COLUMBIA, Mo. – Unsuspecting woodland owners selling timber often fall victim to a practice known as “high-grading”—cutting the best trees and leaving the rest.

“It’s like a rancher selling a prize-winning bull and keeping the losers for breeding,” said Hank Stelzer, University of Missouri Extension state forestry specialist. “You’re cashing in your best assets and investing in your worst.”

Cutting the biggest trees might produce a brief financial windfall, but the consequences can last decades. “When you cut only the largest and most valuable trees, the runts of the litter will be the ones providing the seeds for future forests,” Stelzer said.

High-grading will increase the time between harvests while decreasing the value of those harvests. The remaining trees are usually not as vigorous, generally more at risk from diseases and insect pests, and more vulnerable to damage from extreme weather. The practice also can reduce the diversity of tree species in a forest, leaving wildlife with a diminished supply of food and shelter.

High-grading sometimes happens under different names. The practice of “diameter-limit cutting” removes trees above a certain diameter. If that limit is too low, you’ll end up sparing many slow-growing trees while prematurely harvesting fast-growing, top-quality trees. “Selective cutting” is a term used by foresters to describe a sustainably sound method of harvesting trees. “Unfortunately, many loggers and landowners alike confuse high-grading with selective cutting,” Stelzer said.

A sustainable approach to timber harvesting will increase rather than decrease the value of the woodland over time, he said.

Leaving many of those high-value trees in place will let them grow even more in value, and removing mature trees and merchantable low-quality trees opens up space for seedlings from those high-value trees to grow.

Stelzer encourages landowners to look for creative ways to earn income from smaller, low-value trees, such as selling to a firewood processor. Investing in a portable sawmill can create opportunities to take advantage of markets for value-added wood products such as gunstocks and pen blanks.

To avoid high-grading, Stelzer urges landowners to work with competent, reputable foresters and loggers, who can help with decisions affecting the long-term ecological health and economic potential of the woodland.

“It’s no different from selecting a doctor or lawyer,” he said. “Ask for references, find out if the forester participates in continuing education programs and whether the logger has completed the Missouri Forest Products Association’s Professional Timber Harvester program. Better yet, ask if they are certified as a Missouri Master Logger.”

Another step is to have a written management plan, something too many woodland owners do without, Stelzer said. “Less than 10 percent of Missouri’s 14 million acres of privately owned woodland is under planned management.”

A consulting forester can help landowners develop a management plan and harvesting schedule that fits their goals for the land, such as improving its economic potential, promoting wildlife habitat, enhancing its scenic beauty or supporting recreational opportunities. The Missouri Department of Conservation also can provide some free consultation and guidance.

“Another source of assistance is fellow landowners who have been down the same road you are traveling,” Stelzer said.


-MU Forestry Extension:

-The Forest and Woodland Association of Missouri, a new advocacy group dedicated to helping landowners enjoy their forest land:

- Missouri Forest Products Association:

- Forest management information from the Missouri Department of Conservation:

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