On June 19, 2013, Bob Williams, a certified forester practicing in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, received New Jersey Audubon’s Richard Kane Conservation Award— their conservationist of the year award. He has successfully planned timber harvests for commercial and government forests for more than twenty years, converting little-remembered and poorly cared for forests into stands that provide valuable timber products, earn profits for the landowners, and improve the conservation of biodiversity in the unusual oak-pine forests of the southern New Jersey coastal plain.
I recently spent a day with Bob visiting the forests and seeing stands of many stages and treatments. At one stop he said he had thinned the forest we were looking at. I asked him how he determined how much to remove. I was thinking as a scientist in terms of carefully measuring the diameter and height of trees. Bob said he couldn’t afford to do that, desirable though it was. Instead, he would show the logger who would cut the trees an already thinned forest and tell him, “I want that other forest to look like this.” Then he would train that logger, having him thin trees in a small area and telling him what he needed to change. After enough trials, he would let the logger continue on his own.
Bob listens to and makes use of scientific information, then combines it with his long experience in the woods. With my decades of experience as both an ecological scientist and a naturalist who loves being out in nature, I understood what Bob was doing. We agreed that it is “woodsmanship” — the art and practice of forestry. Woodsmanship is somewhere between the two dominant approaches to environment these days: scientific research and ideological environmentalism.
To many, harvesting trees while at the same time improving the conservation of nature may seem contradictory. But Henry David Thoreau didn’t think so, as I explain in one of my ebooks, No Man’s Garden:Thoreau and a New Vision for Civilization and Nature. Logging per se did not interfere with Thoreau’s appreciation of the spiritual qualities of forested nature, as long as the cutting was not so large in area or so severe as to disallow any sense of contact with the forest, or where logging seriously interfered with other land uses, especially logging so destructive that the cutover land could not be used to build cities.
I’ve worked with and met experts on condors, salmon, and forests elsewhere in our country, who worked that same way. My visit with Bob Williams was a welcome reacquaintance with woodsmanship, and it was good to discover that the practice is alive and well, at least in some corners of our nation, and that it was recognized by landowners and honored by the New Jersey Audubon Society. I believe that “woodsmanship” in its largest sense, perhaps “naturecraftsmanship,” is one of the key things lacking in environmentalism today and is essential if we are to find ways to help conserve nature and save ourselves.