Visitors to the Cradle of Forestry (located near Brevard in Pisgah National Forest) learn about the Biltmore Forest School – the first school of forestry in North America. It was started in 1898 by Carl Schenck. A native of Germany, Schenck brought German forestry concepts to the United States. It is fitting that today in Pisgah National Forest, researchers are looking to bring a German forestry practice to Pisgah National Forest in an effort to restore oaks.
Sometime this spring researchers will begin to cut quarter-acre and one-acre gaps in a 150-acre section of the forest. Forest Service research scientist Tara Keyser is leading this work. The gap cutting technique is called “femelschlag.”
“All of our silviculture techniques come from central Europe,” Keyser explains. “Femelschlag is one of those techniques. It has been practiced as long as forestry.”
The work addresses a big problem facing Southern Appalachian forests – a lack of young oaks. “You can walk miles in an Appalachian forest and not see a head-high oak seedling,” says Keyser. Oaks are being out-competed by other species, particularly yellow poplar.
“A tree is not a tree. There are some trees that are really important because of their role and the niche that they fill,” she says. On that scale an oak is more important than a poplar. Acorns are an important food source for wildlife. Hickories, whose nuts are another food source, are also in danger of disappearing from the forest.
Femelschlag may be one tool to help these important trees regenerate. Southern Appalachian forests are paying the price for a century’s worth of mismanagement. The Cherokee were the region’s first land managers – setting controlled burns and thinning trees to improve wildlife habitat. European settlers continued those practices and began to clear some land for crops as well as using wood for heating and cooking – ensuring that there were gaps in the forest canopy that allowed a variety of trees to thrive.
Things changed in the 20th century. All fires were suppressed. People left rural areas. The forests began to grow with no disturbance. During that same period, the forest was dealt another major blow. Chestnuts were decimated by blight – removing the dominant tree on the landscape and a major source of wildlife food.
Today land managers are bringing disturbance back to the forest. Controlled burning is one method. Thinning is another. Keyser thinks femelschlag is particularly promising. Poplar are still going to grow in the gaps, particular in the center. “But on the edge environments, that’s where you will see your oaks and hickories. If we can get big seedlings to grow there, then they can compete.”
The idea first hit her during one of her first visits to the forest shortly after taking her “dream job” a decade ago. “We stopped at one site and I looked at oak development on the edge of a gap. I said ‘you know what you need? You need femelschlag.’”
She is excited about finally implementing the research. But she is a realist. “If I grew corn, I could have the research results to you tomorrow. Trees take decades.”
This story originally appeared on The Nature Conservancy website.
For more information, email Tara Keyser at firstname.lastname@example.org.