Posted: October 11, 2019

Learning from the Mistakes of Fellow Landowners.

A high-grade cut, where a logger takes the best trees and leaves the rest, typically leaves an unattractive woodlot with lower future value. Note that the forest shown has only small and low-quality trees from which to grow. (Photo by Chris Nowak)

A high-grade cut, where a logger takes the best trees and leaves the rest, typically leaves an unattractive woodlot with lower future value. Note that the forest shown has only small and low-quality trees from which to grow. (Photo by Chris Nowak)

Paul Solomon is a private forest landowner, Pennsylvania Forest Steward, and Master Watershed Steward who resides in New Freedom, PA. Now retired, Paul served as a senior planner for the York County Planning Commission and was later employed by the Baltimore County Office of Planning and Zoning, heading their Environmental Planning Section. He also has served as a Township Supervisor in Shrewsbury Township since 2000.

For the many woodland owners who pride themselves on their sustainable forest management and harvesting practices, the shortsighted actions of some landowners when tending and harvesting their woods can seem inexplicable. Consider these examples of what I have encountered in observing forest management practices over a number of years.

  • A realtor purchases a productive, 250-acre farm at a bargain price from an uninformed seller. The farm is in a highly desirable location, situated along the Jackson River in Highland County, VA. The realtor subsequently arranges for a logger to high-grade, or remove the best trees from, the property's productive woodlot. She then lists the property for sale, expecting to receive a premium price despite having damaged both the woodlot and the overall aesthetics of the property. A number of prospective buyers fail to make offers because they are disturbed by the unattractive condition of the woods and overwhelmed at the prospect of restoring them.
  • The widow of an older farmer who himself had always sustainably harvested his woodlot is persuaded by a logger to extract the residual value from the woodlot with an additional harvest. As a result of her unwise decision, the widow is left with a degraded and unattractive woodlot with reduced regeneration potential and limited future value. She intends to remain on the property.
  • A developer purchases a large wooded tract at a premium price, expecting to finance the purchase by subdividing it into a large number of residential lots. He later learns that the property is located in the township Agricultural Zoning District, which greatly limits him from subdividing as intended. Having difficulty satisfying his considerable mortgage, the developer high-grades the farm's extensive woodlands. The developer continues to experience financial difficulties and is forced to sell the property a short time later at a loss due to the unattractive condition of the property following the harvest.
  • A farmer possesses a few small scattered woodlots on his 21-acre farm. He is a retired widower who relies on Social Security and badly needs an updated pick-up truck. He and a logger friend scour his woodlots, seeking trees of any value whatsoever that can be harvested to fund the purchase. Sadly, the farmer passes away less than a year after the harvest and subsequent purchase of the truck. His estate conducts a public sale after his passing, in which the farm is sold for a price substantially lower than its value prior to his logging venture. The truck, by the way, is sold for much less than its purchase price.

Having purchased and restored a number of wooded properties over the years, there are a number of lessons I wish I could impart to landowners to enable them to have the "best of both worlds," that is, to enhance the stewardship of their land while still meeting their economic and life needs.

Recognize the value of a well-managed woodlot to future owners. New generations of owners are now purchasing or inheriting wooded properties at an accelerating pace. For many, the opportunity to enjoy solitude, wildlife, and recreation in the woods are the primary reasons for ownership. Thus, a well-managed woodlot can be a highly sought after feature of a property. In the case of the realtor, her rush to extract economic value from the property, without truly understanding the value of the woodlands to others, likely led her to receive less revenue overall and attract a smaller number of buyers than she could have otherwise. She also could have gained recognition for listing a distinctive property. Instead, she perhaps did not earn all the revenue she could have, and may even have impaired her reputation for the visible damage she did to the property.

Always plan for your harvests in advance. For landowners with limited resources, it can be extremely tempting to extract the value of their timber when opportunity knocks, typically in the form of a logger who "just happens to be in the area" and expresses interest in harvesting their woods. However, such decisions made in haste almost always result in harvests which do not fairly compensate the landowner and which leave behind woodlots that are less healthy and less resilient than before.

With a bit of preparation, and the advice of a consulting forester, a landowner can plan a harvest in advance of when income might be needed and choose a logger who will carry out the plan. By doing so, the landowner will be in a position to earn much needed income, to have funds on hand when needed, and to ensure that the woodlot that remains contains the desirable trees needed as seed sources for regeneration and as harvesting opportunities in the future.

Investigate land use regulations before making major decisions about a forested property. In Pennsylvania, forestry is considered a normal agricultural operation which is to be encouraged and which has special protection under state law. As a result, it is essential to understand how state law, county comprehensive plans, and municipal comprehensive plans and ordinances might impact land use changes being considered for a property. These laws were put into place to protect the right to practice forestry and other agricultural operations; individuals considering purchasing or selling forested properties for different land uses should know "the rules of the game" before they proceed. In the case of the uninformed developer described above, his failure to do so had unfavorable economic consequences for him personally and adverse environmental consequences for the property and community.

Recognize that the landscape you create is the one you have to live with. Landowners who expect that the forest "will just take care of itself," or who make unwise harvesting decisions, may not realize the consequences of their choices until considerable deterioration or damage has occurred. Woodlots that are harvested unsustainably are aesthetically unattractive, are populated with undesirable tree species and invasive trees and shrubs, and may even be devoid of desirable wildlife.

Woodlots that are neglected typically become overrun with invasives and lose the aesthetic features that make properties special. Landowners who intend to remain on their properties would be wise to remember that the choices they make will affect what they see out their windows and on their walks every day. In the case of the widow described above, one unwise decision destroyed years of thoughtful stewardship by her departed husband and left her with an unattractive woodland with little capacity to regenerate and little future value.

As responsible stewards of our own forests, we can only hope that the work we undertake on our properties will inspire others to take a fresh look at their practices. By raising awareness of our own stewardship activities, we can perhaps help other landowners come to recognize and avoid the consequences of inattentive woodlot management and poorly planned harvests. Landowners who learn from our example will benefit from woodlots that are the healthy, aesthetically pleasing, and economically viable resources they have the potential to be.

Center for Private Forests

Address

416 Forest Resources Building
University Park, PA 16802

Center for Private Forests

Address

416 Forest Resources Building
University Park, PA 16802