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by Stephen Morris
Consulting foresters will do everything from drawing up the initial management plan to helping to plan the conservation of an estate. In between, they will manage timber sales, appraise land and timber, locate boundaries, and provide information about government programs that assist landowners.
Steve Long edits Northern Woodlands Magazine, a publication that is filled with great writing and useful information to anyone who wants to stay connected to the land. They also administrate the Center for Woodlands Education, a non-profit with a mission "to promote a culture of forest stewardship in the Northeast by increasing understanding of and appreciation for the natural wonders, economic productivity, ecological integrity of the region's forests."
What do you think of when you see a skidder parked in a landing next to a pile of logs?
Does it warm your heart, reminding you that the forest products industry is a significant part of the rural economy? Or does it bring to mind a horror story told by a landowner of his beautiful woods left ruined by a logging job? For too many, the presence of a skidder brings a shudder of dread.
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What gives? Is every logger a scoundrel and every landowner a victim?
Hardly. The problem often starts with a landowner who knows just enough about logging to get into serious trouble. For starters, many misunderstand the nature of the relationship between logger and landowner, thinking that the logger is providing a service, much like the fellow who plows the driveway or paints the house. Unschooled landowners get dollar signs in their eyes when they realize that not only will the contractor thin their woods for them, he'll pay them for what he takes off their land.
That is the true nature of the relationship buyer and seller. A logger is buying raw material from the landowner and reselling it to a mill. And like anyone who wants to stay in business, the logger needs to buy low and sell high. The difference between those two prices determines how well his family is fed, how nice a truck he drives, and whether or not his skidder payments are made on time.
Caveat emptor doesn't exactly apply here the buyer is well aware. It is the seller who too often doesn't know the true value of what is being sold or, more importantly, what should be sold. And if the logger is making the choice of which trees he buys, there is no reason for him to cut those that have little value. But removing the poorly formed trees is an essential part of forest management, and removing only the valuable trees leaves behind an impoverished forest. Often, in this case, when the job is done and the woods are utterly changed, seller's remorse sets in. The stumpage payment seems a pittance, the best trees are gone, and another horror story gets told.
Brian Stone, a forester who serves as chief of forest resource management for Vermont's Forestry Division, has heard the tales and knows that all the heartache is unnecessary.
"Most people are not qualified to make their own stock investments, and they know it. They need stock brokers to pay attention to what's happening and to use their expertise to make recommendations," said Stone.
"And when you have a toothache, you don't fill your own teeth. You go to a dentist, a specialist, someone who provides analysis, an assessment, an inventory if you will someone who can advise you of your choices. It's the same with woodland owners. Very few can do the work on their own. It takes an experienced professional forester to make it happen. That doesn't mean handing over the responsibility. My best days in the field are spent walking with a landowner, explaining to them what they have and giving them options. I'll say You could do thus and so and this is what you would end up with. Or you could do thus. Which one would you prefer to do?'"
In his present capacity, Stone spends the majority of his workday indoors and he doesn't do much walking in the woods with landowners. But there are many consulting foresters throughout the region who do. These foresters trained in silviculture, forest health, statistics, surveying, ecology, plant identification, physiology, organizational skills, business management, writing and communication are the best means of insuring that a landowner knows what he or she is getting into when the skidder and the log trucks start work. As the landowner's agent, the consultant represents the client's interests both in the short term negotiating a contract with the logger and making sure the contract's conditions are met and in the long term marking the trees with an eye on the future forest.
Consulting foresters will do everything from drawing up the initial management plan to helping to plan the conservation of an estate. In between, they will manage timber sales, appraise land and timber, locate boundaries, and provide information about government programs that assist landowners. Probably the two most common tasks a consultant does for a landowner are preparing a forest management plan and administering a timber sale.
