As my main outdoor busy season here in NH comes to an end and I start thinking more about firewood, my mind turns to the outer zones of permaculture design. I have ~9 acres of mostly wooded land, with a small river cutting it into two pieces, one 2-acre-ish corner with the house and barn on it and ~7 acres of woods. I have more than enough projects to occupy me on this side of the river, so I have no intentions of doing anything like clearcutting the 7-acre piece. I do wonder, though, whether and how to incorporate it into my overall design? I tend to either ignore it altogether or envision it as a future firewood source (again, plenty of trees to cut down on this side to make room for food forest projects, etc).
How do you recommend approaching the farther edges of permaculture design? If zone 5 is meant to be just wilderness with no human intervention, how should we consider past human impacts? For example, my 7 acres has certainly been clearcut in the past, perhaps as recently as 30 years ago. It does not seem to me to be a healthy ecosystem -- it has a lot of white pine and swamp maple, little understory, dense unhealthy-seeming trees. Do I just let a piece of this be and think of zone 5 as an experiment?
There are many questions embedded in this topic, but I guess the one I'm most interested is this: How do you approach designing zones 4 and 5 (if they are "designed" at all), and what do they look like for you?
All of our land is damaged from past misuse, so like your place, ours doesn't have any "pristine wilderness" to enjoy as Zone 5. But I think that's probably pretty typical. We're trying to implement a lot of erosion control and rain harvesting earthworks, but about 5 acres is not really accessible to any equipment so the most we will ever do there is thin out some regrowth Ashe Juniper (called "Cedar" here). We're trying to restore most of the land to some kind of wildish state except about an acre around the house, but we've determined we're not going to be able to return it to its historical climax vegetation of Tallgrass Prairie. We just don't have the resources to manage for Tallgrasses on a large scale, so we're going to let the land continue on its current path of reforestation. We might be able to maintain some of it as savannah, but can never realistically have more than at the most a tiny patch of Tallgrass Prairie. I think the best we can do as land stewards is try to mitigate further damage and try to get a wider variety of native species re-established.
Thank you, Tyler. This is the kind of reply I was hoping for. I am still waffling about whether I want to/should do any restoration of native species or thinning. Part of me thinks it's pretty cool to get to see a piece of succession in action -- I wonder what it will look like when I die, where it will have gone by then? On the other hand, it's a clearly damaged piece of forest, and a little intervention might be what it needs to guide its succession to somewhere good. I have more to learn before I feel ready to do that, though!
I think you have enough acres to work with to try a couple different things. You could leave a few acres (maybe 3-4) to continue on their own (true Zone 5) and another portion or two to try one or more management strategies. Personally I would look for the least damaged, most robust portion to leave as unmanaged Zone 5, that is, one which doesn't have significant erosion or invasive exotics problems. More damaged portions can (possibly should) be managed more or less actively depending on the degree of damage. It's my personal philosophy that I have a responsibility to try to repair damage done to the land in the past, even if I didn't do it. If I contributed to it then I have an even greater responsibility to repair as much as possible. Here in my region erosion caused by overgrazing has done the most damage to the land and is the most challenging issue facing us on our land and that's where I'm focusing my efforts most. Other places might have a bigger issue with invasive exotics or overgrowth due to fire suppression, etc.
It might be worth spending some time on searches for 'ecological restoration', 'restoration of natural systems', restoration biology, etc.. There has been quite a lot of science on this over the last decade.
It would be good to have a reference ecosystem in mind...something you can study and measure the characteristics of.. if you can find some fairly healthy local wildlands with similar environmental parameters to your site.
You will also need a handle on what disturbance regime created and maintained the local biotic communities...the typical frequency / severity and scale of burns / floods / windthrow, etc... Some forest types are dependent on frequent stand-replacing disturbance events, some depend on patchy disturbance at greater time intervals. Then you can start to think about how you might approach introducing disturbance in a way that mimics the local natural system.
It can be helpful to avoid thinking of trying to achieve a particular state, as it's always going to be a moving target....what you are trying to manipulate is the trajectory the system is on.
As with other complex systems, ecological succession can be very sensitive to initial conditions....sometimes some pretty small interventions can bump the whole system onto a different development trajectory. This can be used to advantage or can get us into trouble.
