Lighter on the Land

The Michigan Forest Association promotes a legacy of healthy forests.
Photography courtesy Bill Cook/MSU Extension

Bill Botti is aware that most people know very little about modern forestry. If asked, they typically share sordid stories about Michigan’s early lumbering days — the period from 1880 to 1900 —  when Lower Peninsula forests were virtually cleared. Logging back then meant cutting down every tree, making a bundle of money and moving on.

“The public’s perception of forestry in Michigan died about 1930,” notes Botti, executive director for the Michigan Forest Association, a nonprofit formed in 1972.

His organization works with large and small landowners who seek professional guidance about how to manage their wood lots. He also educates schoolchildren and groups of teachers about modern forestry, science-based management and sustainable forest practices.

The world of forestry has changed, according to Botti. It is “lighter on the land” and leaves a legacy standing for future generations.

“People are aware of lumberjacks, big forest fires, cutting lots of trees and the Civilian Conservation Corps era in the 1930s. Their concept is one of (pure) exploitation,” says Botti, co-author with Michael D. Moore of “Michigan’s State Forests, A Century of Stewardship,” published in 2006 by Michigan State University Press.

Botti spent 21 years working for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources as its timber management program leader.

“The old practice was analogous to hunting and gathering,” he elaborates. “It was, ‘There’s a nice tree. Let’s cut it down and take it home.’ Today, we look at the future value of the tree and think, ‘If we cut this lesser tree competing with it, it might have a better future.’”

Better, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. A consulting forester might envision a bigger, healthier tree. A private landowner might see a larger tree worth more money, or a stand managed to provide a higher-quality habitat for wildlife like deer, grouse or ground-nesting birds.

“The same principal works for a nest tree, like a big beech tree with a fork that is good for a raptor’s nest,” Botti explains. “When a big basswood gets old and becomes hollow, it’s a wonderful place for nests for all kinds of critters. When I work a stand (as a consulting forester), I often keep the old basswood to add to the diversity of wildlife.

“Most of our members are landowners who have chosen to manage their timber sustainably. They want to do what is best for the woods. One of the more common calls we get is someone asking us to recommend a consulting forester.”

MFA’s membership includes consulting foresters along with landowners. The nonprofit formed initially to work with commercial and industrial-scale forest operations. Its focus was later broadened to include private landowners — a niche then unserved.

Michigan ranks 10th in the nation for forest land, according to the Michigan DNR. Forests comprise 53 percent of the land base, a total of 19.3 million acres. Families and private individuals own 11 million acres — 57 percent of the forest base. The other 43 percent is held by private companies (8 percent), the federal government (14 percent) and the state (21 percent).

MFA’s 600 members own wood lots from two acres to much larger. They come from all walks of life. They are doctors, lawyers, factory workers and farmers.

Botti recently received a letter from a grateful teacher who attended one of his workshops. She was among 15 teachers who spent a week learning about forests and forestry at the state’s Ralph A. McMullen Conference Center in Roscommon.

“Her reaction to clear-cuttings turned around 180-degrees,” Botti says. “She wrote, ‘I now see habitat building and forest improvement instead of just an eyesore or destruction.’

“That’s the basic idea I try to get across. It’s not always a bad idea to cut a tree to maintain the health of others. I was thrilled to get her letter.”

To learn more about the Michigan Forest Association, visit

Award-winning writer and BLUE “Undercurrents” columnist Howard Meyerson lives in Grand Rapids.

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