How to Mark Timber for Harvest


If you are preparing for a timber sale or harvest, marking timber can be one of the most important steps of the process. It is marking timber that determines what is cut and what is retained. It is the determinant of the silviculture of the harvest and thus the determinant of the financial return of the timber harvest today and timber harvests yet to come. As a woodland owner interested in the long-term sustainability and perpetuity of your timberland investment, it is imperative that you mark timber for your harvest intelligently and strategically. It is not a task to be taken lightly. Even so, there are some situations where marking timber may not even be necessary! In this article, we will discuss factors you need to consider as well as tips for materials and methods for marking timber to make the harvest as smooth and effective as possible.

To Mark or Not to Mark?

The first step to mark timber for harvest is to determine whether the timber needs to be marked in the first place. This question has two dimensions. First, ask whether the trees need to be marked. Then ask whether they should be marked by YOU.

Does the Timber Need to Be Marked?

Marking timber is a time consuming process. It can take several days to do it right. In general, you can expect to be able to mark 10 acres (4 hectares) in a day. For smaller parcels, that may be no problem. For larger parcels, that can be a significant and costly project. Luckily, physically marking is not always necessary. In its place, you may issue a written prescription to a logger that describes the type of trees to remove and how much to remove. When I worked as a forester for an industrial landowner, this is how timber was harvested 95% of the time. Below you can see an example of a written prescription for a selection cut in a northeastern tolerant hardwood stand that would be given to a logger.

You may not need to mark your timber. A written prescription can be used instead.

Such a prescription does well to describe both the objective of the harvest and the relative intensity of harvest given different age classes and species. A skilled logger can easily take that prescription and paint it on the forest’s canvas with ease. However, “skilled” is the key word. Written prescriptions are best given to reputable and skilled loggers with a proven track record. Ideally this is someone you or someone you know has a previous relationship with. While many of the most intelligent and ethical foresters I have met have in fact been loggers, the fact remains that not all loggers have the experience, skill, or even ethics for such prescriptions. Thus, even with the protection of a solid contract, it may not produce the best outcomes for you or your forest. Marking timber individually is going to give you the most personal control over what trees are removed and what trees are retained.

Should YOU Mark the Timber?

Even if you decide that marking timber is the best route, you need to be honest and ask whether you have the skill and knowledge of species ID, silviculture, and local forest product markets to be able to mark timber for a successful harvest. If not, hire a forester to work with you through the process of harvest, and they can mark timber for you.

Nonetheless, in contrast to many in the industry, I believe the process of marking is a more accessible task than most believe, and it has the benefit of allowing the landowner to retain the most amount of control over the operation. Because it is the landowner that has the most skin in the game, the landowner should remain involved in the process as much as is feasible. Even if mistakes are made, the knowledge the landowner gains from their personal involvement can pay large dividends elsewhere.

Even so, if this is the route you wish to take, it may be a good idea to schedule a site visit with the logger or forester you are working with and discuss your intentions. This can provide helpful insights into logistical feasibility and potential constraints with local markets. Just remember: Ultimately, it is your land, so the choices are yours.

If you do decide to outsource marking to a third party, I encourage you to stay involved. Ask to help out or tag along in the process.

Determine Your Objective

The first step in marking timber is determining your objective. What do you hope to achieve from the harvest? Is the stand young?perhaps you wish to thin out the stand and improve growth. Is the stand mature? Maybe it is time to create gaps in the canopy to allow light to reach the forest floor to better regenerate the stand. Maybe it is an uneven-aged stand, and so the objectives are a bit of a mix. Whatever the situation may be, it is imperative that you have a clear idea of the condition of your forest and how you wish to manage it going forward. To see examples of the types of timber harvests and what they accomplish, check out our post here.

without careful consideration of objectives, it can be easy to high grade the stand, which is what we call “cutting the best and leaving the rest.” Such a practice is extremely short-sighted and guaranteed to leave you with suboptimal returns in the future. As a rule of thumb, you should aim for the next harvest (or growth cycle) to be as bountiful and productive as the last, if not more so. That requires the establishment of clear objectives.

Determine What and How Much to Cut

Once your objective is established, you must decide how to meet that objective. That means determining what type of trees to cut in terms of species and quality and how much of it to remove. Here are some ideas of the basic parameters of a harvest based on common objectives.

