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The Practice of Forestry

in the mountains of Kentucky

To "make sense" of Forestry it is necessary to define the terms used in the discussion and to determine the objectives of forest management.

Forestry is the management of the forest or lands to be converted to forest to most efficiently produce the maximum benefits to the human community from the forest. These benefits are usually defined to include aesthetics and recreation, wildlife, protection of soils and watersheds, wood products, and, in some cases, forage for livestock. They can also include minor forest products such as nuts and berries, greenery, medicinal herbs, etc.

Forestry is usually practiced by planning how to most efficiently utilize existing resources which include soils, climate, topography, and existing vegetation. Forest practices then include seeding, planting, or otherwise reproducing stands; practices to improve forest stands such as release cuttings, pruning, cleanings, thinnings, and sanitation cuts; and harvests which may also be of several types. How these are done will determine species composition and structure of the forest. The resulting forest may be all aged, even aged, or multiple aged. It may be very productive of desirable forest products or not very productive.

The forest products to be emphasized in a forest management plan will vary depending on the objectives of the owner. Depending on whether the forest lands are publicly or privately owned, owned by an absentee or local owner and depending on the economic needs and ownership philosophy of the owner, short term economic benefits may override aesthetic, community, social, or long term benefits.

It should be noted that the overall long term results of various forest management plans will have both environmental and economic consequences. Practices which would result in damage to the environment such as significant pollution of streams and soil quality degradation should never be included in any responsible plan by a professional forester. However, short term economic needs of landowners may sometimes override long term benefits or may cause frequent harvests of wood products to be given precedence over aesthetic and other intangible values or over infrequent harvests of higher value wood products. This means that often the objectives of individual landowners may not be those which will result in the maximum long term benefits to the community as a whole.

Usually public opinion does not make a distinction between environmental and economic consequences of forest management. For instance, heavy cutting is associated with environmental degradation although, if stream pollution and soil erosion is minor, no environmental degradation may, in fact, take place. On the other hand clear cutting is usually not distinguished from "high grading". Clear cutting is an accepted harvest method used in stands in which the objective is to maintain pre-climax stands of usually shade intolerant species or in which the objective is even aged management. Much more common is "High grading", the practice of harvesting the best and most valuable timber leaving cull and low quality timber in the woods. Although fewer trees are cut than in a clear cut, the timber stand is left in far worse condition.

Ideally Appalachian hardwoods would be all aged stands growing on high quality sites and owned by enlightened landowners whose objective is to produce high quality hardwoods in the long term while at the same time protecting the environment and providing productive wildlife habitat. They would be harvested by selective cuts about every 30 to 40 years with a timber rotation age of 60 to 100 years. In practice, due to the topography and to past management including overcutting, erosion and repeated forest fires much of the land is not high quality sites for forest production. Landowner's objectives are more likely to be short term economic gain and the quality of the forest environment is often given little consideration. Low quality, "high graded" stands of young small trees are the rule rather than the exception and they are usually harvested too small too soon.

Existing forest industries as well as forest ownership patterns usually determine the local forest management. There are very few professionally trained foresters available, so little actual forest management takes place. In managing forests it is necessary to have good markets for small wood products (such as pallet mills) so that there will be a market for the trees removed during improvement cuts or intermediate cuts such as cleanings, thinnings, etc. However, in the absence of forest management the presence of these markets usually leads to overcutting and short term rotations. For harvests of larger higher quality wood products, such as furniture quality oak, markets such as grade sawmills and veneer mills are necessary. However, these markets alone in the absence of forest management often lead to "high grading" of the forest. For maximum economic benefit to the community secondary wood products industries such as furniture factories, etc. are also necessary. These not only provide added value to the wood resource but also are an additional labor market for the community and a great stimulant to the local economy.


