Develop a Sustainable Forest Management Plan

Have plants and wildlife coexist and benefit equally from your forest by developing a sustainable forest management plan.
By Stephen Long
April 16, 2012

Many forest owners want to take a more ecological approach to managing their woods, and they feel right at home with a more natural forestry that’s focused on the forest and not just the trees. That’s where “More Than a Woodlot” comes in. Author Stephen Long explains complex ecological and forestry concepts in clear language and shows you how to get started.

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Let the forest on your property thrive with its natural wonder and beauty. If you’ve ever thought about how to maintain your forest without harming the balance between wildlife and woodland, More Than a Woodlot: Getting the Most from Your Family Forest can show you the way to achieving that important balance. Author Stephen Long, co-founder of Northern Woodlands magazine, shares ways to increase biodiversity in your woods, how to evaluate — and improve — habitat for songbirds and other wildlife, and what to look for in a forester and a logger. Start off by developing a sustainable forest management plan with a professional forester. It’s as easy as taking a walk through your forest and taking note of what is around you. This excerpt is taken from Chapter 3, “A Walk in Your Woods.” 

I’ve loved my woods since the day I first walked in them, but my appreciation of them has increased exponentially since I first had a professional forester walk in my woods with me. I was a true neophyte. In my case, my guide was the county forester, and he showed me inter­esting things I would have missed, asked me thought-provoking questions, and showed me how to read certain indica­tors of the forest’s history. That walk in the woods jump-started my passion for what could be done in them and with them. I have since then hired a consulting forester, who has written a sustainable forest management plan for our woods, overseen timber sales, and been an important partner in managing these woods I love.

It’s not just the neophyte who will benefit from a walk in the woods with a professional forester. Even if you can identify most of your trees and animal tracks and birds, a professional forester offers another set of eyes and an entirely different set of experiences that can help you understand what promise your woods might hold. And if you’re serious about doing a good job managing your family forest, you’ll benefit from the services of a private con­sulting forester (for more on the work foresters do, read “Forester and Logger: Two Important (and Different) Roles” later in this article.)

It’s quite possible to learn a lot about forestry from books and workshops and through the painful and exhilarating pro­cess of trial and error. Only you know how far you want to go with your own forestry education. I highly recommend learning as much as you possibly can, and I just as highly recommend that you engage a for­ester to be your partner in management. You might want to start out with what some people call a “woodland exam.” You would contract with a forester to spend two to four hours walking the property and producing a brief written report that summarizes the property’s current condi­tions and potential, and then makes some recommendations. This is not a formal inventory, which we’ll discuss below, but rather a quick sketch. At a reasonable cost, it can give you a sense of possible next steps in the forest stewardship process.

Having this informed look at the re­source is important because just as our desires differ, so does the capacity of a piece of land to satisfy them. It will be frustrating — not to mention harmful to your land — to try to make it produce something that doesn’t come naturally. To state the obvious, you need sugar maples to have a sugarbush and you need softwoods to have a deeryard. No matter how much effort you put into it, you will not be able to transform your thick hem­lock stand into a sugarbush, nor will your mature stand of maples ever serve to shel­ter deer from harsh winter conditions. There are countless other less obvious ways in which you could try to push your forest in a direction it can’t readily go.

The good news is that every piece of land has the potential to be endlessly re­warding. You will be faced with — maybe even blessed with — a set of conditions on your land that suggest certain possibili­ties for the land. Sometimes it takes a lot of work in the woods to transform it into something closer to what you want. And sometimes just an adjustment of expec­tations on the part of the landowner will bring it all to fruition.

Forest Description

When you’re ready to start managing your forest, you should hire a professional forester to produce a sustainable forest management plan for the property. (Read “Finding a Forester” further on in this article.) There are four major parts in a management plan: a de­scription of the forest as it is now, a map, a plan for future activities, and a list of your goals and objectives.

