Many forest and woodlot owners oftentimes learn too late that some forestry techniques can limit options for future benefits and enjoyment — both in the long run and short term. While well-planned timber harvesting can increase your benefits, high-grading and related practices should be avoided.

Cutting the best trees (those of highest value) and leaving the rest (those of low-value, often diseased or malformed trees) is a common practice. This type of forestry is called high-grading. By cutting only the largest and most valuable trees, you remove those best suited to that site. The trees that are less well adapted remain as the next forest and the seed source for future forests. The financial gain of high-grading exists only briefly, yet ownership objectives can be sacrificed for decades. A similar analogy from livestock is the farmer who shoots the blue ribbon bull and uses the losers for breeding stock. The quality of the herd, just as the quality of the forest and woodlot, declines rapidly.

The many faces of high-grading

In addition to high-grading, similar practices exist with different names. High-grading is often disguised under the name of diameter-limit cutting. This is a practice that removes all trees above a certain minimum diameter. In some rare situations diameter-limit cutting is appropriate. For example, if old pasture trees are shading the growth of young hardwood saplings. Often however, diameter-limit cutting removes trees of commercial value (say above 12 or 14 inches in diameter) before these trees can attain a more valuable size and add seed and seedlings to the forest.

Selective cutting is another technique where high-grading can occur. Selective cutting differs from the selection system of silviculture (a legitimate technique). Selective cutting, as commonly practiced, involves selecting the highest quality trees and cutting them. The selection system involves a professionally trained forester to select trees from all age and size classes, both high and low quality to produce an uneven-aged forest.

Diameter-limit cutting and selective cutting are often rationalized by arguing to remove the bigger trees so the smaller trees can grow. However, the smaller trees may be undesirable species, poor form, or poor health. By any name, high-grading degrades the value of the forest regardless of the logic used by those trying to make a quick buck.

Causes of high-grading

A common cause for high-grading is greed to maximize immediate profits. Demand for high-value timber produces strong markets for high-value species compared to markets for lower value species. Further, it costs about the same amount of money to cut and haul a $10 tree as it does to cut and haul a $300 tree of the same size. These factors might help explain high-grading, but they do not excuse it.

Consequences of high-grading

Is it really that bad? One result is that the trees left behind won’t grow as quickly as better quality trees and the time until the next harvest is lengthened. In addition, the next harvest will remove the low-quality trees previously left so the value at the next harvest will be reduced. If you magnify the practice of high-grading across a region, assuming the demand for wood products remains steady, then more acres must be harvested to meet the same demand. While timber harvesting is not bad, accelerated

harvesting is not in the best interest of our natural resources and conflicts with a growing demand by the public for accountability of natural resource management. As the value of the land to produce timber crops decreases, the incentive to subdivide and develop increases.

Although high-grading usually leaves a forest of tall trees behind, there are other hidden ecological costs. Because the healthiest trees with the fewest defects are harvested, the overall health of the forest is reduced. The remaining trees may be more susceptible to the effects of insects, pathogens, strong winds or ice-storms and less able to recover after these disturbances occur.

Often high-grading emphasizes cutting of a few species and leaves behind other species. This reduction in tree species diversity can have negative consequences for wildlife that depended on the harvested species for food or shelter. Species such as red oak and white oak are economically valuable and produce seeds that are valued by wildlife. In any particular year, only one or a few species may produce an abundant crop of seeds. If those species were removed by high-grading, wildlife that used those seeds will need to find alternative food sources and that seed source may be permanently gone from the woodlot.

Avoiding high-grading

One step is to work with competent and professional forester and loggers. When you select a new refrigerator or car you likely consider several features, including price, reputation, service after the sale, and other long-term benefits. You’ll certainly go see what the refrigerator looks like. You should use at least these same criteria when you select your forester and logger. 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 a certified as a Missouri Master Logger (see the last issue of GH for an explanation of this valuable program). Make a visit to forests or woodlots where they have worked.

Know this: the best price may not provide the best treatment for your land. The logger who out bids his competitors for a timber sale by a few percent may not devote enough effort to ensure your property is left in good condition. Similarly the forester or logger who promises you maximum short-term profit likely doesn’t have in mind the best interests for you and your land. The consequences of selecting an incompetent forester or logger will exist longer than a bad choice on a refrigerator.

Another step to avoid high-grading is to have a written management plan. Your management plan will state your objectives and help keep you on track. The harvesting schedule in your management plan will help you decide when harvesting is appropriate. Just because a forester or logger offers to cut your timber doesn’t mean it’s the best time for your interests. The value of trees increases greatly as trees get bigger, and it’s probably a safe assumption that good markets will continue to exist for high-quality trees (although markets fluctuate). You may be advised that the trees are over-mature or need to be cut. Know that these labels are subjective and they are only accurate in the context of your ownership objectives.

Third, look for creative solutions to remove the low-value trees at the same time the high value trees are harvested. A harvest that removes high-value and low-value trees provides financial benefits from the high- and low-value trees and improves the quality of the residual forest. One way is to have the forester mark and the logger skid the low value trees to the log landing. Then you can cut them yourself for firewood, or sell them to a firewood processor. This will require extra effort on the part of the logger and forester, which means you might not make as much money, but the benefits, including even greater profits, will exist a few years down the road.

Finally, get assistance from people focused on your interests to help you develop long-term objectives and management plans. Missouri Department of Conservation resource foresters are available for free consultation and can provide technical expertise and guidance on forest management. Consulting foresters are private individuals who although charge a fee for their services, work for you and can usually respond faster than a resource forester. Another source of assistance can come from fellow landowners who have been down the same road you are traveling. The Forest and Woodland Association of Missouri is a new landowner group dedicated to helping landowners enjoy their forest land.

What you can do if your woodlot was previously high-graded

In simple terms, you need to have a vision for what you want your forest to look like and then a planned set of actions to move you towards that goal. Of course, how you reach that goal will depend on what you have to work with in your forest. A lightly high-graded forest may need only some thinning around the best trees and steps to ensure the forest can be effectively regenerated when the time comes. A heavily high-graded forest may no longer have the tree species you desire which will require you to create openings that you then plant to your desired species. The size of the openings and the species to plant will depend on the specifics of the site. A competent forester and your willingness to invest time and probably money are necessary to move a high-graded forest back to a sustainable forest.