Forests for the Long Run

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Published on: Feb. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

Trees and forests will grow on their own, without any management. Nearly every acre of forest in our state was harvested between the late 1800s and the late 1920s, and much of the cut-over land subsequently was burned repeatedly and subjected to uncontrolled livestock grazing.

Yet we still have a lot of forest-about 14 million acres of it in Missouri. Private landowners own almost all that total. In the state, about 300,000 people own property with forest on it. Some landowners have thousands of acres, but the typical forest landowner has between 80 and 300 acres, and many people own 10 acres or less.

Of those landowners, only a few have any training or experience in managing forest land. Although their intentions are probably good, a drive across our state reveals many examples of forests being badly managed and, sadly, costing the landowners money in the long term.

Money? Sure. Careful and thoughtful management of forests results in more trees growing faster and straighter, creating more wood that is more valuable for private landowners.

Trees have more than economic value, of course. They are essential for converting carbon dioxide into oxygen and protecting the soil from erosion. Forests also provide crucial wildlife habitat, and they help make Missouri beautiful.

A forest can perform all these tasks as it appreciates in value-if it is managed well. Management is a pretty loaded word. During strikes, it's labor versus management, and managers usually are thought of as bosses. But the concept of forest management more closely resembles health care management. We need the expertise of doctors and nurses to help us maintain our well-being and to keep us healthy and vital in the future. Forest managers benefit timberland in the same way.

Right now, growing out there in your forest, is wood that eventually may become a railroad tie, the floor or molding in a home, a piece of furniture, or maybe even the paper you will use at work and school. The total economic value of your forest depends in large part on the care and attention you give to it.

Forests are slow-growing, and their value is long-term. We should have learned the importance of sustainability in our forests from the indiscriminate harvests of the last century. We don't want another episode of 40 to 60 years when we reap almost no economic value from timber in the state.

It's obvious that trees are worth most when they are at their best. Wholesale cutting of immature stands can bring quick financial rewards, but the replenishment time is so long that it makes little economic sense in the long run. Forests have their greatest value when they are maintained for the long haul.

A well-managed forest increases in both volume and value at an unbelievable rate. Young forests contain mostly cordwood, which is sold by the ton and has almost no value. As trees mature and their diameters increase, they pass through stages when they can be used for pallet wood, ties, grade lumber and, finally, veneer and barrel staves. At every stage of maturity, both the amount of wood and the value of the wood products that can be gleaned from trees escalates.

This doesn't mean you have to wait to gain financially from your timber. As your stand matures, you can sell trees likely to die soon or poor quality trees, giving the best trees ample room to grow. This culling and thinning allows you to reap some profit from your forest even as it appreciates in value.

You won't gain any interest without some principle in the bank, however. That's why the cardinal sin in forest management is liquidating your assets too early. Clear-cutting a forest before its time deprives you of its long-term profit potential. The economics are simple: don't take a dime now in exchange for a bunch of nickels in the future. The new chip mills being established in Missouri could contribute even more value to your forest land. Chip mills chop up small trees and parts of trees into wafers for use in papermaking. Unlike lumber mills, chip mills aren't concerned with the quality of timber. They only want a lot of it. They can process wood too small or limby to create saw wood, including most of the topwood of trees cut for lumber.

The value of chip mills may be in providing a market for trees that need harvesting to improve the remaining stand. They may also provide a market for the tops and roundwood remaining after a timber harvest. In the past, these leftovers would have had little value.

Eventually, the majority of the trees in your stand will be at their prime and will be ripe for harvest. That's the time to take advantage of them. Remove them all at once, obtain the highest dollar and regenerate a new population of trees that will serve a future generation.

Too often, landowners look at trees as they do crops, considering only their annual value. They don't have enough experience with forest products to make good long-term economic decisions about their timber stands. Fortunately, good help is just a phone call away.

The Conservation Department provides free forest planning assistance to private landowners. Our professional foresters will take a close look at your timber, diagnose problems and make recommendations on how you can get the greatest benefit from it. Unless your timber resource already has been exploited, a forester will be able to increase your income potential from your land.

When you call a Conservation Department forester, you will be sent a postcard-sized questionnaire on which you can describe your land and indicate whether you are primarily interested in wildlife management or timber management.

A forester will call you back and arrange to meet you on your property, usually within four to six months. This on-site visit is an opportunity to meet the professional forester and for the two of you to assess your land and its potential.

After analyzing your property and considering your objectives, the forester will present to you a stewardship plan. He might suggest thinning some trees to produce better firewood, for example, or girdling some, if you are interested in creating den trees for squirrels.

You will be asked to sign a stewardship plan. This puts you under no legal obligation, but it documents your agreement with the plan and your intent to follow it. The agreement allows the forester to begin looking for cost-share money when needed to help you implement a management plan.

In many cases, either state and federal funds are available to assist private landowners with planting trees, putting in food plots, improving streamside habitat and managing timber stands.

Foresters try to think of their relationships with cooperating landowners as long-term. Foresters are available for assistance as the forests mature and, when harvest is indicated, usually will advise landowners planning a timber sale and will help locate logging roads and trails to prevent soil erosion and other damage to streams.

Professional foresters may also help you determine the tonnage of your timber, which is the way bids will come from chip mills. Most landowners are not familiar with measuring the value of their timber in terms of weight, and they need expert help to make sure they are getting a reasonable deal.

We supply this valuable assistance because we know well-managed forests improve the general quality of air, land and water in the state at the same time as they provide profit for the landowner. We want Missouri to have an expanse of sustainable forest that protects watersheds and scenery and provides habitat for wildlife. We realize we can best accomplish this goal by helping private landowners manage their forest resources.

Landowners who seek the help of a forester can decide on two levels of assistance. Advisory Service, which is available to all landowners, including urban residents, may include group training sessions, publications, film and video loan, office consultations, insect and disease identification and referrals to consultants. If on-site visits are called for, owners are encouraged to accompany the forester.

Landowners who would like long-term management of their forest land may ask for Management Service. To qualify for this service, they must agree to develop and carry out a management program for their property. The forester will help them develop and implement that plan.

The kind of help you might receive through the management service would include:

  • Advice on tree planting and free use of mechanical tree planters.
  • Pest identification and analysis, including lab services when needed.
  • Guidance for conducting tree stand improvement work.
  • Assistance in marking and selling forest products.
  • Guidance in wildlife habitat improvement, erosion control, soil and watershed protection, forest road location and construction and outdoor recreation development.

The fate of forests in Missouri is in the hands of private landowners, who own the bulk of our state's woodlands. We rely on you to treat your forests with an eye to creating and maintaining a sustainable resource. Think of your forest's health in the same way that you think of your own health, and then call on a trained individual to help manage that very important resource as effectively as possible.

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