Eastern Cottonwood, Populus deltoides, is an iconic tree throughout much of the central United States. It is both one of the largest of the eastern hardwoods and also the fastest growing commercial species in North America. Typically, those are both incredibly desirable traits of a species from a timber investment perspective, but is it a valuable timber species? How much are cottonwood trees worth? Unfortunately, even the highest-grade cottonwoods are worth a fairly low amount, yielding the landowner around $150-$400/MBF in a standard timber harvest. Further, most cottonwood trees are sold as pulpwood, yielding the landowner only around $2-$10/ton, with great variability. However, despite being a low-value wood, the tremendous growth rate of cottonwoods potentially keeps them in a high-value tier of timber of great interest to timberland owners. In this article, we will discuss everything you need to know about how much cottonwood trees are worth, what affects their value, and why you shouldn’t write the species off. First, however, let’s discuss what exactly is meant by the “value” of a tree.
The Value of Cottonwood Trees
There are two main types of tree values referenced in the forest industry, these are stumpage value and log value. While they are often used interchangeably or dropped casually, they both represent two entirely different forms of value and are of interest only to specific actors in the forest economy. Let’s discuss both, the difference between the two, and which one you should reference.
The first type of value is what is called the “stumpage” value. This refers to the amount a landowner gets from a logger for the right to harvest standing timber. Because this is the value of a tree in its least refined state, requiring harvesting, processing, and transport, and milling before it can be turned into a useful product, stumpage value is the lowest value in the supply chain.
Stumpage is never a standard price. It is always negotiated as a private contract between landowner and logger. Because the logger must harvest and transport logs to the mill, stumpage prices for a given acreage of timber will be dependent on the quality of that timber as well as the likely difficulty and expense of harvesting. For example, trees that are on the top of a steep slope are going to be worth less than trees on flat ground with good road access. To learn more about stumpage and what affects it, we have an article on the subject here.
All that said, stumpage values for cottonwood typically range around $150-400/MBF for sawtimber and $2-$10/ton for pulpwood. If you want to find how much cottonwood trees are worth in your area, we have a compilation of records and resources here. However, most states don’t keep records on cottonwood specifically, instead lumping them in with “other hardwoods” or “pulpwood.”
The second form of tree value is log value. This is the value mills pay for logs delivered to their yard. Because it includes the costs of harvest, processing, and transport in the cost, the price of logs is usually substantially higher than the price of stumpage, usually about twice as much. Log prices are mostly a function of quality and the grade of the log, unlike stumpage, which has logistical considerations in pricing as well. Usually, cottonwood logs go for around $350-$800/MBF for sawlogs and $30-$50/ton for pulpwood. To get the most accurate data, contact a cottonwood-specialized mill or wood buyer in your area.
However, unless you plan on harvesting logs yourself, log prices are likely irrelevant. Stumpage is the value of concern for most landowners.
What Are Cottonwood Trees Used For?
A primary determinant of the value of cottonwood is of course the local market, and timber markets are dictated by a species’ utility in producing goods consumers demand. Thus, a central question of value is what cottonwood trees are used for. Unfortunately, cottonwoods offer little utility on the market.
While cottonwood trees are used for lumber, they are usually sold as a low-grade wood for making pallets and other industrial or economy applications, making them worth little. Even then, it is not incredibly common that these markets exist throughout much of its range, and as with the markets for all low-grade products, the demand can be incredibly volatile and subject to sudden changes.
Most commonly, Cottonwood is sold as pulpwood, where it can be used for all the various products made from pulp. Usually, it is used for paper-making and OSB, which it is suited nicely for. However, with a low energy content, it is poorly suited for burning applications, such as firewood and pellets.
Don’t Overlook Cottonwood’s Massive Growth Rate
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that low-value wood makes cottonwood trees worth little. The value of the wood itself tells only one half of the story. The other half is the growth rate of the wood.
The production of pulpwood is a game of volume, and cottonwood trees are particularly well suited for putting on massive amounts of growth. At their peak, an acre of cottonwood trees can grow 2.3 cords/acre/year, which is far above the growth of most other species, the average acre of forestland in the United States growing at only an average of .59 cords/acre/year. Even in the US South, which is famous for its growth-oriented pine plantation silviculture, average growth rates only reach around 1 cord/acre/year.
Thus, while the volume of cottonwood is a fraction of the value of higher-grade trees like sugar maple and black cherry, cottonwoods produce almost four times the amount of gross volume over a short duration, making the financial productivity per acre comparable in certain markets and under certain conditions.
Even so, managing timberland for cottonwood production comes with additional risks more inherent in the production of low-value wood. In times of sluggish or recessionary markets, the markets for pulpwood may disappear entirely, especially if the timber is located far away from a mill.
Finding the Value of Cottonwood Trees
To find how much a specific cottonwood trees or group of trees is worth, you must first find the standing volume, and luckily we have a few helpful volume tables for that.
Finding the value of individual Trees
The first step in determining the value of a cottonwood tree is to find our how they are scaled in your area. Typically, pulpwood is scaled in cords or tons while sawlogs are scaled on a board foot scale, which is a bit more complicated. Because most cottonwood is sold as pulpwood, we will focus here on determining pulpwood value, but if you are interested in finding the board foot volume and value of a specific tree, you can read our article here.
Once you know the tons in a tree, you can simply multiply by the stumpage price in cords. To convert to tons, simply multiply the answer in cords by 2.75.
Finding The Value of an Acre of Cottonwood Trees
To find the value of an acre of cottonwood, you can use basal area per acre and average stand height to estimate the volume per acre in cords using the table below. Once more, you can multiply the total cords by the price per cord to determine the value. To convert to tons, multiply cords by 2.75.
Cottonwood’s Wildlife and Ecological Value
We’d be remiss if we did not mention the non-financial values of cottonwood trees. In the realm of ecology, cottonwood is quite valuable. Like many other trees of the poplar family, it is a favorite browse of a great diversity of mammals, and being such a large tree, it provides incredibly important nesting habitat for birds of various sorts, including raptors who use their large limbs as a perch.
While these values can be said of many species, cottonwood is unique in that it tends to grow on wetter, lowland ground, and so it is often a key riparian zone species in central US woodlands. Because of the sensitivity of these riparian areas and importance to wildlife, there are situations where cottonwood trees are worth far more standing than in a woodpile.
Nominally, cottonwood trees may not be worth the most in the forest, but they can still play an important part in the management of your woodland. The light-speed growth helps to compensate for its low-value wood, and its ease of regeneration (for better or worse) makes it easy to manage in perpetuity. Moreover, given its habitat, cottonwood is a central species for some of the most vulnerable habitats and ecosystems on your land. Given these attributes, it is crucial to have a solid management plan for this species and understand if and how you want to grow it, when to harvest it, and what purpose it is serving on your property. As always, if you have any questions about selling your timber or devising a forest management plan, contact a qualified forester in your area.