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  • Writer's pictureTim Cartner, RF

Choosing a Forestry Consultant

As a forest landowner, you are ultimately responsible for the health of your land. An essential part of managing that health is finding a forestry consultant to work with that understands and compliments your ethics, values, and goals.

Aldo Leopold (1887 – 1948), an American forester and conservationist, identified the primary division in the mindset of foresters in his essay "The Land Ethic." In it, he wrote:

In my own field, forestry, Group A is quite content to grow trees like cabbages, with cellulose as the basic forest commodity. It (Group A) feels no inhibition against violence; its ideology is agronomic. Group B, on the other hand, sees forestry as fundamentally different from agronomy because it employs natural species and manages a natural environment rather than creating an artificial one. Group B prefers natural reproduction on principle. It worries on biotic as well as economic grounds about the loss of species like chestnut and the threatened loss of the white pines. It worries about a whole series of secondary forest functions: wildlife, recreation, watersheds, and wilderness areas. To my mind, Group B feels the stirrings of an ecological conscience.
-Aldo Leopold

Times change, but human nature does not. Over seven decades after the publication of "The Land Ethic," we still have the same two groups in the forestry profession, with Group A still comprising the bulk of the forester population in both government forestry agencies and the private sector.

Group Characteristics

Group A Forester (Industrial-minded Management)

  1. Maintains limited ecosystem structures

  2. Emphasizes fast-growing, single-species stands on short rotations (example: loblolly pine plantation)

  3. Tends to reduce management options (simplistic boilerplate management plans: clearcut, spray herbicide, plant loblolly pine)

  4. Values simplicity and homogeneity (sameness)

  5. Maximizes economic gain at the expense of the natural biological structure

  6. Values artificially created landscapes (trees in rows, fescue fields, artificial ponds, etc.) over the natural

"Tree farmer" rather than "forester" may be a better name for Group A.

pine plantation, pond, hunting food plot
The Group A Forester prefers the unnatural and sees land as a group of commodities to be managed and maximized.

Group B Forester (Ecological-minded Management)

  1. Maintains an array of ecosystem structures, functions (processes), and biota (plants and animals)

  2. Emphasizes ecosystem diversity and resilience to reduce risk from significant disturbances

  3. Tends to increase management options

  4. Values forest complexity

  5. Balances economic gain with maintaining the natural biological structure

  6. Values natural landscapes (native forests, meadows, beaver ponds, etc.) over artificial ones.

ecosystem, nature, meadow, native forest, beaver pond
The Group B Foresters prefer the natural and sees the land as a system. They utilize management methods that complement the processes that nature has developed over millennia.

Why There are So Many Foresters in Group A

When you look for a forester, the odds are you'll get hold of a Group A type.

Group A holds the majority position for a number of reasons:

  1. Productivity mindset. Our modern society trains us to value the maximization of quantity and revenue at all costs. Most private and government foresters equate "productivity" with fast growth and return on investment. Here in the South, that almost always means clearcutting, wiping out all native vegetation with herbicide, then replanting with genetically improved monocultures (usually loblolly pine—sometimes with whole stands of clones). A Group A forester won't tell you that by doing this, you are putting all of your eggs in one basket from an economic and land health standpoint. The Group A Forester rarely considers ecosystem diversity in the productivity equation—you'll not find him admiring the twisted sinews of a beech—he'll see it as $10 worth of pallet material. I was given a reminder of this mindset a few years back. I showed a stand of very high productivity (by Group A standards), old field-planted loblolly pine (for potential harvest) to an industry procurement forester. It was in an area where the native pine would've been shortleaf, often mixed with poplar and oak. I asked him if he'd ever seen shortleaf pine, which is slower growing but generally better quality than loblolly, planted on a high fertility site like the one we were standing on. His response wasn't yes or no. It was "It won't grow as fast as loblolly." The "productivity" lens he viewed the forest through blinded him to any other option than planting a fast-growing, non-native to the area species. He couldn't imagine why I may want to replace the stand with shortleaf rather than loblolly.

