How to Plan a Timber Harvest

A timber harvest is probably the most important and consequential event in the course of managing a forest. There is a lot that can go wrong and many elements that can be handled improperly. Mistakes can cost thousands, damage your land, and greatly impede the quality of your future forest. It is crucial to carefully consider and plan every aspect of the timber harvest to ensure optimal outcomes. That can be a daunting task for a landowner with limited experience, but we are here to help. In this article, we will cover the entire process and discuss everything you need to consider for a successful and well-organized timber harvest plan. You may leave with more questions than when you came, and that’s no problem. It is normal for forestry, so don’t be discouraged. We highly recommend you work with a trained forester who can help you throughout the entire process and ensure your harvest is completed with as much added value (to your land and bank account) as possible. Even so, it is helpful to familiarize yourself with the process and considerations so you can ask the right questions and get the best outcomes possible and learn as much as possible.

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Step 1: Evaluating the Timber and Forest

The first step in planning any timber harvest is evaluating the forest itself: Determining volume, stand health and condition, and any site-specific features that may impact future decisions. In short, this is the process of forest analysis.

Cruising and Assessing Forest Health

Cruising is the name given to the process of gathering standardized data and taking inventory of your timber resources. Principal among these measurements is basal area, a metric of stem density. To read more about basal area and how to measure it, we have an article on the subject and free cruise sheet here.

However, if you want to learn more about other forest measurements, how to take them, and how to interpret the data, I highly recommend you check out our free guide to DIY forestry, which covers these topics and more. It will definitely help you make better decisions on your land, which is why I wrote it

Once you gather this data, it can later help you communicate with foresters and loggers about stand volume and desired removal, although don’t be offended if they want to cruise the stand for themselves.

cruising is an essential part of making a timber harvest plan.

Determining Stand Condition

As you are cruising your property, take careful note of the stand condition. The condition includes any attributes relating to species, age(s), growth, and quality. Here are some of the most important questions to ask:

  • What are the primary, secondary, and tertiary species comprising this forest?
  • How many age classes are present? What is the species composition of each age class? (Pay attention to small seedlings on the forest floor).
  • What is the general health, quality, and growth of the trees? Are there any patterns that can be connected between these attributes and species/age?
  • What is the density of the stand? Is it sparse or dense with trees heavily competing with each other? Are trees experiencing crown recession?
Rotten maple

Identifying Site Characteristics

After determining stand condition, look at the attributes of the site itself. Pay attention to the soil quality and drainage. Is it a high-quality, productive site, or a borderline swamp? The aspect and slope should also be noted. Southern facing slopes receive the most sun, so they tend to be the most productive. These attributes help determine a site’s productivity and sensitivity, so understanding them can help in decision making later on.

Step 2: Research Laws and Regulations

Laws and regulations are a crucial part of every timber harvest plan, as they may determine whether a harvest is even viable. Of course, every jurisdiction is going to differ greatly in this regard, so it is important to research thoroughly, reaching out to your local forest service or department of natural resources if necessary. In some cases, you may require a permit. In other cases, you may be limited by the amount of timber you can remove. Particularly if you will be operating close to a body of water, it is likely there are regulated standards for preserving water quality that you must adhere to. Be sure you understand the law completely before a single stem is severed.

Step 3: Determining a Silvicultural Prescription

After all previous information ascertained, it is time to determine how the stand is going to be harvested and how you want to guide the future trajectory of the stand. This determination is called the silvicultural prescription, and it is at the heart of wise and sustainable forestry. Thus, this can also be the most complicated aspect and require the most experience. Here, we will discuss the basics, but again, I recommend working with a professional forest to help with the prescription. Experience is worth its weight in gold, or in this case, its worth its volume in cords.