If you are hoping to provide habitat for old growth dependent wildlife species, it can be worth trying some more intensive interventions in the short term to provide structures that would otherwise take a few hundred years to develop...ie raising artificial snags for cavity nesters, placing coarse woody debris in the channel for fish habitat, etc..
I don't know if any of this is permaculture. It seems like most 'wilderness' in our degraded landscapes could use some thoughtful intervention to benefit and perpetuate native species and systems. There are probably restoration groups working on projects in your bioregion that would be a great source of ideas and info...
what I have been doing in my 'farthest reaches' of my land is putting in some small trails, just big enough to be reached either by a riding mower/4 wheeler or by foot/showshoe..
I hated having all that land for nearly 40 years that I couldnt even see, so I began building trails several years ago (see my blog)..My trails generally get cut off a ocuple times a year by fallen trees and then I have to remove them, so it is nice to have something motorized that you can get in there to carry the woodout with ( i have no horses or dog sleds)..but most of the time I just use the trails for foot travel..a bridge across any wet areas is always nice as well, but I do have one i have to kinda jump across..the older I get the more I dream of a bridge there.
esp if you heat with wood, which we do, it is nice to be able to get to any dying or dead trees to use them in your furnace or in your hugel beds...and also on the farthest corner of my property there are blueberries..
Bloom where you are planted.
Tyler, I am still conflicted -- I totally understand your desire to steward and fix past mistakes, but I guess sometimes I can't help but wonder if maybe nature would be better at doing that than me. I probably will "do something" with some of the acres, but I think ultimately I will leave some, partly to let nature do what it wants to do, partly because I simply don't have time or energy to intensively manage 9 acres on my own! This is one of the reasons I am so curious to hear how others approach their zone 5s -- it seems to me like some sort of zone 5 probably just "happens" on a big enough property simply because there is too much else to do, too intensively, in all the closer zones.
Kari, exactly, I am thinking along those same terms, even if I'm not being clear...I don't want to "bump" succession too much. This part of New England has been farmed so much that there is very, very little left in terms of reference ecosystems. Before that it was intensively managed by native populations, sometimes in ways that we may not have records of. And of course several of our important species (chestnut, elm, ash and hemlock in the future if things keep going the way they are) have been wiped out or severely damaged. Much of it has returned to forest, though, and so part of me thinks that nature is certainly smarter than me and can probably figure it out on her own if I just leave her alone....
Brenda, I love the idea of trails. I think trails will at least help me observe better without having to decide whether to cut down a lot of trees just yet. I do walk over there every few months, but maybe some sort of defined trail (with maybe some basic bridges, there are some very marshy spots!) will encourage me to wander around more often. Even if I don't know what I'm doing, I feel like there has to be some balance between "leaving nature to do her thing" and "totally ignoring these acres of land".
Sounds like an invitation to watch and learn and study to overlap of forestry and forest ecology. Don't forget to wander when people usually aren't out, during rain and storms. When the river's running ragged. Many of the processes that shape ecosystems occur during extreme weather. The little river itself is a linear wilderness that connects you the the rest of your watershed. What a gift (and responsibility). I'd make a little earthen and wood hut in a discrete and pleasant location, a little rocket stove and a pot to make tea so you can protract your wandering. Many historically present species may be extirpated--nothing wrong with reintroduction. Most natural forest goes through a 'canopy exclusion' phase, when dense regrowth of trees compete and the stand 'self thins', and the understory is diminished. Some systems can be prone to windfall at this stage.
Paul Cereghino- Stewardship Institute Maritime Temperate Coniferous Rainforest - Mild Wet Winter, Dry Summer
Somehow I've missed this thread till now. But that gives me the great advantage of reading other people's wisdom before putting my oar in. I resonate with many of the statements in your posts.
I think the original conception of zone 5 in permaculture has, on longer consideration, to be modified. The more you look at 'wilderness', in the sense of land untouched by human hand, the more you begin to realise that it's doubtful if such a thing exists anywhere on the planet. The influence of non-agricultural peoples on the landscape turns out to be much greater than we, in our eurocentric arrogance, once thought it to be. Even the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazone modify the forest to some degree. So the idea that to leave it alone to work out its own destiny and act as a model to us is somehow 'natural' becomes problematic. Where humans have been a past influence, excluding human influence is not actually a hands-off policy. It's a definite management decision. OK, I admit it's one more often taken by default than by intention, but it doesn't have the neutrality we once imagined it to have. All this is especially true in New England with its extensive areas of recent regrowth.
