A Well-Managed Forest

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Published on: Mar. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 8, 2010

When should a landowner seek professional help? A good time is before conducting a timber harvest.

Your neighbor, the one who is an expert on everything from colicky horses to hot stock tips, drops over for a visit. He says he heard you've been wondering about how to manage the woods on your property. It just so happens that he recently harvested the timber on his place. Now that he's become an expert on that subject, too, he wants to help you. Never mind that his woods look like they just experienced a live fire training exercise by the First Armored Division. You politely listen to his advice, but you know there has to be a better way.

So, you do some reading. You learn that Missouri has 14 million acres of forest land, of which 85 percent is owned by 300,000 private landowners like yourself. You and the other landowners help supply 5 million Missourians with lumber, wood chemicals, paper, charcoal and railroad ties.

You also learn that in a year, each Missourian uses 75 cubic feet of wood products for a yearly total of 375 million cubic feet. Out of that total, 100 million feet is converted to wood chips and pulp for paper. Furthermore, Missourians obtain two-thirds of their wood products from other regions of the U.S. Some of our wood products are imported from foreign countries where there are virtually no environmental safeguards. It soon becomes clear that sound forestry is a global issue that requires us to act locally.

Now you have even more questions, so you ask around. It doesn't take long to discover that the best source of information for managing your private woodlands is the Missouri Department of Conservation, especially those staff members trained to assist with forestry needs.

First, the MDC contact will visit with you and ask what you want from your forest. Is your priority wildlife or recreation? Do you want to manage for periodic income, or do you have several objectives? Have you considered your tax base or estate planning? If needed, your MDC contact will refer you to a specialist.

The Missouri Consulting Foresters Association is one resource. For a fee, the MCFA will provide many valuable services, such as determining cost basis, appraising your forest resources and providing forest management advice. The fee you pay is usually money well spent.

Your MDC contact might be a private land conservationist (PLC) or resource forester. PLCs provide general fish, forest and wildlife assistance, while resource foresters are specialists in the field of forestry. In addition to assisting private landowners, MDC resource foresters also perform state land management duties, wildfire suppression and various other duties which require a good portion of their time. As a result, they have a broad base of experiences that gives them additional insight into your specific situation. Your initial MDC contact can help you decide which forester will best serve your needs. Input from both is often advantageous.

Before you can manage your woodlands, you need to know exactly what they contain. The only way to know is by taking an inventory. Foresters call this, "timber cruising."

Poets wax eloquent about forests, but they rarely cruise timber. At least not in Missouri during the summer. If they did, their poetry might take on a whole different tone. These punitive expeditions into the brush allow foresters to obtain a wealth of information about the number, health, vigor, size and marketability of trees. They will also identify the presence of unique natural resources.

Dedicated foresters claim these forays among the seed ticks and sawbriars are therapeutic. That may be hard to swallow, but one thing is certain: without the information derived from this time-consuming process, sound decisions are hard to make.

Using the data from the inventory, the forester then develops a plan to satisfy your objectives. He or she will then discuss the plan with you to make sure it's what you want and that you understand how it will help you accomplish your goals. If a timber harvest is in order, the forester will mark the trees to be cut. The marking service provides a tree count by species, number, volume and, perhaps, quality of the trees for sale.

Once you're satisfied with the marking, the next step is selling the marked trees. At this point, the remainder of the process is all business, so remember this credo from the Harvard School of Business: "Trust everyone, but cut the cards."

First, send out sealed bids to prospective buyers. The bid should include a map, the amount of trees for sale, method of payment, length of contract and opening date and time. Also include a show date. This will allow you to meet the bidders and review concerns you have about fields, roads, damage to remaining trees and aesthetics. It is a good chance for you to learn what a logger can reasonably be expected to accomplish.

Once you select a buyer, you'll need to draft a contract. The contract will specify all of the buyer's responsibilities and will address such issues as soil erosion, trash and damage to fences. It will also specify your obligations to the buyer. Further, the contract makes both you and the buyer legally accountable for upholding the agreement. A good contract leaves nothing to chance. The forester will have copies of several different types of contracts.

To help loggers conduct responsible logging operations, the Missouri Forest Products Association (MFPA) sponsors logger supervisor training. Those who have taken this training have made a commitment to harvesting in an environmentally friendly and safe manner. A list of these firms is available from the MFPA or the forester.

There are several ways to cut down trees and drag them out of the woods. You can use a crosscut saw and a mule, or you can use an ax and a horse. Tractors, log skidders, hydro-axes, trucks and chainsaws are also available. The methods are not as important as your harvest plan, so make sure you discuss your plan thoroughly with your buyer and harvesting crew.

Visit the site often during the harvest operation. Most loggers are proud of the hard work they do, so you can generate a lot of good will by showing the logger you are interested in what they do. This also reminds the logger that you are concerned about your forest.

Once the harvest is complete, walk the site with the buyer. This is a good time to make sure all the contract agreements are satisfied.

With the harvest complete, the real work now begins. As a concerned landowner, you'll want to direct some of the harvest profits back into your forest. Included in your management plan are practices such as timber stand improvement, seeding log decks for wildlife, and erosion control measures. Cost-share funds are available for some of these projects. The PLC or resource forester can provide assistance and information on programs that are available to you. These practices are crucial to the long-term health of your forest.

It takes a long time to grow an oak tree in Missouri. Therefore, it's important to take the time to properly manage and care for your forest. The long-term rewards you receive from your foresight will far outweigh your efforts. The condition of our land is our legacy for tomorrow, so plan carefully for the future of your forest.

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