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Out On A Limb | Winter 2006 Out Here Magazine

With a little care, a woodlot can be a treasure

By David Frey

Photography courtesy of Tractor Supply Company

For many rural landowners, one of the biggest joys of owning a few acres in the country is having a little slice of forest to call your own. Even a tiny grove along the property line can give a sense of remoteness like nothing else — a secret wilderness waiting out the back door.

More than just a private retreat, it offers a habitat for wildlife, and for some landowners, the timber means extra income.

While those with green thumbs don't flinch at coaxing a garden out of the ground, though, most of us aren't forest rangers. When it comes to trying to manage a woodlot, it can leave us scratching our heads.

But managing a woodlot doesn't have to be a lot of work, and a little bit of care can go a long way toward taming the wilderness and creating healthy woods.

"One thing about forest management is, it's not something you have to do every day," says Robert Bardon, extension specialist for North Carolina State University. "It's not like running a farm where you have to worry about raising a crop."

Landowners should start out just walking their property, getting to know it, Bardon recommends. Then, he says, sit down and write a management plan. That's something most don't think about, but whether their goals are for timber or just a little seclusion, a plan can help landowners get the most out of their woods.

In some areas, state forest services offer free technical assistance. In others, landowners may need to pay a consulting forester, but states often provide financial assistance.

"A woodlot actually goes through a lifecycle, like humans do," Bardon says, "starting out small in an infant stage and going through that process of reaching maturity and passing on. At various stages in woodlots, that lifecycle really dictates how people maintain the property."

Setting Goals

How you care for your woodlot also depends on your goals, and that's what the plan is for. "If landowners just enjoy the greenery, it's very little work," Bardon says. "It can be as intensive as they want."

Foresters think about three main approaches.

Clearcutting may sound extreme, but for some trees, it's the best approach. The chainsaw mimics the sort of large-scale disturbances Mother Nature sometimes brings, clearing out the old to make way for the new.

For trees that thrive on sunlight, clearcutting can open up an area and give new plants plenty of room.

Shelterwood is a technique used for trees that like a little shade and a little sun. More aggressive than just a simple thinning, it clears out enough trees to allow sunlight in, but it retains enough shadow that shade-tolerant species can establish themselves.

Selection cutting removes large trees to allow new trees to grow up below. It's a method that works well for some shade-loving trees, but it's also one that can be easily done incorrectly, Bardon says, harvesting the good trees and leaving the junk behind.

"Most landowners have suffered the consequences of that," he says.

And any woodlot can benefit from a little thinning, helping the remaining trees resist insects and disease.

More than just affecting the health of the trees, these management techniques can also have a big impact on wildlife, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Dead snags may not seem like a healthy forest, but try explaining that to the woodpeckers that think they're a buffet, or to the birds of prey that use them to roost.

Thin the forest a little and you can create happier habitats for wild turkeys and other animals. Open up space for shrubs and deer come to call.

Studies show that for most landowners, beauty and wildlife are the main reasons they own forest land, Bardon says. For some, though, timber management is important. It not only provides extra cash; it can also provide tax breaks many landowners don't know about.

It doesn't have to be a lot more work, Bardon says, but it does mean landowners should know the quality and quantity of their trees, and make sure they're healthy and strong.

When it's time to harvest, Bardon recommends using a consulting forester to help sell the timber. Landowners usually find they can get a better price, he says, and the cost of the consultant is tax-deductible.

Regardless of why they bought their woodlots, though, most landowners want something more: something that will outlive them.

"They want to leave it as a legacy to their heirs," Bardon says. "It's really as conservationists and preservationists, to maintain their land."

A little care can go a long way to turning a private wilderness into a family treasure, as well as a natural gem.

David Frey writes in Carbondale, CO.