Farming Magazine - February, 2009

WOODLOTS

A History in Forestry

Looking back to look ahead
By Harry Chandler

Forty-seven years ago, my wife and I became owners of my grandparent’s farm. It had been a subsistence farm consisting of 200 acres that had gravitated into a small dairy farm, a back pasture, potato patch, sugar bush and, finally, a back country family recreational area as the forest began to grow. We built a camp on the property, which was where we hoped to retire, and began to learn about the forest surrounding us. We didn’t know it, but we were on a similar path of many current forestland owners throughout the United States.

Many years had passed since our forest had been harvested and it needed management. Consultant forests were uncommon in our area, so I asked our county forester, Steve Slayton (now retired), to recommend a logger, and we hired several different loggers based on availability and trustworthiness. I listened to suggestions of how we should log from family and friends and we did a couple of timber harvests. Assistance from Slayton and dumb luck on my part prevented us from doing any serious damage to the forest. After some regrowth, the woods began to look like they were responding to the thinning almost like we had known what we were doing.

Slayton suggested we become part of the American Tree Farm System and he submitted us for membership. The affiliation as new tree farmers joined us with new friends and a valuable informational pipeline. It also introduced us, through workshops and tours, to other forestland owners who were asking questions similar to ours. As we got to know more foresters and forest landowners, we learned more about forest management. Slayton also suggested that I attend a forestry workshop.

I don’t even remember what time of year it was, only that it was a forestry workshop on a Saturday in Island Pond, Vt. It was there I had an opportunity to meet new Vermont State Biologist Cedric Alexander, an exceptional consultant forester, Molly Beattie, and new University of Vermont Extension Forester Thom McEvoy. Their expertise and presentations ramped up my enthusiasm regarding forestry and wildlife education.

McEvoy asked if we would be interested in utilizing our forest as a Covert’s demonstration site. Covert, using the definition of “thickets cover for game,” was a new project of Steve Broderick, University of Connecticut, and McEvoy, and funded by the Ruffed Grouse Society. It was initiated because some hunters felt the upland game bird hunting habitat needed some help if quality hunting areas were going to continue, and were willing to financially, thru the Ruffed Grouse Society, support the cause.

As we got to know more foresters and forest landowners, we learned more about forest management.

Our forest was composed of a mixture of soft and hardwood trees with some open fields on rolling hills with several streams and minor wetlands. We became one of eight Covert’s demonstration sites: four in Vermont and four in Connecticut. Covert’s paid for our first-ever forest management plan as part of this arrangement. The 63 pages of the plan contained an extensive amount of data, including an inventory of both timber and wildlife. Two graduate students, one a wildlife biologist and the other a forester, compiled the inventory. The forester did random point sampling while the biologist noted the habitat and wildlife. When the plan was finished, read, discussed and digested, a harvest was recommended. A private consultant forester would be required to mark the trees and manage the harvest.

I wrote to about 30 consultant foresters explaining my goals, objectives, asking questions about their forest harvesting philosophy, and if they would be interested in managing our harvest. I received about a dozen replies and hired the best fit. The forester wrote a contract with a logger and we had a harvest that was photographed, written about, talked about and hunters marveled at the strip cuts. These strips were clear-cut 40 feet wide, laid in a northwest-southeast aspect, with the length determined by a stream on the North and boundary line on the South. They were specifically a wildlife habitat management practice. One hunter, who didn’t know I was the landowner, explained the purpose of the strip cut to me when we wandered into each other while deer hunting.

I’ve had several harvests using the services of a consultant forester and have seen many more while visiting other forestland owners. Over the years, there have been many changes in the methods of harvesting, sophistication of equipment and expertise of loggers. Among documented, but seldom recognized, changes are the goals, objectives and issues of forestland owners. I fear that many consultant foresters are not responding to these later changes, particularly the issues.

The first issue is “listening,” and it is not new, but still pertinent. Arlyn W. Perkey (retired USDA Forester) wrote the following in the “Forest Management Update,” July 1990: “Foresters who view the communication relationship between themselves and landowners as ‘Trust me. I know what’s best for you and your land,’ are not going to be in good touch with most private, nonindustrial landowners. The concept that we are professionals who know best is not currently accepted by most clients.”

Consider this analogy that Perkey gave years ago: “People with medical problems frequently seek out physicians who will take time to talk with them, explain what needs to be done, and how it will be done in terms they can understand. The doctor who communicates well the needed treatment knows that the patient is much more likely to accept his diagnosis and follow his instructions.”

