A new resident in town expressed some dismay at the logging going on in the area, cutting down "hundred-year-old trees." After several of us explained together that you'd be hard pressed to find a tree that old around here, the logger in our group said, "Trees are a vegetable. They're just like anything else that you grow to use, they just take longer."
Immediately I imagined little hikers among the broccoli stalks, or awe-struck, staring up at the majesty of lofty corn, or whacking aside the ferns of carrot tops.
Particularly in the eastern half of the United States, most of the forest you see is many generations removed from the primordial glory that greeted the first Europeans who arrived at what they considered unoccupied land. Forest reasserts itself wherever humans are not currently clearing land and keeping it clear. National forests and private holdings support trees as an available resource. You want wood? You need to grow trees. As the logger asserted, they're a crop. They just grow on a longer time scale than your typical farmer's market fare. Most forest survives now as a working forest. In other words, its days are numbered by interested observers measuring it for harvest.
You get used to having the trees around. When I moved to my current location 32 years ago, the forest on the mountain out back was mature hardwood and pine, unbroken for miles. It was easy to move through, because the understory had been shaded out for years. That meant easy bushwhacking in any season, and a generous variety of skiable lines without having to trim anything. When cutting began, it started first on the farther end of the small mountain range that forms the center of town. Even when it finally hit nearby, the first operations just opened a few moderate swaths. Much more drastic cutting had already taken place on the far end of the range.
The ice storm of 1998 took out a lot of treetops at elevations a couple of hundred feet up from road level. That storm devastated hundreds of square miles of forest -- thousands, really, if you look at all of eastern North America. It dumped the tops of trees into the spaces between their still-standing lower sections, in addition to toppling whole trees where they had space to fall. The lower parts might still leaf out and live on. You can still see some of these survivors today.
Logging cuts deeper and can be tailored to achieve a desired outcome, as opposed to the losses from wildfire and wind events. There have been few -- if any -- major wind events in the east since the Hurricane of 1938. As for fire, the last really large scale event in these parts was the disastrous fires of 1947, which mostly impacted Maine. Here in the border towns, old timers will tell you about how the fires managed to come over the line in places before they were finally extinguished. With the droughts we've experienced in recent summers, a repeat is possible.
Not all loggers follow best practices. Some cuts are ugly and damaging. A liquidation cut might strip a parcel before it's cut into house lots and lost to us forever. A working forest remains a forest. For the most part, nature reasserts itself even after an ugly cut. And not every drastic-appearing cut is a bad job. It's not a hairstyle. It's a business decision. A wise business person won't ruin the future of a resource. Most loggers already view time from a tree's perspective. It's a renewable resource, unlike mining or oil and gas drilling. Loggers have an incentive to leave the forest functional, where those other industries don't. I'd much rather live next to timberland than a strip mine or a fracking operation.
Animals and birds need open spaces and edge environments in addition to mature forest. Natural processes only provide those in limited places. One reason humans suffer from "problem" wildlife is that the open spaces and edges are provided by the clearings around homes dropped into the the formerly wooded area. It's a thrill to see wild animals until the bears get into your garbage, the deer eat your garden, and the coyotes make alarming noises too close to your bedroom window at 3 a.m. Then all of a sudden "somebody needs to do something," and the animals usually pay the price. If you want to see a real problem animal, go look in a mirror. A nearby logged area provides the open area and edge along with a measure of privacy that the animals seem to prefer. I've seen less of the local deer herd since the cut uphill gave them more sunshine and encouraged low growth for easily accessible browsing. They'll still probably come eat that one peony I keep trying to coax to flowering maturity...
As much of a jolt as it may be to see a big logged area, it's much worse when that area is then invaded by problem animals operating unnecessary motor vehicles for no reason other than their own erosive enjoyment. I get to listen to that now, to poison the peace of my own back yard. Out of sight is not out of mind when it's not out of earshot. Engine noise carries a long way. It's a constant reminder that the environment will only become more driven by natural rhythms once humans have basically eradicated themselves.