First things first. We need to know what we have before we can make deci­sions about its future, so we’ll hold off on the action plan and the goals and ob­jectives until later. The critical first step in any plan is a clear description and in­ventory of the forest. The level of detail may vary, but it’s considerably more than the woodland exam. A description of the forest should include information about the regional context of the property, in­ventory data, a map of the forest, and observations about the characteristics and capabilities of the land.

No property exists in isolation. It is lo­cated in a landscape and a legal jurisdic­tion, and it is adjacent to other land (or water). It also has a history of use that may or may not be similar to that of ad­jacent properties. The context of what is beyond the property boundaries might limit or expand what you can achieve in­side your boundaries. If, for example, your property is bounded on one side by an in­terstate highway, that will limit the kinds of animals that might use your property. It also might mean that the noise level pre­cludes constructing the getaway cabin in what might otherwise be back woods.

Consider the context of a 90-acre woodland that is situated like an island in the middle of a town dominated by culti­vated cropland. A parcel the same size in the midst of 50,000 acres of forest would be entirely different in its possibilities and limitations. Driving around your area or even hiking around can provide a simple view of the regional context, but there’s nothing like a bird’s-eye view from an air­plane or a satellite. With the availability of satellite imagery, orthophotography, and online maps and aerial photos, it is easier to get a feel for some of the ways in which a particular property fits into the larger landscape. You’ll have an im­mediate sense of whether your land is a continuation of a large trend or whether it holds some anomalies.

Timber Cruise

To evaluate a property, foresters gather several types of information, some of which are available without even visit­ing the property. Most counties in the Northeast have conducted soil surveys and published them in book form and/ or online, providing data about fertility, hydrology, and engineering properties of soils. This information is available to anyone who seeks it, but foresters will have this information at their fingertips. Bedrock maps also provide important in­formation about soil characteristics.

Soil and bedrock maps give a forester an idea of what the land might be capa­ble of growing. Deep soils on a kind of bedrock that readily gives up its nutrients show good potential. Or you may have thin soils on granite bedrock, which of­fers less than ideal growing conditions.

In the forestry version of the nature versus nurture debate, nurture has equal billing, so the forester’s next step is to vis­it the forest to see what’s been nurtured there. Has the forest been given the op­portunity to show its potential or has it been poorly used? This becomes more than a qualitative judgment as the professional forest­er makes quantitative measurements of what’s in the forest. The way it’s done is through a timber cruise, a statistical sam­pling of the property to estimate the volume of timber growing on the land. The timber cruise also provides the forester with all sorts of additional information — includ­ing the presence of stone walls and cellar holes, wetlands, existing woods roads, boulder fields, steep slopes — that will be drawn on the map because they can affect the management of the parcel.

To come up with a tally of the vol­ume of timber on a woodland of 1 acre or less, it would be perfectly reasonable to measure every tree that has a diameter of 4 inches or more. But that’s impos­sible on larger lots, which is why forest­ers have developed ways of estimating the total volume by measuring it on a smaller percentage of the land. It often involves setting up a series of plot points on a grid superimposed on a rough map of the property. Then, with compass and/or GPS unit in hand, the forester travels to each plot point and takes measurements. The forester enters onto a printed tally sheet or a hand-held computer the diam­eter and merchantable height, by species, of each tree within a prescribed distance. Sometimes, it’s all trees within a fixed radius; 1/5 of an acre would have a radius of 52.7 feet. More often, it’s a variable radius, as the forester uses an ingenious prism that takes into account both dis­tance and diameter of the trees. In either case, the forester then uses the data from each of the sample points to calculate the volume per acre in the larger stand. Be­fore deciding how many plot points to in­clude in the cruise, the forester takes into consideration the property’s size and the heterogeneity of the forest; the more uni­form it is, the fewer plot points necessary to produce accurate estimates.

Back in the office, the forester will ex­trapolate the data from the plot points to develop a thorough and scientifically sound inventory of the trees in the woods. This inventory provides detailed information that includes basal area, stems per acre, and volumes of sawlogs and pulpwood. These data are crucial in develop­ing a sustainable forest management plan for harvesting. (Note that ex­planations of all these forestry terms and others are included in the glossary. It’s not necessary to understand all these concepts at this point, but you may find it helpful to refer to the glossary.)

