The Values of Ecological Thinning on Small Woodlots

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By Neva Knott

If your woodlot looks anything like mine did when I inherited it, you might describe it as a scraggly mess. Trees are crammed together so closely I can’t walk through, fallen logs lean on growing trees, and many trees seem too thin. Such a mess inhibits growth within stand structure and creates unhealthy competition between tree species and between individual trees. Thinning reduces the stem count of the woodlot, giving way to more resources such as soil nutrients and sunlight for the stronger trees and the more desirable species. Thinning also increases the merchantability of the trees because, with less competition, trees will grow to be bigger and healthier.  Dead or diseased trees are also removed during thinning.

Ecological thinning improves the growing conditions of a tree stand, creates aesthetic value of the landscape, and can put money in the woodlot owner’s pocket, as well as provide jobs for foresters, loggers, and millworkers. A thinned tree stand will have easily visible trees of varying size, and will look better. The scraggly mess will be transformed into a wooded area that is pleasant to hike through and for other recreational activities.

Ecologically speaking, thinning is sound practice. It is becoming common in large, public forests as a way to reduce woody debris and small trees that easily ignite as wildfire fuel. Thinning benefits wildlife by creating travel corridors, and healthier tree stands produce better edibles such as pine nuts and fruits. Brush piles created during a thin become habitat for critters like rabbits. The healthier the forest or woodlot, the more able the trees are to store carbon, thus work against global warming.

Logs harvested during the thinning process create an income stream. Not only does ecological thinning provide jobs in the forest industries sector, it can provide profits for the woodlot owner. Also, privately held parcels of land managed as woodlots often qualify for property tax reduction programs. Depending on the species of tree, these logs can be sold as hog fuel, pulp, or to a mill specializing in small diameter production. As forestry researchers and professionals look to adapt to changes in forestry regulation and management, more and more uses for small diameter trees are coming onto the market. Furniture, flooring, cabinetry, sporting equipment like bats and bowling pins are some of the many products made from trees once considered too small to be good timber.

Regardless of your aim as a woodlot owner, cleaning up that scraggly mess will result in healthier, more merchantable trees, viable wildlife habitat, a more visually pleasing forest open for recreation, and will make you money. Here in Washington State, log prices average $500 per 1000 board feet, filling your pockets with a few thousand dollars, or more, depending on your acerage. Thinning is an opportunity to increase the triple bottom line on your property—it is good for people, the planet, and profits.