“Ultimately, is there a difference between managing a forest solely for timber and managing it solely for a single wildlife species? Maybe not,” says Greg Corace, a forester at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “In either case, our contemporary understanding of forests suggests we tend to simplify complex systems when we focus on individual products.”


It’s a bold assertion coming from someone who helps oversee the refuge’s Kirtland’s Warbler Wildlife Management Area, 6,684 acres of jack pine stands scattered across 125 parcels in eight counties of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula that are collectively administered to help reverse the decline of its endangered namesake. To be clear, Corace isn’t dismissing the validity of recovery efforts. Rather, he’s suggesting species conservation objectives, among others, be synthesized into a more natural and holistic approach to forest management, a concept that has emerged in the scientific literature over the past two decades.


“Our plantations for the Kirtland’s warbler have been extremely successful,” he says. “But we have an opportunity to make them less artificial.”


If Corace’s suggestion seems like an affront to the mind-set of his conservationist predecessors, it is in keeping with the National Wildlife Refuge System’s emphasis on coordinated research across a number of academic disciplines to help address complex challenges of the 21st century.


Upon taking charge of Seney’s biological program in 2009, Corace renamed it the “applied sciences program,” which currently integrates research, land management for wildlife benefit, and academia. The final component is proving especially essential to the others. With leverage from his status at several universities in the region, Corace has been partnering with academic colleagues, among others, to secure applied research grants involving graduate students and many refuges in the Upper Midwest.


“They’re getting valuable experience,” Seney Refuge manager Mark Vaniman says of the students. “We’re getting excellent research and information.”


The information is being incorporated into planning documents that assist managers in making decisions. For instance, recent graduate projects at Seney Refuge have quantified the efficacy of using earthen plugs in ditches to restore wetlands, and using logging treatments and prescribed fire to produce more natural landscape patterns.


Indeed, research findings underscore Corace’s assertion and suggest that management strategies, when practicable, should emulate natural phenomena to promote patterns of forest composition and structure that might not otherwise occur.


“Rather than focusing from the bird’s perspective, with the population doing so well we’re now trying to focus from the perspective of the powers that shaped the forest in the first place,” says Corace. “We’re backing up some to see what forests and wetlands here looked like before the white man arrived and get a better understanding of how natural forces have played defining roles in these ecosystems.”


Of course, after European settlement, many of those forces were stifled, and the consequences remain problematic. This summer’s spate of “megafires” in the West, for instance, is widely considered the result of longstanding fire suppression policies.


“When we simplify forests, we create the conditions for catastrophe—whether from fire, invasive species, insect infestation or disease,” says Corace.


The concept of managing public lands in a way that more approximates nature, with all its intricate nuances, is not new. The U.S. Forest Service has been studying it for decades. But if this holistic idea is novel to the Refuge System, as Corace suggests, it is also timely given the specter of climate change. Any global warming could exacerbate the dangers associated with landscapes that have been simplified, even those simplified for the well-intentioned purpose of species recovery.


Ben Ikenson is a New Mexico-based freelance writer.