  2. Perverse incentives. Subsidies for reforestation actively incentivize the planting of monocultures following a harvest. State and federal government programs reimburse landowners for a portion of the reforestation costs. Government and private foresters promote these programs. Government foresters justify their existence by "helping" landowners, mills benefit from the cheap supply (oversupply) of pine wood, and many private foresters profit from contracting the reforestation services (partially paid for by taxpayers). So you know those beautiful native hardwood stands you like to see? There is no incentive to maintain or regenerate those. In many cases, your tax dollars go to promote their demise. Adding insult to injury, these subsidies have destroyed the value of landowners' standing pine timber. They've created a supply glut that has resulted in a 50% reduction in the price landowners are paid—even with finished pine lumber prices skyrocketing.

  3. Lack of Vision. We all like simplicity. Simple solutions sound good to most people. Unfortunately, balancing production and forest health (timber production, soil health, wildlife habitat, aesthetics, and water quality) can't be done with a simplistic, cut-spray-plant methodology. Group A foresters only see a forest as chunks of commodities rather than seeing the components as an interconnected system—they literally don't see the forest for the trees.

  4. Intellectually laziness. Foresters, like most people, are resistant to change. I see management practices that were wrong thirty years ago still carried out today for no other reason than "that's the way we've always done it." Growth and learning require curiosity, effort, and openness, things lacking in our short attention span world. Sadly, humans rarely change until the pain of their errors outweighs the discomfort of change.

  5. Hubris. Over millennia, through natural selection, nature has chosen the trees best for a region and site. The Group A forester comes along, wipes out thousands of years of genetic development (specific to the site), plants a nursery-bred monoculture (sometimes clones), and pats himself on the back for "improving" the forest's health and vigor. As I write this, fast-growing genetically engineered trees are being introduced into the wild. What will be the unintended consequences? Will they displace native trees, crossbreed with natives, or potentially become invasive? Group A's hubris is on display once again.

"The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: "What good is it?"
― Aldo Leopold
Winter Infrared Aerial Image, Chester Co., SC. The pines show up red due to their retention of wintertime foliage, which absorbs heat. Naturally, this area would've been mostly hardwood with scattered Virginia and shortleaf pine. It has almost all, with the exceptions of steep hillsides and wetlands, been converted to loblolly pine plantations or agricultural land. This scene is typical for much of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain regions in the South. The Group A mindset dominates the landscape.

My Philosophy

I consider myself firmly in the Group B foresters' camp, practicing Group As' tree farming practices when other options don't exist due to past management practices. This outlook wasn't always the case—early in my career, I drank the forestry school-industry-government agency Kool-Aid, which in the South equates "productivity" with fast-growth pine plantations. As I've aged, I've come to appreciate a management style that values diversity and mimics nature's processes is generally best for the land. When possible, I prefer working with nature rather than battling to tame Her. I believe forestry is both an art and a science—the forester that manages best possesses a solid technical understanding of forest management, ecology, and economics, combined with an artistic mindset that considers aesthetics.

Don't misunderstand. I believe there is a place for "plantation" management. Past management or my clients' financial needs may dictate that portions of a property are "tree farmed." Monoculture plantation management can be done in a way that retains some of the characteristics of a native forest without impacting the financial rate of return—it just takes a bit more time and thoughtful planning. My biggest complaint with our current majority mindset in both government and industry is that the Group A management style is the only way to go, and most often, it's the only option presented to forest landowners.

Before choosing a forester, I hope you'll do a little soul-searching and think about your land ethic. Make sure your forester's management philosophy aligns with what you want for your property. If you want to grow trees like cabbages, good news, there are plenty of industrial-minded Group A foresters from which to choose. If you are more of a Group B landowner, you may have to look a little harder to find the right fit. Regardless of which camp you fall into, thoughtfully develop management goals and make sure your forester understands them. Be annoying—ask lots of questions! I wish you the best with your management.


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