At its simplest, a management plan describes the present conditions of the forest in terms of species, quality and volume of the trees. It should include a map of the different stands and note whether any diseases are evident. It includes a plan for the next 10 to 15 years worth of harvesting activities, and should be used as a guide for any work that is done in that time. A useful management plan comes about through conversations between the consultant and landowner in which they discuss interests and philosophies and what the landowner wants from his or her land. It is not meant to be altered any time the landowner is strapped for cash, but instead should provide the big picture of how the land will change over time.
The management plan usually assumes there will be periodic timber harvests. When it's time for a timber sale, the consultant will handle all the details: hiring a logging contractor, preparing a timber sale contract, marking the trees to be cut, laying out the woods roads, and assuring that the details of the contract are met. In this capacity, the forester can prevent the misunderstandings between logger and landowner that can lead to hard feelings and yes, horror stories.
Many foresters can also serve as tremendous sources for information on much more than timber sales. Lynn Levine, a consulting forester from Dummerston, Vermont, sees her job at least partly as an educator and she's as comfortable wearing her naturalist hat as her forest management hat. One of the bonus services she provides her clients is keeping a journal of what she sees when she's at work on their land.
"People love to hear what I saw on their land: tracks and wildlife, unusual formations," she said. "Every client thinks that their land is the most special piece of land in the state. Walking around, they've gotten to know their land so well. They know that they saw a deer once down in that gully and so that gully stays special to them. Or there's a tree over there that's been marked by bears. That's what they want to protect. That's why they own the land."
Levine's description of her clients corroborates the results of surveys that have been done in a number of states to find out more about non-industrial private forestland owners. The survey results show that the forests of the Northeast are owned primarily by people for whom the land is a place to take walks, to see wildlife, to have something beautiful they can call their own. Most aren't averse to the occasional timber sale, which they see as something that can help offset the property taxes. But growing sawlogs and making money from timber sales is not their top priority.
Levine has marked trees for three timber sales for John Whitman on his 280 acres in Readsboro. Over the years, she has watched as Whitman has become more and more knowledgeable about his woods. She calls him her "super client" because he has enthusiastically taken on much of the improvement work himself. He releases apple trees and gets all the firewood he needs through crop tree release cuts.
Said Whitman, "When we bought the land, it had been high-graded. It was overstocked and the mature trees were basically low-quality. I look forward with some pride to increasing the quality of the stands." Whitman would like to see some commercial rewards for improving his timber but he is also very interested in his forest's capacity as habitat for wildlife. He is involved with Vermont Coverts, an organization that assists landowners increase their land's habitat potential.
"We have plenty of deer, and this past winter a moose has been in. I've seen bear scat, and I tracked a fisher across the property. One of the pieces is a younger stand, so it has lots of rabbits and there's the coyotes chasing the rabbits. So it's not one specific species we're targeting except perhaps the patch cuts that were specifically for grouse," Whitman said.
Levine has an active list of 200 clients; their forestland averages around 100 acres. When she is managing a logging job for them, she will see them regularly for a while, followed by a stretch when their only contact will be the letter Levine writes to every client in the winter. She works with a dozen or so loggers. "We've mutually chosen each other to work with," she said.
Before she handles the first timber sale for a client, she arranges to have a very frank talk. "I tell them: You hired me to handle this logging operation. I want you to know that I will make sure that the loggers do the least amount of damage that is possible. However, when they're done, you might be horrified by what you see. The stumps are bright, there's slash on the ground, the roads are denuded. There might be some skidder damage. There's always change.' People think of the forest as a place of no change but there is constant change. I spell it out. And most people tell me after it's done that I prepared them so well that it doesn't look as bad as they expected.
"I make sure that the roads are put to bed, that the best trees are left to grow, that the road design is sensible. I am working with clients who are environmentally very sensitive. They're not sure they want this to be done to their land. It's not pretty. But I've trained myself to look up, to see what's left. And the difference is in the long run. Even the most sensitive people think that it looks fine in the long run."
In her years as a forester, Levine has seen steady improvement in the logging contractors who are doing the work. "The quality of work that loggers are doing today is so much better than when I first started. Now I go out on jobs and don't even have to mark where the waterbars should be. They're already in place. It's definitely been taken to a higher level."