Reproduction of forests may be:
  1. Artificial
    By planting tree seedlings
    This method is actually only practical in the mountains of eastern Kentucky when converting abandoned farm fields or strip mined or other open areas to forest. It is sometimes also used to convert low quality hardwood stands to pine stands on suitable sites, but is inferior to a seed tree clearcut for this purpose.
    By broadcasting tree seeds
    This method is usually only practical when converting strip mined areas or other areas of bare soil to forest.
  2. Natural
    From seeds
    Seeds of many species are usually present in the soil of a forest and some of these will lay dormant for years only germinating when conditions become right. Usually opening of the forest canopy by harvest, fire, storm or other means will result in germination of thousands of tree seedlings per acre, many more than are needed to reproduce the stand.
    Coppice reproduction from sprouts
    Most hardwoods sprout profusely from roots and stems when the tree is cut or placed under stress. Many also produce epicormic sprouts from the bark of the stems when the stem is exposed to sunlight. In general sprouts from roots and root collars produce good potential crop trees for the succeeding forest while sprouts from stumps and other stems are undesirable. That is why, in harvesting, trees should be cut as close to the ground as is practicable.

Intermediate Cuts

Intermediate cuts are practices in a forest done before final harvest, the purpose of which is to improve the stand. They usually are considered to result in a net expense either because no wood products are sold or because the value of wood products sold is less than the cost of the practice. If value of products sold exceeds the cost of the practice then it can be argued that the cut was actually a harvest rather than an intermediate cut. Selective harvests usually include, at least, some elements of an intermediate cut due to removal of cull or otherwise low value trees during the harvest. This is basically the difference between a selective harvest and a high grading.

Site Preparation - one specialized type of forest operation is site preparation which involves removing from an area all stems of woody brush and trees and, in some cases, weeds and grasses which will compete with regeneration to be established by either artificial or natural means. Site preparation methods may be chemical or mechanical or may sometimes be done by use of controlled burns.

Intermediate cuts may include:

This is cutting off the limbs from the butt log (usually lower 17 feet) of the tree to produce knot free wood commanding premium prices. This practice is most commonly done in Black Walnut and White Pine.
This is removal of undesirable species from the forest to favor those that are of higher value or of more use in reaching goals of management.
This is removal of non-crop trees of the same species as crop trees to allow more room, sunlight, water and nutrients for the better quality crop trees.
Release cuts
This is removal of undesirable overstory trees to benefit crop trees in the understory. The overstory trees may be there as a result of a high grading or perhaps they are the seed trees left in a seed tree harvest.
Sanitation cuts
This is removal of trees broken by storms, damaged by fire, or infested with insects or disease.


Timber harvests are usually the most important factor determining the future of the forest. Whether they are planned and done at the proper time and in the proper way to cause desired regeneration and to improve the structure of the subsequent stand determines whether future harvests will produce optimum wood products and other benefits from the forest.

Types of timber harvests can include:

Clear Cuts
This is a cut in which all trees above 1 or 2 inches in diameter are harvested or otherwise removed to prepare a site for regeneration. This type of harvest results in an even aged stand and a relatively long cutting cycle between harvest cuts. It is a valid forest management tool. It is not the same thing as a "high grading" and if properly conducted does not result in any more environmental damage than any other type of harvest. Actually because of the longer time between harvests from the same area it probably results in less environmental damage. Variations on the clear cut include the "seed tree" cut in which scattered good quality trees are left on the area as a seed source and are harvested within a few years of the main harvest and the "shelterwood" cut in which small areas are cleared in a given year and the remaining areas are cleared within a few years when reproduction has become established.
Selective Cuts
This is a harvest in which selected economically mature trees as well as undesirable trees are harvested or otherwise removed. It usually results in an all aged stand or a two tiered stand or some variation between depending on the criteria for the harvest. Selective cutting usually results in shorter cutting cycles and smaller harvests each cutting cycle than clear cutting. While clear cutting is best adapted to pioneer shade intolerant species, selective cutting is more often used in climax shade tolerant species such as those found in appalachian hardwood forests.
High Grading
This is the usual commercial cut which serves no forest management objective. In this type of cut the best highest quality most valuable trees are harvested and all other trees are left in the woods. It results in forests of low productivity both because many trees are harvested before reaching economic maturity and because the remaining stand contains a large percentage of defective, cull, and otherwise undesirable trees leaving less room for more desirable crop trees.
In each of these harvest scenarios the amount of environmental degradation which occurs is dependent on the extent to which the logger follows Best Management Practices and is not a function of the type of harvest.
See also:
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