Improve Growth

Percent Removal: 30-40%

Favor faster growing species. In more mature stands, remove larger stems and favor mid-sized stems. Avoid creating too many openings to keep the stand well-stocked. In younger stands, favor larger individuals and remove smaller trees competing with crop trees.

Improve Health

Percent Removal: 30-40%

Favor longer-lived species and individuals free of cracks, holes, rot, dead or broken branches, receding crowns, or other evidence of pests and disease.

Improve Value

Percent Removal 30-50%

Favor more valuable species and individuals with better form (straighter stems free of branches, rot, holes, cracks, and other defects). Remove lower value species and individuals competing with highest-value crop trees.

Regenerate the Stand

Percent Removal: 50-100%

Harvest mature stems and create canopy gaps in accordance with the sound silvicultural principles of the managed species. If relying on natural regeneration, leave individuals of the desired species to ensure proper reproduction of those species.

Don’t Forget About Trail Volume

When deciding how much to remove, don’t forget about the amount of volume that will be removed from the trails. This could be as much as 25% of the total standing volume in some situations. However, in larger and more open stands, this percentage will be lower. If you already have well established trails from previous harvests, it may be possible that trails will remove no further volume. Nonetheless, this is a factor that must be ascertained.

What Type of Paint Is Best to Mark Timber?

Next, you must acquire materials. You can use any type of paint for this, but I highly recommend using paint specialized for tree marking. It lasts much longer and is more visible on bark, and even if you think the harvest is going to occur a month from now, the reality of the woods is that projects can be delayed, and it may not be cut for another year, so longevity matters. Such tree marking paint comes in two forms: aerosol (spray paint) and regular. I find blue works the best, so that’s the color I linked there. For regular paint, you can use a bucket and brush, of course, but they also sell gun nozzles that allow you to squirt paint from a distance. They are a bit pricey and a pain to clean and maintain, however, so I recommend just sticking with aerosol, especially if your project is smaller.

Making the Mark

Making the physical mark on the tree isn’t complicated, but there is a trick to it.

First, of course, determine whether it is best to mark to remove or mark to leave. For regeneration cuts like shelterwoods and seed trees, it is probably bets to mark to leave, as the number of removed stems will greatly outnumber the stems retained. Otherwise, I prefer to mark to leave, if only because I don’t like having blue paint left all around the forest on retained trees. Whatever you choose, be sure it is communicated clearly and consistently to the cutting crew.

The actual mark should be a diagonal line across two sides of the stem. Making it diagonal increases the chance that the mark will be seen past branches and other obstructions, and making it on two sides allows it to be seen from, well, two sides. See the photo at the top of the article for reference.

Quality Control

If you aren’t the one harvesting your own timber, you may want to consider adding a mechanism for quality control of the operation. A good method of this is applying a bit of paint to the root collar. That way you can be sure that the logger isn’t removing more than agreed. Even if it seems a bit distrustful, I think it helps increase trust by increasing confidence and communication. More than likely, there will be situations when unmarked trees will have to be cut, so residual evidence of markings such as on the root collar encourages the logger to communicate these instances with the forester or landowner without disagreements later.

That said, because this involves a lot of bending over, the gun nozzle mentioned earlier works best here. And of course, the only works when marking to cut.

Using paint to mark the root collar is a good way of controlling quality in a timber harvest.

Consider Keeping Tally

While cumbersome and not totally necessary, consider keeping a tally of how many trees you marked, their relative size (by diameter, species, and maybe product class (sawlog, pulp, firewood, etc). This can help on the marketing side of things, whether you are selling the logs to sawmills yourself or trying to find a logger. Having the numbers helps. Documentation is a lot easier with a buddy, so bring someone along. Its a good task for the kids.

Painting Trees Is Serious Business

If you plan to mark timber for harvest, I can’t say it enough: take the task seriously. Forests grow slowly, and by deciding the fate of every tree in your forest, you are creating a legacy for decades. Your work will be seen to be appreciated (or maligned) by your children and grandchildren. Don’t let that scare you, though. Done well, there are few parts of timberland ownership that are more satisfying and meaningful than having such an impact. Good luck!

Zachary Lowry

A forester from northern Maine, I spent my early career working for large timberland owners, managing forest land and investments in the form of managing timber harvest operations as well as planning and managing precommercial thinning, planting, and herbicide application programs. These days I work on my own land and help timberland owners large and small manage theirs.

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