Before we get into the particulars of why a government-written forest management plan is probably not right for you, I’d like you to participate in a mental exercise:
Name all the things that any government agency does competently, conscientiously, cost-effectively, and creatively. Are those crickets I hear chirping? Now, if you are a landowner with a government-written plan, ask yourself, “Why am I letting the government write the plan that dictates the future aesthetics, environmental health, and value of my land and timber?”
Smokey Bear has done a great job of marketing over the years. So much so that when most people think forestry, images of a friendly, fire-preventing bear and uniformed, badge-wearing government employees in green trucks come to mind. They’ve successfully created the narrative that they are the unbiased protectors of the land and the authority when it comes to forest management. This narrative has been pushed on the public for over 100 years, resulting in countless government-written forest management plans. I often review these plans and find them heavy on fluff and jargon and lean on thoughtful planning backed by sound data and analysis. When I talk with landowners, rarely do I find that their plans reflect their vision for their land's future. Most landowners wanted the agricultural property tax break for practicing forestry, knew they needed a plan, and, due to Ol’ Smokey’s century-plus of marketing, called the local government forestry office.
Problems I See Frequently in Government-Written Forest Management Plans
Conversion of native hardwood forests to loblolly pine tree farms. It’s common to see high-quality hardwood sites converted to loblolly pine due to government forest management recommendations, many before the hardwood has reached maturity. Depending on the site conditions and your management objectives, loblolly pine is not always your best option. The acreage of biologically diverse native Carolina forests is dwindling, both from conversion to single-species tree farms and urban sprawl. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think the government should take taxpayer dollars and use them to promote and subsidize our native forests’ demise. We currently have a glut of pine on the market due mainly to government programs, subsidies, incentives, and special interest group propaganda. Pine sawtimber prices, adjusted for inflation, are about half what they were before the Great Recession due mainly to this oversupply. At present (September 2020), lumber prices are at all-time highs, yet mills have so much pine log supply, they’ve raised log delivery prices very little, meaning you are paid less for your timber.
Pine first thinning harvests are prescribed too late. A pine plantation should be thinned before it becomes severely overcrowded. Most government forest management planning calls for thinning several years beyond the ideal, leading to diameter growth stagnation and underdeveloped crowns and roots. In addition to growth and vigor decline, the tardy thinning schedule increases the risk of beetle infestation and post-thinning harvest wind and ice damage. Read more on thinning here.
Pine thinning prescriptions remove too little. Most government plans recommend removing 25% to 33% of the stand volume when thinning. This level of removal is correct when thinning is done when it is supposed to be. The problem is that this prescription is applied to stands that are several years past the optimal thinning date, meaning there is little to no growth response following their thinning guidelines.
Overstocking pine plantings on small acreages and sites with rugged terrain. Planting trees too densely on these sites, where a future thinning harvest is either economically unfeasible or physically limited, will result in restricted diameter growth, poor long-term stand health, and compromised wildlife habitat. Good forestry requires a custom planting density prescription for each site. Read more on loblolly pine planting density here.
Low-quality maps. Government plans generally have low-resolution, dated aerials, and no terrain, topographic, or soil maps. Quality maps are essential if you want a complete picture of your property and management options.
Inaccurate Stand Typing and Acreages. I commonly see incorrectly typed stands with acreages that aren’t accurate. Accurate stand typing and acreage determination require on-the-ground GPS work, plus meticulous scrutiny of historic and current aerial photography.
Unrealistic planning. Government forestry management recommendations rarely coincide with “real-world” planning. Your management planning must take into account market realities, site limitations, and the capabilities of the available timber buyers and their logging force to be successful in moving you toward your management and sales goals. A cheap but unrealistic plan will leave you holding the bag a few years down the road when it comes time for implementation.
Measly Water Quality Buffers. Most plans recommend minimal buffers only on “blue line” streams. Just because a drain doesn’t flow year-round doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be protected. Recently I stopped by a logging job to check the progress of the harvest. I’d marked out healthy buffers on a drain that rarely flows but flows very heavily periodically due to runoff from an adjacent agricultural field. The logger relayed that the NC Forest Service Ranger had stopped in to inspect the job and informed him that he could cut the trees around the drain since it wasn't considered a stream; there was no regulation to stop him (other than my contract terms and painted buffer boundary). Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Aldo Leopold said, “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching—even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” I believe doing what is right for the land is more important than squeezing a few extra hundred dollars out of a tract. In addition to protecting water quality, buffering drains improves post-harvest aesthetics and creates valuable edge habitat.
Tunnel vision. Almost every plan I see has the same final prescription—clearcut to within the minimum required buffer of any blue line stream, followed by planting with loblolly pine on an 8’x10’ spacing. Industrial-style tree farming is an excellent investment that has its place in many forest management plans, but it is not suited for every landowner or every site. Do you want a world full of single species, low biodiversity forests with trees planted in rows? I know I don’t. Real forests don’t grow in rows.
Most of the plans aren’t written by foresters. Just before writing this post, I checked the NC Forest Service’s website. In the counties within my work area, not one of the “rangers” was a forester. Sure, the district heads are foresters, but do you really think they make it out to inspect every tract for which a plan is written? In North Carolina, the label “forester” or “registered forester” can only legally be used by those individuals who’ve met educational, experience, and knowledge requirements sufficient to be licensed by the State Board of Registration for Foresters. To see if your county ranger is a registered forester, check the roster of North Carolina registered foresters here. More on North Carolina’s legal definition of a “forester” and “consulting forester” here.
Staying in Control of Your Forest Management
The worst thing you can do (but what I see most people do) is get your government-written forestry plan, take the property tax break, then throw the plan in a drawer, and forget about it until the county assessor forces you to follow through. Take a few minutes to read your plan, highlight the management prescriptions, and note their timing. Contemplate how the scheduled management activities will impact the character and value of your land. If you don’t understand the plan and its impacts, send it to me, and I’ll review it and explain its impacts and options. Government forestry plans are cheap but will usually cost you in the long run.
Like a life well-lived, good forest management is about finding balance and creating an environment suitable for healthy growth.
The Good News
Suppose you've already filed your government-written forest management with the tax assessor's office. In that case, it can be rewritten and refiled—I do it all the time for new clients. If you are unsure if you need a rewrite, I'll review your plan for free and give you an assessment of its feasibility and potential alternative courses of action.
Your forest management plan should be like a tailored suit, fitting you and only you perfectly. Should you need a management plan rewrite, I'll consider your input, the condition, and the capabilities of your land and work with you to craft a plan that will not only be profitable but will protect the future health and value of your property.