Conservation Currents

Don’t Just Cut the Best

February 2010

by Richard Gast

It is not at all unusual for forest landowners to be approached by loggers looking to harvest timber on their land. Nor is it unusual for landowners to agree to have their timber cut based solely on the promise of an immediate and lucrative cash return.

Unfortunately, short term economic considerations coupled with a lack of knowledge of forestry and silviculture practices all too often give rise to timber harvests that result in long-term negative environmental impacts and degrade the future timber value of forest lands.

Some private forest owners I talk with have inherited lands that have been in their family for generations. Others have more recently purchased their property for recreation or investment. Almost all enjoy, among other things, walking their land, hunting, taking pictures of wildlife and wildflowers, picking berries, sitting beside a campfire and cutting firewood. And almost all are interested in harvesting and marketing their timber. Many, however, do not fully understand the concept of sustainable forestry and its basic elements.

Unfortunately, much of the private forest in our region has been relentlessly mismanaged for generations, due to high grading and other poor forestry practices. High grading is the practice of cutting the best and most valuable timber and leaving the rest, often focusing on removal of the most valuable species and thereby reducing diversity within the stand. What’s more, sizable quantities of timber are cut prior to becoming grade one sawtimber, a practice often referred to as diameter limit cutting or selective cutting.

The long-term environmental and financial impacts of high grading can be substantial. Since the quality and productive capacity of future forests is not a consideration, what is left are trees that are struggling to grow and poorly formed and diseased, trees that offer little present and questionable future value.

Those trees produce the seeds that form the next generation of trees in the forest. And as anyone who has ever planted a crop will tell you, poor genetics will breed more poor genetics. Because of this, some foresters consider high grading to be a sort of unnatural disaster from which the forest may never fully recover.

Superior forest management requires time. Landowners practicing forest stewardship recognize that the potential for ongoing financial returns (not to mention positive environmental impacts) that can be realized as a result of managing woodland for sustainable sawtimber production, wildlife and recreation will more than make up for the immediate high dollar return that may be seen by high grading their forestland today.

There are other options available to forest landowners to help offset the cost of taxes and insurance in the interim, opportunities that landowners can utilize to produce income without compromising the quality of their timber stands or jeopardizing other values their forest property offers. These include fee hunting and fishing, trail riding and horse boarding, camping, cabin rentals, bed and breakfasts, firewood sales and agroforestry (maple syrup, Christmas trees, specialty mushrooms, ginseng, custom sawmilling).

Good timber is valuable. Don’t waste it by rushing into a harvest. Understand your options and their likely outcomes. Work with a licensed professional forester and move forward only after you have enough information to make the decision that best serves you and your family.

The value of trees increases greatly as they grow larger. In the long run, you’ll have a healthier forest and realize a better dollar return if you don’t high grade.

This guest article by Richard Gast for the Bennington County Conservation District and the Bennington County Sustainable Forest Consortium is used by permission of the author, the Extension Programs Assistant in Horticulture and Natural Resources for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County in Malone, N.Y. Web site at www.bccdvt.org

This column appeared in the Bennington Banner in February 2010, as one of the BCCD's Conservation Currents pieces, a bi-weekly feature written by BCCD board and staff members since August 2006.