44

My inlaws have about 40 wooded acres in the Mid Atlantic region. They are nice woods but the amount of dead wood on the ground is astounding. For the most part it makes walking through similar to a jungle. You're just trampling on dead branches and trunks EVERYWHERE. They bought it several years ago and it's evident no one has been clearing it quite possibly for decades.

I would like to make the woods a little more walkable because I use them for hunting and would also like to blaze a trail for ATVs, bikes or just walking.

At the same time, I am a whitewater kayaker also and a tree in the water can be deadly for kayakers -- which doesn't mean it doesn't serve a purpose in the ecosystem. Fish love dead trees in the water as they feed on it. When you remove a log from a river, you make it safer for humans but you do harm other species in the ecosystem.

That makes me wonder whether there are any downsides to removing dead trees from the woods. Yes, it makes it cleaner and prettier -- but does it upset or imbalance the ecosystem?

  • Similar to @whatsisname's comment, I recommend you look into best practices for trail building. How you build and maintain trails seems like the more important question, as that covers changing the woody debris wherever you want a trail. It's not easy to clear broad areas of woody debris on the ground and it doesn't sound like you necessarily want to do that. – cr0 Apr 23 '18 at 19:37
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    Hunter here - Check to see if your area has something like this: fw.ky.gov/Wildlife/Pages/Landowner-Services.aspx . Its advice for landowners from the DFW to encourage habitat growth. This has the additional benefit of improving hunting. This may be a resource to get local experts to answer your questions and improve your land. – Freiheit Apr 23 '18 at 21:16
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    @Freiheit Given the large variation in answers below, I think this is the way to go. The people who can give OP best advice, are those managing similar forests in that area - with a similar composition of tree species. – Bilkokuya Apr 24 '18 at 8:59
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    @amphibient Can you say specifically what state you're in? I'd be happy to dig out information about your states habitat improvement program and post that as an answer if it has one. – Freiheit Apr 24 '18 at 14:22
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    The property in question is in eastern VA – amphibient Apr 24 '18 at 14:43

10 Answers 10

33

I'll answer this from a perspective of what we follow in some of the areca nut and coconut farms that I've grown up in.

The areca nut and coconut trees shed their branches often. These are similar to the dead wood that you are speaking of in the woods. These too are a nuisance when it comes to walking around. So what we do is to move these to the base of the trees instead of them being scattered everywhere. Two reasons why we do this:

  • The dead branches help to retain moisture in the soil around the base of the trees (they act as a cover, holding back the moisture from soil).
  • These eventually turn into fertilisers for the trees.

For the dead woods, this would be similar. To add to it, each trunk of a dead tree you come across might be hosting its own mini biosphere. The insects feeding the dead trunks/branches would be feeding the birds. Which in turn might be prey for the larger prey animals. Having said that, these changes are really difficult to observe. Even for a scientist, unless she/he carries out an extensive survey, they might not notice the subtle changes that are the results of the removal of dead/decaying trees. The effects might be seen many years later or they might not be seen at all (the ecological balance might get restored due to some other factor for all you know!)

So in short, removing the dead branches/trunks from the forest might not be a great idea. Instead displace them from your trails (need not be to the base of the trees as some trees might suffer due to excessive moisture). Move them around rather than removing them completely.

  • 16
    It's useful to note that not all species of tree grow well with a buildup of detritus around their trunk. Many species where I live will completely die if a substantial buildup of their own sheddings is manually placed around the tree trunk, because it can cause a bacterial or fungal infection in the tree due to the buildup of too much moisture. – Jonathan Landrum Apr 23 '18 at 17:50
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    @JonathanLandrum agreed, hence, displacing them from the trails is better. Need not be to the base of the trees. – Ricketyship Apr 23 '18 at 17:51
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    that I can agree with, and is the method I would have used in the OP's situation. I must have misunderstood your response. – Jonathan Landrum Apr 23 '18 at 17:52
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    @JonathanLandrum No worries :) The reason for your confusion is also because I gave reference to the way we handle at our farms (which require moisture near base due to hot tropical weather). But I do mention at the end that displace them and don't remove them. I'll probably add an edit as well. – Ricketyship Apr 23 '18 at 17:55
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    @berry120 If the disease is native, then it is part of the ecosystem too. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Apr 24 '18 at 12:15
19

Can removing dead wood harm the ecosystem?

In a word yes. Dead wood forms an important base to any wooded ecosystem. If you think of a food pyramid for a wooded area it'll look something like this:

enter image description here

Source

Dead wood in this process plays an important role as:

  • Food for a lot of primary consumers
  • Food for decomposers
  • Habitat and shelter for primary, secondary and tertiary consumers (even some apex predators will use dead wood depending on where you are, e.g. weasel, etc.).
  • Recycling of material for producers (compost, mulch, etc.); possibly via a decomposer

The decomposers provide an important role in recycling energy back into the system.

If you remove this dead wood you remove some primary source of food for a low level of the pyramid and also some habitat for others. Note; the lower in the chain the removal happens the bigger the affect higher up as only 10% of the energy is transferred upwards. Without food there will be less primary consumers. Without habitat the higher levels increase competition for what resources remain and numbers decline. The nett result is less of everything and a less healthy ecosystem.

