Jason Rutledge mentors biological woodsmen in southern Virginia. His students learn draft logging skills that focus on restorative forestry- a strong departure from the chop-and-cheque mentality of most timber industry leaders. These neophyte loggers learn skills that speak to a longer time horizon than most business deals consider, preferring success measured by repetitive good results over the monetary worth of a single cutting.
Really, the goal is the anticipation of the next cut, 7, 8, or even 10 years hence. Every cutting is about the stripping away of the sub-par, the removal of the stains from forests that have seen human greed dwindle not just the excellent timber stock, but the capacity to regenerate excellence.
Rutledge is teaching to reverse this legacy, to turn loggers into the wolves that purify the herds of prey by picking off the oldest, the weakest, the sickest. But how do his loggers have confidence they’ll return to the same forest-herd in the future? How are they able to establish a long term bond with a piece of the planet they neither own nor inhabit?
Land owner contracts. Biological woodsmen enter into long term contracts with private, non-industrial land owners (who are by far the largest set of land owners in the U.S.). The long term contract establishes 50 or, preferably, 100 year contracts for these timber crews to work this land. The land owner can hand down a self-funding parcel, the loggers can pass along an established, sustainable business with a portfolio of increasingly valuable assets.
Here’s the gist of the contract, though the specifics vary:
The initial cut is the harshest, takes the most from the woodland, and earns the least on the market. Every cent of the profits from the first cut goes to the loggers. Over time, the quality of the standing timber increases in both girth and inherent value.
With each successive cut, fewer trees are taken ( one or two per acre) and an increasing percentage of the profits are shared with the land owner. Depending on the beginning site condition, after the 3rd, 4th, or 5th cut, the partnership reaches a 50-50 balance and remains there.
With this long term investment in the health and well-being of the forest protected, the biological woodsmen (and women) are able to make choices that are based less on which trees to take but more on which trees to leave. To that end, the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation presents a metric known as Nature’s Tree Marking Paint (NTMP).
NTMP Selection Criteria
Trees that show 3 or more symptoms, ideally at least one from each category, are strong contenders for removal.
Category 1: Generally inferior
- a tree species of dubious market or ecologic value
- a tree that is crowding its neighbors
- a tree with shoddy proportions
As much as I hate to think of folks being all species-ist about trees, the fact is that untold years of high grading the forests has taken the most timber worthy trees out and left an abundance of less durable and less useful specimens. Examples from the mid-Atlantic states include soft maple, black gum, scarlet oaks, post oak, black oak, black birch, and beech. A balance between biodiversity and timber value must be found and then maintained.
As for proportions, the ideal tree in a timber forest has a crown that dominates the top 1/3 of the tree, while the bottom 2/3 is trunk. A tree with a smaller crown is in a very crowded forest and therefore unlikely to put on girth with any haste; a tree with a deeper crown will have too many branches interrupting the grain too far down the trunk. This lowers the quality of the timber significantly.
Category 2: Damaged
- a tree that has been blown over in a storm, or had another tree blown against it with significant damage
- a tree with either direct or secondary evidence (e.g.: birds pecking at the bark) of insect infestation
- a tree with frost cracks, even if there is no sap coming from the vertical crack.
Category 3: Diseased
Common diseases to look for include:
- “fat butt” fungus (my name for the one that makes the bottoms of tree trunks swell up)
- bottom hanging fungus (often on white oaks)
- blister rust
- etc- this list varies by ecological region.
And good ol’fashioned old age, the number one symptom of which is crown dieback.
When a tree gets as big as it can get, it spends a number of years “pulsing”: the crown retracts and then expands again, then retracts again… The tree is trying to fight, but if not caught now, it will succumb to one of the diseases listed above.
It takes a resolute heart to make some of these choices, but the compassion and wisdom shown in not clear cutting far outweighs the necessary nugget of ruthlessness. The goal is the preservation of the forest itself, free to continue to function as a complex ecosystem.
Thanks go to the Colorado Cooperative Extension Service for the frost crack photo, the University of Tennessee for the image of the scarlet oak with “fat butt” fungus, Public Land Journal for the wolf tree photo, and Floyd Magazine for the shot of Jason Rutledge in the woods.