Having Your Trees and Cutting them Too

Participants in the recent sustainable forestry workshop on the Cumberland Plateau hike through a healthy, native working forest. Photo by Foster Hunt.

Forester Clint Trammel advocates an ecologically sensitive brand of forestry that is more concerned with what’s left behind than what’s taken out during a logging operation. Photo by Foster Hunt.

Sunlight filters through the orange, red, and yellow hued forest canopy on a clear Saturday afternoon in eastern Morgan County, Tennessee. Fallen leaves crunch beneath the hiking boots of a group of foresters, landowners and conservationists that have come to learn how this forest is being managed. Standing atop a wooded ridge in the Emory River watershed of the Cumberland Plateau, one would never guess that the forest, which consists of trees of many ages and sizes, all of which are native to the region, was the site of a timber sale just a few years ago.

This tract of land, 30,000 acres in all, was showcased on October 29, 2005, as part of a sustainable forestry seminar hosted by four conservation organizations in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The purpose of the event was to provide private landowners an opportunity to learn about a method of ecologically sustainable—yet still profitable—forest management that is gradually gaining popularity in the southern Appalachians and the Cumberland Plateau.

Purchased in 1997 by a timberland investment management organization (TIMO) called the Forestland Group, the Emory River watershed land is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and therefore managed according to an international standard of ecological and social criteria.

“The Forestland Group states two objectives in our mission statement,” says staff member Kaarsten Turner Dalby, “to achieve the highest rate of return for the investors while maintaining the biological productivity of the forest, and to leave the forest in better shape than we bought it.”

The Forestland Group uses funds from large investors such as Yale, Stanford, and Duke Universities to acquire forested areas that are then logged using sustainable methods for a shared profit. They currently hold 1.8 million acres in eleven states, and every acre is FSC certified.

Forestry consultant Jake Almond, hired by the Forestland Group to manage the Emory River watershed property, notes that the greatest impacts logging has had on the timber sale sites are the pathways cut in for logging trucks, and the skid trails created to remove felled trees. “There is very little visible tree damage,” he says. It takes only a casual look around the property to confirm the truth of that statement—the forest still stands intact.

Reaching Out to Landowners

The forestry seminar featured a presentation by Clint Trammel, a widely acclaimed forester known for his management of the 160,000-acre Pioneer Forest in the Ozarks of Missouri over the last 35 years.

“When we first purchased a lot of the land in Pioneer Forest in 1954, we had about 2,200 board feet of timber per acre,” Trammel explains, using a forestry term for measurement of timber volume. “Today we have 4,800 board feet per acre, and some of our stands go up to 10,000 to 14,000 board feet. In spite of the harvesting—and we’ll harvest anywhere from five million to eight million board feet per year—we’ve increased our volume from 2,200 to 4,800 board feet per acre over the last 50 years.”

“What we do is go in with each harvest and remove the poorest quality timber on the harvest site,” continues Trammel. “We’ve done that from day one. After fifty years, the result of this type of management is that the poor quality timber we take out today is in a lot of cases better than what we were leaving when we first started.”

In contrast with widespread clear-cuts that are commonly used to log timber on the Cumberland Plateau – particularly on forests owned by private timber companies – Pioneer Forest uses a method called single-tree selection that marks individual trees for cutting based on their health and the benefit of removal to nearby trees. Using this approach, the Pioneer Forest has been able to turn a healthy annual profit while still maintaining a focus on forest health and conservation.

“Our approach is very strongly environmental, because if we have to make a decision between revenue and the forest, we’ll favor the forest every time,” says Trammel. About 6,000 acres of Pioneer Forest are reserved in natural areas and state parks, and roughly 3,000 acres are set aside from logging to use as a standard to measure how the rest of the forest is progressing. A forest inventory has been conducted on the land every five years since 1954.

A Transferable Technique?

The question on landowners’ minds here in the Appalachian region, however, is whether the kind of sustainable forestry practiced at Pioneer Forest is transferable to the Cumberland Plateau and the Appalachian Mountains. Trammel admits there are differences in forest type and climate, “We get oak regeneration in Missouri way easier than they do here in Tennessee,” says Trammel. “Here it’s cooler and wetter, so they get oak regeneration, but they get a lot of other species as well.”

But with slight modifications, it’s already being demonstrated that single-tree selection is a viable management technique at this forest on the Cumberland Plateau. “You could say that what’s practiced here is an adaptation of the way we do it at home,” says Trammel. “The results we’re seeing out here are very similar to the results that we get in our sustainable management practices at Pioneer.”

Small clear-cuts are occasionally used on the Emory River property to open up the canopy and allow in the sunlight needed to encourage oak regeneration. In Pioneer Forest, where oaks proliferate more easily, clear-cutting is only used as a last resort in cases of disease, or after destruction left by a major storm. Under FSC certification, the small patches of clear cuts used on the Emory River watershed property can never exceed ten acres, a size that is dwarfed by the huge swaths of forest spanning thousands of acres that are clear-cut annually on many industrial timber sites in the Southeast.

Nancy Gilliam, co director of the Model Forest Policy Program(MFPP), one of the groups that co-hosted the seminar, believes that an important part of conserving native forests is exposing landowners to sustainable forestry techniques such as those used by Trammel.

“We want to give landowners, community leaders, and decision-makers alternatives to the destructive clear-cutting and conversion practices commonly used by big timber companies,” says Gilliam. “We have been looking across the country for those forests that have the most ecologically sensitive and sustainable management practices and Pioneer was the best model that we could find.”

But the goals of the Model Forest Policy Program go beyond just educating individual landowners, especially in the Southeast where forest management on private lands is almost entirely unregulated. The group promotes changes in forest policy at the local and state level and believes that showing decision-makers alternatives to the conventional, and far more destructive, forestry techniques is a first step toward changing governmental policy.

“Decision-makers, particularly those in charge of protecting water quality, have a hard time doing their job when big timber companies clear-cut local watersheds and denude the local forests and stream banks,” says Bud Watson, co-director of MFPP. “We think that a lot of local government officials as well as town planning boards would love to learn more about forestry techniques that don’t destroy water quality but are still able to turn a healthy profit.”

“We try to provide those decision-makers with the tools and information they need to make better forest policy decisions for their communities,” adds Watson.

For the landowners and conservationists who attended the seminar, such as John Johnson who sits on the board of directors of the Dogwood Alliance, the timber operation was clearly impressive.

“It’s nice to walk through a place that’s been logged where you can’t even tell, unless you look real close,” remarked Johnson.


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