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How to Rehab a "Sterile" Forest?

 
Cody Crumrine
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Backstory:

It's been about 3 years since my wife and I bought ~60 acres of woodland in central PA. We've been living on it (finally) since January. The other day, I took a nice walk around the property with a family friend who's in the business of "land management." A timber company had made us an offer and we had asked for his advice on selling or not. We decided not too. He thought the price was fair, but it wasn't a good time to harvest. That it would be better for our forest - and the price - if we waited at least 5 years. Better 10.

But as we walked he commented on the state of the land. "You have a deer problem" he said, quite a few times (who in PA doesn't?). He described our forest as"sterile." By this he meant that there was little-to-no brush or cover for animals to bed down in, and that there were very few saplings that survived the deer. He's right. As I look out my window I can see quite a long way through the woods. We have lots of "pole" timber, lots of trees around 12'' - 14'', and a few bigger here or there, but almost nothing smaller than that. There are some hemlock saplings scattered around, and I've found at least one patch where there were a bunch of maple seedlings not yet eaten, but these are very few. In fact.. with the exception of some ferns near a stream which will get quite big, there is almost nothing that gets even knee high.

What we do have is a lot of long grainy grassy stuff. The kind that comes about halfway up your shin and has seeds with little hooks that are great at sticking in your socks. That's the majority of the ground cover throughout the whole 60 acres. It is broken up here and there by large patches of wild blueberries (or huckleberries, not sure which, very low and sprawling) and less often by patches of club moss. Of course that isn't "all", but those three comprise most of what you see walking around. And again - nothing with much height.

So.. what can I do to help this "sterile" forest out? We'd like to take care of our patch of land. For own sake - to enjoy it - and because we believe in being good stewards of the earth.

Questions:

The obvious question in my mind is "can I just plant a bunch of beneficial plants and try to cultivate a more diverse environment?" I feel like a mono-culture (that reedy grass everywhere) has got to be a part of the problem. I love the idea of bringing in new species, and would love it if I could introduce some wild edibles. I don't want to go overboard and bring in something invasive or damaging though...

Would it help to clear-cut a section? The same friend who advised us not to sell our timber right now, also recommenced that when/if we do sell some down the road, we should pick some far corner of the property to clear cut. In his words "it probably won't come back in anything decent, but it will come back in brush at least, and that will give critters somewhere to bed down. We call them 'regeneration cuts' these days." Makes enough sense to me I guess... But I also know this whole property was clear cut something like 60 years ago, and I can't help but wonder if that's a bit to blame for it's current state.

What (if anything) should I do about the deer? If the deer are really a big part of the problem, is there anything I can do about it? I could take up hunting (my dad/brother always have and would love to get me into it) but it's not like I'm going to really affect the population that way... Having a lot of deer just seems like a fact of life here.

What else do users here recommend doing to be good stewards of our land?

Thanks so much!
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Around here, we take care of the deer problem with 8 feet tall fences. And then keep the gates closed!
 
Cody Crumrine
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Joseph Lofthouse wrote:
Around here, we take care of the deer problem with 8 feet tall fences. And then keep the gates closed!


Are you talking about the whole property or just near your home? Once we have a garden in (I'm very late this year, lots of landscaping to do) I plan to fence that in, but I don't know what kind of an investment it is to fence the whole 60 acres. My father in law has about that much land, and all of it fenced, but... he's also a good bit more well-off then we are.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Cody Crumrine wrote:Are you talking about the whole property or just near your home?


Any place that we want to exclude deer from, and can afford to fence!!! Around here, the state claims ownership of the wildlife, therefore, if the deer are causing problems to agriculture, the state is responsible for damages. Those that play the game properly can often get the state to buy the materials to do the fencing if the land-owner provides the labor to install it. When I lived in a state back east, the law was essentially that the property owner could harvest any of the deer on their property at any time to prevent excessive environmental degradation from overgrazing. You might check with your local game warden to see what the situation is for your land.
 
Travis Johnson
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Pictures would help, but it sounds like you have a similar problem as me: a mature forest. Myself, I am not a big fan of clearcutting, instead preferring to do "circle cutting" as a method to obtain diversity...or saplings if you will. I simply go into a stand, drop the trees into a circle of say 50-75 feet in diameter and then move on to another area. Over time, those areas grow up and then I can go back in on the fringes and do the same thing again. By doing so, I provide habitat for rabbit, moose and bear; just to name a few, but also gain income from forestry products. This is an approved forestry technique and my forest is certified under the American Tree Farm System and the Forest Stewardship Council...a far more involved woodland certification process, so there is nothing wrong with this method of logging.

Another method that works well, but one I am slow to adopt, is the Shelterwood Method. This removes all but the biggest trees in a given area and is done on a year where they produce cones so the mature trees can germinate new ones. In my area it is typically done for White Pine. With all but the biggest trees gone, the wood sprouts up and then after the new forest is established, the mature trees are taken out; about a decade later. It really works well for White Pine, but not so well for hemlock (more on that in a moment). The two things I dislike about the Shelterwood method is that you MUST cut hard...almost to clearcut like status...I dislike that look. Also you must scarify the earth so that the seeds can settle in and germinate. I have a bulldozer so that is easy, but it seems counterproductive to kill other saplings just to get a single species from the mature trees.

Now in regards to Eastern Hemlock...

