The value of a forest management plan goes beyond fulfilling a requirement
For many woodlot owners, a forest management plan is viewed merely as something they need to fulfill a requirement, often as part of their state’s current use or forest tax program. Working with a forester to create a plan is just a necessary step in order to get a tax break. “It’s like with a driver’s license – nobody wants to get a license, people just do it because the government says they have to in order to drive,” observed Russell Reay, a consulting forester (and former state lands forester) based in Cuttingsville, Vermont. Just as the process of studying for a driver’s license imparts knowledge with lasting benefits, so too does the process of creating a forest management plan, he said.
Beyond the requirement, Reay tells landowners there are two major reasons for having a management plan: First and foremost is knowledge. The process of crafting the plan is a valuable “exercise in evaluating the forest – the terrain, the geology, and especially the history of what’s out there on the ground,” he explained. “It’s an investment of time and money to learn what’s out there [and] how it got to be the way it is, and [to] find out what it will be in the future.”
For landowners not intimately familiar with their property, working with a forester to craft a management plan is often an eye-opener as far as the features, characteristics and quality of their woodlot. Sometimes the knowledge is even gained on the ground. “I have some clients who really like going out with me in the woods. It’s a chance for me to say, ‘Here’s what you have, and here’s what I propose we do,’” Reay said.
The second value to management planning, he said, involves a human element – the chance for a landowner to make a clearheaded determination about what they want from their land, and then plot strategies to get there. “The big difference between forest management according to your wallet or your heart, and forest management according to a plan, is the discipline,” he explained. Sometimes that means telling your forester what you want; other times it means talking about what you don’t want, he added. That discussion in itself can become educational as well.
A landowner who might say they’re opposed to clear-cutting might also say they like seeing deer and grouse – two preferences at odds with one another. This is where the science of crafting a plan comes in, Reay said. The discipline involved means identifying what the conditions are on the ground, determining a desired outcome, and then crafting a plan to achieve it.
“I tell people that the only reason for managing a forest is to achieve human values,” Reay said, noting that the forest and wildlife will be fine on their own. “But if people want to see deer or songbirds, or hunt, or sugar, or get firewood, or protect a watershed, or produce timber, there are methods of manipulating the forest to achieve those goals.” Fortunately, even with the science involved in producing the desired outcomes, forestry is enough of an art that rarely does one objective exclude others, he added.
Reay emphasized that a forest management plan should reflect the preferences of the landowner, not the forester who is preparing it. “I tell my clients when I’m putting together a management plan, ‘I may be the one writing the words, and I may be the one with the forestry knowledge, but this needs to be your plan and not my plan,’” Reay said.
He said it’s important for landowners going through the process to ask their forester questions if there’s anything they don’t understand – and be sure to get the answers. He emphasized that working with a forester on a management plan is not like taking your car in for an oil change. Ideally, there should be good communication between the client and the forester: “I really think landowners need to develop a rapport and a relationship with their forester, and I think foresters should expect that from their clients.”
Reay said some landowners have a philosophical problem with creating a forest management plan when it’s done as part of a tax reduction program, feeling that the government is telling them how to manage their land. “I tell people that the government isn’t going to tell you how to manage your land. You tell them how you want to manage it, as long as it fits within the legal requirements. The thing the government is going to do is hold you to it,” he explained. “If you say you’re going to grow 18-inch trees, that doesn’t mean that if you suddenly decide you want a new Corvette you can go out there seven years ahead of schedule and start cutting timber to get the money. If your plan says you’re going to do a certain type of cutting every 15 to 20 years, then do it every 15 to 20 years.” Fortunately, Reay added, “there are many ways to practice good forestry.” A forest management plan can often be tailored to the landowner’s desires.
Forestry is a long-term endeavor. It can take decades for trees to mature, forest types to transition, etc. Forest plans take into account the management activities that will take place in the next few years, as well as guide management over the long haul. Shifting strategies every few months or years, on the other hand, is unlikely to achieve the landowner’s ultimate objectives. “A forester who has been doing the job for many years can feel pretty comfortable with explaining to a landowner what the property looked like 100 years ago, and what it will look like in another 100 years,” Reay said. That’s if the plan is followed.
While some landowners think of a forest plan as a document that will govern timber harvests, its scope is usually much more varied. According to Reay, wildlife habitat is one component that’s often of great interest to landowners. “If the landowner has some specific wildlife desires, they should be articulated to the forester, and the forester should explain how those can be accommodated,” he said. As long as the particular site is compatible with those desires – i.e., can provide a logical habitat for the desired wildlife – that can be integrated into the forest plan. Even if the landowner’s wildlife interests are very general, that can be reflected in a variety of different strategies – small patch cuts for grouse, or maintaining deer shelters in other areas, for example – in the management plan.
Similarly, recreation is frequently a component in forest plans. For example, forest roads can provide access for harvests, and also serve as trails for the landowner to hike, ride or ski on. “I once had a colleague who said, ‘The next best thing to trees in the woods is roads,’” Reay said. In many cases, the laying out of forest roads is a complex, time-consuming process for foresters interested in doing the job right. Fortunately, a forest plan doesn’t necessarily need to include the exact location of all roads; rather, it should describe the big picture of what type of forest roads will be added over time.
One thing many landowners appreciate about completing a forest management plan comes at the end, when the forester typically provides maps of the property. These maps often give a new perspective of the property – how the locations of different roads relate to each other or where property boundaries fall, for example. Maps created as part of a forest management plan can also include important features such as streams, wet areas, stone walls, ridgelines, different timber stands, soil types, and so on. While these maps will be submitted as part of a forest plan, their greatest value often remains with the woodlot owner in helping them to better visualize and understand their property. That is the ultimate goal of the process of creating a forest plan. Reay said, “The forest management plan should, first and foremost, be for the benefit of the landowner.”
Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vermont. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast. He is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories. Comment or question? Visit http://www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.