Posted: October 27, 2017

Successful forest management involves planning.

Most of us appreciate that the growth and development of a forest extends across decades and centuries. In human terms, generations of owners will pass before a young forest reaches maturity. Ideally, forest planning would extend across the tenure of multiple owners; however, that is seldom the case. In Pennsylvania, the average ownership lasts less than 20 years. Luckily some forests stay in families for multiple generations. But even in these cases, it is unlikely that subsequent generations will follow the plans of their forebears.

If you own forestland, planning is important. A well-developed forest management plan provides a map that should sustain a vision for the forest's future. This map analogy is appropriate in that you can arrive at a destination by following different roads. In a similar way, you can be adaptive, changing the journey as you encounter challenges. To develop a forest management plan, it is important to consider where you want to go and how to get there.

If you want to write a forest management plan, where do you start? You can create a rudimentary plan yourself, but eventually, as you start to actually make management decisions, you should engage a resource professional (i.e., a forester) as a partner in process. Selecting the "right" forester is important. This professional will develop the actual plan that includes maps, inventory data, and a list and schedule of activities. Forest management generally involves manipulating the forest in some way that changes current conditions with the intent of moving it to a future desired condition. It can involve cutting trees, using herbicides, or waiting for anticipated growth or change to happen.

So how do you select the "right" forester? Foresters learn in their silviculture class (the art and science of managing communities of trees) that the first step in creating a forest management plan is to establish the objectives; however, when working with private forests landowners I've come to believe this is the wrong place to start. How many landowners have a solid enough understanding of their objectives to guide management decisions? An old axiom is that we practice silviculture with an axe. Often, when a landowner chooses to practice silviculture, there is the expectation that the application of the axe will lead to some economic return. The anticipation of income from harvesting sometimes pushes that objective to the forefront and diminishes, at least for the moment, many of the other values the landowner has for their forest.

Therefore, I think, the conversation between a landowner and a forester developing a forest management plan that involves silvicultural practices should begin with the owner's forest-related values. The following questions will help you to carefully consider the values attached to your woodlands when you engage a forester for planning or harvesting:

  • In the context of today and tomorrow, what about your woodlands is important to you? Are their important places or memories associated with the land?
  • How do you currently use the land and how is that likely to change?
  • What are your concerns about your woodlands?
  • What are your hopes and visions for your woods?

Take your time to reflect on these questions. Write down your answers. If you share the land with others (e.g., family, partners), garner their perspectives and reflections. You might find it useful to discuss where you agree and find common ground; or, where you see divergent views.

The point of the exercise is obvious. The answers to these questions clearly establish how you think about your woods. You are describing what is important. You should carefully consider those things you are willing to change. Your objectives are subservient in this process.

It seems that landowners often decide to conduct a timber harvest without understanding how it may change their relationship with their land - they may gain income, but lose or diminish other values. Years ago a Pennsylvania DCNR Bureau of Forestry Service Forester offered his thoughts through his Timber Harvesting Paradox, "The harvest represents the most opportune time to have a positive impact on the forest. The harvest, without forethought, can have long-term significant negative impacts on the forest."

From the 2010 survey of Pennsylvania woodland owners, we learned that only 4% of landowners had a written management plan for their land. It is unfortunate that most of Pennsylvania's forest landowners make management decisions without a plan. They make decisions that will change the nature of their forest immediately and the changes will extend across generations. Most importantly, they will make management decisions that will diminish or eclipse the values they consider most important.

Likely you know forest owners who have cut trees without a clear plan. All too often these landowners seek solutions to the outcome of their uninformed decisions after the fact. How to control ferns? How to get oak regeneration? How to restore roads and skid trails? Ideally, a well-conceived forest management plan will prepare the landowner for the changes resulting from management and they will understand how the forest should respond.

If you already have a forest management plan, when was the last time you took it down from the shelf and considered you next decision? If you do not have a plan, have you given enough thought to what you value and how you might change current conditions?

If you're thinking about a plan and are ready to take that step, a useful tool is the Forest Stewardship Bulletin: Planning Your Forest's Future. You can find the publication online, and can download or purchase a copy.

Contact Information

James Finley, Ph.D.
  • Professor Emeritus of Forest Resources

Center for Private Forests


416 Forest Resources Building
University Park, PA 16802

Center for Private Forests


416 Forest Resources Building
University Park, PA 16802