Timber harvesting: a process of many decisions

Timber harvesting is a forest management tool that can be used to achieve a number of different objectives for your woodland property.

Landowners may choose to cut trees on their property for many reasons. For some, it is to produce a steady stream of revenue from timber. Others may want to create wildlife habitat, manage for older forest structure, develop a fire-resilient forest, or a combination of those. In any case, harvesting trees likely comes after decades of hard work and planning, and should not be taken lightly. There are a number of key things to consider when managing a successful timber sale.

The first - and most important - step in any timber sale is to carefully think about your goals as a woodland owner. Goals help you identify what is most important to you when completing work on your land. One way to do this is to create a forest management plan. You can find lots of information and resources to help you create a plan in the "Know Your Forest" learning library

Maintaining forest health, habitat creation, income, and recreation are all goals that might drive you to do a timber harvest. When reflecting on your goals and the current state of your forest, start to develop a list of objectives - action items - that will help you achieve these goals. When building your harvest plan, think on multiple scales. How will the harvest meet your goals for a certain unit, your property, and the larger landscape? For example, there may be forest units on your property better suited for timber production, while others might have wonky trees better for wildlife habitat. You can match your goals to the characteristics of your forest.

As part of your harvest plan, think about and outline some economic considerations. Timber harvest profitability is normally driven by the total volume of wood removed, distance to the mill, current timber market, and the quality of the logs being sold. Completing an inventory and talking to log buyers about your upcoming harvest can help you to quantify how much wood you have and approximately how much it is worth.

Now that you have a foundation, identify the specific management technique that will achieve your objectives. This technique should fit the structure of the forest and the ecosystem you are in. There are two general categories of silvicultural techniques that involve logging: (1) thinning and (2) regeneration harvest. Thinnings are conducted to improve the existing stand, regulate growth, and in some cases provide for early financial returns. Regeneration cuttings are performed to remove older trees and open up favorable conditions for regenerating young trees. In even-aged forests, regeneration after harvesting (clearcut, seedtree, or shelterwood) creates a whole new forest stand of the same age. In uneven or multi-aged forest stands, selective harvesting of individual trees or groups of trees over a period of time creates multiple generations (cohorts) of trees with different age classes within the stand.

Once you have identified the trees for harvest, consider the mills with product lines that best match your logs. Log buyers are the ones who have the expertise to determine this match. We recommend that you contact at least three buyers if possible. Once you know how much your logs are worth at each mill, do not forget to consider distance. The further you need to go, the more trucking time you will have to pay. A higher price at one mill more might not always be the best option for you if it is farther away.

Usually prices are highest during winter and early spring, mostly because of the restrictions of wet-weather hauling and the resulting shortage of logs during that time. If you have durable or paved roads, or live in an area where winter hauling is possible, take advantage of those higher prices! However, if you need to add rock to your dirt roads in order to haul in wet weather, be prepared to harvest a large volume of good quality timber to offset the cost of road construction. It is always important to re-evaluate prices when the time to harvest gets close.

You may also be considering taking additional steps on your property to benefit fire resilience or forest health. This work may require special equipment such as a slashbuster, mulcher, etc. These machines can be expensive, but if you can couple them with a harvest of valuable timber you may be able to offset the cost instead of paying completely out-of-pocket. Consider these treatments an investment into your property.

Once you have made the decision to harvest, you need to find a logging contractor. If you do not have a working relationship with a contractor, the best advice is to ask other landowners who have worked with one. Most loggers get jobs by word-of-mouth and that allows you to ask for references. In addition to that information, make sure the contractor has the adequate equipment for the job and that he/she works with a contract and valid insurance. (Learn more about choosing and working with a logging contractor.)

In preparation to the harvest, make sure that the property boundaries are clear and that the trees you plan to harvest are within your property line. If unsure, the best option is to contact a licensed surveyor since theirs is the only legally valid assessment in case of a dispute. If you are planning a regeneration cut, you should also be making plans for reforestation, including placing a seedling order. Replanting is required when you remove most of the trees in one area. Seedlings usually have a 1-2 year waiting period, so plan on ordering your seedlings when you schedule your logging contractor.

The Forest Practices Act outlines Oregon’s state laws that protect soil, water, wildlife habitat, and land use. It is your responsibility as a landowner to comply with these rules, regulations, and Best Management Practices to avoid fines and make sure you and the contractor are performing a responsible operation.

No matter the goal, once you conduct a harvest, your property will look different after the operation. This difference increases with the intensity of the treatment. If you are considering a harvest for the first time, we highly recommended you visit a recent job similar to what you would like to perform on your property. A great resource is your local Small Woodland Owner Association chapter, where you can find other active landowners and schedule a visit. This will help you manage your expectations by visualizing possible elements of the harvest that you did not think about before.

As you can see, timber harvest is a complex process that has a lot of moving parts. Our last piece of advice is to give yourself lots of time to prepare and plan. It often takes 1-2 years for landowners to get from early planning to harvest completion. Your local Extension agent has lots of resources that can help you along the way. Whatever you decide, best of luck to you!

This article originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of Woodland Notes Newsletter

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