Having said that, leaving it alone to follow its own path can be a wise decision. As with any permaculture design decision, the place to start is with a) the land's needs and what it can offer, b) your needs and what you can offer.
You certainly won't do the land any harm by leaving it alone. As Paul said, your woodland is going through the self-thinning stage, in which most of the young trees die, leaving a few big ones which become the elders of the mature canopy. This is usually a dark phase, with little growing at ground level, and a quantity of dead wood which to people of our culture looks untidy and even ghoulish. In fact it's perfectly normal and healthy. Dead wood is an important part of the forest ecosystem - it supports 10 times as much animal life as living wood and provides humus for the soil.
On your acreage there may not be any point in trying to imitate the disturbance regime of the bioregion, ie the way forest naturally replaces itself. Many, if not most disturbance regimes happen on much larger scales - square miles rather than acres. Nor is there probably much value in working to make a habitat for oldgrowth species. Again, you need a much larger area, so for example plants and animals can migrate to a more suitable area when the place in question passes through the dark self-thinning stage. You also need some continuity with the pre-agricultural forest, as old-growth species will, by definition, have died out if there hasn't been continuity of a sizeable area of forest from then to now.
As for the second aspect, what you need and can offer, it's a matter of inputs and outputs. Outputs first:- Do you need firewood? Would you like to leave some quality timber for future generations? Do you love the idea of just letting it go and seeing what happens - all or some of it?
These would require three different management regimes, with descending requirements for labour input on your part: firewood, quite a lot and continuing; timber, a lot one-off but no continuing commitment; ;leave it alone, none.
As with all permaculture design, it's a matter of balancing up a number of different factors, and I've only mentioned the main ones here.
It sounds like Zoe lives in a pretty highly modified environment. I don't disagree with Patrick, but would like to add a few thoughts...perhaps not specific to Zoe's situation...
Regarding old growth characteristics and habitat development...It's true that most landowners don't own enough land to create their own wildlife preserves on a scale that's self sustaining. It can still be incredibly valuable to enhance habitat values on your land though. Look at the surrounding landscape with an eye towards habitat connectivity, travel corridors, refuges. Individual landowners can have a huge impact on landscape-level processes by providing corridors and connectivity...this allows gene flow across the landscape and helps to mitigate the effects of habitat fragmentation, and ultimately can make all the difference in allowing sensitive species to persist in an area. In areas where there is a lot of privately owned land and no large preserves or disconnected preserves then this kind of work is essential.
Also not all 'old growth' dependent species require huge home ranges. (and 'old growth' means completely different things depending on where you are). As an example, if you have all young forest you will have really limited nesting habitat for cavity nesting birds...some artificial snags with cavities can be a simple and satisfying project that could allow birds that depend on older forest types to breed and persist, and you may be able to enhance connectivity between disjunct populations which is hugely beneficial.
If your local forest type was maintained by gap dynamics (or small scale disturbances) then you can definitely mimic that on your land. If it is a gap dynamic forest type and it has artificially had a stand replacing event (like a clearcut) then the resulting stand in stem exclusion phase is going to be very un-natural and will be poor habitat for the locally evolved fauna, and also will have greatly reduced plant diversity compared to what might have been 'normal'. You can accelerate succession through this artifically created stem exclusion phase by going in and doing some selective thinning to bring a patchwork of light in, adding the thinnings to windrowed brushpiles, perhaps doing some tree pull-downs to mimic blowdowns (lifting rootwads up), and erect some artifical snags with cavities...it's not that hard to add fifty to eighty 'years' to the stand structure.
It gets interesting philisophically when there is a long history of first nations use and modification (ie through use of fire)...is that the 'natural' ecosystem state? Probably as much as any.
Consider fuel loads and fire safety in your plan.
Just some thoughts...
Location: South Puget Sound, Salish Sea, Cascadia, North America