Why should I manage my forest?

There are many reasons to actively manage your forest land, regardless of what goals and interests you may have for your land. Most small private forest owners are more interested in wildlife, recreation, and the aesthetic value of their land than timber production, but there are many things you can do to improve the benefits your forest provides to you now while safeguarding it for the future. You may also wish to explore other income opportunities—for example, from non-timber forest products—that can be achieved by actively managing your forest. Here are several reasons why should consider managing your forest – starting with the history of forests in the eastern U.S.

Much of today’s forests in the upper Delaware River basin are not as valuable as they once were (commercially and in other ways). They were transformed by the intensive harvesting that accompanied colonialization and industrialization prior to 1900, followed by fire, disease, and erosion problems in the early 20th century. Forests are in better shape now, but are under stress from a variety of new threats, such as exotic insects, invasive plants, disease, deer overpopulation, and poor management decisions. These threats have reduced native species biodiversity and changed the overall composition of forests in many places. Left unmanaged, nature will likely continue on this new path of reduced diversity, weakened resilience against threats, and diminished economic and ecological value.

Common problems in the Upper Delaware River watershed today include the lack of forest regeneration, particularly of some oak species, caused in part by high populations of white-tailed deer. In areas with high deer density, regeneration of desirable species is impeded by “deer browse” on accessible vegetation (typically under six feet tall). In addition to destruction of young desirable trees, deer browse can lead to reduced native plant and wildlife diversity and change the overall composition of the forest. Browsing must be curbed through strategic fencing, tree shelter use, or hunting to enable the reestablishment of desirable species in affected areas.

Another problem is the proliferation of invasive native and exotic plant species. These plants tend to form dense, single-species stands that prevent new seedlings from being established. They are often of little value to humans and wildlife. Targeted removal of these plants, followed by monitoring and treatment of regrowth, is usually required to triumph over the invasive species. Many methods can be used, from manual, mechanical, or chemical removal to prescribed fire or targeted grazing. Often you will need to seed and/or plant the area after treatment to prevent erosion and help your desired tree species get started. Together you can work with your forester to determine the best approaches for your land.

The lingering effects of poor timber management decisions are visible in many forests today. In general, poorly planned harvests that focus on maximizing profit in the short term often lead to degraded, less valuable resources over the long term. The practice of high-grading in particular has degraded the value of many forest lands. High-grading is a method of timber harvesting in which the biggest and most valuable trees are removed from a stand (“take the best and leave the rest”) with little regard for the quality, quantity, or distribution of trees left on the site. This leaves weak and less valuable trees behind to regenerate the stand in the future. If your forest has been poorly managed in the past, active management (possibly including stand improvement, below) will help restore its health and function to meet your needs.

Even if you are not interested in timber production, there are various thinning and cutting treatments that can help you achieve a variety of objectives on your land. These treatments are called Timber or Forest Stand Improvement (TSI or FSI), and they help landowners achieve their management objectives by improving forest health, wildlife habitat, and future timber values. TSI aims to increase the growth of desirable trees and other forest products by removing trees that block sunlight, are in poor health, or are otherwise undesirable. Although TSI is frequently prescribed in management plans and generates long-term benefits, landowners often fall behind on these treatments. This is especially a problem in the Upper Delaware Basin, where timber management is not a priority for an increasing number of forest landowners. In addition, decades of over-harvesting and high-grading have left many landowners with small, low-value timber, for which there are no strong local markets. Working with a forester to plan and carry out TSI activities can help you achieve long-term goals for your forest.

Another forest problem that is commonly overlooked is poorly planned or improperly maintained access roads and trails. These not only cause water quality problems but can impede access to and enjoyment of your land. Access roads, stream crossings, skid trails, log landings, and ATV trails are the most common sources of sediment in forests. These features can erode and contribute sediment to nearby water bodies if they were not designed with water quality in mind, if the installed BMPs were inadequate or not maintained regularly, or if they were not properly treated at the end of their life span. These features can be corrected and stabilized to reestablish natural drainage patterns, control erosion, and restore the function of existing roads and trails.

Although the Upper Delaware River watershed is heavily forested and natural regeneration is the preferred method for establishing new trees, some sites may require assistance to establish desirable tree species. This may be due to a combination of the reasons discussed above, or because you wish to convert an old agricultural field or pasture to forest. Steps you may take include site preparation to enable natural regeneration or supplemental planting to help attain the desired species composition. Riparian planting is also beneficial if you have streams on their property without forested buffers, or if you wish to widen an existing buffer between non-forested land and water.

Here are some good resources to provide you with more information on why and how to manage your forest land.

Penn State Natural Resources Extension - Forest Stewardship
Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry: Private Forest Landowners
Do You Own Forestland? Brochure
Cornell Extension - Forestry Resources
USDA Forest Service - Northeastern Area State & Private Forestry
New Jersey Forest Service
New York DEC - Private Forest Management