Looking for High Quality Trees

Forest

In light of all the recent news of the decline of the pulp and paper industry, and loss of low grade wood markets in general, we may need to modify our approach to forestry in New England.  Over the past year I’ve toured veneer mills and saw mills, and furniture and wood products manufacturers.  To varying degrees, these businesses rely on good quality logs to make their products.  Even those that have decent markets for lower grade lumber make their best profits with high quality (i.e. clear, wide, minimal knots) wood.  Though the region produces quality timber, there is still unrealized potential for developing more of it in our New England woodlots.

Quality wood starts with quality trees.  These are healthy, vigorous, straight, and sound, and of species that are valued in the marketplace.  These include red oak, sugar maple, yellow birch, white ash, red maple, and white birch.  Softwoods include white pine and red spruce.  Many of our hardwoods are not found in other parts of the country or the world, or if they are, don’t enjoy the same level of recognition for quality.  In fact, one veneer buyer told me that the best red oak in the world comes from right here in New Hampshire.  With a wide procurement area and decades of experience with buyers from all over the world, he wasn’t just speaking from a perspective of home state pride.

With New England pulp and paper mills closing, new state-of-the art mills opening in other parts of the world, and trees being grown from seedling to harvest in seven to ten years in the southern hemisphere, it’s quite clear that New England’s competitive advantage in forestry is not in producing pulpwood.  Pulpwood quality trees are abundant around the world, so even those places that grow pulpwood quickly are producing a low margin commodity.  Though the pulp and paper industry will continue to be an important market in New England, as seen by significant investments at some of the remaining mills in Maine, it won’t be the major player it once was.  In addition, markets for low grade wood will continue to be very important in the management of our forests.  Low grade wood, however, should be viewed as a necessary by-product of forest management, rather than an end goal.

New England’s competitive advantage is in valuable, high quality timber, species that are in demand around the world, such as the red oak mentioned above.  But instead of simply harvesting high quality trees as the opportunity arises, or only managing stands when trees are merchantable, more can be done to increase the quantity of high quality trees in our woodlots.  As a former stock broker turned forest owner and manager that I knew used to say, “if you want ‘money wood’, you have to help it develop”.

Developing valuable trees requires a long-term perspective.  Growing a significant amount of high quality trees also takes a willingness to practice intensive management, which involves early investments.  When a stand of trees is young, there is an opportunity to choose the crop trees based on quality, vigor, and suitability to the site, and minimize the cost of improving the stand.  Through various activities such as release, spacing, and pruning, we can improve the species composition, growth rates, and quality.

There are of course costs involved with conducting work in a timber stand before the wood is of commercial size.  And even if it is of commercial size, if it’s mostly pulpwood, harvesting costs can exceed revenues.  On the other hand, consider the cost of doing nothing.  Buying land, paying taxes, maintaining boundary lines, building and repairing roads, trails, and other infrastructure all costs money.  Holding land for a long period of time and making no investments in growing quality trees may result in a lot of low grade, low value trees that no one wants, and in the long run exceed the cost of investing in growing quality timber.

Growing quality trees for timber need not be exclusive of non-financial benefits.  Management for high quality trees not only accelerates their growth and increases the financial rate of return.  It can also improve wildlife benefits by increasing crown size and therefore seed and nut production, and increase structural diversity in a stand by opening the canopy, allowing seedlings and saplings to develop.

Aesthetic qualities can also be enhanced through crop tree management.  Well-spaced trees with large crowns and the layers of seedlings, saplings, and pole timber that result from varying levels of canopy openings can be visually appealing.

Landowners working to grow quality trees for the future will benefit not only themselves or their heirs by building wealth in the land, but they will also contribute to increased prosperity in the New England forest products industry by providing higher value wood.

Sources:

  • “Beyond Hunter-Gatherer Forestry: Intensive Forest Management”, by Irwin Post.  In Northern Woodlands Spring 2017
  • “Rehabilitation Silviculture – Someone Ate the Seed Corn- Now What?” Presentation by Lloyd Irland at the New England Society of American Foresters 2017 Winter Meeting