Forest Map

In addition to providing the inventory data, the timber cruise provides a systematic and thorough view of the property that allows the forester to map the forest. As for the map, instead of naming streets or tourist attractions, a forest map primar­ily defines the stands. In forestry terms, a stand is an area of forest within which the conditions are similar enough that it can be covered by a single description. Think of mapping your vegetable garden; the labels on the map would be tomatoes, cucumbers, and the like. You probably wouldn’t include witchgrass, purslane, and creeping Charlie in your garden map even if they are as common in yours as they are in mine. Instead, you would choose the defining characteristic: toma­to, cabbage, lettuce. Stands in a forest are less regular and less clearly defined than a garden’s plants, but they can be discerned by noting the uniformity of a number of characteristics, most notably forest type.

The terms “stand” and “forest type” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are different. Every region has recog­nizable species associations that repeat across the landscape. Some of the most common forest types in the Northeast are northern hardwoods (a grouping of sugar maple, beech, and yellow birch, along with several less-frequent associates), oak–pine, spruce–fir, and hemlock–hardwoods. These forest types would help delineate the stands, along with other characteris­tics, such as age, density, and condition. If a mature, full-canopy northern hardwood stand was adjacent to a section where the same species dominated but the trees were only 4 to 6 inches in diameter, they would be mapped as different stands. One would be mature northern hardwoods, the other pole-sized northern hardwoods. Same forest type, but different age.

Descriptive Summary

To augment the inventory data and the forest map, the forester will also produce a descriptive summary of each stand’s condition. This is largely an evaluation of what has happened on the land over the years. The description will answer questions like these:

• What is the land use history?
• Was it pasture or cropland?
• Are there any cultural or historical artifacts? If so, they will need protection.
• Were the trees planted?
• Did they sprout from cut stumps?
• Was it logged? Recently or long ago?
• If so, were certain species favored or discriminated against? Does good growing stock remain?
• If it was logged within the last few decades, were lots of the remaining trees wounded during logging?
• How much rot is immediately evident when you walk through the stand?
• How vigorous are the crowns of the trees?
• Is there any history of fire? Windstorm?
• What infrastructure is in place? Any roads and landings?
• Are there any hazards that restrict a logger’s ability to operate?
• Is any insect or disease damage present, and is it above or below normal levels?
• Are invasive species such as buckthorn, barberry, or non-native honeysuckle present? If so, how severe is the problem?

The history of a stand partially ex­plains its current condition; so, too, do the characteristics and capabilities of the land. Again, it’s a balance between nur­ture and nature.

As noted above, the potential for tim­ber production has traditionally been a primary focus of the timber cruise, so a forester will evaluate the potential for volume and value growth, given the cur­rent condition. Growth rate, vigor, and the commercial aspects of stem quality will factor into the evaluation.

The forester may report that a par­ticular stand has little or no potential for improvement or growth in value. He may recommend that it be regenerated, which means that it’s time to start over in that stand. That would be a fairly easy deci­sion to make if the sole focus of owning the land was financial return from timber sales; if the ground is being occupied by trees that are not going to increase in val­ue, the wise decision would be to prepare the conditions for a new stand of trees that can grow and thrive. If, however, the landowner is just as interested in the for­est’s capacity to provide habitat for wild­life, the value of that stand might be as­sessed differently. 

Wildlife Habitat

Because many landowners are interested primarily in the wildlife on the land, for­esters have been paying increasing atten­tion to the woodland’s potential for wild­life habitat.

Maybe your forester has enough of a background in wildlife habitat to con­duct a nature cruise. If not, you can find forest ecologists or wildlife consultants who can add this layer to your sustainable forest manage­ment plan. Or if you have the time, the inclination, and some basic training, you could take this project on yourself. By do­ing so, you will become more intimately connected to your land.