Determine Stand Objective

The first step in writing a prescription will be figuring out exactly how you want to influence the future of the stand. Obviously, you will be removing trees, but which trees need to be removed? The core question you should ask is whether you want the focus of the harvest to be more on regeneration (which is to say removing more of the mature trees, allowing the young to grow) or enhancing the growth and value of standing timber (which implies their will be another, more rewarding harvest down the line. Generally, we refer to the former as a final harvest and the latter as an intermediate harvest. It is possible you can incorporate both objectives. We call this a selection harvest, and it involves perpetually balancing regeneration and growth of residuals over time. Whatever the case, it is important to specifically and explicitly determine what you want to achieve from the harvest.

While I tend to focus on the financial and silvicultural aspects of harvest, don’t forget to incorporate other values. A harvest can be a great time to build new recreational trails or improve wildlife habitat.

Finally, always remember that you may come to the conclusion that the stand is not ready to be harvested, and there is nothing wrong with that. I have found in the forestry industry that people tend to have a bias toward action, but sometimes the best and most impactful decision you can make is to do nothing at all. We have an article on when timber should be harvested here.

Determine A Prescription to Best achieve that Objective

After ascertaining the stand objective, it is time to match the objectives with a prescription and silvicultural system. Essentially, this is a shorthand to express intentions of the timber harvest plan and the intended future treatments. There are 5 main categories of prescriptions:

  • Clearcut: A total harvest of standing timber and usually a prerequisite to planting.
  • Shelterwood: a partial harvest of the overstory creating gaps to allow stand regeneration. Requires a shelterwood removal as a follow up.
  • Seed Tree: A heavy harvest similar to a clear cut with sparse trees reserved for seed dispersal.
  • Thinning: an intermediate treatment focused on reducing competition and allowing residual trees to grow.
  • Selection Cut: A partial harvest focused on perpetual forest cover and frequent harvest schedules

These categories can be complicated, so if you want to learn more about them individually, you can give our article on the subject a look. That said, in my career as a forester, I found that the name of the prescription was far less important than how the prescription is written or how the timber is marked

Writing a Prescription

Deciding how a prescription will be implemented is the most complicated part of the process as it requires detail and careful consideration. There are two ways of communicating this prescription: through writing or timber marking. While a written prescription is quicker and more convenient, it is arguably more difficult, as it requires you to be able to effectively communicate a vision to a contractor. The prescription should have clear descriptions of which trees to take and how many and which trees should be retained. Take, for example, the prescription below.

Silvicultural prescription.

Marking the Timber

Alternatively, you can elect to mark each individual tree to be removed, ensuring that the harvest results in exactly the sort of stand you want. While this takes the most amount of time and requires you to meticulously think through the removal of every single tree, thus putting you in the position of the logger, it generally results in a higher quality outcome. If you want to learn more about timber marking and how to do it, we have a whole article on the subject here.

Marking timber is one way of communicating the prescription of a timber harvest plan.

Step 4: Finding the Best Timber Harvest System

Secondary to importance to the prescription in your timber harvest plan is determining which harvest system will be best for the stand. Each harvest system has unique advantages and disadvantages, so it is important to match them accordingly. The three primary harvest systems are conventional, cut-to-length, and whole tree.

  • Conventional: Trees are cut with a chainsaw and dragged to the landing with a cable skidder. This is a relatively low-impact system well suited for steep slopes, deep soils, and more sensitive sites. However, it isn’t a particularly productive system, which makes it more feasible on small parcels.
  • Cut-to-length: Trees are felled and processed to specific log lengths with a processor. A forwarder picks up the logs and brings them to the yard. Because slash is cut on the trails, CTL systems are relatively low-impact and well suited for more sensitive sites. Additionally, its articulation allows it to carefully pick between trees giving it unique abilities for thinning. However, it tends to be more expensive, and it has more limitations than other systems. Additionally, it has a harder time protecting residual stems.
  • Whole tree: Trees are cut with a feller buncher and carried out in bundles with a grapple skidder. This system excels at protection residual timber and regeneration, but it can be harder on soils, and trails can be wider without proper precautions.

Again, for more details on these harvest systems and their capabilities, you can check out our free guide that covers the subject.

Step 5: Layout and Map Your Harvest

Once all previous factors have been determined, you can begin mapping and laying out your harvest.

