Cutting Firewood – One Way to Be Prepared

Part of the "A Walk in the Woods" series.
Birch firewood to release fir tree

During these uncertain times, many of us are working from home and spending most of our time there. With our normal daily routines disrupted, and basic staples sometimes difficult to come by, we may be thinking about how prepared we actually are for this type of major disruption. Whether due to a pandemic, or a destructive storm, it’s good to be prepared to spend unplanned down time not worrying about where the basics will be procured.

To prepare for temporary isolation, different people focus on different things. My wife likes to keep a well-stocked freezer and pantry. I like to focus on keeping plenty of dry firewood ahead. Firewood is especially handy during a winter power outage to keep the house warm and pipes from freezing. Though we’re moving out of heating season, now is a good time to start putting up firewood for next winter.

For those of us fortunate to own a woodlot, even a small one (mine is only an acre or so), harvesting and gathering firewood can be a great way to get fresh air and exercise, gain knowledge of our woods, and provide our own heat. Firewood cutting is also a great tool for accomplishing other woodlot goals. These include:

  • Improving tree health and vigor
  • Improving growth and value of timber
  • Improving wildlife habitat
  • Creating diversity and resiliency

Choosing Trees to Cut

Choosing trees to cut for firewood depends on your goals. If you’re improving wildlife habitat, you may want to cut an opening to create dense growth for food and cover, or you may want to release mast trees to improve production. (Mast refers to nuts and fruits used by wildlife - acorns and beechnuts are hard mast; soft mast are things like apples and cherries.) When managing for timber, releasing selected trees from competition will accelerate diameter growth, allowing the tree to reach sawtimber size sooner. And when we give a tree the appropriate amount of growing space, the tree’s vigor typically improves.

To Improve Growth and Value of Timber

Firewood cutting is a great way to improve a timber stand. Removing poorly-formed trees and less desirable species, giving crop trees more room to grow, can improve the stand’s future value. It also reduces the time for trees to reach sawlog size. (A crop tree is a tree that will be grown for the long term to meet landowner goals.) For timber purposes, crop trees are those of a valuable species - such as white pine, red oak, or yellow birch - with a healthy crown and straight trunk with few knots. Identify the crop trees first, then cut trees that are competing with them. Areas with no crop trees can be left alone, or cleared to make room for new growth. The firewood is a by-product of the deliberate decisions of growing particular trees, rather than the main focus of cutting.

Released Red Oak Crop Tree

To Improve Wildlife Habitat

Cutting openings in the canopy encourages growth of new seedlings, sprouts, grasses, and shrubs. This growth, known as young forest, creates important habitat for many species. The opening, called a patch cut, can range from a half-acre to several acres or more in size. It can be located where there are diseased beech, poorly-formed hardwoods, or other undesirable trees. Felling a half-acre or more of trees in one spot will produce a lot of firewood in a short amount of time. You’ll want to be sure you don’t cut any more than you can keep up with. If the goal is to create a good size opening, simply cut the amount you’ll use in the next few years, then when it’s time to cut more, continue expanding the opening until it has reached the desired size.

If you want to increase acorn production for wildlife, find oaks with good crowns and cut the trees that are crowding them. An oak with a large crown is not only more vigorous, it will also produce more acorns. This practice is called mast tree release and is a variation of crop tree release described earlier. It is effective for other mast-producing species such black cherry, yellow birch, beech, apple, and others. Caution should be used with beech, however. Beech are prone to sun scald, so part of the tree should remain shaded.

Creating Diversity and Resiliency

Any forest disturbance that breaks up a uniform tree canopy and introduces different sizes and ages over time also adds to the diversity and resiliency of the forest. These disturbances can come in the form of wind, ice, insects, disease, or cutting. Sunny openings allow a wide range of plant species to become established; crop tree release increases individual trees’ vigor. Over time a diversity of species, sizes, and ages of trees and shrubs become established. This in turn leads to diversity of wildlife. Vigorous trees and diverse sizes and ages help a forest to be more resilient in the face of insect or disease infestation. Cutting firewood can also help people be more resilient in the face of uncertainty by giving us exercise, fresh air, and a sense of self-reliance.