asked to check individual trees in yards, but not whole woodlots located well outside of town.
The reason for the change is that most landowners no longer think of their acreage as a commercial venture. They’re not timbering their property nor farming it. They have jobs — they work hard as engineers or doctors or grind out enough hours in a factory so that their property doesn’t need to produce a cash crop.
Their land is more valuable to them with the trees than without. The resale value of their property is more than double with the trees and, with as much as people buy and sell homes today, the resale value takes precedent.
To help Mr. Haadsma better understand what he wanted, I became the equivalent of a real estate agent. Instead of showing him pictures of Dutch colonials, Victorians and Cape Cods, I showed him photos of climax forests and mature woodlands where the sunlight slants through the canopies of 100-foot maples, beech and hemlock. The trees stitch a lacework of leaves and branchlets that tower above a forest floor covered in trilliums. I showed photos of conifer stands where the ground is blanketed with the equivalent of a thick comforter worth of pine needles. The pictures displayed moss and lichen coating fallen branches. In other words, when looking at the pictures, you could almost smell the pine scent.
I once had a client ask me not to step on any of the moss in his woods. He’d lived in downtown Chicago all his life and admitted to rarely leaving the city. He’d invented the computer mouse and made enough money from his invention to never need work again. He’d bought an 80-acre parcel of forest land in Northern Michigan. Every inch of his property seemed precious to him. He practically tiptoed through the woods as we looked at the trees. I obliged him by being careful where I stepped, but couldn’t help but think it would be tough to levitate trucks onto his property to do tree work and wondered if he expected us to airlift out the wood and brush so he could build his home.
Fortunately, I didn’t find any invasive plants. If I had, it would have meant going to war, and wars are messy… and expensive. There’s always collateral damage. If the woods are full of invasive plants, the eradication process will be violent.
As we know in this industry, removing large trees, or even understory plants, isn’t a gentle procedure. His woods would look much different when we were finished and his forest wouldn’t resemble anything near pristine for many years.
Without them being able to say so, I believe many landowners hope that with a little care their woodlots will eventually become the equivalent of a national park. A big part of my job is to change those expectations and gently bring them back to the new reality, the “new wild.”
Going back to Mr. Haadsma, I can help him grow a vibrant, sustainable 20 acres of trees. As for creating a blemish-free, virgin forest, he’ll need more than I can deliver. Promising any more only leads to disappointment (both his and mine).
Mr. Haadsma needed to learn how to settle for healthy — and healthy is often difficult enough to achieve.