Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Woodlot Management: Losing Money By High-Grading

100_1149What do you call a dairy farmer who spends decades improving the genetics of a herd, then abruptly sells all the best animals to start a new herd from scraggly, unproven stock? Crazy, perhaps, or foolish at the very least.

Under normal circumstances, no livestock farmer culls their best animals to start over with random ones. Yet it’s common for woodlot owners to sell all the large, well-formed trees during a timber sale and leave nothing but small and defective trees to regenerate the next forest.

Genetic variation in trees works just like it does in other organisms. If you take a thousand seedlings, some are going to have a slight genetic advantage. Maybe they are more efficient at photosynthesis, or they’re less apt to develop weak (narrow) branch attachments that are prone to breakage. When an unusually straight, fast-growing tree rises head and shoulders above its peers, it’s generally more than mere chance—that tree probably has something the others don’t, and that’s the one you want seeding the next forest.

The multi-generational process of choosing superior genetics in trees is called silviculture. Ideally a forester marks defective trees to cull for firewood, and marks some of the mature trees for harvest. She or he intentionally leaves some of the very best trees for seed.

This kind of timber production is sustainable in both an economic and ecological sense. Not only does the overall gene pool improve, but periodic select harvesting creates openings in the forest canopy, increasing habitat diversity as it releases understory trees.

Many forest owners have heard of silviculture but continue to practice what some foresters call “silver-culture,” maximizing short-term gain at the expense of long-term forest health. The prevailing opinion seems to be that doing the right thing for the environment will hurt financially. That is definitely not the case in forestry.

Dr. Ralph Nyland, Professor of Forestry at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse stresses that forestry is a very long-term endeavor. He believes we have to start thinking much farther into the future. Dr. Nyland illustrates why good forestry make the most sense – and dollars – in the following example:

Assume you and your neighbor have identical woodlots with salable timber (everything 16” in diameter and larger) worth $20,000. Your neighbor goes for a diameter-limit cut and gets that entire amount. But you mark a select cut, harvesting $10,000 worth of timber and leaving trees of equivalent value standing. It sounds like your neighbor made out better, right?

The next time you can harvest is fifteen years later. By that time, your timber is worth $34,000. You harvest half, leaving $17,000 worth standing. Your neighbor doesn’t have enough salable timber for a harvest yet.

Thirty years after the first cut, your neighbor again has salable timber valued at $20,000. Their total income plus residual value after 30 years is $40,000. Your timber, though, is now worth $77,000, which means that your total income plus residual value after 30 years is $104,000. Now we have two winners, both you and your woodlot.

OK, what do you call a poultry farmer who kills the goose that lays one golden egg each day just to get his hands on two or three gilded ova all at once? Well, for starters you’d call them fictional, but also dumb as a rock. Don’t manage your woodlot like that.

Good forestry will give you a healthy woodlot and a healthy bank account. “Silver-culture” will give you bad metaphors, less money and a lot more poor-quality trees.

For information on locating a consulting forester, contact your New York State Department of Environmental Conservation office.

Photo: Using a log rule to estimate the value of a woodlot (courtesy John Warren).

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at PaulHetzlerNature.org or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

6 Responses

  1. dave says:

    ‘Genetic variation in trees works just like it does in other organisms. If you take a thousand seedlings, some are going to have a slight genetic advantage … and that’s the one you want seeding the next forest.’

    Appreciate how you clearly explain the topic in the context of genetic selection. Couldn’t help but think of Dobzhansky’s famous quote while reading it.

    Great article, Paul. Really enjoyed it.

  2. John Sullivan says:

    Excellent piece. Worth noting that the DEC is currently trying to undercut the tax relief program (known as Section 480-a) that encourages private forest owners to manage their woodlots. Too much trouble, they say, so let’s restrict it to industrial forests.

  3. Paul says:

    This is why we have to try and get some of these larger remaining timber tracts into smaller non-industrial sized lots. The TIMOs that own these things have a 10-15 year investment cycle far too short for good forestry practices. When it’s time to sell they are going to high grade. Heck may of them are doing it right form the start of their ownership since it will take 10 or 15 years for the to high grade everything. Only smaller lot owners can do this in a truly sustainable way. But too many people are afraid that if the land is broken up (“fragment the backcountry” as some like to say) it will be developed. Look at the former champion lands as an example. First they nailed it prior to the sale then the easement deal and then the first TIMO. High graded as much as the could. Sold it (it took 16 years but pretty close to the window) now the new TIMO that bought it seems to be just taking all the large trees that are left. The state sealed the fate of this land when they did these “conservation easements”. They probably knew that the only buyer left at the end of this vicious cycle is them.

  4. Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    Great article that should be sent around to any landowner of 100 acres or more. Our forests could revive the economy of the region if we only managed them effectively. All too often the product of logging operations is sold off as low end pulpwood or chips for burning. With properly managed forests – and limited manufacturing within the park that could produce a “value-added” product – we might yet turn around the downward spiral in our communities.

  5. Big Burly says:

    Thank you for a great, easy to understand article.

  6. Marco says:

    Well, much of this I agree with. But there is the sense of pushing to keep all the older trees. They will have seeded the next generation. Pulling only the largest and best of the trees makes sense in that aspect also. Leaving anything less than 6″dia and waiting 20 years insures a good return on your land (if not the best as you point out) and genetic diversity by keeping very few of the very best to reseed. I think we are saying the same thing, but a longer cycle for harvesting would give you a better yield.

    Of course, the risk is a genetic dead end. More of the younger trees are from the dozen or so you actualy keep on a 10 acre plot. By simply taking most of the prime and 1st grade timber, you leave yourself open to massive destruction due to disease, or, an infertile tree. I say we should mimic natural selection where we can, or, genetically engineer species we have a strong need for. Oaks, maples, cherry, and walnuts produce a variety of good furniture woods. Pine produces lumber, and pulp. As with SYP (Southern Yellow Pine,) it would only take a small effort to design in disease resistance to many species.

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