Eastern Iowa’s wooded acres are changing as new climate, disease, invasive and economic challenges put more pressure on the state’s inventory of city trees as well as privately owned woodlots. U.S. Forest Service photo

Since trees can’t speak, someone needs to do it for them.

I am not the tree whisperer but rather a layman who wanted to stand under trees I planted. Everything I’ve done here on the farm for the last 30 years has either been a limited success or a qualified failure but there are trees where they didn’t exist before.

Trees and the threats they face were never more apparent than this year. Without a doubt 2020 will be remembered for the loss of urban trees to emerald ash borer and to the August derecho — a windstorm of historic proportions causing damage to thousands and thousands of trees.

Weather episodes, invasive plants, diseases — Iowa’s forests face some of the worst hard times right now.

The annual Department of Natural Resources survey of Iowa’s remaining forested acres is both a measure of health and a call for stewardship of a resource that conserves soil, water and air quality.

As agriculture’s model moves inexorably toward industrial-style production of commodities like corn and soybeans, the importance of forests in America’s most fertile state becomes problematic.

We’ve altered the landscape of Iowa so drastically that only 3% of the land remains in its original state, pre-settlement. Right now the state has just under 3 million wooded acres. Jackson County is among those fortunate enough to have some woodlands. We are 25% tree covered. Compare that with, say, Hancock County in north central Iowa with just 2% tree cover. You can almost remember where all the trees are in a county like that!

Soil fertility has truly been a blessing, and a curse for virtually every part of the state.

The litany of reasons for Iowa’s continuing decline in forested acres have been outlined time and again. Land clearing in historic settlement periods, exhaustion of prime woodland stands for forest products, urban and rural development, livestock grazing — all have been factors in degrading or destroying tree cover.

The fate of most of those wooded areas is in private hands. Iowa has a small handful of state forests as well as state parks.

The health of our forests is under immense pressure these days. What is causing this threat? Iowa DNR forestry experts say the causes are actually quite apparent: climate change, more frequent rain events, and aging trees fall victim to disease and damage.

If you walk into a timber these days you will see some immediate impacts and some more subtle.

Over half of the tree cover in Jackson County and Iowa as a whole includes species preferred by the nonnatie pest gypsy moth. The emerald ash borer has forced the removal of thousands of urban trees in their wake.

Add to this the fact the composition of eastern Iowa woodlots and forested areas is changing, and fast. The old climax mix of hardwoods like oaks, walnut, hickory and basswood is changing into hard maple, ironwood, hackberry and lesser utilized tree species.

And it’s not that we aren’t appropriating public funding to try to improve the state’s woodlands. After all, even in the land of corn and soybeans, there is a place for the timber industry.

Trees are behind an estimated $3.9 billion forest products industry that generates 18,000 jobs in the state. That is nothing to sneeze at.

For fiscal year 2020 the state Legislature appropriated $4,058,911 for a range of programs aimed at fire protection, stewardship projects, urban and community forestry.

Walk into most woodlots in this county, including ours here at the farm, and you can see key issues immediately.

Frankly, there continues to be a lack of realization woodland acres need care like corn and soybean ground needs nurturing to produce at economic levels.

There continues to be a lack of public understanding of the importance of forestry in the Iowa economy. Add to this the pressure from invasive plant species that choke out beneficial regrowth. The future of the state forestry nursery hangs in the balance, a key source for large scale planting and horticultural efforts. Also, the issue of urban forests, which seems exotic almost in a farm state like Iowa, needs support. Urban forests have so many benefits, cleaner air, human interaction with nature close to home, outdoor classroom setting, it’s a list of positives.

You have questions? The Iowa DNR had answers. The Iowa Forest Stewardship program is a good umbrella program that connects woodland owners with professional foresters to develop a working relationship. Check with the local DNR officials here in Jackson County to get started.