In much of the deciduous forests of northeastern United States and eastern Canada, hardwood trees dominate. Oak, maple, birch, hickory, and cherry dot the forested landscape with green leaves in the summer and orange, yellow, and red foliage in the fall. Unlike softwoods, which are used mostly for structural lumber, the wood of these hardwoods is valued for its visual and aesthetic beauty in furniture, flooring, and veneer. They are hence a highly important species for foresters, timberland investors, and woodlot owners looking to manage their land to produce the highest value species and specimens. But just how important are they? How much is an acre of hardwood timber worth? Generally speaking, an acre of good quality, high-value hardwood timber can be worth around $3,000-$4,000 an acre, but this number can be substantially higher depending on a variety of factors. In this article, we will explore these different factors and give you advice on how you can estimate the value on your acreage.
Understanding Timber Value
The first concept that needs to be established is what exactly is meant by “timber value.” The forestry industry has many different players, and each one will see the value of timber a bit differently.
To the landowner, the value of timber will be represented by the stumpage value. This is the name given to the price paid for the right to harvest standing timber.
To the logger, the value will be represented by the log prices. This is the rate paid for harvested and processed logs delivered to the sawmill.
Finally, the mill will be concerned with lumber prices, or the prices paid by consumers for sawn, dried lumber.
Though you may fall into any of these categories, for the purposes of analyzing what an acre of hardwood timber may be worth, we will be using stumpage prices, as these prices will represent the value of standing timber of interest for most people.
The problem with stumpage is that it is a private contract between landowner and logger, so it varies from region to region, town to town, and woodlot to woodlot. Luckily, in the interest of maintaining a fair and open market, most states keep records of local average stumpage prices, and we have compiled a list of those reports for every state and province, if available.
However, for the sake of simplicity, let’s look at stumpage prices for hardwood timber for a state in the center of hardwood country–Pennsylvania.
Looking at this price report for northeastern Pennsylvania, you can see the price per MBF (Also known as “thousand board feet”) can vary drastically based on Species. A thousand board feet of black cherry can be worth twice as much as the same volume of sugar maple (called “hard maple” on the chart). Likewise, red maple (soft maple) is worth considerably less than sugar maple.
Even within single species, there is a wide variation in how much the timber is worth. Much of this can be be attributed to the unaccounted for variability in every contract. Was the land on steep ground? Was it far away from the mill? These can all increase the costs of harvests and thus decrease the return to landowner.
Likewise, the quality of the timber plays a large role. Higher quality timber can command a premium from the mill, and this is passed on to the landowner in the form of higher stumpage prices.
How Many MBF Are on an Acre?
So Stumpage determines the value of each unit of volume on an acre, but it does not determine how much an acre of hardwood timber is actually worth. To determine that value, one must know how many thousand board feet (MBF) are on a given acre. Luckily, we have a helpful table that can determine just that:
This chart estimates the MBF/acre based on the basal area per acre measurements (you can learn about basal area and how to measure it here)and the average number of 16′ logs that can be cut from each tree. If, for example, we have an acre with 70 square feet of basal area and each tree is tall enough to produce, on average, 2.5 16′ logs, then that acre would hold 10.9 MBF. If the acre was mostly sugar maple, the timber would be worth $5,177! If it were mostly black cherry, it could be worth nearly $10,000! Consider that these figures are only for a single acre, and you can see just how valuable timber can be.
Not All Hardwood Timber is High Quality
The assumption with the example above is that the 2.5 logs that can be taken out of each tree are in fact high-grade saw logs. This may be true in a handful of cases (and granted, Pennsylvania does have some BEAUTIFUL timber), but in most cases, a good deal of the volume will be low quality, unsuitable for sawlogs. This low-grade, known in the business as pulpwood, is worth a tremendous amount less than sawtimber. How much less? Let’s find out… The following is the data for private sales of pulpwood timber from the same Pennsylvania report referenced above.
Alright, it seems low, but we are also dealing with a different unit of volume: tons. So how many tons are on an acre? Luckily, we have a table for that as well.
Let’s say a property had 70 square feet of basal area per acre and an average height of 65 feet. The value of the standing hardwood timber on an acre would be… $118… Not quite as exciting.
Luckily, the probability of an acre having only pulpwood is just as low as it only having sawtimber, unless you are harvesting a stand you really have no business cutting. In most cases, there is going to be a ratio between the two, which brings me to my next point…
The Value of Hardwood Timber Mostly Depends on Quality
By far the largest determining factor of how much an acre of hardwood timber is worth will be the amount of high grade sawtimber on the parcel. In my experience in northern Maine, where hardwood is admittedly much lower quality than elsewhere, a typical acre will yield approximately 50% sawtimber and 50% pulpwood. But northern Maine is on the northern boundary of the range of many hardwoods. They don’t grow well. What is the ratio in Pennsylvania, from where we have taken many of these figures? I have no idea. Despite my best intentions, I have spent little time in PA and have yet to see their beautiful state and national forests. I would bet you would be pushing closer to 70% sawtimber or higher, however. If you want to learn more about the difference between pulpwood and sawtimber and how each is merchandized, you can view our article on determining the board feet of a tree here.
In any case, to construct a thorough estimate of timber value on any land, it is important to visit that parcel and assess it on its own merits, based on species composition and quality. Design and conduct a timber cruise if necessary. There are times when complicated questions merit complicated answers. Timber value is one such occasion. That said, with the right conditions, hardwood timber can be extremely lucrative. Do your homework, and you might be handsomely rewarded. And as always, if you are planning a harvest, contact a local forester to assist. you will be glad you did!