If consultant foresters want to be successful, they must be able to do the same with forest landowners. In many cases, foresters have assumed a landowner’s goals and objectives. A classic situation was reported to me last summer by a landowner who wanted some trees cleared for a view. He mentioned this to a person affiliated with the logging industry and it was relayed to a forester. The forester talked with the landowner and walked through the woods to be cleared, then he sent a letter to the landowner evaluating the project and outlined the problems, explaining why the landowner wouldn’t reap much financial return from the harvest. This totally turned off the landowner’s interest. I asked the landowner, “If the logger had agreed to cut the trees, which blocked your view, and assured you he would cut the residual tops and brush below 4 feet from the ground, would you have given him the timber?” After a short pause the landowner said, “Yes.” The forester did not listen to the landowner and those trees are still standing in the view of the landowner. The landowner told me he is going to sell the house with the trees there because he just doesn’t want to deal with the issue again.

Every consultant forester, and forest landowner, in the United States should read the paper by Brett J. Butler and Earl C. Leatherberry, USDA Forest Service, as reported in the Journal of Forestry October/November 2004, titled “America’s Family Forest Owners.” The article explains the three most common reasons for owning forestland in specific areas:

Northern United States—Enjoyment of beauty and scenery; privacy; and protection of nature and biological diversity.

Southern United States—Pass land on to heirs; enjoyment beauty and scenery; and land investment.

Western United States—Enjoyment of beauty and scenery; pass land on to heirs; and privacy.

Approximately 10 million Americans own about 250 million acres of forestland—65 percent have at least some college, but only 4 percent have a forest management plan. Is it because most forest management plans are primarily timber management plans? If timber is not the primary interest of a majority of forest landowners, shouldn’t consultants change their approach from timber management to true forest management?

Consider a recent research study done in Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont titled “Why do People own Land?” The reasons below were are in order of importance:

  1. Privacy
  2. Scenic Beauty
  3. Wildlife
  4. Recreation
  5. Long Term Investment
  6. Conservation
  7. Generate Income

Is it possible that the majority of forestland owners are more concerned with how the forest looks after a harvest than money paid for timber harvested? Some older foresters and landowners give a hard look when one suggests many forest landowners are more satisfied with their forest’s beauty than receiving hard currency. However, the nay sayers should consider the inherent value of today’s forestland. Successful consultant foresters will be talking more about improving woodlots by judicial thinning instead of emphasizing the amount of money somebody might receive by harvesting timber. A survey has shown 72 percent of forest landowners in the United States have their residence near or on their forestland, and stump viewing is not how they want to spend their later years.

When a forester is talking about harvesting timber, thinning to improve the woods, marking timber, road layout, skid road layout and other services, or anything requiring payment, the costs should be explained to the landowner in a language the landowner can easily understand.

For example, some foresters charge by the acre and some by the hour for marking trees to harvest. An acre is difficult to conceptualize unless one spends a lot of time dealing with “acres.” However, everyone can relate to being paid by the hour, so a change might make the difference of a potential harvest or not. Some forest owners have questioned a “marketing fee” for the pulp and timber and would like cost for time of road/skid road layout listed as a separate item. The more “smoke and mirrors” costs that are explained, the easier it is for the landowner to agree to the diminishing results of harvest revenue.

A consultant has a lot to sell other than “generating income” for the landowner. Scenic beauty, wildlife habitat management, long-term investment and conservation management are in many cases reasons for timber extraction. Short cycle harvesting reduces visual impact. It is all harvesting timber, but with a different, more acceptable approach.

The progressive consultant foresters have made several accommodating changes for landowners. Many consultant foresters are spending more time working with their clients and are really listening to their goals and objectives. Updating or revamping some consultant’s approach may perhaps prevent or avoid a forester losing a potential client or even losing a current client. That could result in a loss of better forest management and forest product.

The author has been a professional grower of vegetable and flowering plants for more than 20 years; was executive director of Vermont Woodlands Association (VWA) for five years and was awarded life membership; wrote a column for American Tree Farmer for five years; and did radio commentary for six years on several stations, titled “Woodlands, Wetlands and Wildlife.” He has also grown Christmas trees, is a tree warden and has produced articles for various Tree Warden Newsletters. He and his wife Judy live in Vermont on their forested property, which has been in the family for over 100 years.