The dead wood is like the glue that holds this ecosystem together. A neat wood is an unhealthy wood. Woods should be cluttered!

Obviously the impact will depend on how much wood you plan to remove.

In the UK it's actually common for wood managers to cut wood and leave it to rot specifically to increase the amount of dead wood as it will make the habitat more healthy.


A lot of the other answers talk about Fire ecologies. These are common in areas like Australia and California where the wildlife have evolved to deal with regular (moderate) wildfires.

In these areas wood is cleared out periodically by the fires. So the pyramid has evolved without the large amounts of dead wood that are common in more temperate forests.

I'm not going to repeat these points but tl;dr: Ultimately in respects to harm to an ecosystem, the wild ecosystem should be maintained in as wild a form as possible. If this involves large amounts of dead wood then leave it. If this wood is cleared (naturally) clear it.

14

The answer seems to be that it depends,

Birds, small mammals, and other wildlife use snags for nests, nurseries, storage areas, foraging, roosting, and perching. Live trees with snag-like features, such as hollow trunks, excavated cavities, and dead branches can provide similar wildlife value. Snags occurring along streams and shorelines eventually may fall into the water, adding important woody debris to aquatic habitat. Dead branches are often used as perches; snags that lack limbs are often more decayed and, may have more and larger cavities for shelter and nesting. Snags enhance local natural areas by attracting wildlife species that may not otherwise be found there.

The Importance of Snags in Your Neighborhood

Although dead wood might seem expendable in a forest or may even be regarded as unsightly, it serves an important role in supporting wildlife and assisting ecological processes. Dead wood may be in the form of snags (standing, dead trees), dead limbs, or logs. All provide habitat to numerous animal species and play an important role in nutrient cycling.

Dead Trees as Resources for Forest Wildlife

Felling a tree for whatever reason alters wildlife habitat. The effects can be beneficial or detrimental, planned or haphazard. Some people believe leaving dead trees in the forest to rot is a waste of resources. However, dead trees offer both shelter and food to many wildlife species. Dead limbs and trees are a natural and desirable part of wildlife habitat. The existence of numerous species depends on the presence of dead trees. A fallen tree becomes infested with fungi and insects. As the tree decomposes, nutrients are recycled into the soil and a microhabitat favorable for the growth of new tree seedlings is often created.

Dead Wood for Wildlife

On the other hand, one of the biggest removers of dead wood is wildfire, and that has definite benefits for wildlife. So like with most things its a trade off.

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    Fire is a huge factor that IMO deserves a more prominent mention. Removing living and dead material can partly substitute for the effects of fire that would naturally remove it. But the details will vary greatly by ecosystem. For example, one of the key questions is how many trees there were per acre historically when regular natural fires burned unchecked. The amount of dead wood that many trees produce would be the "correct" amount of dead wood to leave on the ground. But I'm not sure that information is even known for most areas. – No U Apr 23 '18 at 22:25
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    one of the biggest removers of dead wood is wildfire this is only true in a fire ecology in many temperate and rain forests wild fires are rare and mostly damaging. Wood removal in these habitats is performed by insects and fungi. – user2766 Apr 24 '18 at 9:11
8

You're building up a huge fire hazard. Normally fires would've cleaned that out, but fire suppression for 40 years has left you with a lot of fuel. Which may make for a really bad fire. Destroying forest, as well as structures.

Removing that dead wood will be taking out nutrients from the ecosystem (as well as costly in labor and time).

Reducing Fire Risk on Your Forest Property

In some places, they group all the extra wood in a few locations, so when it does burn, it burns in one place vs. everywhere.

Color-coded map of the different types of wildfire by location in the United States

Image Source

You may want to look into carbon-sinking that wood, instead of just letting it stack up, or removing some/all of it.

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    So your saying the fire suppression has increased the dead wood so fires will be more intense? I think your saying fires are good in a fire ecology (which is correct) but the point is a little muddled. I'd think of editing this answer to make your point more clear. – user2766 Apr 24 '18 at 9:09
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    @Liam more fuel means more fire – Reinstate Monica Apr 24 '18 at 13:42
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    Hi user3082, can you provide the source for the image? – Ricketyship Apr 25 '18 at 8:19
  • @Ricketyship fs.fed.us/rm/pubs/rmrs_gtr042_2.pdf pg7 – user3082 Apr 27 '18 at 11:32
6

If you clear too much, then the opened areas won't regrow that well, either because of trampling (continued easier access), or because of lack of nutients from the decay.

The overall ecosystem can be damaged because of lack of micro habitats for insects and other lower elements of the food & pollination chain.

I've heard it said, in the opposite, that some areas used to have native management that would clear some areas of dead wood (e.g. spring fires) to maintain particular level of usage (old cowboy films of riding through the trees are now overgrown areas, apparently). Other slow growing areas areas have become ravaged by accidental fires with limited/slow regrowth (just been to Patagonia where it was a significant issue - they have no natural fires/lightening).

Overall, take it slow, careful and steady. It takes a very long time to get a natural forest back (maybe 3-4 generations of 2-300 year old trees ?)

