Earn Extra Cash as a Contract Tree Thinner

Learn how you can earn money by tree thinning for the National Forest Service.

| May/June 1977

  • Thinned Trees
    David Slaughter stands in a properly thinned area of forest. Trees are spaced ten to twenty feet apart, dead limbs and boles have been disposed of in an acceptable manner.

  • Thinned Trees

Clean mountain air, plenty of invigorating exercise, freedom to come and go as I choose, and a chance to perform ecologically important work for decent pay ... I enjoy all this as an independent tree thinner. And, with a little advance planning, you can too.

Each year, the U.S. Forest Service lets out hundreds of contracts for the thinning of thousands of acres of National Forest land ... land that must be thinned to [1] allow more rapid growth of desirable tree species, [2] ensure habitability of the area for deer and other wildlife, and/or [3] increase the amount of runoff from a watershed area. Normally, Nature would perform this "thinning" herself with wildfires (touched off by lightning and other natural phenomena) ... but — because such blazes have the potential to do great harm in addition to the good they accomplish — the Forest Service does everything in its power to prevent forest fires. And, as a result, the Service also pays people like you and me to do Nature's work of tree thinning for her.

I find the pay quite good. My very first timber-thinning stint lasted seven months and paid me a gross income of nearly $9,000 ... of which I netted close to $6,000 (after I'd deducted transportation costs, chain saw maintenance, and other expenses). I worked an average of less than 40 hours per week during that period, and — best of all — I called the shots ... no "boss" told me what to do, or when to work.

How to Get Started Tree Thinning

If you'd like to give tree thinning a try, the first thing you should do is contact the District Ranger assigned to the National Forest in which you wish to work. (You can obtain a list of -National Forest headquarters from your Regional Forester. See the sidebar that accompanies this article.) He'll add your name and address to his list of prospective contractors, answer any questions you may have, and — in a few weeks — send you a formal request for bids, or "solicitation."

The solicitation package will include instructions for submitting your bid, plus maps and detailed specifications of the work to be done. Among other useful facts, the solicitation package will tell you:

  1. The name, location, and total acreage of the area to be thinned. Parcels vary in size from a few acres to several hundred. Thus, if you're new to tree thinning you may want to try for a small contract — one that you can work on part time — first, so that you can see if you like the job.
  2. The amount of time you'll be given to complete the contract. This can' range from one month to two years, depending on the size of the tract and the Forest Service's own schedule requirements.
  3. The diameter and height of the trees to be cut. Although this will (again) vary with each contract, you'll seldom be asked to fell trees more than seven inches in diameter.
  4. The average spacing between "leave" trees (the trees you'll leave standing). Normally, this distance is in the range of ten to twenty feet. Note that the greater the required spacing is, the higher your bid will have to be ... because you'll be required to cut down more trees.
  5. How to dispose of the slash. ("Slash" refers to the limbs and boles of the felled trees.) As a rule, you'll be required to cut all branches down and scatter the slash so that nothing stands up more than a prescribed height (24 inches, say).

Thinning specifications vary from tract to tract — and from one part of the country to the next — depending on local conditions (the type of forest, climate, degree of fire hazard, and so forth).


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