Getting a forestry management plan made

So it is currently winter 2024, and I now have plans to get an official forest management plan made by a professional forester this spring. I know a lot about our forest already, but what a professional forester can do is to be my guide to the commercial forestry industry and the gateway to any and all government programs that help with forest management. There tends to be very unequal knowledge between someone like me (a relatively small forest holder) and the mills and loggers that I may want to deal with. They have lots of experience about the ins and outs of the industry, and it is relatively opaque to someone like me, being that I’m outside of all of that. You can find a professional forester almost anywhere, and want to find one that is knowledgeable with your area, and one that can help you to meet your goals. We have selected Coopérative Terra Bois, one of the larger forester companies in the Outaouais region north of Ottawa. I’ve spoken to Antoine there a few times, and he seems like the kind of guy I’d like to work with.

What a forester will do is to really figure out what kind of land you have, and what kinds of trees are currently present. Though the focus is mostly just on trees, knowing about your trees actually tells you a great deal about the rest of local biodiversity. To create these maps, they use high-end mapping software and on-the-ground site visits. I spoke with Antoine about their process, and he told me that their in-person site visits can cover roughly 40 hectares (100 acres) of forest per day. If it is hard for you to imagine how much walking that is, it is probably 10 to 15 kilometres, criss-crossing back and forth over a square that is 600 meters on a side. This doesn’t let you cover ‘every inch’, but it is enough so that you should see all the different parts of a forest. They want to see all the major features of the geography, where it is wet vs. dry, rocky vs. deep soils, as well as what the actual trees look like in different areas. They take measurements of tree species, numbers, size, and health. There is a lot of forestry-specific terminology that they may use, but that is the gist of what they are measuring.

Combining that on-the-ground knowledge with everything they can see on satellite maps, they divide up a property into ‘stands’. These divisions are based mostly on differences in the trees – what species are present and how big they are. Very often the species that do well is very dependent on the geography. In our area, rocky hilltops with thin and dry soils are usually dominated by red oaks and eastern white pines, while swampy bottomlands have a lot of northern white cedar and black ash (though all the black ash in our forest have died in the last 5 years from the emerald ash borer). These stands then pick out areas that have a lot in common for their trees, and will then be treated as a group when it comes time to take any actions in the forest, like cutting trees.

Once all this work is done, you will receive a ‘forest management plan’. This includes all the information that they’ve put together about your property, as well as their recommendations about what actions you should take to manage your site. Those management recommendations will be heavily influenced by what you have told them about your goals. Do you want biodiversity or to maximize economic returns from timber cutting? Short term or long term? Hunting, hiking, birding or other recreation? Most family land-holders will actually have multiple goals that they balance out against.

Our own forest management goals are a combination of biodiversity, forest health, recreation, and timber extraction – a little bit of everything. It really is possible to do it all, but that means that you end up doing a bit less to meet each of those goals:

  • Biodiversity – Leaving variety and space for all kinds of species. Leaving some dead/dying trees, both standing and on the forest floor. Minimizing overall disturbance.
  • Forest health – Preferentially removing weak/sick/poorly formed trees. Increases the average size and health of the trees, making sure to keep a variety of tree species. Our forest is young/middle aged, and we want it to move towards an older forest with more bigger, older trees.
  • Recreation – Keeping forestry operations smaller and less intrusive. This makes it so the forest continues to always look relatively natural. Maintain trails for hiking, hunting as well as logging.
  • Economic – Cutting and selling timber. By keeping up with all the above goals, it will be a smaller return over the short term, but very solid over the longer term. Our forest will stay healthier for the decades to come, and will have more valuable trees over time (bigger, straighter, healthier, etc.). Doing a modest amount of cutting in each area every 15 to 20 years allows you to just harvest the growth, and maintain a healthy and beautiful forest.

The practicalities

So what are the economics of our forest planning? The basic costs to us is $675 per plan plus $13 per hectare. With two properties (and therefore two plans), and a total of 144 hectares (355 acres) of forest, our plans come to almost $4000. Because we are planning on doing some timber harvests, we should make up that investment within the first year or two. For our money, we are getting:

  • Much greater knowledge about our forest
  • Access to Quebec government forestry programs (subsidies of various sorts)
  • Access to the foresters’ future help on making timber sales (marking trees, marketing wood, finding reliable loggers, etc.)

The amount of return that one can expect from trees is like anything else in agriculture or land management – not much on a small scale, but it adds up as you go to bigger scale. If you are looking to sell living standing trees ‘on the stump’, that is called stumpage. In our area, that value ends up being something between $10 and $40 per acre per year of value. With a hundred acres and cuts only every 15 or 20 years, that can be tens of thousands of dollars coming in with each timber cut. If you do some of the work yourself, you then get to keep some or all of the money that would have gone to the logger. If you go on to process and sell the wood yourself (e.g., firewood), you could get more again. Of course all these other steps take time, equipment and knowledge to do. Those who do this kind of forestry work generally end up with something between $15 and $40 an hour for their time after expenses – you can make some money but you don’t get rich working in the woods.

Resources

If you aren’t in my area, your region should have comparable groups at province/state/federal levels, and many areas will have forest owner or ‘woodlot’ associations. Do some research and asking around, and you should be able to find out what resources are locally available.