Restorative Forestry II: high-grading versus worst-first

Yesterday, ­­­­­I illustrated how trees in forests gain girth, but there was one major flaw in the diagrams I used, a flaw that I’ll address now as part of the concepts in play behind terms like high-grading and worst-first.  (The ‘nature’s tree marking paint’ ideas of forester, logger, and Healing Harvest Forest Foundation founder Jason Rutledge is still a day away.)

sustainable timber high grading versus worst first

Multi-age forest diagram, one year's growth.

The diagram flaw? The trunks were all the same size.  No forest is of uniform age; that’s part of what’s so creepy about being on a tree plantation, and a common flaw in designed landscapes.

Trees sprout at different times, grow at different rates, and reach maturity at different ages.  A grove of lustrous and uniformly sized sycamores is doomed.  Uniformly sized means uniform-ish life spans.  When the whole shady grove goes awry at once, it’ll be both danged ugly and way too late to plant new trees for a graceful turnover.

This has some implications for ecologically sound logging: a clear cut forest not only scrapes the whole forest out and exposes the soil to the sun and rain, it includes within it the young trees that are barely valuable for timber at all.  Who would do such a thing?  The folks who need to pay off the loans for the capital investments of such huge trucks and machinery.

north carollina timber industry

Clear cut in North Carolina

A clear cut forest sets the sere back to zero: where the youngest trees had been perhaps 3 or 4, now the oldest are measured by weeks.  It’ll be several decades before a timber crew can come back through here; in the interim, they’ll be off clear cutting other forest stands.

Clear cutting also removes all the extent seed producers: any tree species who’d like to have a representative member on those acres had better have viable options in the seed bank on the forest floor.  Those seeds had better not mind the bright sun and not be vulnerable to heavy rains unmitigated by a leafy canopy.

Surely there’s got to be a better way.  Wouldn’t selective logging, a strategy that pulls only the best trees from a site, be better?

Selective logging encourages high grading

Selective logging can indeed leave a forest intact while removing only the most valuable lumber, thus protecting young saplings and the soil from the brutal elements and erosion. It has, however, no inherent ethic beyond the current market value of the timber.  If it’s a good time to sell red oaks, selective logging teams will harvest the large red oaks.  If it’s tulip poplars that are fetching a nice price, down the big poplars come.

black oak acorn sprouting

Black oak acorn (Handbook of Nature Study)

After a while, not only are the best trees missing in the here and now, they are missing in the up and coming forest too.  If all the best red oaks are cut and hauled out, where do the next generation of red oak acorns come from?  Why, the gnarly, diseased red oak hulks left behind to proliferate.

What the selective loggers have been doing is called high-grading: removing the best and leaving the rest.  High grading isn’t an idea limited to logging. My horse and her herdmates did this in the pastures all the time. Their favorite grasses and forbs and clovers got eaten right away, the milkweed, datura, spiny nightshade and other weedy “delights” were left to be fruitful.  Not only did portions of the pasture need soil aeration every few years, but well-timed mowings and late fall seedings became de rigueur, too.*

Worst-first is better stewardship

biological woodsman justin la mountain

Justin, Cherry, and Birch

A better plan is the worst-first strategy the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation uses.  As Justin LaMountain (former student of Mr. Rutledge’s, and the first biological woodsman I met) explained it to me, the logging teams in the woods looks for the trees that aren’t in their prime, and they do that repeatedly.

LaMountain and others from the draft logging school in southern Virginia go into a site every 7 to 10 years and look to pull out the ‘bad eggs’. The first trip in, they take the very worst: the sickest, the rottenest, and the generally most decrepit.  They also take the ones who would otherwise be tolerable but are seriously crowding a neighbor with far better prospects.

In a decade (one decade, no plural), they go back: the trees they left behind were the healthiest, the best specimens, and a number of them are now ready to be culled.  In the interim since the timber team, those trees have gained girth (which translates speedily into monetary value) at the accelerated rate of a less dense forest.  The waiting literally pays.

But do LaMountain and his colleagues take the magnificently mature? No, again they do not.  Knowing that they’ll be back in seven to ten years is helpful.  Instead, they let those in the prime of life keep priming their waistlines and dropping seeds for the future, and take instead the trees just past prime.

Northern spotted owl adult and two juveniles. (US Forest Service)

Northern spotted owl adult and two juveniles. (US Forest Service)

The results over time are breathtaking: the forest never falters in its operative “forest-ness”, but the value of the timber coming out just gets better and better.  This creates a protective shield for the forest: now the land owner has an active interest in maintaining this healthy woodland.  For both the economic and ecologic boon these loggers bring, Rutledge has coined the term “biological woodsmen”.  Biological is like ecological, and was the original name for the organic agriculture movement.

A key piece of the biological woodsman’s logic path has at its core a need to be able to spot the past prime trees in the full-tilt forest.  This is where Rutledge’s tree marking paint comes in.  That’s coming tomorrow, as is another crucial basis for the work: how do the biological woodsmen know that they’ll be back in the future?


* I never did quite convince any barn owners to plant dandelion and yellow dock on purpose as soil looseners and nutrient accumulators, but daikon radishes have a history of being used this way by permaculturalists.


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