Animals require water, food, and cover. Different animals require different config­urations of these three essential elements. If the key to good wildlife habitat were to be summed up most succinctly, it would be in one word: variety. What parts of the hab­itat mix do your woods provide? What va­riety do they add to the larger landscape?

Thanks to the work of upthrust moun­tains and the recurrence of glaciers, the Northeast’s terrain is inherently diverse. If you’ve ever seen a three-dimensional re­lief map of the Northeast, you know how little flat ground there is. Augmenting the landform diversity is the variety in land use history that results from parcels changing hands at different times and being used in different ways. Those differences in land use are evening out, however, particularly in the southern part of the region, where much of the rural land is owned by people with urban or suburban backgrounds who choose not to manage their woodland, so the forest is drifting toward more homo­geneous maturity. The diversity in these forests is then due almost exclusively to any effects of natural disturbances such as ice storms or high winds.

One of the consequences of that soci­etal preference for letting nature take its course is that the forest can be markedly lacking in an understory, an unfortunate situation because the shrub layer provides food and cover for so many species. And even though a sparse understory can oc­cur naturally, this condition is often exac­erbated by owners who tidy up their forests as they would their backyard.

The opposite is true in large sections of the industrial forest in the North Coun­try of Maine, New Hampshire, and Ver­mont. These tend to be dominated by young forests marked by thickets, which develop whenever enough open space be­comes available. In those areas, the chal­lenge can be to find the mature stands that are so common to the south. Older forests south and younger forests north is a gross generality, but within those larger trends, the anomalies have particular value. May­be your land provides it.

Diversity should be considered on at least two different scales. You’ll want to first look at an aerial photo that shows just your land and its immediate surroundings; the second should be a wider view that encompasses an area 10 times the size of your land. If you own 50 acres, then take a look at topographical maps and aerial photos that cover at least 500 acres.

Start with the big picture. This broad view helps you to determine whether your land is typical of what surrounds it, or whether it may provide some unique features. As you look at the big picture, it’s variety that you are seeking: variety in elevation, in land cover, in forest type. Look for streams, ponds, or wetlands, im­portant not only for their water but also because interruptions in an overall forest cover are significant to animals. If, for in­stance, your reverting pastureland is the only open land in the area, it can have tre­mendous significance for many grassland birds, including the bobolink and eastern meadowlark, so you might decide to keep it open by brush hogging it once a year in the late summer. If, on the other hand, your land is part of an unbroken stretch of sidehill hardwoods or bottomland spruce-fir, then your challenge — if you choose to accept it — will be to introduce some vari­ety through your management choices.

Next, focus in on the aerial photo of your own land. If a forester already has developed a forest map of your property, photocopy it and add details to it as you discover more about your land. Examine it in the same way, looking for variety in topography, in forest type, and in other landscape features.

Once you’ve gotten acquainted with the bird’s-eye view and you can see whether your land provides any variety on the landscape scale, it’s time to take a walk so you can see what it all looks like from the ground.

A Nature Cruise

A walk around your property’s perim­eter can be an informative first part of a habitat exploration because different ownerships generally mean different land use history. The habitat likely is different on the other side of the property line. I recommend an annual perimeter walk for the peace of mind of knowing that no­body has entered your land and stolen timber. Timber theft has become a sig­nificant problem in parts of the region, particularly for absentee landowners.

Earlier, I described how a professional forester con­ducts a timber cruise. In order to do a na­ture cruise, you need to emulate the for­ester. No, you don’t have to set up a grid of plot points for the exploration of your woods, but you should adopt the spirit of the forester’s timber cruise, if not its rigor. Cover the ground systematically. Above all, get off the trail. Bring your compass and, if you need to, your GPS unit. Ex­plore areas you might normally bypass. If you do, it’s guaranteed that you will see your land with new perspective.

Sustainable Forest Management Plan: What Are You Looking For?