Begin by ensuring your property boundaries are established and well marked. You can learn more about marking your property boundaries here. Then delineate any streams over which crossings should be minimized. Then mark out the harvest boundary itself and any lines between prescriptions. Finally, delineate or mark any special features to be reserved or protected, such as vernal pools, trees valuable to wildlife, or any infrastructure on the property. To learn more about simple tools you can use for mapping your land, you can watch a video on the subject below.

Step 6: Selling Your Timber

Congratulations, much of the upfront work to plan your timber harvest is done. Now its time for the business end of things. You have to find a logger willing to harvest the stand. Timber harvests usually function as a timber sale. You won’t be seeking services for someone to harvest for you. Instead, you will be selling the right to harvest your timber, and once the timber is harvested, the logging company takes possession of the logs, taking on the responsibility of sale and transport.

The term for the right to harvest timber is known as “stumpage,” and this rate is anything but standardized, making sales complicated. It will depend on timber species and quality, distances, terrain, and local markets. All must be considered during negotiation. To learn more about what can affect stumpage rates, check out our article here.

You will want to market the wood to loggers with the harvest systems you selected if they are available. From there, there are numerous ways a sale may be conducted including through auction or individual negotiation. Payment may be a lump sum, a rate per product, or a total percentage of revenue from the mill. Most people reading this are likely to be small woodlot owners, in which case most sales will be done through individual negotiations, and payment will likely be a percentage of total revenues. In such cases, a 50/50 split is reasonable to expect. Once you reach an agreement, be sure to establish a clear contract with terms for payment, prescription, residual timber protection, water and soil protection and closeout. Once more, I recommend seeking the help of a professional forester.

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Step 7: Harvest and Post-Harvest Assessment

At last comes the harvest. During the timber harvest, consistent monitoring is important to ensure adherence with the plan and alignment with your expectations. If there are any issues, they can be dealt with quickly before they affect too much acreage. However, don’t forget to use your people skills! Loggers tend to be proud people who want to do good work. If you find any problems, approach them in good faith and work with them to find a solution.

Prescription Adherence

Ensuring the contractor is cutting the stand in alignment with the stated prescription is crucial. Ensure trees that are being removed match the description in the written prescription or the markings that you made in the forest. While most loggers are honest people, there are those that may try to cut an extra tree here or there to increase their margins. However, mistakes happen even with the best intentions. Over the years, I have seen many botched operations caused by skillful and well-intentioned loggers. Running machinery can be stressful, so never assume a mistake was intentional.

Trail Width

Trails can have a large impact on the future productivity of your forest, so proper trail management is paramount. Work with the logger to keep trails as narrow as possible. For whole tree operations, which are prone to overly-trails, the use of “bumper stumps” (high stumps used on the edge of trails) should be mandatory. For other harvest systems, it is mostly a matter of operator care.

Harvest inspection is the final step of the timber harvest plan.

Soil and Water Protection

Logging can be messy business. Heavy machinery on soft soils often do not mix. Pay close attention to rutting, mud, and especially muddy water that may be running off into nearby bodies of water. Ruts in particular can heavily damage your land’s value, so avoid having the machinery operate when conditions are overly wet. To learn more about soil erosion and water quality protection, the state of Maine has an excellent guide on the subject.

Harvest Closeout

The final step in finishing up your timber harvest plan is to ensure that trails and yards are properly closed out. This could include construction of water bars, removal of temporary crossings, seeding of yards, or any other parameters you included in your contract. It could also include repair to any damage done to roads as a result of the harvest.

Plan Your Harvest Carefully!

It should be clear by now that planning a harvest is no small task, but hopefully this guide gives you a clearer picture of how it should be done. Do keep in mind, of course, that this guide is by no means exhaustive. Every state, region, and forest ecosystem is going to have nuances that aren’t mentioned here. Once more, we recommend finding a professional forester to help you. While I actively encourage every landowner to become a forester of their own, experience is worth a lot, and having the help of an experienced professional can teach you a great deal as well as prevent costly errors.

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