Another issue you may have, especially being from PA since it is the state with the most...is that you have hemlock stands. I have hundreds of acres and yet one in four trees is a Eastern Hemlock. (25%-YIKES!) I like the properties of the wood, however getting that type of tree to establish itself is problematic. Just to germinate, the seed must fall on exposed soil and not dry out within 6 hours of falling, or the seed is toast. That is pretty hard to do. Then it requires shade! Saplings can live in shade for years, only to start growing after the mature trees above it dies and finally allows in light. And Hemlock trees are the old timers of the forest, some are 300-400 years old on my farm. They just refuse to die. They are such a difficult tree species to manage for that the USDA-NRCS does not even try to. My forest plan, despite having 25% hemlock, has no mention of managing for hemlock despite the ideal conditions for it.

As for a recommendation: I would not clearcut. I tried a small section on a hardwood ridge and even my forester was taken back by the amount of deer damage done to the saplings trying to come up. I had NONE! I would hold back on the Shelterwood Method as well unless I really, really had advice from a good Forester telling you to do so, but will instead suggest the circle cutting method.

If I get a chance I will head into my woodlot later (right now I am watching my 2 year old until my wife comes back from grocery shopping), and take some photos of the results of circle cutting. The diversity is immense and really has been successful. The difference between what I have yet to circle cut (the fringes) and where I have not, is so striking, I honestly think you will be impressed.




 
Tyler Ludens
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I'm looking forward to those circle cutting photos!

 
Travis Johnson
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I hope I don't disappoint you Tyler (and Cody). I put them in a side by side way so you get an instant comparison that I hope works. The camera lens just can not take in what the human can that is for sure.

Anyway, in this first side by side set of photos, you can see on the right what I started with. This has not been touched in my lifetime and I am 41 years old. You can however, see in the photo just to the left where small saplings are cropping up. This is where the "circle cutting" method starts. Then in the left photo you can see the full results ten years after I logged the area. Its really teeming with diversity. Just in the photo alone you can see White Pine, Fir, Spruce, Hemlock, Cedar and Red Maple...

There is one caveat here, I chose this area for photos because it is easy to get to. When my neighbor was logging off his land he came across me because it was 4 miles from stump to main road if he used only his land, and 1/4 mile if he came across me. So the opening and dirt you see in the foreground is a main logging trail through the center of this "circle cut".

But if nothing else, you can see where circle cutting freed my sterile forest into a vibrant one!



 
Travis Johnson
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I think this comparison is even better. It shows the difference of what two methods of logging make upon the same area, with the same soil, on the same terrain. The larger scarred hemlock tree with the flagging tape around it is the boundary line between me and my neighbor. Granted I circle cut here ten years ago, and he cut his only 3 years ago, however look at the difference between our two properties; you do not need to mark it; the diversity alone tells you who is who's.

Again I circle cut; that is I cut most of the trees in a small area; perhaps 75 feet in diameter here. He did not. It looks like a clear cut, but its actually not. Its a selective harvest, but unfortunately what is called high-grading. They took the biggest and best wood based on the forest product market and left the junk wood. The problem with that is when you leave junk wood, it repopulates the forest with junk wood. Forestry experts say in 70 years or so, this lot will produce 1/3 of what mine will. Its not bad browse for deer and moose, but I got tons of rabbit, deer, and black bear.

I think its a really good example how circle cutting can really give people the diversity they need.

 
Travis Johnson
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Okay...yada, yada, yada...anyone can show success after 10 years of being left alone, the real question is, what does circle cutting look like 3 years later?

Well I logged this circle (50' square) 3 years ago; the same time as my neighbor logged off his land. You can really see in this photo how I left the wood to the right and left, as well as the back. Yet in 3 years time the red maple sprouted back, and with already established roots, really shot up. So did the firs, they are starting to come back along with Yellow Birch, Spruce and Hemlock. I am sure there is White Pine in here too. Now that is diversity starting and in only 3 years time!!

So what would I do now?

I would never disturb this area at all. I would put another circle to the right and left and then in behind, but never fell my trees into this area, drive equipment in here, or do anything. It needs to be left alone for now.

I can get more pictures of other areas, but I think this really shows how to build diversity and get a forest of various ages.

 
Cody Crumrine
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Travis,

Thanks for the wealth of info! The pictures really help show the difference. The circle cut seems to really help with diversity. When you cut, do you leave the tops there to help shield new seedlings? Or do you clear all of the wood out?

I'll try to get some pictures of mine up today or tomorrow, but your before pictures do seem very similar, so I think you have the right impression of our land.

Re: the Hemlock, they actually aren't too populous. We find them in dense matches, most of which are near a stream. They're noticeable because we don't have many evergreens (we have a couple other pines... much less common, and I'm not sure exactly which species), but our trees are mostly:
- Red Maple
- White Oak
- Black Cherry
with the cherry being less common than the other two. There is Ironwood around as well. Maybe a little more common than the evergreens, much less common than the cherry.
 
Travis Johnson
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No I am a conventional logger so I leave the branches. I read a study once where just taking the bole (trunk of the tree) results in 50% more nutrients in the soil then removing all the wood. That is another reason I am not a proponent of clear-cutting, here anyway, it is often done mechanically and they chip the entire tree.

One of my foresters once told me the 2 rule of forestry; anything 2 inches in diameter or less, less than 2 feet above the ground, will decompose in 2 years time. I was not sure if I believed him, but it actually is true.

I have logged with just about every method possible, but I just bought a new bulldozer and hope to get out into the woods soon. With its tracks and beefy grousers I will be able to really crush and pulverize my tops, not to mention leaving behind nice trails and no ruts.
 
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