On your first pass through, be sure to get the general impressions. Observe in three dimensions what you will have already seen on your topographical map and your aerial photos. See how the non-forest ar­eas that showed up in the photos make the transition to the adjacent forest. Try to develop an eye for the stands by no­ticing the size of the trees and their den­sity. Note when the forest changes in ap­pearance. It can change in type or it can change in the size and relative density of the trees. Thus, you could find yourself going from a mature sawtimber stand of northern hardwoods into a stand of pole-sized aspen and paper birch and then (maybe slowly, maybe abruptly) into a mature stand of white pine. The tran­sitions may be abrupt or slow because stand boundaries can be sharp or blurry. Take along a field guide if you need help identifying tree species.

Make notes as you cruise. Of course, note any of the animal species that are present. In winter, migratory birds will be gone and reptiles and amphibians and some mammals will be hibernating, but you’ll be able to see the tracks of many other mammals and nonmigratory birds like grouse, turkey, and chickadees. May and June are the best months for hearing and seeing songbirds because both mi­grants and resident breeding birds can be found. As you cruise, make sure that you visit any of the anomalies you identified with the photos.

One of the more subtle features that you’ll be looking for on your walks is horizontal and vertical diversity. Complex three-dimension­ality is at the heart of habitat. And the more complex the structure of the for­est, the greater number of animals whose needs will be filled there. As you take your nature cruise, make particular note of vertical diversity. Different animals use different layers of the forest. Full-canopy forests with bare park-like understories might look nice on a calendar, but they are relatively barren for wildlife. Shrub layers and trees half the height of the can­opy add three-dimensional complexity.

Finally, as you walk through your woods, use the following checklist and make note of special features, ranging from landscape scale to individual trees, that are a boon to many species of wild­life. Add these features to your map.

Wetlands. Swamps, marshes, bogs. How do you tell the difference between them? Seasonally wet, a swamp is a wet­land with trees growing in it. Adjacent to a lake or other water body, a marsh has water flowing through it and features grasses and sedges, including the cattail. A bog is wet all year though it has no in­flow or outflow. Its vegetation consists largely of acid-loving dwarf shrubs and sphagnum moss. Wetlands are home to a tremendous variety of plants and ani­mals. Animals are drawn by water, thick cover, and food, including invertebrates and plants unique to wetlands.

Vernal pools. These are specialized wet­lands — depressions in the forest floor that hold water only in spring. They have no inlets or outlets. Void of living vegetation, vernal pools might contain some fallen woody debris. They are important habitat for a number of species of salamanders, frogs, and invertebrates such as fairy shrimp, which can only reproduce successfully be­cause vernal pools have no fish.

Lakes, ponds. Shorelines have some of the same qualities as riparian zones. They also provide nesting sites for waterfowl. If the lake is large enough, it might have loons.

Rivers or streams. Not only the water­course is important; so is the vegetation at the edge of rivers and streams. Known as the riparian zone, the margin of a river or stream serves as a travel corridor for many species.

Beaver ponds. These are true magnets for wildlife ranging from moose to musk­rat. Waterfowl, songbirds, reptiles and amphibians, herons, otter, mink — all are drawn to the cover and food the beaver’s pond creates.

Woodland seeps or springs. Particularly important for salamanders, they are also sought out by turkeys, bears, and migrat­ing birds in the spring. The surrounding ground is the first to thaw, and seep vegeta­tion is the first to green up in the spring.

Dead and down wood. Decomposing trunks, limbs, and stumps are used by many species of reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. They provide cover, moisture, nest and den sites, and food in the form of insects and other invertebrates, tiny organ­isms, and fungi. This is an important and easily overlooked habitat feature.

Stone walls or cellar holes. Besides be­ing remnants of our past, these can provide safe openings for ground-dwelling animals like snakes and burrowing mammals, and hiding places for chipmunks and mice.

