Hemlock is one of the largest trees in the northeast, and being so large, these trees must be worth a lot, right? Unfortunately not. Despite their nice form, large size, and theoretically-desirable qualities, hemlock trees have few markets, rendering them of little value to the landowner. Standing hemlock timber usually sells for around $5-$10 a ton, which translates to around $10-$20 a tree. To see what rates for hemlock might be in your area, we have a list of stumpage prices by state here.
In the case of many softwoods, that low price might not be so bad in sum, as softwoods can grow tight together in densities of many hundreds of stems per acre. Hemlock is not such a tree. Hemlock’s large, expansive crown means it can only grow in lower densities. In the picture below you can see the difference in growing densities between the central hemlock and surrounding fir.
In short, on either a per-tree or per-acre basis, the value of hemlock trees doesn’t add up to much. In this article, we will discuss the reasons why. We will start with the most important aspect: the uses of hemlock.
What Are Hemlock Trees Used For?
Much of the reason why hemlock trees are not worth much is because, relative to other species, hemlock serves a rather limited role in the market, with only a few core uses for the wood. This shortage of uses is mostly because of the poor quality of hemlock as a sawtimber species.
The Problem With Hemlock Sawtimber
Hemlock may at first appear to be a great sawtimber. It is large, straight, and strong, but hemlock has a big weakness that prevents it from being a go-to source of sawtimber: Ring shake. Ring shake occurs when the wood begins to separate circumferentially around the growth rings, such as in the photo below.
When a log has shake, it cannot yield usable lumber. Any boards milled from it will ultimately fall apart. Even shake that looks minor will increase in severity as the wood dries. Thus, any lumber that is milled from hemlock trees must be milled from only top quality logs.
Unfortunately, shake occurs in a large percentage of hemlock, and the percentage increases as the trees get older. According to one Harvard study, approximately half of all hemlocks have ring shake by the age of 100.
The fibers of hemlock are also used for paper making. However, it generally isn’t used as much as spruce and fir and hardwoods. Thus, the market for hemlock in the paper making industry is rather low. Western hemlock is used more for paper than Eastern hemlock, however.
Despite hemlock’s limited uses, quality logs can serve an important role in specialty markets. Hemlock has a high degree of rot resistance, and it is fairly strong, so it can be a suitable wood in a variety of situations where a rugged wood is required. There are a handful of specialty products, then, that hemlock is uniquely suited for.
For example, hemlock is a popular choice in the manufacture of railroad ties. Because ties are in contact with the ground for years and must keep solid under the weight of trains, it is imperative that they are made from a wood that is both strong and rot resistance. Hemlock fits the bill.
Likewise, in residential settings, many prefer to use hemlock for raised beds and patios due to its ability to withstand contact with damp surfaces.
Industrially, hemlock helps serve the forest industry itself in similar ways, as it is an ideal wood for bridges on isolated woods roads.
Despite these markets, hemlock demand remains relatively low, so it is usually produced solely by small, local sawmills.
Because of the structural problem with Hemlock timber, lumberjacks and landowners have always sought alternative uses for this mighty tree, and so for the first half of America’s history, hemlock was used mostly to tan leather! More specifically the bark of hemlock trees was used to tan leather. Its bark is high in tannins, and so trees were harvested specifically for its bark, which was peeled off and processed to yield the tannins needed to tan hides. Usually, the log itself was left on the forest floor to rot. The bark was all that was needed from the process!
These days, leather is mostly tanned using synthetic chemicals, leaving the days of harvesting hemlock bark in the distant past. I’m sorry to say if you are looking to sell your hemlock trees to a tannery, you likely will not have any luck.
Western vs. Eastern Hemlock
There are two species of hemlock in the United States, and there is a bit of a difference in how much each species is worth. These two species are Western and Eastern hemlock. Because western hemlock is better suited for paper manufacturing and is less prone to ring shake, it also tends to be more valuable. However, its range is only a fraction of that of Eastern hemlock.
How to Find the Value of a Single Hemlock Tree
Because hemlock is usually sold as pulpwood, it is usually sold by the ton, so finding how much hemlock trees are worth requires estimating the weight of the tree. Luckily we have a volume table that can help in that task.
Hemlock’s Wildlife Value
Despite not having the greatest financial value, hemlock still plays an important role in forest ecosystems.
Hemlock has two unique attributes that make it particularly ecologically important: It has a dense, expansive, evergreen crown, and it grows close to water courses. These are two powerful attributes when added together because they add year-round cover, shade, and temperature regulation to both aquatic ecosystems and terrestrial mammalian ecosystems that disproportionally use shore-line corridors.
In fact, deer (which are one such corridor-dependent species) depend on hemlock in winter deer yards to shelter the forest floor from deep snow and save the deer calories they would otherwise burn when food is in short supply in the harsh winter months.
While it may not be a source of browse or hard mast, the ecological benefits of hemlock in the form of cover cannot be understated.
How to Sell Your Hemlock Trees
If you have hemlock trees of any worth you wish to sell, it is best to do it as part of a typical timber sale. Be warned, however, that because of the limited markets for hemlock, it may be difficult to sell at a profit. It is best to contact a forester in your area and arrange a meeting. A forester understands the condition of local markets and can tell you whether not it is feasible to sell your hemlock timber.
If a sale is a possibility, a forester will be able to conduct a proper timber sale, ensuring you get the best possible price for your wood. A forester can then be your representative through the harvest and ensure the stipulations of the contract are followed and your land is protected.
Hemlock Woolly Adelgid Quarantines
Adding to the tight markets of hemlock is the proliferation of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid and associated quarantines of locally-infected timber. Hemlock Woolly Adelgid is an invasive insect that poses a massive risk to eastern hemlock. In order to control the threat, many states have imposed quarantines on hemlock wood products to curb the spread. In Maine, the quarantine is fairly limited, applying only to hemlock biomass. Roundwood is unaffected. However, one should be aware of the potential for quarantines affecting the sale of timber. To find out about quarantines in your area, contact your local forest service or department of conservation officer.
Hemlock is a species ultimately of little commercial value, but that does not mean it has no value. In preparing timber harvests and managing their land, timberland owners should consider not only the more practical considerations of ROI and opportunity costs to harvesting any species, but also the benefit of leaving them standing. To the forest at large, those hemlock trees may be worth a lot more standing than they are in a log pile.