Caring for a Forest

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Published on: Sep. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

Private landowners hold the key to Missouri's forests of the future. Good management allows us to enjoy beautiful forests and reap their bounty.

Recreation, lumber production, hunting, fishing and birdwatching are a few of the reasons citizens in Missouri own and care for forested land. And while their needs and expectations from the land may differ widely, private landowners all share one thing in common: responsibility for the future of Missouri’s forests.

Private ownership accounts for 93 percent of the total land in our state and 85 percent of Missouri’s forested land. That means much of the conservation of the state’s natural resources is dependent upon private landowners.

The Conservation Department realizes the importance of working with private landowners to help conserve Missouri’s natural resources. By offering a variety of different programs, the Conservation Department is able to help meet the diverse needs of landowners while still working in harmony with nature. Many of these forest management services are offered free of charge.

The Forest Stewardship program, for example, is a cooperative effort between the Conservation Department and the U.S. Forest Service. Conservation Department foresters can develop Forest Stewardship plans for landowners, advising them on forest management steps to take. These plans emphasize managing all natural resources on the property while still heeding the owner’s needs and goals.

A stewardship plan might include timber stand improvement work, which is thinning a forest to remove undesirable and defective trees and to properly space the remaining trees. Mature timber might be carefully harvested and sold. We also can design stewardship plans to attract desirable animals or control problem wildlife.

Unfortunately, most landowners are not aware of these services or choose not to take advantage of them. By failing to consult a professional forester, many landowners do not receive the maximum benefits from their land. Trees are often harvested prematurely, so they do not have the chance to reach their full potential value.

Wayne Wittmeyer, private lands specialist for the Conservation Department, says, "Our biggest problem in the state right now is that 80 to 90 percent of the state’s tree harvests are done without the advice of a professional."

Besides monetary values from wood production, forested land has many other benefits. Wildlife habitat and food come from the forest, and clean water and air are other important products. These values may not be realized if the timber is cut before it has fully matured. By managing their lands responsibly and conscientiously, landowners can maximize their own benefits from the land, as well as aiding conservation efforts.

Steve Whitaker is a good example of a responsible and conservation-minded landowner. Whitaker, who resides in Chaffee, owns about 160 acres of land in Wright County. This property has been in his family since the 1860s. "In the past, the land has been used for agricultural purposes - producing small grains and row cropping," he says. "Then it was used for a long time to raise cattle."

Whitaker took possession of the land in the late 1970s and continued to rent it out for raising livestock. "About 10 years ago, we began planting trees on the land," Whitaker recalls. The Conservation Department prepared a Forest Stewardship plan for the farm, outlining suggested management practices for the land. Today, he has 14 acres of black walnut trees and 45 acres of shortleaf pine growing on the property.

Clint Dalbom, resource forester, says, "Steve has taken an active role in reforesting the land. Everything he’s done has been done right, and the management practices have all been successful. He’s really been involved in the labor-intensive work - pruning the walnuts, mowing between the rows and taking care of the pines. His goal is to eventually reforest all the open land, except for a few acres that will be used as wildlife food plots."

Tom Agerton is a Missouri landowner who has been recognized by the Tree Farm System as a landowner who is doing a good job of managing forest land. Agerton’s property, which consists of 309 acres in Pettis County near Sweet Springs, has been owned by the same family for 150 years.

About 70 acres of the land is forested, while the rest is farmland. "My father-in-law, who owned the land, started planting walnut trees back in the 1960s and 1970s," says Agerton. Mature walnut timber has been harvested from the forest, and the family has had two timber sales. They also have done timber stand improvement work, which included planting more walnut seedlings and removing less desirable trees from the land.

Resource Forester Josh Shroyer remarks, "I’ve seen the property, and from what Agerton has described of how it used to look, it has dramatically improved. The tree planting, timber stand improvement work and timber sales have really made a difference."

Absentee landowners make up about one-half of the private forest ownership in Missouri. Even though they don’t live on their property, they can still be an important conservation resource in the state. Carter Miller lives in Concord, California, but he owns 240 acres in Linn County.

This land has been in his family since 1873 and was used in the past mainly for growing corn, soybeans, wheat and oats. Miller continued to farm the land until about 15 years ago. "I realized the land wasn’t being used as effectively as it could be," he says. He began having timber stand improvement work done on the land, removing undesirable trees and doing necessary pruning on the remaining ones. He also planted tree seedlings.

Today the land has about 50 acres of timber, with oak, hickory, walnut, sycamore and cottonwood the most prevalent trees. There also are about 80 acres of pasture, 38 acres of hay and 72 acres in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The CRP is a nationwide effort to prevent soil erosion by keeping land in grass cover.

In 1993, a professional forester evaluated Miller’s land and developed a management plan for the next few years. Although Miller is unable to do work on the land himself, he has enlisted the help of landowner Morton "Jack" Anderson, a family friend who lives nearby. It is not uncommon for private landowners, especially absentee landowners, to have a caretaker or friend watch over their property. They are as vital to the success of resource management as the landowner.

Phil Sneed, management forester, acknowledges Miller’s work. "Prior to these activities, Miller’s forest consisted of areas with dense, highly competitive groupings of trees, resulting in slow growth and little regeneration. Also it had undesirable trees. Timber stand improvements and crop tree release has helped to increase growth and vigor by reducing competition to preferred trees. Thinnings have helped remove or decrease undesirable tree species, such as locust and elm, and moved the forest to a more productive natural community structure."

Improving the quality of the trees has not been the only benefit to the forest’s health. Sneed explains, "The increase in seed and growth on the forest floor has a benefit to wildlife in the form of increased forage."

Missouri landowners like Steve Whitaker, Tom Agerton and Carter Miller are indeed praiseworthy because they have worked with the Conservation Department to preserve and improve their forested land. The Forest Stewardship program and the Stewardship Incentives Program have helped them manage the land effectively and wisely.

These landowners and others like them are helping to conserve the precious natural resources in our state. By taking the initiative and playing an active role in land management, conservation-minded landowners can ensure that they will leave the land in better condition than it was when they received it

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