3

There are some state run programs that will help in OPs specific location. These programs will help, at a minimum, by getting OP in contact with the Dept of Forestry. Even if these programs aren't the exact fit, they should turn up some leads to get local expert help to OPs question.

These programs will also help OP manage the habitat quality and wildfire risk. OP benefits by cost sharing and getting expert help and nicer land, the people benefit by having more habitat for the local wildlife.

http://www.dof.virginia.gov/costshare/whip.htm

The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program is a voluntary program which offers private landowners cost-sharing to install practices to improve wildlife habitat. You don't have to be participating in any USDA program. All you have to do is own or have control over the land. The program is administered by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

http://www.dof.virginia.gov/fire/intro-forest-prot.htm

The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) is charged with the protection of the forest resources from fire. The principle goals of the Forest Protection Program are to prevent injury or loss of human life, minimize property damage and protect resources.

The VDOF has a well-defined and organized forest protection team, with every member of the Department having fire responsibilities. The ability to adapt to emergencies enables a small formal fire suppression force to limit annual fire losses to an average of less than 8200 acres (10-year average). This low average is accomplished through coordination with local fire departments, forest industry, federal agencies, other state agencies and VDOF organized volunteer fire crews.

The activity falls into six components:

Forest Fire Suppression
Forest Fire Prevention
Prescribed Fire Management
Law Enforcement
Woodland/Urban Interface Initiative
Non-Fire Emergency Readiness and Response

There is also a national program https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/By-topic/Wildfire/Firewise-USA

NFPA's Firewise USA™ program teaches people how to adapt to living with wildfire and encourages neighbors to work together and take action now to prevent losses.

3

Some insects are carnivores and feed on other insects that feed on wood. Species that feed on dead wood are often different from species that feed on living wood, but these carnivores often feed on both.

As a result, removing dead wood would decrease the number of carnivorous insects (by reducing the food base). This may make life easier for the species that feed on living wood (complex to predict but looks possible). This is how the university professor has taught us during summer practice in the woods.

Of course, it may not be necessary to keep the dead wood in amounts one cannot pass through the forest, but having everything very nice and clean can, indeed, do harm.

2

I would say "it could," but it would only be appreciable if you removed all the dead logs from all 40 acres (and even then, it's debatable how much of a real impact it would have; sure some bugs might die, but there's plenty to take their place, and some bunnies may need to move, but you wouldn't be damaging the ecosystem). Clearing out some deadfall to make trails wouldn't have any significant (or likely even detectable) impact. I would be more worried about the ecological impact when lightning strikes a tree and the whole wooded lot goes up in flames due to the overabundance of fuel, which given that description, there's likely lots of low-hanging branches, which increases the risk that a small ground fire will turn into a crown fire (jumping from the tops of the trees) and then you lose the whole stand. Much better to properly maintain and clear some of that out if you can, both so it can be better enjoyed by people, but also to reduce the risk of a bad fire.

2

Yes.

In some Western European countries there has done plenty of research and evidence that a lot of the forest maintained as production forests and cleared of undergrowth and dead wood have lead to regional extinction or endangerment of certain species.

Many species specialise and have specialised on dead wood for eating, nesting or other dependancies. A lot of forest maintenance (with increased ecological considerations) here now tries to re-establish dead wood both standing up and laying down.

examples: - bats and birds breeding in natural cavities in trees. - Fungi! - beetles specialised on dead wood. - small vertebrates and invertebrates using falling braches and logs on the forest floor as shelter to hide under.

European Environment Agency:

Deadwood (coarse woody debris) is a proxy indicator for biodiversity, since it is a habitat for a wide array of organisms including vertebrates, invertebrates, lichens, bryophytes and fungi. Deadwood decomposition plays a key role in the recycling of nutrients and organic matter, as well as in providing a wide variety of (micro)habitats for plants and invertebrates, particularly insect species and other organisms.

2

Harm, upset, or imbalance are three levels.

Need to weigh impact versus usability.

You're just trampling on dead branches and trunks EVERYWHERE.

There has to be a balance somewhere. Limited trails still limits the use and in a way you are concentrating impact to a smaller area.

People clear land all the time and don't create an imbalance. Ranchers even introduce domestic animals without creating an imbalance.

  • Leave some areas pristine to preserve the local wild life.
  • Pick some explore areas that you clear debris. You could even have a few larger slag piles that could be used by bugs and critters. Yes it has impact but less impact than burning the wood.
  • Pick some trails. Maybe clear debris 10 foot either side. It lets you see a lot more. In good weather you can walk off the trail to spread the impact.

Don't ride the ATV when the ground is soft and it will have more impact.

If you just cleared 5-10 acres you would make it much more usable and not a significant impact in my opinion.

My buddy has 300 acres and he cleared like 1/2. You can explore the whole property and still see the nature. We also have some critters you want to see coming. If you are going to hunt it you need some site lines.

I don't know if you have hunting leases up there. They try and strike a balance on usability and preserve nature.

Bring in a bulldozer clearly has more impact than clearing by hand.

Dig a small pond could improve the ecosystem.

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