Why Not Just Take 50 Trees?

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By Bill Botti

A common occurrence, when I’m wearing my consultant’s hat, is to receive a call from a landowner who wants to have his woods “logged out.” It sounds so – final. I try to correct the concept; then if the caller is still on the line, we’ll make an appointment to get together and walk the woods.

There is no forest fairy that goes around changing beech trees into maples, repairing split forks, and filling rotten trunks with sound wood. What you are left with after the timber sale is what you’ll be growing for the next several decades.

During this walk in the woods I try to explain the difference in value among our many tree species. “There are five species that can be high-value trees,” I begin. “Hard maple, walnut, cherry, red oak, and white oak. The others – the hickories, basswood, beech and others – no matter how nice they are, don’t begin to bring the prices common for the ‘big five’.” I try to find good examples of young trees with high potential. WE discuss crown spacing. Usually, by the time we get that far, the owner’s eyes are glazing over and we continue with a nice walk. I ask about objectives, goals for the property, special sentimental attachment to any trees or places. We talk a little about my services and fees and call it a day.

Sometimes, after considerable work on my part on the agreed-upon services, it becomes evident that the owner’s eyes had glazed much earlier than I had noticed. Here’s an example.

Ralph called me one morning to ask me to come and look at his ten-acre woods. A timber buyer had come by and marked 50 trees he’d like to cut. He offered Ralph $10,000 for the marked trees. Ralph was a bit leery and wanted to be sure it was a good offer. I’m always a little uncomfortable in this situation – I don’t like to criticize someone else’s marking (sometimes, when I look back at what I’ve marked, I wonder why I did it the way I did). I didn’t know the buyer in this case, but what I could point out to Ralph was that the marked trees were definitely the best trees he had. We stopped and looked at the beautiful, straight and clean hard maple 18” in diameter struggling against a towering beech. The maple was marked; the beech wasn’t. I recalled to Ralph our earlier discussion about the ‘big five’ and asked him, “What will you be growing here? The maple could easily grow to 24” or more if given space. The beech is about as big as it’s going to get and will never increase in value. Maybe it would be better to take the beech now and leave the maple.”

“Oh yeah, I see what you mean,” he replied.

So Ralph and I agreed that I would re-mark the stand and offer it for bids, with the idea that we could put this stand on the path to high productivity. When the marking was done, I had marked about 120 trees – including that towering beech. The high bid was $10,000. Ralph went through the roof. “WHAT? Ten thousand dollars? That’s the same money I was offered and I’ll have twice the mess!” Ralph’s entire life flashed through my mind before I agreed with him that this wasn’t going to work. So we dropped the idea of a timber sale; I don’t know what he ever did about it.

Since then I have worked in a number of woodlots that had been treated that way – “taking only 50 trees” – several times. The effects are clear. There are few good trees and lots and lots of defective beech, ash, basswood, and hickory; condemning the stand to a long period of low-quality timber production. Long-lasting harm to the productivity of a stand results from this process, called “high-grading.”

There is no forest fairy that goes around changing beech trees into maples, repairing split forks, and filling rotten trunks with sound wood. What you are left with after the timber sale is what you’ll be growing for the next several decades. Use good common sense when considering a sale – and listen to your forester.

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