Groves of beech or oak. The seeds of all trees provide food. Beechnuts and acorns are a critical source of protein, fat, and vitamins for animals preparing for winter. Before entering hibernation, bears load up on beechnuts if they are available. When they climb a beech in pursuit of nuts, bears leave claw marks on the tree’s smooth bark that will show up for years. They gorge on acorns, too, as do deer, who also need to put on fat to get through the winter. Beechnuts and acorns, known as hard mast, are also eaten by turkeys.

Soft mast. Many trees and shrubs pro­vide fruits and berries, and hundreds of species rely on them. Particularly impor­tant are cherries (from the black cherry to the pin cherry), blackberries, raspberries, and wild apples. Wild apples are a partic­ularly important late-season food. In your woods, note the presence of apple trees, either as single trees or — if you and the wildlife are even luckier — old orchards. Other trees, such as hophornbeam, have persistent catkins that provide food for many months.

Overstory inclusions. A few softwoods within a predominately hardwood stand provide cover and nesting sites for birds. Hardwoods within softwood stands pro­vide food. Both provide structural diversity.

Large cavity trees. Woodpeckers are the excavators, but the cavities they make are used in subsequent years as nest sites by many birds and as den sites for mammals. Songbirds, squirrels, bats, weasels, owls, and raccoons are among the many species that use cavities for nesting. As the crown dies back, dead trees are used as perches and roosts. When looking for cavity trees, think also of those in the future. Prime candidates are injured trees and those with a limb broken off. Think also of leaving large trees in your woodlot, those that are too poorly formed to be a sawlog and too big to be handled as firewood.

Cliffs and ledges. Important niches for bobcats, which have had much of their habitat usurped by coyotes.

Raptor nests. Hawks and owls nest high in the canopy, making their own nests or re-using other species’ nests of twigs and sticks. Many nests are used year after year, especially if there is minimal human activ­ity near the nests during breeding season.

Deer wintering areas. In winter, deer herd up in stands of softwood for pro­tection from the harsh conditions. One sign that deer are using an area in winter is overbrowsed hardwood saplings (thick branching makes them look broomy) within primarily softwood stands. Deer are such efficient generalists that they can find food and cover almost anywhere nine months of the year. Winter habitat is the only limiting factor; without it, many deer will die during prolonged periods of deep snow and below zero temperatures.

Rare plant or animal sites or com­munities. You’ll probably need outside help to confirm these features, but your legwork can get the process started. If an area looks substantially different from its surroundings, take note of the species of plants. Check with your state natural heri­tage office (most likely within the fish and wildlife department) or with The Nature Conservancy to see whether any rare sites are mapped on your land. Depending on the state, these sites vary widely, from floodplain forests to white cedar swamps to natural stands of red pine.

Forester and Logger: Two Important (and Different) Roles

Successful forest stewardship has been likened to a three-legged stool, with each leg — forester, logger, and landowner — playing a crucial role. 

In newspaper, radio, and televi­sion coverage of forestry, it’s almost inevitable that the word “forester” is used to refer to any one of these three. The forester, however, has a very spe­cific role to play.

The forester is the one who makes decisions about which trees are cut and which are left to grow, with all of these decisions based on implementing the landowner’s goals for the forest. The complexity of that decision takes into account a knowledge of silviculture, soils, forest ecology, markets, and harvesting equipment and techniques. While some states do not have licens­ing requirements for foresters, those that do—New Hampshire, and Maine, for instance—require that a practicing forester have a combination of educa­tion and experience that meets the state’s standards.

Depending on who employs them, foresters’ responsibilities will differ.

Government foresters. When they work for government agencies, forest­ers manage public lands and provide information and guidance to private landowners. In the latter role, these service foresters often are the first contact for many landowners. Em­ployed either by the state forestry department or by the state’s land grant university, they can provide informa­tion about forestry laws and regula­tions and the various government programs available to landowners. Service foresters provide an introduc­tion to your land and its possibilities and will offer management advice. They will go on a woods walk with you and provide you with a list of private consulting foresters working in your area. In decades past, it was common for a county forester to mark trees for a timber sale. But in this age of reduced budgets for state natural resource agencies, service foresters are now limited in the amount of on-the-ground guidance they can provide to landowners. Foresters employed by the state’s forestry department are involved in administering and enforc­ing the state’s forestry programs and regulations.

