Woodlot Thinning

For 42 years, I’ve actively managed and worked in the woods. The forest has been a source of firewood, income, recreation and exercise. Johanna and I cannot imagine living anywhere else other than surrounded by forest. I cannot look at a forest without thinking that tree here needs to go, that’s too thick in there, I need to salvage that leaning tree etc. This is a post about woodlot thinning.

Thinning the Woodlot

Woodlot Thinning

When we lived in Maine, we were part of the State/National Tree Farm program and we won a couple of County Outstanding Tree Farm awards for our forest stewardship. We own a large woodlot here in Nova Scotia and I continue to spend time improving our woodlot by thinning the jungle of trees that at times is so thick, it’s near impossible to bull my way through. Twenty or more stems within an arms radius. Way too dense! This information applies to any managed woodlot. Tree spacing and management might be modified depending on the forest type, age, fertility, climate zone and landowner objectives but the ideas are the same.

In our case, because we live right on the ocean with potential high winds, salt spray and dampness, we are spacing our trees roughly 4-6 feet. No point doing all this work just to see a wind lay the forest over on its side. I want each tree to be supportive of the next one.

Active management will allow me to salvage any that do blow over and I can always go back for a second thinning in the years to come to space the crop trees appropriately.

I put together a short video of what I do out in the woods to improve our woodlot with a clearing saw. It is hard, tedious work but I absolutely love it. I take a section of forest that one can barely walk through, cannot see more than a very short distance due to tree density, an area dark that never sees a bit of sunlight on the forest floor yet after I’m done with it, one can see deep into the forest, stroll through it and at the same time, we salvage what we can for firewood or mulch material for our gardens.

Essentially I’m transforming a dense jungle of thick tangled mass of stems struggling to compete and survive into a parklike setting. I love it! Part of our philosophy of trying to leave the world behind a little better than when we arrived. I hope you enjoy the video. As always, feel free to ask questions.

The following text has been taken from my first book Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness. This was when we homesteaded in Maine:

“To a degree, I’m a perfectionist, and although I haven’t hit perfection yet, it isn’t due to a lack of effort. With that in mind, every decision I made through the years, what tree to cut down, or how to winch the tree out without damaging the surrounding trees, revolved around my quest for the perfect woodlot.

To that end, I abhorred conventional logging and became determined to create a model forest. A small clearcut patch of an acre or two to salvage diseased or blown down trees, or to create wildlife habitat I could understand, but to clearcut large swaths of forest was rather upsetting and shortsighted to me. I felt the best approach was a selective harvest, meaning I would selectively cut only the mature or diseased trees, or thin out a dense section, thus improving the stand and leaving the rest for the future.

Wood is a finite but renewable resource, and a forest properly managed will continuously provide a crop and a source of income over the owner’s lifetime. Additionally, a healthy forest provides a home for a diverse set of flora and fauna, helps clean the air, and prevents soil erosion. Forests are an integral part of our environment. Once clearcut, the land takes a long time to recover before another harvest is possible.

Silviculture, the science of growing and managing a forest, would have categorized my woodlot as an “uneven-aged stand.” It’s a fancy term that basically means the forest is composed of a mixture of young, intermediate age and mature trees. Ideally, any stand should be a mix of species and tree diameters.

Aesthetically, it looks much better, is excellent animal habitat, and the forest has a better chance of surviving disease and insect damage. This is the key to a sustainable woodlot. Because trees are of different age classes, there are always trees ripe for harvesting, which in turn frees up the remaining middle-aged and younger trees to grow. This continual rotation makes for a steady stream of income, and by the time the middle-aged and younger trees have matured for cutting, there’s already a new batch of seedlings established from natural regeneration, the process of seeds falling to the ground and germinating. Therefore, the woodlot always remains productive without ever having to be replanted.

It may help to think of a woodlot as a big garden. Some species are weed trees, and I wanted to cut them out to make room for the more desirable species. Although the weed trees had some value, I wanted to encourage the higher value trees to flourish. Poplar was a weed species I made good money from, but if I sold the same volume of spruce or hardwoods, I might have doubled or tripled my return for the same effort. So, in the long run, it was in my best interest to take out the poplar and let spruce, fir, and hardwoods dominate the areas.

The word “dominate” is important here. I’m not advocating the extermination of the poplar or other weed trees. They have their place too. But I wanted to relegate them to a minor part. And, much like a garden, one needs to thin the trees so there is less competition for light, nutrients, and water. I weeded and thinned thick stands of trees to help encourage the growth of a better forest. Over my logging career, I cut thousands of cords of wood off of our woodlot. Even after 20 years, I never accessed the entire property to selectively harvest it. But the areas I did work became a better forest.”

Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!
Ron and Johanna

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