Sustainable Solutions: Timberland or Healthy Forest?

Winter ForestBy Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

Throughout the history of mankind, humans have used and manipulated the natural landscape for their own ends.  Here in the Ozarks, we are blessed with an abundance of forests that, at times seem to grow like weeds.  Because of that ill-perceived notion, good quality Ozark woodlands are becoming thinner, rarer, and spaced further and further apart.  Fortunately, many landowners are learning how to properly manage their woodlands for timber, recreation and wildlife. 

About ten years before we moved here, our land was logged.  This is a common scenario in the Ozarks and in its own right, not necessarily a bad thing.  Being a studious advocate of nature for the better part of twenty years, I have seen many logging operations up close and personal – from several thousand acre clear-cuts, to hit-and-run profiteering, to selective forest management.  Obviously, some logging operations are better than others and a thoughtful, well-planned and carefully executed logging operation need not destroy the landscape at all.  In fact, any forested area not managed through fire or selective cutting, often become a monochromatic landscape fit only for a few species of plants and animals.

So, while I was a little disappointed at what had happened to the property before it became ours, it obviously wasn’t the worst logging operation I had seen. Apparently, the owner worked closely with a local logger and instead of giving them free-reign to take what they liked, they made thoughtful decisions on which trees would or wouldn’t be cut.  Surveying the forest and knowing what a tree is worth, both monetarily and environmentally, is the responsibility of the landowner.  But if you’re like most people, you could use a little unbiased help to determine what is best for your forestland.

A quick walk around our property revealed the good, the bad and the neutral.  To begin with, the landowners did not allow the logger to take all the big trees and insisted on preserving an ancient grove of oaks around what was once the original homestead.  Of course,  most of the trees that had hollows in them were left behind, as well.

Not only are hollow trees generally unmarketable for wood products, some can be quite dangerous to cut.  Back in Montana, the loggers called hollow trees “widow-makers” for their penchant to twist unpredictably as they fall.   This is probably the number one reason that most old trees are also hollow trees.

A grove of ancient oaks have watched over this meadow for over 200 years!As a money-maker, hollow trees hold absolutely no value – but to an innumerable number of wildlife species, they are priceless for the food and shelter they provide.    Many foresters schooled in the art of managing a forest for timber production will often advise the landowner to remove hollow trees because they take up valuable space that a more useful “higher quality” tree could be growing in.  In a forest managed strictly for timber, hollow trees have no value at all and are often removed regardless of their size.

But if we manage our forests for perfectly straight solid timber of only the most desirable species without allowing at least a few centurions to stretch their limbs and shade the earth, the people of the Ozarks would be denied the sight of those ancient prized beauties and the environment would be bereft of the genetic material needed to spawn a new century of giant, long-lived trees.

It is easy to understand why people sometimes mistakenly believe that Ozark forests grow like weeds – but they don’t.  Just one of the massive oaks in the grove atop our ridge is at least 200 years old and perhaps, even older than that.   True, it didn’t take all 200 years for the behmoth to reach its present height, but the girth of its massive trunk and the width of its immense branches took every minute of that to grow.

A white oak of milling-size is at least 30 years old, while a black walnut worth cutting down is probably somewhere between 40 and 50 years old.   I have heard it said that a person can potentially log their land for marketable timber twice in their lifetimes if they have managed the timber very well.  That’s about 20 years between cuttings.   If logging in the Ozarks isn’t done with an eye for the future, it could be thirty years or more before a badly logged area will resemble even an immature forest.  So if and when you decide to cut your forestland for timber, it is crucial that you think about the future.

Indeed, protecting and managing the forests of the Ozarks for both timber and environmental soundness should be among one of our highest priorities and a source of pride for current and future Ozarkers.

An uneven-aged mixed forest in winter.  Collins Ridge.David Haenke, Director of Alford Forest – a  4,300 acre forest preserve near Gainesville, Missouri – recently shared his insight into ways Ozarkers can manage their forests for both environmental protection and timber harvesting.  He says,  “The sort of selective cutting that I do here on the Alford Forest is best described as single tree, non-highgrade, uneven-aged management.

He went on to explain that highgrading is a form of single tree selection where the loggers take the best and leave the rest, leaving a genetically degraded forest.   In Haenke’s opionion, “clearcutting and other forms of evenaged management are destructive in nearly all cases.”

Instead of highgrading, using clear cuts or what he calls “patch-clearcuts”, Haenke and his team use  lowgrading techniques. “We take single trees that are defective, poorly formed, overcrowded, sick or dying and leave the most healthy trees of a given species appropriate for a that site, always working to have a forest where all size and age classes are represented. “

“The most opportune time to cut a tree of almost any species is when it has fully matured and has started to demonstrably decline to the point where its clear that it will be dead some years in the future.  Cutting a 30 year old white oak – or a 40-50 yr. old walnut – that is otherwise healthy is, unless there’s some really compelling reason to cut it, taking it out of the stand way before its optimal value has been attained.”