Procurement foresters. Some forest­ers work for sawmills, paper mills, and other wood-using companies, and their job is to procure a steady flow of wood for their employers. They often offer forest management services to land­owners, and will draw up management plans and oversee timber sales. But no matter how honorable the company or the forester, it must be recognized that there is an inherent conflict of interest in this relationship because a procure­ment forester’s allegiance has to be to his employer. The procurement forester’s first job is to buy wood, not to take care of a landowner’s needs.

Consulting foresters. Private con­sulting foresters work for landowners to manage their forests. These foresters are the best means of ensuring that a landowner knows what he or she is getting into when the skidder and the log trucks enter the woods. As the landowner’s agent, the consultant represents the client’s interests both in the short term (negotiating a contract with the logger and making sure the contract’s conditions are met) and in the long term (deciding which trees to keep to improve the future forest).

Consulting foresters provide a range of services, and many of them can do everything from drawing up the initial sustainable forest management plan to helping to plan the conservation of an estate. In between, other work they could com­plete includes: managing timber sales, appraising land and timber, locating boundaries, and providing informa­tion about government programs that assist landowners. Increasingly, forest­ers are becoming more specialized in their set of skills, and it’s crucial that the capabilities of the forester you choose match up well with your needs. Probably the two most common tasks a consultant does for a landowner are preparing a sustainable forest management plan and administering a timber sale. When you hire a consulting forester, you are hiring a contractor, not an employee.

What do these services cost? Some consulting foresters charge for their services at an hourly rate (generally, it is between $40 and $75 an hour) plus expenses. Some charge a flat fee for a particular service. Sometimes, foresters invoice for marking timber on a volume basis, charging a certain amount per thousand board feet. In some cases, foresters are compensated by taking a percentage of the proceeds of the timber sale. Among foresters, the latter has become a controversial subject; some question the ethics of charging a percentage because it links the amount of wood cut with the forester’s com­pensation. That could be seen as giving a forester incentive to mark more trees to be cut. Others point out that nearly any means of determining compensa­tion could contain incentives for an unscrupulous forester to overcharge.

Because of the long-term nature of forest management—with plans cover­ing ten or more years and harvests occurring only periodically—most consulting foresters have dozens, if not hundreds, of clients. In any given year, they perform work for only a small percentage of their clients.

Loggers. Loggers cut the trees and move the wood from the forest to the landing. Often, a logger is involved in marketing the wood. They do their work under the direction of the forest­er, and they work as a contractor, not as an employee. There may be land­owners who are knowledgeable enough about markets and forestry that they can oversee a logging job, negotiate a contract with the logger, and mark the trees to be cut, but unless you have a lot of experience in this, it’s better to have a forester work as your agent.

Logging contractors come in many different configurations: some are large companies with huge invest­ments in mechanized equipment like feller-bunchers, delimbers, and slash­ers; others are sole proprietors, hand cutting with chainsaws and getting logs to the landing with cable skidders, bulldozers, tractors, or horses.

Logging is physical, dangerous work in a very dynamic natural envi­ronment. The forces and variables at work—among them, weather and stand conditions—provide challenges with every tree that’s cut. Skilled loggers work productively, safely, and consci­entiously, and the quality of their work has tremendous influence over the future growing conditions of the forest they leave behind. Highly skilled log­gers are always in high demand, and most foresters have a small cadre of loggers they work with regularly.

Finding a Forester

In most states, a service forester works with landowners in each county. Employed either by the state university’s extension service or by the state forestry department, these foresters are the introduction to forestry for many landowners. 

One of the services they provide is to help you find a private consulting forester. They maintain a list of con­sulting foresters for hire in the county.

