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The Importance of a Forester

Posted: December 19, 2018

If a landowner is ready to act to care well for their woods, we can’t overstate the importance of a forester to help with the process.

Caring well for woodlands is one of the harder things to do. The complexities of the woodland system – the trees and plants, soil, water, wildlife, and interactions of those things – seem simple to understand. Green is good, wildlife is a boon, Mother Nature can take care of herself – unfortunately, not so much anymore. Our impacts on the woodland system are such that doing well by the land often requires active intervention. The impacts of non-native, invasive plants on the establishment of the next forest, the effects of overbrowsing by herbivores, the insects and diseases that we have introduced from other parts of the world – these, and more challenges, combine to make once relatively simple decisions very complex.

If a landowner is ready to act to care well for their woods, we can’t overstate the importance of a forester to help with the process. Activities can range from tree planting, invasives control, and creating wildlife plots to establishing the next forest, identifying and managing crop trees, and scientifically-sound thinnings or harvests.

Trees can be an economic asset – they have monetary value. But the woodland also has values for a landowner that are often more deeply entrenched than just dollars for the pocket. Its beauty, serenity, recreational opportunities, wildlife viewing, and more are the reasons landowners in Pennsylvania own their land. The challenge is in acting on the land in such a way that those values, as well as forest health, are improved, even when economics is the goal.

A forester is someone who has education, training, and/or experience in caring for the complexities of the forest. A forester understands the history of the woods (or how to discover it from clues left), the soils and bedrock, the niches preferred by different tree species, seed sources, the impacts action will have on water flowing on or through the woods, the impacts action will have on the next forest, health threats, impacts to wildlife, wood products, and more. A forester also knows about the markets in the area – who’s buying what, who’s not – or has access to them. A good forester is a tremendous asset to any woodland owner.

But here’s the caveat: in Pennsylvania, anyone can call themselves a forester. There are no licenses or registrations tied to that job title. So how can a landowner find someone who can help?

There are a few forestry professional organizations – whose membership criteria require some combination of educational degrees, experience in the field, a commitment to an ethical standard, and a willingness to pursue continuing education to stay up to date on new threats to the woods – the Society of American Foresters, the Association of Consulting Foresters, and the Forest Stewards Guild. Many times, landowners look to foresters who belong to these organizations as starting points in their quest to find someone with whom to work. Not all foresters choose to belong to these organizations, but that doesn’t preclude them from having the skills and experience to do well by the woods.

Your county service forester, employed by the DCNR Bureau of Forestry, has lists of foresters who work in your area. While they can’t give recommendations, there are things you can do to find someone who has the knowledge and skills, and who will care for the land in a way that doesn’t compromise your values.

Start by identifying your values and goals for your land. Write them down and help make them concrete in your head. Recognize that you may need to shift your expectations based on the current conditions of your forest.

Get recommendations from fellow woodland owners who have worked with foresters. If there is a woodland owners association in your area, those folks are more than willing to advise others about foresters best suited to do the work you want done. Ask about their experience with the forester, what practices were undertaken, were they happy with the process and the results?

Contact multiple foresters and trust your gut. Does this person understand your values? Are they willing to talk with you about options? Ask about their professional philosophy – why did they get into this line of work? Ask for references. Are they willing to share their work on others’ properties with you?

If the planned actions will produce income, work with someone who talks about the residual forest – what will be left after trees are cut – as much or more than what they are taking out. After all, you as the landowner must live with the forest after management – make sure the actions don’t compromise the values you hold for the land.

Work with someone who will talk about the silviculture behind the decisions they are making on trees to remove. Silviculture is the art and science of managing forests. It’s not always simple.

Don’t be afraid to ask the forester about how fees are determined. At times, concerns have been raised about foresters who work for a percentage of sale income – the perception can be that it is tempting to for them to mark for sale the better trees because that brings in more money for the landowner and thereby higher return to them. Project rates, hourly rates, or daily rates are other payment options. An honest conversation goes a long way.

While it sounds nice, raise some red flags when a forester talks about a “select cut” or “selectively harvesting.” These terms don’t reflect the language of science-based management. Quite often, select cuts become “take the best and leave the rest.” This action compromises the intrinsic values and future health of the forest left. In Pennsylvania, many of the harvests (over 50%) undertaken result in situations that are unsustainable – the next forest is not in place to recapture the site, invasive or competitive plants are present to such a degree that native plants cannot compete, entire species are removed, etc.

Recognize that finding the right forester and starting to work may not happen immediately. Except in tree health situations, there is usually ample time to make decisions and come up with a good plan before work gets done. Good foresters are in high demand, and the supply of foresters in our state is relatively small. But there is almost always time to find the right forester to work with you.

Educate yourself on your woods; ask for advice from fellow landowners who you know and trust; work with someone who understands your values and connection to the woods.

If you are ready to take action, do so in a way that will leave the forest better for those who come next. A good forester is your ace in the hole.

Contact Information

Allyson Brownlee Muth, Ed.D.
  • Interim Director, Center for Private Forests
Phone: 814-865-3208