Foresters are professionals trained in scientific forest management, and they perform a wide array of tasks within the discipline of forestry, but exactly what does a forester do? The tasks and services of a forester involve silvicultural activities, forest inventory, harvest planning, GIS services, timber sales management, harvest supervision, and road construction planning. Foresters take a leading managerial role in all activities within a working forest, and this responsibility requires them to be incredibly well-versed in forest ecology, biology, and conservation as well as business, economics, and people management. In brief, they are experts in everything related to the forest. Let’s dig in to the details of their responsibilities and functions.
Silviculture: At The Heart of a Forester’s Duties
At the heart of a forester’s responsibilities is silviculture. Silviculture is the science and art of growing and cultivating trees. Foresters analyze a forest, its age, species composition, and health to determine how to improve the piece of land for the future. They then take these notes and craft a silvicultural prescription to hit those objectives. For example, a stand of young, vigorous, pole-sized timber may be prescribed a commercial thinning, giving the strongest and most valuable individuals room to grow. A stand of old and unstable or diseased trees may be prescribed a clearcut to regenerate the stand to ultimately improve growing stock. Alternatively, maybe a stand is healthy, but aging. In this case, a shelterwood harvest may be used to create openings in the canopy to allow sunlight to permeate and create a new cohort of seedlings.
Silviculture can also take the form of non-harvest improvement activities. The most famous of these is probably planting. Foresters will plant clearcut areas with valuable species, such as spruce or pine, to radically improve species composition and ensure the forest produces an excellent financial return in the future. This is most often used in areas with difficulty regenerating valuable species, such as the American west and southeast. In certain cases, however, the problem might be too much regeneration. There may be simply too much growth, and individuals are competing to each other to a degree that impedes growth and forest health. This situation may warrant pre-commercial thinning, a treatment in which crop trees are spaced to a predetermined distance, and competing trees are manually removed with a brush saw.
These decisions are made with careful consideration, as there are many variables to consider. Making the wrong decision can impact the quality and health of a forest for decades. Foresters must be thoughtful and meticulous and their decision making.
Forest Measurement: A Forester Can’t Manage What He Doesn’t Measure
Silviculture is only a small part of the forest planning process, however. Because it can take decades for a single acre to produce merchantable timber and cashflow, large landowners are usually cautious to stagger harvests and manage in such a way to ensure consistent periodic cashflow. The job of a forester, then, is to systematically measure standing timber in the forest and use statistics to determine the volume of standing timber. This involves planning a timber cruise, or systematic plot sampling of a forest. Once plots are taken, the numbers are added into a computer program that can estimate cords per acre of standing timber and growth per acre per year by species and even product! This sort of scientific, mathematical estimation is essential for sound, sustainable forest management.
Harvest Planning Is a Critical Responsibility of a Forester
Once silvicultural objectives are determined, and standing volume has been measured, it may be time for a harvest! It is the job of a forester to plan the harvest accordingly. Boundary lines must be flagged or blazed, silvicultural prescriptions must be delineated and all streams and waterbodies must be mapped. The forester must then carefully plan trails for the equipment, being careful to ensure the equipment stays out of wet, swampy, and unstable soils. If a stream must be crossed, the forester must decide how best to cross it, whether the solution involves deploying a temporary skidder bridge or filling the stream with a porous corduroy of logs, allowing water to flow while the equipment can cross without disturbing the streambed or banks. What a forester does during this process greatly determines the outcome of a harvest, the satisfaction of the landowner, and the health and growth of the forest for decades to come.
After the harvest is complete, a forester is responsible for assuring trails, stream crossings, yards, and even roads are properly closed out. This means that any ruts are repaired, trails are left with proper BMPs like water bars, and yards are cleaned up to look nice and aesthetic.
GIS Mapping Is Part of the Job
GIS, or Geographic Information Systems, is a field that deals with managing spatial data and organizing it onto relevant, user-friendly maps. Foresters are trained to use GIS, and it is a critical function within their work. All the delineation done in harvest planning is made into maps for both loggers and landowners. These maps can be uploaded onto GPS systems and used to track harvest progress and ensure that property lines and other important boundaries are not crossed. Moreover, stand-level data, such as species, tree size classes, and harvest history are kept on GIS databases to better track and manage a property over time. Aerial imagery, spectral imagery, watershed data, LiDAR data, and other forms of geo-spatial data are all part of these databases and serve as a cornerstone for long-term, technologically-aided management.
Foresters Manage Timber Sales
Foresters are also responsible for arranging and managing timber sales. A timber sale is essentially the process of finding and negotiating with a contractor to log a property. In some cases, these are stumpage sales in which the loggers are then responsible for selling logs to a mill, but in other cases, these are service are service contracts. Loggers are hired to cut the wood, but it is still the responsibility of the landowner and representing forester to sell the cut wood to a mill and find a trucking contractor to load and deliver that wood. The latter situation makes the management of a timber sale far more complicated, so it is usually reserved for larger landowners, many of whom own the mills they sell to. Smaller landowners sell the stumpage, making the process more streamlined.
Harvest Supervision is Another Important Duty of the Forester
Regardless of the type of sale used, a forester is still responsible for supervising every aspect of the harvest. This process is essentially quality control for every previous function. Silvicultural prescriptions must be examined and analyzed for accurate execution, trails must be inspected to ensure contractors aren’t cutting any corners that could result in poor outcomes, and the specifications of logs must be continuously sampled and checked to ensure they meet the mill’s tolerances in terms of diameter, length, and quality. While loggers are good people who want to do a good job, unfortunately there are times when economic incentives don’t necessarily align with the interests of a landowner. The forester’s job of keeping up with compliance and quality control is therefore paramount, as they work in the landowner’s interest above all.
A Forester Can Even Build Roads
When wood is cut, it has to make it to the mill. This can require trucking on miles upon miles of dirt roads. The engineering of dirt roads can be a complicated process. Forest roads are subjected to extreme stresses, including heavy loads, dramatic temperature swings, heavy rains, and snow–lots and lots of snow. If a road is not built properly to account for all of these stresses, it can wash out and can be completely destroyed. The repair or replacement of roads can be an extremely costly bill for forest landowners.
To avoid these unnecessary costs, a forester must understand proper ditching, grading, road building materials science, and other fundamentals to ensure water stays off the road and roads can withstand heavy stresses for years to come. The planning process begins in the woods before any road is built. Foresters search out an area. as dry as possible and with favorable terrain features. The right of way is then cleared with logging equipment and prepared for other equipment, such as bulldozers and excavators, to build the road from quality gravel brought in from dump trucks or found on site.
In northern regions, winter roads can also be constructed. These are essentially temporary roads built on ice! Vegetation and debris is cleared from the forest floor, and the area is plowed until the moisture in the ground freezes to create a rock-hard surface suitable for trucking. However, by the end of the winter, warmer temperatures can make these roads unstable, so foresters must be sure to only use these roads when and where appropriate.
What does a Forester do? Everything.
Foresters wear many hats, but above all, they manage forests. Every aspect of forest management is a specialty to foresters, and they are well-versed in it. Everything from the biology of trees and animals to complex economic considerations are tools they keep in their mental tool chests for use when making complex decisions.
If you are thinking about becoming a forester, read here to decide if it is the right career for you. If you are thinking about hiring a forester, read here to decide if you should.