When you have some names, make some calls. Get a sense of the forester’s working style and areas of expertise. The age of specialization has come to forestry, and not all foresters know the same things: some are particularly good at habitat improvement; some specialize in managing sugarbushes; others focus on growing timber. Some welcome landowner participation in the process; others feel that slows them down and would prefer to work solo. If one sounds like a good match, make an appointment to get together. Most (not all) foresters will go for a woods walk free of charge.

Ask any potential forester for refer­ences. Get the names of three people the consultant has worked for in the last year. Talk to those landowners and ask if you can visit their woods. Make sure you can see woods that have been harvested in the last three or four years.

Go for the walk. Look around. You can get some sense of the forester’s work by the quality of the trees left behind. Are the trees healthy and straight or do they look like corkscrews? And while you may not be capable of evaluating the silviculture, you can get a sense of how careful the work was. Would you want your woods to look like this?

Choose your forester well, because the slow, long-term growth of the forest means that your relationship with the forester is for the long term. You need to be comfortable with him or her.

Using a Prism

A prism is a deceptively simple slim wedge of glass. Here’s how to use it.  

Select a point on the ground and scuff it up. Hold the prism over your mark, close one eye and move clock­wise in a circle, looking through the prism at each trunk at breast height. Look just over the glass at the trunk. Then look at the trunk through the glass. If you can see any part of the trunk through the glass within the outline of the trunk, it’s a “count tree,” which means you count it. If the prism view of the tree shifts the trunk outside of the trunk’s outline, don’t count it. If it’s right on the borderline and you can’t determine whether the trunk is in or out, count every other one. Although you can’t see the full acre from any one point, the prism adjusts the view so that each count tree repre­sents 10 square feet of basal area per acre, which is why this one is called a 10-factor prism. If 12 trees register, for instance, that represents 120 square feet of basal area. The process is repeated at specific plot points, and the average gives you the basal area for the stand.

Sustainable Forest Management Plan: Natural Communities

In mapping stands, foresters in the Northeast traditionally have delineated them using forest types such as these: 

• spruce–fir
• northern hardwoods
• hemlock–hardwoods
• transition hardwoods
• central hardwoods
• mixedwood
• white pine
• hemlock
• pitch pine–oak
• aspen–birch
• swamp hardwood

Natural heritage programs in each state have led the way in developing typing systems that have more of a botanical and ecological focus. Widely used, they define landscapes in terms of natural communities, noting that plants and animals live within an environmental context that includes landforms and bedrock. The natural community designation describes the assemblage of plants that occupied the site in pre-settlement times.

The examples of natural communi­ties exceed the forest types. For in­stance, the most common forest type in the Northeast is northern hardwoods, known by its main component species: sugar maple, beech, yellow birch. But this is not a monolithic, homogeneous grouping. As outlined in Wetland, Woodland, Wildland: A Guide to the Natural Communities of Vermont, northern hardwoods have at least four variants:

• beech–red maple–hemlock northern hardwood forest
• sugar maple–white ash–jack-in-the-pulpit northern hardwood forest
• yellow birch–northern hardwood forest
• white pine–northern hardwood forest

And there are five related communities:

• rich northern hardwood forest
• hemlock–northern hardwood forest
• mesic red oak–hardwood (mesic means having adequate moisture)
• northern hardwood talus woodland (talus refers to the sloping mass of rocks at the base of a cliff)
• mesic maple–ash–hickory forest

Pinpointing the natural community brings a greater degree of specificity to a description, which can be valuable. There’s quite a difference between a rich northern hardwood forest and a beech–red maple–hemlock northern hardwood forest.

Foresters traditionally have used site index, a comparative measurement of a site’s potential, to quantify the dif­ference. Natural community classification provides a common language for foresters and ecologists to use in their discussions of forest sites.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from More Than a Woodlot: Getting the Most from Your Family Forest, published by Northern Woodlands, 2012. 

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Post a comment below.


Kyle Burdick
4/23/2012 1:05:23 PM
Great As a forester, I'm very glad to see this in Mother Earth News.

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