Atlantic White Cedar Restoration - looking back on 27 years of effort

Photos and content by Robert R. Williams, C.F., Owner of Pine Creek Forestry, LLC.

Wilson Lake Memorial Park is a small, 65-acre tract of forest owned by several church groups as a retreat. The land sits in the middle of a preserved county park of 1,000 acres. In January of 1992, our Pine Creek Forestry LLC, was hired to assist them in managing their forest resource, including a burned-off, mature, Atlantic white cedar stand. A wildfire had killed most of the larger, mature, 125-year-old cedars and hardwood red maple captured the site. By the early 1990’s, the stand was a dense, young maple stand, with scattered remnant cedar trees. Atlantic white cedar is part of a wetland forest ecosystem and is shade intolerant. It was not going to come back without some aggressive restoration work based on an ecological approach to forest management. 

Atlantic white cedar forest ecosystems are globally threatened. Found along the east coast from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico, they have declined more than 90 percent since colonial settlement and the decline continues each year. Fire, beaver, flooding, hardwood succession, hurricanes and tornados continue to impact the remnant stands. Cedar has become a minor component of these wetland areas; thus, when a disturbance that once regenerated it occurs, cedar quickly loses its competitive edge to the now more dominant wetland hardwood species. Without intervention and restoration efforts, the decline will continue. 

The science on cedar regeneration and management is deep. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service did an extensive manual in 1931:  Tech Bulletin No. 251, Southern White Cedar by C. F. Korstian and W. D. Brush. Then, Dr. Little at Yale School of Forestry published Bulletin No. 56, Ecology and Silviculture of White Cedar & Associated Hardwoods in Southern New Jersey in 1950. Today, Dr. Zimmermann at Stockton University in Southern New Jersey has spent more than 27 years researching cedar since 1989. We know what to do, but little is being done at this time to stop the freefall decline of this important forest ecosystem across its entire range.

The Wilson Lake project was my first cedar effort, starting 27 years ago. Our first effect was to slash and clear-cut the hardwoods, leaving several single cedar trees or cedar groups of 125-year-old cedar as a seed source. Much of the hardwood was mechanically slashed and crushed down by a tracked feller buncher walking on the woody debris. These soils are saturated Muck, so the tree debris helped keep the equipment from sinking and causing problems. 

With our cedar project at Wilson Lake in the middle of a county park, we knew the protected deer herd would be a problem. Cedar is a gourmet dinner for deer! We found that the larger the area of cedar regeneration, the less impact deer browse had. Essentially, we learned that size matters. Small restoration patches are eaten as fast as seedlings germinate. Treatment of larger patch sizes, and leaving dense slash cover that deer don’t seem to want to navigate through, turned the tide. 

Once cedar regeneration begins, it is necessary at times to consider using limited herbicide to reduce competition from the hardwood and woody brush, allowing the cedar to capture the site. Once cedar seedlings establish themselves, they will aggressively capture the site. Cedar naturally seeds in over 5,000 seedlings per acre. 

More than 27 years after beginning to restore the Wilson Lake tract, we have duplicated this restoration on several dozen sites, yet we wait for the forestry world to pay attention and begin to call for this ecosystem restoration on a meaningful level across the range. The cedar forest at Wilson Lake ends at the property line with the unmanaged public lands – what a shame.

Our cedar restoration has been more successful than I had ever dreamed.  A picture is in fact, worth a thousand words. We recently began taking pictures of our restored cedar stands with a drone. That shows them to be more productive and prolific than I ever imagined they would be. Looking at our forest as a bird does, offers a higher level of appreciation for what our forests provide. 

Our approach to Atlantic white cedar is based on an ecological forest management process, but make no mistake, it also requires an economic basis. Restoring forest systems in wet ground conditions can be expensive and we are kidding ourselves if we think government grants or non-profit donations will save the cedar. They have not and will not. We need to let the cedar pay for its restoration and sustainability. It will win every time and stop the centuries of decline for itself and our wellbeing in turn. 

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