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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 plan would call for harvesting 10 to 20 percent of the forest at a time, allowing 15 to 20 years of regrowth before harvesting an area again. This allows the forest to continually provide a good yield.

Small acreage forests, however, do not produce enough wood to make rotational harvesting feasible. Landowners often face an all-or-nothing predicament. If they want to realize some monetary return from their large, old trees, they probably need to clearcut the entire property, but that means they lose the beautiful forest that they moved out in the country to enjoy.

Partial harvests usually don’t work because loggers can’t make enough money to pay for fuel and equipment costs.

“Moving from one little job to another just costs too much in gas and time,” said Certified Logger Travis Yake. “If it’s close to another job it’s OK, or if the volume and quality is there. I have harvested off 5 acres before, so it can happen. It’s just rare.”

Also deterring the logging of small acreages are the large number of fences and structures usually present. These force loggers to spend more time cutting each tree so that it will not damage anything when it falls, and time is money.

Partnering for Wildlife

Small landowners, however, can band together with their neighbors to coordinate wildlife habitat plans that cross fences. You might meet with nearby property owners to work out an overall plan, or you could just look around to see what’s missing in the neighborhood wildlife habitat mix and try to provide that element.

If your neighbors have open fields and mature timber, for example, you might manage for a younger, brushy forest that provides a necessary transition zone of small, brushy plants. This can be accomplished by removing the larger trees from field borders or by planting shrubs about 30 feet out into an open field.

“If you get six or seven landowners with 10–25 acres, each working together,” says Department Wildlife Management Biologist Brad Jump, “that’s plenty of land to manage for almost all wildlife found in Missouri.”

Partnering with your neighbors also opens up the opportunity to have loggers harvest some of your trees. You may not have enough wood volume to attract a logger yourself, but being able to combine several small wood harvests on adjacent tracts may make it worth a logger’s while to conduct a harvest.

Even though Missouri’s forests are getting smaller, there are still plenty of ways to manage and improve the natural resources on them. It just takes a new approach to management, one that involves neighbors and partners.

You can count on the Department of Conservation to be a good partner. If you own acreage—large or small—and want to improve its value, health or beauty through conservation practices, just call your local Department office. They will be glad to help you get the most from your property (see page 1 for a list of regional office phone numbers).

Why You Can’t Sell That Tree

People are often surprised to find that it’s not easy to find a logger to buy a big tree in their yard. They are even more surprised when they learn that they may have to pay an insured arborist to cut down the tree. There are good reasons why loggers might not be interested in making a deal for your tree.

  • Trees growing in the open, away from competition, often are less valuable as lumber because they spread out instead of growing tall trunks.
  • They might lack a permit that allows them to conduct business within the city limits.
  • They don’t want to assume the risk of possibly damaging houses, fences, power lines or pavement.
  • They may not be able to make money by transporting equipment and personnel to cut down a single tree.
  • They might not have the equipment to clean up the mess properly.

Missouri Forest Facts

  • The average Missourian uses more than a ton of wood per year.
  • A typical 1,800-square-foot home requires 10,000 board feet of lumber. That’s how much is contained in 3 acres of forested land in Missouri.
  • Currently, our forests are growing 267 million cubic feet of timber annually, but only 140 million cubic feet are being harvested each year

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