A truck on blocks isn’t going any-where, even if the engine is running.
Iowa State University Extension forestry specialist Billy Beck says that is exactly what an unmanaged forest is like.
“It’s an untapped resource,” Beck says. “There’s a ton of potential, but no one is familiar enough with how it operates to maximize it.”
Beck says many farmers own forestland in addition to cropland and, when properly managed, it can bring financial, ecological, and recreational benefits.
Make a Plan
Proper stewardship starts by working with a professional forester on a forest management plan, Beck says.
“That is basically your road map for where you are now and how you get to where you want to be,” he says.
Foresters can help landowners think through what they want their timberland to look like in several decades and the uses they intend for it, such as hunting and wildlife habitat, he says.
In the state of Iowa, public foresters through the Department of Natural Resources can help farmers develop a plan for free, but private foresters are usually hired to handle timber harvests.
A Valuable Asset
Bob Petrzelka, forester and president of Geode Forestry in southeast Iowa, says landowners should start to think of their forest ground as a valuable asset.
He says the profits a landowner can expect to see from a timber harvest can vary widely based on many factors, but the aver-age harvest brings in $40,000 to $50,000. He adds he has done many that brought in a six-figure profit.
Walnut and white oak markets are “crazy” right now, he says.
“In my 33-year career, this is the highest I have seen those two species,” he says. “A lot of the demand is for the export mar-ket (China, Japan, Vietnam, Europe) but domestic demand has been strong too.”
Petrzelka says a sizable drop in value occurs for other hardwoods such as red oak, hickory, ash, maple, and cherry.
“Markets do change over time, depending on what is in style, but walnut has been king for quite a while,” he says.
Russ Reed, a farmer from Des Moines County, Iowa, started actively managing his family’s forestland in the late 1980s. While he has done a few harvests on the 250-acre forest, he believes the best harvests are yet to come, and he sees it as a long-term investment for his family.
“I know we’re going to pass along a piece of property that is a lot better than we found it,” he says. “That’s
a very good feeling for my wife and I alone, and it will be a stream of income … and a pleasure for my future family members who do like to hunt. It’s a better timber for all purposes.”
Experts say a harvest done without professional guidance can result in serious damage to the forest and leave a bad taste in the land-owner’s mouth.
“If you own timber, you’re probably only going to do a timber harvest once or maybe twice in your entire life, and that’s why I think it makes sense to involve a professional to help you do that, as opposed to trying to take it on as a do-it-yourself project,” says Joe Herring,
a forester with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “There is no Kelley Blue Book where you just go look up the prices of timber.”
Petrzelka says he walks landowners through the unfamiliar process and helps ensure the harvest is executed in a way that protects the landowners’ goals and interests.
He starts with a visit to the forest and then he consults with the landowner on a path for-ward. Trees ready for harvest are marked and loggers are given the opportunity to visit the property and submit sealed bids.
Once a bid is chosen, he drafts a contract to ensure the farmer is paid in full before any chain saws are started. He says the contract contains important terms such as how long the logging company has to complete the job (typically two years) and the ground conditions they can operate in (typically dry/firm or frozen ground).
“I always tell the landowner, unless you’re going to sell the land, there’s no reason not to give them plenty of time to get it done because if something happens to the trees … it’s not your loss, it’s the logger’s loss,” he says. “Once the timber sale contract is signed and the initial down payment is made, the trees are the logger’s and any loss for any reason is their loss.”
A Messy Process
When harvest begins, Petrzelka warns, “Even when done under the best of conditions, a timber harvest can be visually striking.” Loggers cut the trees for the trunks, but the treetops are left in the forest, which Petrzelka says you want. Treetops provide habitat for wildlife and add valuable nutrients back into the ground as they decompose.
“It’s not pretty, but when it’s done right the timber starts to recover,” he says.
Herring emphasizes that a harvest is a short-term event in the big picture of managing a forest.
“Good forest management also involves replanting and sometimes thinning the crop,” he says. “Just like with farming, you don’t just plant in the spring and then walk away from the field until October.”
To help with that management, there are federal incentives and likely state and even local incentives and cost-share programs. A professional forester can help you find the best programs for you.