Make Woodlot Management a Career

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Good woodlot management balances timbering with reforestation. This balance keeps woodlots near you healthy and producing for generations to come.

Woodlot management is a healthy outdoor occupation that can provide an individual or co-op with steady work, good wages, and a regular supply of firewood for personal use. But these considerations, though important, aren’t the only reasons to consider a career as a “tree farmer” . . . because woodlot managers are downright ecologically necessary!

That fact is that there are thousands of acres of privately owned hardwood forests — all over the United States — that are badly in need of management. Though most folks don’t know it, these woodlots suffer from “weeds” just as gardens or croplands do. But, in the case of forested areas, this unwanted growth consists of the undesirable, poor quality, or dead trees that crowd out more valuable species.

Now, most of the neglected stands still contain some usable saw timber and great quantities of firewood, but — if the present trends continue — these resources will soon be gone . . . because our valuable hardwoods require regular and careful management if they’re to continue to serve us and the generations of the future.

The Neglected Woodlot

Private woodlots — once the pride and joy of the family farm — are now often ignored. The availability of inexpensive fossil fuels, of course, is one reason for this neglect . . . few people are willing to cut, haul, and split firewood when a flick of the thermostat can accomplish the same result. But the problem goes deeper than that. New farm buildings, for instance, are now usually built of fir and pine boards purchased in town, instead of the once — common oak planks milled from the “back 40”. And, many modern farmers — with huge herds of livestock or hundreds of acres of crops to tend — simply don’t have the time or labor available to manage their woodlands carefully . . . if they manage them at all.

Often, too, woodlots are held by absentee owners who are either unwilling or unable to put in the work necessary to maintain a healthy tree farm. These folks may faithfully tend and weed their gardens, but many of them assume — incorrectly — that any forest with trees is healthy, productive, and best left alone.

And then, people who do heat with wood tend to think that — by using this renewable energy source — they’re protecting the environment. This isn’t the case, however, unless some effort is made to help nature replenish the timber that is burned. Sadly enough, we often use up our trees faster than they can grow.

Government Support

In an effort to encourage good woodlot management, many state governments reward those citizens who do care about their personal forests. Here in Wisconsin, for example, the Department of Natural Resources has two programs that are designed to encourage tree farming: the Woodland Tax Law (for plots of up to 40 acres), and the Forest Crop Law (for woodlands of 40 acres or more). These two programs reward conscientious woodlot owners with property tax breaks (from 40 cents to $10 an acre per year) and a detailed 15-year management plan.

This government assistance can have several positive effects: It cuts taxes for individual owners, it opens up jobs for people like me (and maybe you) who carry out the management programs, and — most important — it provides the woodlots with the attention that they need if they’re to continue to produce timber, firewood, and wildlife habitats.

The Firewood Business

Although the recent popularity of wood heat has raised firewood prices considerably, it’s still difficult to run a financially sound wood fuel business unless you can get your “stock” in exchange for labor.

So, since most woodlots will — when “cleaned” — yield more firewood than one or two households could burn in many years, my arrangements with woodland owners always specify that I will do their clean-up work (remove the dead and unwanted trees, etc.) in exchange for all of the wood that I want. And the owners–who get a healthy woodlot and any income from the sale of saw logs — are usually very happy to make that deal.

Of course, anyone who plans to sell fuel wood for a living should understand the qualities of the material that he sells. Not long ago I made the decision that I would only sell my oak for stove use, while the less valuable elm, cherry, etc. would be marketed — at a lower price — to folks who wanted wood for their fireplaces.

And, even at my price of $50 for a full cord of wood (delivered), most of my customers have found the oak fuel to be a bargain . . . because a full cord of air dried oak (or any good hardwood) will yield as many Btu’s as 150 to 200 gallons of fuel oil . . . and that much oil would cost anywhere from $90 to $100!

On my best days, I can cut and deliver two full cords of wood and gross $100. That might sound like a pretty good income, but my maintenance and equipment costs are high, too. It’s impossible to get into woodlot management on a shoestring (my modest operation includes two chain saws, a one-ton truck, a tractor, and a two-wheel trailer), and trying to cut costs on necessary equipment is the quickest way to find yourself without any jobs at all.

Additional Income

However, cutting and selling wood only makes up one side of the woodlot management business. There’s also a regular demand for people who are willing to accept contracts for tree planting and timber stand improvement (TSI) work. And, the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) — which is a branch of the Department of Agriculture — maintains county-based cost-sharing programs which are designed to assist landowners in financing these important projects.

Almost any woodlot — and oak forests in particular — needs regular and intensive underplanting with shade-tolerant tree species to insure that new hardwood stands will be established before the mature timber is harvested. Many prime hardwood lots have been taken over by brush and junk trees because too few saplings were available to replace the mature trees that were cut and sold.

To help prevent this waste, the ASCS will actually cover the cost of planting stock on any orders that call for as many as several thousand trees. Unfortunately, however, even the promise of free trees doesn’t guarantee that a woodlot will get planted. Though many landowners realize that reforestation is important, they’re often unable to do the job themselves or find a reliable contractor to undertake it! And that’s where we “freelance” woodlot managers come in.

I’ve found that county foresters, timber sales companies, and local loggers can often clue me in on the availability of these planting contracts. And, though my fees vary according to job location and conditions, I generally make at least $100 for every thousand trees that I plant.

Timber stand improvement is yet another way for the woodlot manager to increase his or her income. This job demands that the manager trim and cull (with the help of a qualified forester) young hardwood and evergreen forests . . . in order to allow the remaining trees enough room to grow to maturity. The general recommendation is to leave about a 10-foot space — in every direction — between each tree and its closest neighbor. I charge between $40 and $50 per acre for this work, and — since the ASCS reimburses the landowners up to a maximum of $36 per acre — I’ve found no shortage of farmers who are glad to pay my fees.

The Work’s Awaitin’

If you do decide to try your hand at woodlot management, you’ll find it to be a financially rewarding and ecologically sound occupation. And, while it’ll probably take you a couple of years to get your business established, the three income sources available in this job (firewood sales, planting contracts, and stand improvement fees) should — after your “break in” period — bring in at least $10,000 a year. The field is wide open, too: There are simply more woodlots that need attention than there are people to do the work, and –until the job is done — the owners of those lots pay higher taxes than necessary and lose both immediate and potential income.

So let’s face it, good forestry practices do pay . . . both in healthy, productive trees and in jobs that can get people out of the rat race and into the woods! 

EDITOR’S NOTE: MOTHER EARTH NEWS would like to thank the North Country Anvil, Millville, Minn., for permission to adapt Mr. Hushagen’s story.