Small Scale Timber Management

A balanced discussion of low-impact sustainable horse logging versus one-time heavy harvesting. April 18, 2009

During the last few years I have been offering low impact logging and timber management. I really enjoy my work and love the looks on clients’ faces when they find out they make more money for their timber this way and still get to cut it every 5-10 years forever. I also love when people watch my horse and winch skidding and I also like to answer questions. But lately big timber companies are telling people clear cutting and heavy harvesting are fine and don't hurt property value but the truth is more it doesn't hurt it but it doesn't improve it. Low impact management is proven to raise value and help prevent loss of woodlands. Does anyone else think like me or have these thoughts?

Forum Responses
(Forestry Forum)
From contributor C:
As former director for wood products for the state of Kentucky, I studied this issue at length over the past few years. I came to this conclusion, you are both right, the large scale and the low impact. It all depends on the quality of the stand of timber, the desired outcome, and what the future plans for the property are. There really isn't any "one" right answer.

It all depends on where you are located, the topography of the land, the amount of timber to be harvested, and what the owner wants to do with their low grade, and how badly they need money. There are pros and cons for both types of logging. It all depends on the desired outcomes as to which is the most practical, and which will have the highest value at the end of the job.

From contributor B:
Currently, I have 160 acres of land in which about 45 acres is an old yard site and a hay field in which my mill will be situated and my logs are being pulled out to. The remainder of the land has mixed woods on it which contains white spruce, black spruce, white and black poplar, white birch, tamarack, jack pine and various species of willow.

Much of the spruce needs to be gone through and logged as there already is a fair amount of red rot. Some of the birch is nearing the end of its life expectancy and needs to be taken off. So far this winter I have taken out about 25,000 ft of saw logs and still taken out more as long as the weather holds up. I have not even made a dent into what needs to be gone through yet as I have probably gone over about 15-20 acres. Young trees are growing rather well and by the looks of it I should not have to plant any new seedlings. I am only using a small tractor and a chainsaw to log but would still rather use horses to log it off as they would leave only minimal damage to the new growth coming up. Access is another big thing with this land due to swampy and low lying land thus giving the horses a better thumbs up. I would not have a large scale outfit come in to do any of the work as they cause too much damage and they also want to clear cut everything. I want to leave the forest in better shape than when I entered - it is way better for everything even the wildlife.

From contributor Y:

I'll second that there is not one right answer to this question as many factors come into play. From a silvicultural standpoint, light cuts on medium to good sites favor shade tolerant species like sugar maple and beech at the expense of oak and hickory. From a wildlife standpoint, this can be a problem over time.

Any type of timber harvesting (skidder or horse) done on wet soils has the potential for serious soil compaction. Assuming the worst case, multiple light cuts done poorly over 60 years could actually be worse than one poorly done heavy cut.

Another factor to consider is the history of the property. If the woods has a fire history and most of the trees have basal fire scars, then a heavy cut may be necessary to start the woods over again with healthy young trees.

I don't mean to play devil’s advocate, I am just throwing out a few of the many issues related to the type of timber harvesting performed. It really becomes a site specific recommendation based on the owner's short and long term objectives combined with the forest and its composition.

So as not to generalize, some large timber companies can and do perform quality work. I have marked some light selective cuts for landowners that were harvested exceptionally well by the crews of large timber companies.

Keep up the good work for your clients. I wish every logger had the same concern you have about doing a great job for both the owner and the land.

From the original questioner:
Ok maybe I should be asking the question to private land owners who rely on timber to provide a nest egg. I deal with hardwoods only.

From contributor R:
Hardwoods only? What about removing hemlock and letting better hardwoods to grow? I've seen logging where they won't cut certain species. Most times, it isn't good management.

From the original questioner:
I try to get all the so called junk out early in the cutting. Lucky for me most of my clients are ex-farmers or people who bought land from old school farmers. As a result the farmers tend to cut down everything - not a oak, poplar, cherry, walnut, hickory, maple and so on. They had a habit of this in the 60's and 70's.

From contributor Y:
In case readers of this forum don't realize it, cattle in the woods are bad for both the forest ecosystem and the timber quality. Keep them fenced out! All of my clients are private forest landowners with hardwoods and many of them use gains from the sale of timber as a nest egg.

I think both loggers and foresters have a responsibility to educate landowners correctly. It is very easy to high-grade a stand of timber using selective cutting and then give the unknowing landowner the impression that good management was performed. In almost all cases of selective cutting, timber stand improvement is needed after the harvest to remove culls, 3/4 culls, very crooked trees, grapevines, etc. Most loggers don't touch this stuff as they can't stay profitable messing with it.

As an example, I looked at a woods in western KY where the landowner wanted to selectively cut the larger trees in his woods and make a little money. He mentioned to me that the area behind the ditch had not been cut and should contain some big trees. So I look at it and find that all of the woods were high-graded 10-15 years ago. The big oaks had been "selectively" cut and now the forest consisted of mostly sweetgum, red maple, and ash and was really too small to be cut again. So I tell my client that what is needed now is TSI for a planned harvest 15 years down the road. He said he was not interested in investing any money and that he would probably just let it grow.

So from my perspective, the logger who carried out the last harvest only removed the largest and highest value trees and left the junk. Obviously, this is not good forest management. This type of practice is very commonly called "Selective" or "Low Impact" or "Small Scale" timber management.

Unless there are standards of conduct and education in the logging and forestry community, then examples like the one I mention will only continue. To any landowners reading this, I recommend you get advice from as many different sources as possible before making any forestry or logging decisions on your property.

From the original questioner:
You just managed to point out what I tell land owners everyday and my contracts reflect thinning, Undergrowth mowing and grinding, planting of seedlings, and much more. This isn't my first time around the block. I to find in allot of cases people own land in need of great care. I use low cost labor to remove cull trees turning most into firewood to cover costs of clean up jobs and keep the land owners from having a large out of pocket. I am sure you can realize this as a good practice since most land owners can't or won't send money for improvements to woodlots. The fact that my clients call on me time and time again to perform more and more operations for them speaks for itself. Also because I employ an in house forester really helps. But thanks for pointing out the first thing I look for when I step into the woods. Removing culls first seem to open up the project. The second thing we do is start working on undergrowth and small ID. Then we work from there. Our contract lets the land owner make the call on the grade trees. Owner participation is such a headache but well worth it.

From contributor G:
It is always discouraging to see people bemoaning clearcutting without providing scientific justification. If a landowner wants to culture shade tolerant species I recommend selective harvesting. If a landowner wants to culture shade intolerant species at some point they will have to clearcut because oaks, poplar, walnut, cherry, ash and hickory cannot grow into timber quality trees in partial shade. If there are also sugar maple and red maple, in the regenerating stand the landowner can bring them through with crop tree release TSI as the stand matures. Size of the clearcut is a minimum of two acres plus and a function of the total size of all management compartments put together all with the goal of developing a sustained yield of merchantable timber. A simplified example: if there are 50 acres and the rotation is 50 years, clearcut one acre per year. If there are 5,000 acres and the rotation is 50 years clearcut 100 acres per year (in patches no smaller than two acres). Hope this helps.