The Benefits of Smart Forest Management

Thinning trees intelligently and practicing informed forest stewardship can aid fire suppression as well as providing acres of compost for your farm or market garden.

Virginia Pine

An acre of dying Virginia pine created enough animal bedding to compost 50 acres of farmland.

Photo by Kristen Kilfoyle

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Too often, farmers and gardeners leave forestland to its own devices, as if thinning trees and strategically managing their woodlots would desecrate some sacred shrine to wildness. That woodlot out behind your garden, however, needs stewardship just as much as any other part of your homestead. The resources it offers go far beyond providing fuel for your woodstove.

A Brief History of Forest Management

This might be news to some: Dense forests were uncommon in many regions of North America 600 years ago. Some indigenous people routinely burned the landscape to control dense undergrowth and create more pasture and forage for game. Widely spaced trees grew stronger with more room to spread out and more nutrients available. (For more on Native American forest-management methods, see Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire by Stephen J. Pyne.)

New discoveries about the precolonial landscape reveal a history of meticulous attention to forest ecology with intentional manipulation and alteration of plant and animal communities. Because the brush was burned routinely, fires from such sources as lightning strikes didn’t have the fuel to become towering infernos. Rather, they were what foresters today call “cool fires.” These less ferocious fires don’t jump into the tree canopy, but stay low to the ground, where they burn brush, brambles and small saplings.

Cool fires kill primarily the weaker trees. Strong trees survive these fires and become even stronger because their competition is removed, just as garden vegetables thrive when given plenty of room and freedom from competing weeds.

If we were to close our eyes and imagine what an intentionally burned landscape looked like in the year 1500, we’d see widely spaced trees. Few trees would be crooked, diseased, stunted or otherwise inferior. Century after century, prior to European arrival, North American forests flourished under this forest stewardship. Here’s the key point: This management killed weak trees, and left superior genetic stock. Through the centuries, careful forest stewardship helped to improve genetics and create the magnificent cathedral specimens that early settlers described in their journals.

In Native American silviculture, large, widely spaced trees were a natural result of wise management. Further, native peoples used primarily small saplings and pole timber to build homes and other structures and for cooking. Without saws in their tool chests, the indigenous groups couldn’t efficiently harvest large trees. Thus, the trees they didn’t use were able to grow quite large.

Stewardship Fail

When colonists arrived, they saw the big trees as the most valuable in the forest. The newcomers had steel axes and saws, which enabled them to not only chop down large trees, but to slice them into lumber.

This reversed the multicentury — perhaps multimillennia — Native American silviculture. With value skewed toward big trees, the tallest and best were the first to be harvested. Today, our forests are centuries into having the best trees hacked down and the poorest left to grow. Add to that situation decades of misguided fire suppression that has focused on preventing all fires at any cost, and you end up with forests that are choked with vegetation and full of spindly, stressed trees competing for scarce water, sunlight and growing space.

No livestock farmer would select mangy weaklings as breeding stock. No seed producer would save seed from the weakest vegetables to plant next year. The history of ecology and agriculture is largely the chronology of genetic selection wherein the stronger specimens reach breedable status and the weaker ones die off or are killed by predators.

Most contemporary forest management does the exact opposite, taking the best and leaving the worst. Foresters refer to this as “high-grading,” a practice that provides a major conundrum for us tree-huggers (a designation I proudly claim), who’d rather see a wood-based economy that incentivizes taking the worst and leaving the best to grow stronger.

Your Homestead Woodlot

If I want to upgrade my woodlot, I can’t continuously take the straight, tall, solid trees; I must figure out a way to take the diseased, infirm, crooked and weak. These imperfect specimens occupy valuable space that could be devoted to growing genetically superior individuals. Remember, a poor cow eats just as much as a good cow. Nobody would argue with a farmer who culled the poor cow and replaced it with the good cow’s heifer calf. Likewise, nobody would argue the wisdom of disregarding seeds from less-than-perfect vegetables.

So why do we enter our degraded, genetically inferior woodlots as if they’re too sacred to be weeded out with a chainsaw? Most (and probably all) of our woodlots have far more weedy, weak and wounded trees than good ones. How do we pay ourselves for the time and effort it takes to get rid of them?

Today’s forest economy recognizes lumber as the forest’s only value. A forest economy built only on board feet will inherently degrade the forest. We desperately need to value the culls so our woodlots can regrow superior genetics and reverse the multicentury slide to weaker species.

From Faulty Forests to a Compost Economy

Consider this question’s amazing ramifications: What if all the money currently spent in the United States on chemical fertilizer were spent instead on wood-based carbon to feed the soil? To fully explore this question would take a whole book, but let me give a teaser.

A large amount of the waste that has been dumped into landfills is compostable, and that fact is an immoral blot on our society. If you’re reading MOTHER EARTH NEWS, you most likely understand that carbon is what builds soil. Mother’s pages are filled with tips on composting, mulching, intensive grazing, and feeding earthworms to nourish our good Earth.

If we moved to an economy that replaced all chemical fertilizers with compost, we would need vast stores of carbon. We might not have to look very far for them. I recently traveled through northern Colorado and was shocked to see millions of acres of dead trees. When I asked my hosts why the trees were all dead, the answer was quick and axiomatic: no diversity, bad fire-suppression policies and too-thick growth, all of which paved the way for invasive diseases and tree-killing beetles and worms.

With today’s machinery, from chainsaws and chippers to tub grinders and front-end loaders, many wildfires should be seen as a manifestation of neglectful stewardship, pure and simple. Instead of following the path that gave us decades of fire suppression, Smokey Bear and catastrophic forest fires, we could recreate a silviculture that would actively improve the forest. We could cull all of those weak trees and compost them, thereby embracing a smarter, more holistic economy.

Last winter, we rented a Vermeer chipper that could handle 19-inch-diameter material. In two days we cleared an acre of old, dying Virginia pine and converted it into four tractor-trailer loads of carbon that we used to bed our cattle, chickens and pigs through winter. By spring, that bedding had become compost, which we spread onto our fields — 50 acres’ worth of soil improving nutrients.

Now, folks, if 1 acre of dying forest can cover 50 acres of fields with compost, imagine what that practice could do as a national policy. We’d have thousands of jobs employing people on the landscape, not in Dilbert-style cubicles chasing fantasy numbers around cyberspace: real work on real land for real people doing truly meaningful land management.

Can you imagine the earthworms’ dancing exuberance if such a scheme took hold? Instead of running from toxic chemicals, they’d be feasting on compost, and aerating, mineralizing and loosening the soil.

Wood-pellet technology is fast approaching the do-it-yourself level, offering yet another enterprise for forestry products. Wood gasification, rocket stoves, wood-fired steam engines — with all the latest designs of wood-powered technology, we could quickly create an economically viable forestry-upgrade program. I can imagine an entire tree-weeding industry replacing our current military-based, petroleum-centric chemical fertilizer paradigm.

This idea is not a cap-and-trade scheme, not a contrived carbon-trading Wall Street plan, but rather a protocol as old as nature itself. Indeed, it honors and relies on the oldest tried-and-true Earth stewardship pattern we know: the carbon cycle. That’s something all of us can embrace.


Joel Salatin culls his woodlot to create mountains of compost on his farm in Swoope, Virginia. He is the author of Folks, This Ain’t Normal and numerous other books about the business and philosophy of sustainable farming.