Separation of powers
Ross Morgan, a consulting forester in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, agrees that loggers have recognized the importance of doing much more careful work, but he is quick to point out that that doesn't mean the forestry decisions should be left up to them.
"People don't like me to say this," he says. "But the fact is loggers are not out there practicing silviculture. The logger's job is to get the wood out and market it. It's the forester's job to practice good silviculture."
Morgan is a true believer in forestry. He lives it, breathes it, and loves to talk about it. After many years working in the woods and as a college instructor, he is a frequent public speaker. When he stands up in front of a group in a jacket and tie, he proclaims them the only clothes he owns that aren't spattered in blue paint. He says proudly and cheerfully that his highest and best use is out there in the woods with his paint gun marking trees.
"The idea of forestry is a guided and well thought-out intrusion. Intrusion is a rough word but in the right context it's a good word because what we're trying to do is intrude as human beings into a natural system to extract things we want. You start by understanding geology, soils, natural systems in terms of plant communities and the animals that are part of them, and then you ask, How do I intrude into the system to remove products for human beings without destroying it?' If it's planned out and thought out honoring that natural system and its processes, then the damage to that system can be minimized."
The damage he wants to minimize is not only the temporary aesthetic changes that can seem so devastating. He is more concerned with the long-term damage that comes from cutting so heavily that the remaining stand is endangered, by compromising the regeneration of desirable species, and by taking only the best wood and leaving behind a forest of culls.
Morgan believes that the future of the forest relies on excellent silviculture practiced by a forester who has a combination of a good academic background along with the practical experience from years of making decisions in the forest. Brian Stone agreed, saying, "Forestry is not just technical know-how, it's not just reading all the books. I look at my forestry degree as my license to practice. Then I went out and learned how to practice. A good forester has the background and the experience to provide sound advice, service, and outcome."
Whether it's an even-aged stand that has resulted from field abandonment 70 years ago, or an uneven-aged stand brought about by a forester's work to bring its dynamics more into line with the natural system, the work of manipulating the forest is terrifically complex. It requires an ability to see into the future as many as 100 years for hardwoods like maples and to envision the stand's architecture at the various stages along the way.
"That intricacy, that delicacy is only done by those people who have studied these models, studied the system, marked trees in a hundred different situations, and come to these findings," said Morgan. "That decision can't belong to a logging contractor who has spent his life figuring out how to carefully get this wood out, how to cut this hitch, how to get it to the landing, how to do the marketing. When the logging contractor takes over the skills of the forester I don't see good forestry being practiced. You can see some aesthetically pleasing jobs but not the details of good silviculture."
This uncompromising stance on the separation of powers between forester and logger could seem like arrogance, but the bearded, rumpled, paint-spattered Morgan can pull it off without offending. He is perfectly comfortable kicking tires and swapping stories on a log landing, and the loggers who have worked with him for years wouldn't have it any other way.
Craftsbury logger George Allen said, "I'd rather have Ross mark the trees. I want to do a good job and he marks the way they should be marked. When I first go in, I think I might want to take a few more of the bigger ones, but after going back to jobs we did a while back, I see why he left the bigger ones. What we're trying to do is grow three generations of timber. This way, I might be able to go back in 10 years and thin out some more."
For his part, Morgan says that he doesn't have the skills to be a logger. "I'd be a drastic failure trying to get the wood out of the woods because I just don't have the background. I've cut a lot, I run a chainsaw, but I'm not a logging contractor. That's a very demanding and high-skilled job. Good work comes from the logging contractor's realization that I have a body of knowledge in silviculture, and my recognition of their immense skill to extract the wood. Good forestry practices are the linking of the skills of the logging contractor with the skills of the forester. "
Stephen Long is one of the founding editors of Northern Woodlands magazine, where this story originally appeared. It is reprinted here with permission. For subscription information, call 800 290-5232 or visit www.northernwoodlands.org
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