Alternative Forestry – Options, Understandings, and Expectations

When I wrote this article, I was looking as much to coin a phrase as I was to express my thoughts on what I perceived to be the present and future of forest management, insofar as my personal day-to-day interaction with the industry was concerned. Using the expression Alternative Forestry was a way to define a difference between the “Standard Operating Procedure” that has been practiced for decades, and the ongoing paradigm shift born of social change, environmentalism, increased regulations, and the like. Soon enough, there will be nothing alternative about it, and that’s a good thing- so long as the “economically feasible” requirement remains possible. This article is really about letting forestland owners know that they have options, and once that becomes clear they can advance with confidence- which is more comforting than the other alternative.



Alternative Forestry

During the course of my education at Virginia Tech, I was on several different occasions presented with the paradigm of forest management as a function of three limiting factors; that any given management activity must be: physically possible, economically feasible, and socially acceptable. I have come to learn that each constraint is consistently applicable, though whether each is a necessity or simply an obligation is situation-specific.

The physical aspect is typically the most straightforward of the three, being merely a function of topography and access. In order to harvest timber from a site, one must be able to physically access the timber, and the terrain must be “operable”- in that men and machines (or horses) can traverse the area and extract the timber. The physical constraint is, therefore, the starting point by which one is able to determine economic feasibility. Simply stated, timber which cannot be harvested has zero value as a forest product; however, the value to wildlife habitat, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, soil and water conservation, etc. is still alive and well.

The actual dollar value of timberland is driven by access and topography, overall quantity and quality of the standing timber, current market conditions, and proximity to processing facilities. The fair market value of any and all timberland is determined primarily by these factors- and more specifically by what a buyer is willing to pay on any given day, after all due considerations. Although the economics of harvesting timber, milling logs, and marketing products is and shall remain the overall driving force behind stumpage prices, there is a growing undercurrent that is changing the manner in which forest management is actually implemented.

The social implications of timber harvests often get more press than the money, because the emotional impact of a harvested site is raw and tangible. Historically, for the general populous, the term timber harvest has been synonymous with “clearcut”, “high-grade”, and “looks like a bomb went off”. On several different occasions, clients interested in selling their timber were compelled to tell me that they did not want to “rape the land” in doing so. These conceptions exist for a reason- because most landowners have only noticed the bad jobs, and are unaware of the management options which are readily available to them and their forestland.

Every industry has its own collection of buzz words, and forestry is no exception. Creative timber harvests can be termed “selective, boutique, low-impact, restorative, or sensitive”. Personally, I prefer to think that I am promoting progressive, or alternative, forestry; forestry that incorporates all of the above terms in thought and practice.

More specifically, implementing Alternative Forestry requires a better-than-usual relationship between the forestry consultant, the landowner, and the logger. Most often, the subject timber harvest will not be a clearcut, but instead a more specific harvest design aimed at some combination of: improving forest health, maintaining aesthetics, improving or creating wildlife habitat, and generating revenue. The order of importance may vary with each situation, and this is what guides the specifics of the harvest prescription.

In order for Alternative Forestry to work, there must be a general, clear understanding between all parties involved. The focus is on the end result, and in allowing some flexibility in the means of getting there. Even in the case of a selective timber harvest where maintaining the visual quality of the site is of utmost importance, there will be some amount of disturbance; you simply cannot harvest timber without an impact to the site. Whether that impact is muddy logging roads, tops and limbs left on the ground, or complaints from the neighbor- it is not a clean process. To be successful and satisfied, one must understand that the only thing that happens quickly is felling trees- everything else takes patience. But, over time, grass seed will germinate on the roads, the debris will rot and turn into nutrient-rich soil, and your neighbor will forgive and forget- especially if he needs some firewood.

Regarding the understanding between the forester, their client (the landowner), and the logger, there are a few key issues associated with Alternative Forestry. Firstly, the timber buyers and loggers must accept that land ownership is changing- parcels are becoming smaller and the people who own them are thinking and acting more “green”. Buying timber from these landowners will soon be the norm and not the exception.

Secondly, landowners who sell timber and expect a more palatable alternative must understand the economic constraints that this type of harvesting places on the loggers and buyers. Therefore, in a nutshell, landowners will have to accept less money for their timber than if they were to allow a clearcut or something similar. Additionally, they should expect to pay higher consulting fees in order to achieve the desired result. Foresters are using their expertise on behalf of the landowner- this takes a significant amount of time and resources. Foresters, consequently, must possess the ability to effectively design and implement a specific and appropriate harvest design, and be able to convey the desired outcome to the logger both before and during the timber harvest.

The business and practice of forestry is becoming no less complicated with the passage of time and legislation. The general population is understandably ignorant of this trend, even though two-thirds of Virginia’s forestland is privately owned, and agriculture and forestry combined are still this Commonwealth’s number one industry. I know there are many forestland owners who despise the notion of cutting timber, be it on their own land or their neighbor’s. I believe that this is because of the horror stories that abound regarding shady timber deals and, again, the sheer visual impact of a poorly harvested site. This mindset, though, is a roadblock that can be overcome through Alternative Forestry.

I encourage all forestland owners to explore the possibilities of Alternative Forestry. Harvesting timber can be an effective means of improving or creating wildlife habitat, maintaining a healthy forest, and generating income. And, I dare say, you may even like the looks of it.

Matthew J. Pace