Patchwork Forests

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2007

Last revision: Nov. 30, 2010

Missouri’s forests are getting smaller, but there are more trees in the state than ever before.

That seems like a contradiction, but it is exactly what decades of inventories of Missouri’s forests indicate. What’s more, this seeming paradox presents a growing challenge to foresters who manage the state’s woodlands, and to citizens who enjoy seeing healthy stands of timber on their property.

How can forests be smaller when there are more trees? The amount of land covered by forest in Missouri is increasing. Forest inventories show there were 12.9 million acres of forest land in 1972 compared to 14.5 million acres in 2005.

However, the size of the average forest plot in Missouri has gone down. This shrinkage is the byproduct of the “suburbanization” or, more accurately, the “semi-ruralization” of Missouri.

It’s not the amount of forested land that’s shrinking, but the size of the forests.

Old farms and pasture lands are being subdivided into smaller tracts. Everyone, it seems, wants their own little piece of land that they can build their house on and call their own. The result is that the number of Missouri landowners continues to increase, while the average size of property owned by individuals decreases.

Suburban or rural “homesteads” usually range between 3 and 20 acres. This size range reflects the need for at least 3 acres for a septic system in most outlying subdivisions.

Missouri is not the only state in which this shift to smaller forests is occurring. A nationwide poll in early 2006 indicated most Americans are willing to commute further to their job in order to live on their own land.

The Challenges

The Missouri Department of Conservation owns less than 3 percent of the forested land in Missouri. Nearly 85 percent of the forested land in the state is privately owned. This means that to really have an impact on Missouri’s forests, the Department’s foresters need to work with private landowners, including the increasing number of those who own less than 20 acres.

According to Missouri Department of Conservation Forest Management Chief Mike Hoffmann, forest management on small acreages is sometimes difficult. “When managed as isolated tracts they are typically not sufficient to support functioning forest communities and associated wildlife,” he said.

Smaller forests present two primary challenges: getting products out of the forest in a sustainable way and creating or sustaining wildlife habitat and ecosystem health.

In large forests, sustainable harvesting can be accomplished by rotating harvests throughout the property. A typical

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