Timber Harvesting Cautions

Posted: February 23, 2018

Timber harvest represents the best time to make a positive change on your woodland; but it’s also the time when the most damage can be done.

The recent warm weather and wet conditions are making for poor logging conditions; however, it appears that timber buyers are busy looking for standing timber. Based on the calls we’ve been getting from landowners wanting to know the dollar value of their trees, owners are looking at trees in a different way than usual. Unsolicited knocks on the door from someone offering to buy a landowner’s trees always raise red flags. Yes, it may be an efficiency of scale – people are working in the area and wouldn’t have to move equipment far – but it also means you have something of economic value. And if you’ve never thought of your trees with dollar symbols in your eyes, it can be a surprise. You must use care that any activities you undertake don’t compromise the reasons you own and care for your land.

Jim Stiehler, now passed but formerly with the DCNR Bureau of Forestry, used to say, “Timber harvest represents the best time to make a positive change on your woodland; but it’s also the time when the most damage can be done.” As with many things forestry, there are many myths associated with timber harvesting that can lead to bad outcomes. Let’s address some in hopes of getting to a more positive outcome.

Those trees need to be cut. Unless they present a risk to life or infrastructure, or insect or disease is in the area, no tree ever needs to be immediately cut. Sure, trees have economic and biological maturity, but in a resource with a lifespan many decades beyond our own, the time frame for decision-making is correspondingly longer. You have time to make decisions that do well by your land.

Get those big trees out of the way and the little trees will grow up to replace them. Unless you’ve taken action to get the next generation of young trees growing in the forest, or you’re the lucky inheritor of a two-aged stand, for the most part across Pennsylvania, those big trees and little trees are the same age. They may be different species which would account for different growth rates (for example oaks and hickories), or they may the winners within a species due to microsite or genetic superiority. By the same rules that a farmer keeps his prize bull around for breeding, why would you want to take the best growing trees out of your stand, without ensuring that their progeny are there to replace them? And with most of Pennsylvania’s trees of an average age between 80 and 120 years old, we know that at that age many trees lose their ability to respond well to increased light. They aren’t going to grow quickly and recapture a site – instead the light can cause stress and you’ll lose more trees in the process.

We’ll just do a “select cut.” As with the knock on the door, anytime the phrase “select cut” enters the conversation, red flags and warning lights go off. A forester’s job is to use management techniques to mimic natural events in the forest (for example windstorm, fire, blowdown) to advance the forest along its successional path (the natural process of different species replacing each other following different stages of growth – a process that can take tens to hundreds of years), slow it down, or reset it in order to help the forest improve in health and functionality, and to help it meet the owner’s values. In the manner in which it has come to be used, a “select cut” means the best trees are removed – take the best and leave the rest. Diameter limit cuts fall in the same red flag area – cutting all trees above a certain diameter. Within a species, this could remove the best growing trees of that group. Across species, because different tree species have different light requirements and rates of growth, this could remove an entire species from your forest. Anecdotally we hear about this happening a lot in mixed oak stands. With our forest’s history, in some places oaks are currently the largest trees. And if you love wildlife or hunting, it makes little sense to remove one of the largest food sources for insects (feed the birds) and wildlife. The maples and birch left aren’t going to fill that food void.

Forestry’s not complicated. I can do this on my own. It’s been said that forestry is not rocket science; it’s a lot harder (I will admit, some forester probably said this). The reality is that a forest is a very complex system. As you engage with your woods, you recognize the diversity of species, the diversity of sizes, the things that are there that shouldn’t be, and things that aren’t there that should be. All of these variables, plus a landowner’s values and goals for their property, and, hopefully, an expectation of land stewardship beyond the current tenure, should go into the decisions that are being made about the woods. There are professional service providers who can help – consulting foresters. If ever a timber harvest is considered, we strongly encourage landowners to have someone to advocate for you, your values, and your long-term hopes for the woodland. Consulting foresters can prescribe management activities that will best mesh with your woods and your values. They can mark timber to carry out that activity. They can bid out the sale. And they can, at times, monitor the harvest to ensure good work is done. Yes, trees can bring dollar figures to your pocket, but they also bring you (and the rest of us) so much more. Having a professional who can interpret the story of your forest, help you understand what you have on your land, and help guide you in the process to move the forest to a place you hope it can go is an asset to you. As with other professionals, there are costs involved. But more often than not, these professionals ensure a more positive outcome. As with all professions, there are scrupulous and unscrupulous players in forestry. Get recommendations; ask for references.

There is always time to make well-informed decisions about the long-term care of your woods. Purchase of standing timber may be picking up right now, but make sure you understand the actions and potential outcomes before you make the decision to sell trees. Ask for help. Educate yourself. The trees and forest will be better for it.

A great resource to get you started is a Penn State publication titled, “Forestry with Confidence.” You can find it online and review or download a copy. The publication is also available for purchase – shipping and handling fees are based on your location.

Contact Information

Allyson Brownlee Muth, Ed.D.
  • Forest Stewardship Program Associate
Phone: 814-865-3208