Looking to the Future: Improving Woodlands and Finding Creative Uses for Low-value Wood

Posted: March 31, 2019

There are many types of woodland stand improvement activities that yield small diameter and low-value wood; however, one may be left wondering if there is some creative use of these materials. As it turns out, there are some existing and emerging markets for low-value wood.

Woodland stands need periodic tending, or “intermediate treatments,” to foster and maintain their health, function, productivity, and benefits to wildlife. These treatments are conducted in immature stands and focus on adjusting stand structure (vertical and horizontal space), species composition, and the relative density of trees in the stand. These adjustments improve the growth, quality, vigor, and species composition of the remaining trees within a stand.

In Pennsylvania’s and many other northeastern U.S. forests there are many opportunities—if not an outright need—to implement intermediate treatment activities to improve woodland health and function. Imagine a young stand with saplings that have been overtopped by less desirable species like native birch or non-native invasive shrubs. Removing the woody vegetation that is competing with tree saplings of desirable species will essentially liberate, or free, the saplings and promote their vigor. Removing saplings of species that aren’t wanted in the stand or invasive shrubs will greatly improve the stand but may leave a landowner with the challenge of finding something to do with a large quantity of low-value woody materials.

Often, the types of intermediate treatments that are commonly needed in Pennsylvania’s woods also result in the harvest of materials that have no significant ecological value in a stand and no apparent economic value after removal. Stand improvement cuttings, for example, remove damaged, defective, or poorly formed trees to make space and growth resources for the remaining healthy trees. This treatment is particularly needed in the numerous stands that have been degraded through diameter-limit cutting that takes the biggest and best trees, leaving poorly formed and less vigorous trees.

Precommercial thinning, as its name implies, is a thinning which does not yield trees of commercial value but is very valuable to woodland health. This practice usually entails removing trees in a stand which is overstocked—in other words, the growing space is so completely utilized that growth has slowed down and many trees are being suppressed. When the stand is thinned, the desirable trees are able to harness more resources for growth. A precommercial thinning may result in woody materials that have a bigger diameter but are not merchantable in traditional wood markets.

One more example of intermediate treatments that are common in Pennsylvania’s woods relate to stands that have been damaged or will be damaged by an insect pest or disease. Some landowners are able to harvest ash trees before the trees are killed by emerald ash borer. This is a sanitation cut and sometimes landowners are lucky enough to be able to market wood from this type of harvest. Other times, a landowner may be faced with trees that have already died and for which there is no market. Imagine a stand with a large component of Eastern hemlock that have been killed by hemlock woolly adelgids. Hemlock has a low economic value due to its poor lumber quality. Once again, here is a scenario in which a landowner may be challenged with figuring out what to do with trees/woody material that needs to be removed to help the growth of the existing and future forest.

With all of these examples of woodland stand improvement activities that yield small diameter and low-value wood, one may be left wondering if there is some creative use of these materials. As it turns out, there are some existing and emerging markets for low-value wood. Many states in the northeast are experiencing this influx of woody “waste” when addressing the substantial need for thinning, invasive plant removal, and other woodland improvement activities.

One of the growing markets for low-value wood in Pennsylvania is in using woody materials for heating and energy. Chipped or pelletized wood can be used in conjunction with other materials (e.g., co-fired with coal) or used alone. Since 1989, Mountain View High School, in Kingsley, PA has used low-value woody materials to heat the school. In southeastern Pennsylvania, a residential community called Spring Valley Bruderhof uses wood waste from their furniture and cabinet manufacturing shop and locally sourced wood chips to provide hot water to its 400 residents and their community buildings. Researchers and Extension professionals at Penn State University have also developed an initiative to promote use of Pennsylvania’s wood waste for generating heat and energy at institutions like schools and hospitals. The Elk Regional Health Center is one such example, using wood chips from local logging companies to produce heat for the hospital. These connections are mutually beneficial—making it feasible to remove and use low-grade wood while reducing institutions’ reliance on imported heating oil, providing significant cost-savings, and supporting local economies.

Another creative use, highlighted in the November 2018 issue of the Journal of Forestry, researched the use of Eastern hemlock as animal bedding. Hemlock is plentiful in some areas and not needed in other markets but has been found to be a very good substitute for bedding made from eastern white pine. According to the article, dairy farmers in New Hampshire experienced a 70% increase in the cost of bedding made from eastern white pine between 2003 and 2013. Using hemlock shavings saves the dairy farmers money and helps address the periodic shortages of white pine bedding.

There are other creative markets emerging to make use of small-diameter and low-value woody materials. Lump hardwood charcoal for grilling has grown in popularity in recent years. Some sellers have learned the benefits of marketing their charcoal with an emphasis on telling customers the place-based story of a product created from woodland improvement activities like those described in this article. Biochar, a material that can be used as a soil amendment (as well as numerous other uses), has also experienced a growth in marketability.

As forest tending activities continue to produce small-diameter and low-value woody materials, what other uses and markets can we discover or create? The opportunities for helping to grow local economies through value-added products like those described here are exciting. Some landowners may find niche markets like making mushroom logs, furniture, or craft items from uniquely formed branches and burls. Other landowners may want to find ways to cooperatively market low-value wood for heat and energy markets. The lesson to be learned and shared with others is that we can and must find ways to carry out much-needed woodland improvement activities. As this work is carried out, let us pay attention to ways we can convert otherwise nonmerchantable wood into products that will sustain and support local and regional economies.

Contact Information

Leslie Horner
  • Forest Stewardship Program Associate
Phone: 814-867-5982