Owner Built Homes and Homesteads: Woodland Management

In this chapter of his book "The Owner-Built Homestead," Ken Kern discusses the importance of woodlands for ecological health and best practices for effective woodland management.

| July/August 1973

Kern - denuded land

Topsoil completely lost due to lack of windbreak protection and mulch-planting. Note intersecting patterns of plow marks.


A people conscious of its hills has demonstrated the strongest impulse toward independence in history. Woe to this people, however, if it no longer lifted its head above the valley floor to the peaks, sought only its own advantage in the working day and forgot to survey the problems of life from a high point of vantage. Then it would bubble and stew over its own little problems and give itself over to a preoccupation with its own image. — Ehrenfried Pfeiffer 

The Owner Built Homestead, Chapter 10: Woodland

Woodland management practices in this countty are not unlike agricultural practices: both are currently based on a ground-line philosophy. That is, the harvest, the cutting, the profit are secured at ground-line. Monoculture is the accepted ground-line agricultural practice, and the same mentality results in clear-cutting and even-growth production in woodland management. A top-of-the-ground harvest orientation even twists the minds of trained foresters who advocate such abhorrent practices as control-burning and crop-dusting.

Bad forestry is in some respects more serious to a nation's welfare than bad farming. For one thing, there is more to lose: the world contains twice as much forest area as it contains land under cultivation . . . a third of the earth's surface is classified as forest soil. Originally in the U.S., before the white man came, over one-half of our two billion acres was in forest. Forests have been decimated in places like England for so many centuries that even the forest terminology has atrophied... forests become known as "woods."

Every seriously operated homestead should contain within its bounds some percentage of woodland acres. Besides the obvious "ground-line" value of timber, firewood, fenceposts and pulpwood, a woodland helps to control wind and water erosion. Experiments in Wisconsin showed that soil losses were one hundred times as great from pastured land as from unpastured woodland, and water losses were sixty times as great. Protection and shelter from the wind can be an essential attribute of proper woodland planning. And the food and shelter offered to wildlife from a woodland can help to maintain one's homestead as a balanced, complex association of plants and animals—which includes in its natural harmony birds, bacteria, insects and fungi—rather than attempting to eliminate them, something which never succeeds and only results in their lopsided development.

Woodlands can also influence the microclimate. Winds carry moisture that is lifted by the sun from large bodies of water. This moisture-laden air will move indefinitely or until it reaches a woodland. Trees transpire ... cooling the air, spraying the sky, and multiplying the cloud cover. This upward rainfall rises until it meets the moisture-laden air and then drops down as precipitation. Trees located on hills and mountains offer the best obstruction to clouds and thereby increase the rainfall.

Traditionally, woodlands are located on land classed as non-agricultural because of inaccessibility, steepness, or poor soil. The ground-line "growth factory" concept keeps most farmers from planting trees and shrubs in rich, deep soils. No matter. Conifers are best planted on eroded, compacted, humus-lacking soils that perhaps once supported hardwood trees. In time the conifers will build up the soil to the point where hardwoods can become re-established. Trees differ widely in their soil and moisture requirements: where yellow poplar requires a deep and moist soil, black locust will thrive on a soil deep or shallow, moist or dry. Alders survive in wet, undrained soil while willows require wet, drained soil. Eucalyptus will dry up a swamp, but will also drain ground water on a water-needy land.

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