Haenke goes on to point out that, “With otherwise healthy trees, the greatest value is in the largest trees.  Red oak species, our most common tree family, reach nominal “maturity” in 60-80 years.  But again, in our methodology, we don’t take trees out until they show clear signs of starting to decline, and this may not happen until well past so-called “maturity.”  Pioneer Forest – and this is our rule of thumb whenever we can – cuts, or rather thins, the average timber stand on a 20 year rotation using the single tree, non-highgrade, uneven-aged selection method I mentioned earlier.”  [read more about Pioneer Forest]

Haenke refers to these practices as Ecological Forestry, a descriptive title for a holistic approach to timberland management, which allows landowners to both profit from harvesting quality timber while maintaining a healthy and diverse forest for wildlife and recreation.  According to the webpage for Alford Forest, the some of the defining characteristics of ecological forestry are:

  • A management method that takes its directions from the ecological patterns and wisdom of the forest itself in protecting, improving, and maintaining the health and biological diversity of the forest, even as it is used to selectively harvest trees and a variety of other products from the forest.
  • Works in the context of the watershed, bioregion and human community in which the forest is embedded to create locally-based, sustainable employment and economic opportunity for the people.
  • Includes enhancement of aesthetic, recreational, and spiritual values related to the forest and its watershed.

We were lucky here on Turtle Ridge.  The logging that was done on our land – which also happens to be an important watershed that feeds the North Fork River – wasn’t the worst logging job I have ever seen, but we still have a lot of work to do.

There are a couple of areas that were overcut and are now so thick with saplings and bramble that it is almost impossible to walk through and a couple more where many small trees were cut to clear a drop zone for a few bigger, more desirable trees and left lying about where they fell to rot.  The loggers also cut every single black walnut off the place as well as an ancient grove of massive cedar trees.  They also somehow managed to cut down all of the dogwoods, persimmons, mulberry, black cherry and red bud trees.  The latter will be replanted from conservation stock, while the black walnuts have sprouted suckers from the cut stumps and the cedars are surging back on their own accord.

Logging does not have to hinder the qulaity of forestlands.This winter we will continue to make brush piles and salvage some of the solid logs for firewood and to use some of the more rotten logs and debris as water breaks along the steep hillsides.  We are planning to embark on a conservation plan suggested by a forester at the MDC (Missouri Department of Conservation) which  includes prescribed burns and re-vegetation efforts focused on species useful for wildlife.

As a human, I understand the need to alter the landscape to provide for our survival as a species, yet I also understand that for every part that is destroyed, another part must be preserved. For without wilderness, all of humankinds’ attempts to survive will ultimately fail.  The the good news is that despite a few blunders, today our forest is both healthy and diverse. It is a peaceful place where the great-horned owl calls to its mate; where the huge pileated woodpecker and the tiny spotted salamander and the elusive bobcat all flourish.  This small piece of the Ozarks encircles and enriches our life and it is up to us to protect it through thoughtful forestry practices.

If you would like to learn more about Ecological Forestry or to view a comprehensive guide to Forest Management visit the Alford Forest website.  To find out how a comprehensive conservation plan fits into your landscape or to learn more about the ecosystems on your land, the MDC offers free consultations to Missouri landowners.

© 2012 Jill Henderson

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her work appears in several publications, including The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.

Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons and The Garden Seed Saving Guide can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.

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6 responses to “Sustainable Solutions: Timberland or Healthy Forest?

  1. Oh Jill, happy to read this for the instilling of these important facts. Each day I see a logging truck over-burdened with fresh-cut logs I always hope they were from a wisely-managed forest. The elements of clear-cutting in our woods is unfortunately the rule and those of us who feel otherwise are in the minority but gaining. David Haenke, forest guru, is our very own.

    • I agree, Jerre. I always wonder where those logs came from and how the job was done. Too many times money plays the crucial role in how a forest is cut. My hope is folks will realize that they can make money off of their timber while still preserving the integrity and biodiversity of their forestland. I can’t wait to tour Alford Forest with David and see a long-running example of ecological forestry first hand!

  2. The CSIRO’s Malcolm Gill, an expert in fire ecology, says if forest managers are interested only in timber values, then clear-felling could be similar to wildfire in terms of boosting the regeneration of certain trees, like the commercially valuable mountain ash. But he says clear-felling and wildfires have different impacts if other concerns are taken into account. For example, trees take at least 150 years to form hollows, upon which a third of native fauna species rely for breeding, shelter and prey. ”If you are cutting the trees at 60 years and it takes hollows 150 years to form, then anything dependent on the hollows is doomed,” Gill says.

    • Thanks for your comments, Tod, and my appologies for not replying sooner. I’m afraid our normally-effective spam filter put your comment in the wrong box. While not familiar with specific works of CSIRO (for our readers, CSIRO is the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, which is Australia’s national agency for scientific research), I agree with the theory that cutting trees before their prime reduces quality habitat. And for those interested in timber harvest, it also reduces the ultimate value of the timber, as well.

  3. Thanks so much for this article Jill – great info!

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