To Improve Your Woods, Practice ‘Worst First’ Forestry

Joshua VanBrakle Wednesday, 03 April 2019

5.0/5 rating (2 votes)

Sometimes when landowners log their land, they remove the best trees—the largest, straightest trees of the most valuable species. This “best first” method, often called “high-grading” by loggers and foresters, provides immediate income, but it damages your woods in the long run. As I wrote in an earlier post on high-grading, best first forestry reduces the value of your woods. Remaining trees won’t grow as quickly as the healthy ones you removed, and you’ll lose your best seed sources for the next generation of trees.

But what if we turned this damaging practice around? Instead of cutting the best trees first, what if we took the worst ones, those already in poor health or of low economic value? What would this “worst first” forestry look like?

Cutting these low-value trees would still free up light, water, and nutrients for the trees that remain, just like in a high grade. The difference is that the remaining trees would be the healthiest ones, those best able to take advantage of the increased resources. Since they already have a shape and species that make them useful for lumber, they would become even more valuable as time goes on.

To translate worst first forestry dollars, consider a project State University of New York researchers did. They used forest growth models to compare two identical woodlots. One got high-graded every fifteen years. The other had worst first forestry applied. Over 45 years, the worst first woodlot provided $9,200/acre more than the high-graded one. Even after only 15 years, the difference was more than $2,000/acre.

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In a high graded woodlot (top), most of the trees left have curved trunks, low forks, small widths, and are of low value species. In a worst first woodlot (bottom), most trees are larger, straighter, and of higher value species. Over time, the worst first woodlot will provide more income than the high-graded one.

How do you practice worst first forestry in your woods? Focus not on what you cut down, but on what will remain. Identify your best trees, the ones that would have been cut if you high-graded. Now in your firewood cutting and logging, remove the poorer trees that compete with them. Look especially for crooked-trunk trees with canopies touching the canopies of your best trees. Remove these crooked trees, and you’ll give your best trees space to expand their canopies. A bigger canopy catches more sun, and more sun means faster growth.

Cutting this way requires care not to damage those valuable trees when harvesting others. When you or a logger drops a tree, use “directional felling” to direct which way the cut tree will fall. Cut the tree in a way that it falls away from the high-quality tree next to it. For tips on how to learn this kind of tree cutting, take some chainsaw safety classes.

It can be hard to find a logger who will do worst first forestry. There isn’t much money in it. You may even need to pay the logger for the work, like with a woodlot improvement cut. But it pays off in the long run. Each time you cut, your “worst” trees will get better and worth more. Instead of depleting your land, you’ll improve its value, like the long-term investment it is.

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