This is NOT your Grandparents’ Timber

By Matt Peterson, IDNR District Forester

There are basically two ways for people to become timberland owners. The property is inherited or it was purchased. There are also two types of owners – active or passive.

Historically, forest ownership in Illinois has been passive. There are very few stands of timber that have not been harvested at least two times since European settlement – and almost no stand of truly “virgin timber” that has never been harvested. That may not sound like a passive approach, but it was. The passive approach was, and still is, that timber just takes care of itself.

Decades ago, if the timber was considered to be overgrown, livestock were put in the woods to “clean it up”. There were some trees cut on an as-needed basis, for personal use around the farm and for firewood. The “level ground” was cleared for pasture and farmland.

Great grandparents or grandparents just left the trees growing on the “rough ground” or “wasteland” for a generation or two, and then at some point they were approached by a timber buyer, and it was harvested. That same cycle was then repeated until, possibly, another harvest took place a generation later.

The average parcel of land owned by an individual today is getting smaller, as larger single-owner tracts are divided prior to being sold. These days, many people are the first person in their family to own property other than the ground under their house. More land is being purchased for recreational uses, and this lends itself to the passive approach again.

The property is visited a few times a year, mostly during deer and turkey hunting seasons. Often, the number one concern for the owner is what I refer to as food plot mania. There are so many products available to plant which promise that all you need to do is put in a half-acre food plot and you can hold large numbers of big bucks.

As a trained professional, I beg to differ. The passive approach of owning timber needs to become a thing of the past. More than ever, active forest management is required to maintain a healthy timber that also provides quality wildlife habitat. Landowners need to think beyond food plots if they want to reap the full benefits their property has to offer.

This presents a problem because as a society we have become much busier with our families, jobs and all the social activities that go along with them. But, as a result, we have become much less connected to the land.

All the while there are very serious problems developing that often go unnoticed until the wild game becomes noticeably scarcer and you hardly recognize the property that you were once so proud to own. You can’t see through the timber or enjoy a leisurely hike through the woods.

The problem is exotic invasive species! In the last 15 years this has quietly become the number one issue facing Illinois forestland owners. The species are screaming at us now, and are too numerous to list them all.

There are four which cause the majority of the problems in upland hardwood timber types that I help manage. Some species were encouraged – such as multiflora rose, planted for living fences — and autumn olive, which was planted for wildlife habitat. Another, bush-honeysuckle, was introduced as an ornamental but has now invaded the timber in epidemic proportions across Illinois. Garlic mustard is the fourth one.

Once established, these exotic species change the vegetative components of the timber by out-competing the native species of trees, shrubs and wildflowers, for the available growing space, sun light, water and nutrients. The exotics prevent regeneration of the more desirable native species by literally choking them out.

The active, rewarding and valuable approach for landowners is to have a Forestry Development Act (FDA) Management Plan written for their wooded property. After meeting with your Department of Natural Resources District Forester, or a professional Consulting Forester to discuss your ownership objectives, scientific data is collected from the forest to write a plan that will identify and address all of the resource concerns on your property.

A schedule of activities in the plan will help guide implementation, along with periodic assistance from your District Forester or Consultant. Cost share monies may be available to help with some of the expenses for scheduled activities such as exotic species removal or Timber Stand Improvement (TSI). Acres managed under an FDA plan enjoy the lowest available property tax rates, too.

Doing nothing is no longer an option to maintain a healthy forest for the long term. The problem will not stop on its own, and should be addressed whether or not cost share assistance is available. The abundance of seed will continue to regenerate, no matter what.

There are organizations for landowners to join, such as the Illinois Forestry Association, the American Forest Foundation’s Tree Farm program, The Walnut Council, and others. These groups can help landowners learn from each other’s successes, as well as what they may have tried that did not work as well.

A healthy, well-managed forest provides many rewards, including valuable timber products. By selectively harvesting only those trees that have reached their maximum potential, you can reap these benefits on a sustainable basis. Practices like TSI can increase desirable regeneration of hardwoods while reducing poor quality and low value timber species. A managed forest can also provide many non-timber forest products, such as edible nuts, mushrooms, maple syrup, and ginseng production.

Forest management also yields quality wildlife habitat – food sources for through increased hard mast production from trees such as oaks and hickories, soft mast from species such persimmon and paw paw, and various species of berries. These food sources will be available every year without planting food plots. Wildlife bedding and nesting areas will also increase.

It won’t happen by accident. Proper timber management requires commitment. The time to reconnect with your land by actively managing your timber has come. To quote a lyric from a song by Neil Young “This ol’ world keeps spinning round, it’s a wonder tall trees ain’t layin’ down. There Comes a Time.” This isn’t your Grandparents’ timber anymore.

For more information on proper forest stewardship, contact your IDNR District Forester and get started on enjoying your land again and providing quality timber resources and wildlife habitat for generations to come.

Matt Peterson, IDNR District Forester, 700 S. 10th, Havana, IL. 62644, Ph. 309-543-3401

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