Timber Stand Improvements

Landowner options to improve wildlife habitat via timber stand improvement.

Brandon Adams | November 1, 2022

If timber stand improvement is done correctly, it will have a positive impact, not only on wildlife but also plant life and soil. However, if done incorrectly, it could cause a landowner to just be spinning his wheels while wasting money.

As with most things in life, when you ask a question you can get multiple answers that are promised to be the best way to go about getting things done. Each situation, location and even desired results can be different. This makes it so that there is more than one way to go about things, and that is very true when it comes to timber stand improvement, or as it is often called TSI. The one answer that you will get agreement on is, that if done correctly, timber stand improvement has a positive impact, not only on wildlife but also plant life and soil. I know of landowners, including myself, who have used four different methods to go about getting the timber on their land thinned. Each of the strategies resulted in the landowner’s timber being thinned, but not all had the same impact on the habitat and wildlife. 

The first strategy is just to find someone at random to cut your timber. Of all the strategies that I have seen used, this was without question the least effective in timber stand improvement, especially in regard to helping wildlife.  Friends that went in together to purchase a piece of property that had been clearcut in the early 90’s, had regrown thick in pines due to their limited ability to do habitat work because of a lack of equipment and lack of finances to hire someone to do it. Turkey and deer hunting dramatically declined in the early 2000’s as the pines began to shade out the forest floor. The friends knew that something needed to be done to produce more nutrition and bedding cover. One quick look and you could tell it was also desperately needed to reduce competition so that the pines could reach their full potential in a timely manner and give the soil a chance to recover. 

The first timber buyer who visited their property that we recommended suggested that they wait a few more years to get the best return on their timber due to the market at the time. They felt that waiting was not a viable option for their situation, and reached out to a random timber buyer. They did not view any of the land that the buyer had cut, or seek out any references. Not long after they signed the contract stating that only the pines would be thinned, the logging crew arrived on the property. In a matter of a week, you could tell that the results would not be good. Instead of doing a true thinning of cutting every fourth or fifth row, they went in and basically clearcut large sections. The end result on this property was the creation of large bedding areas that only helped the turkeys for a year, and had more of a benefit for the deer. Other large areas that went untouched still offered very little help to wildlife. 

On another property leased by a different group of friends, the landowners informed them that they were going to have the timber clearcut. The cutting was to include large stands of mature hardwoods, which pained them to see clearcut. They tried to work with the various landowners they lease from to help, but they wanted to get a friend of one of the families to cut the timber. Right at the start of turkey season the old and out of date logging equipment rolled in. Mechanical failures caused the process to be prolonged way beyond what it should have. The property was left a disaster with treetops and even marketable timber left lying on the ground to rot. The roads have not been the same since it was cut five years ago because the landowners were not willing to have the timber buyer repair the roads. Instead the members of the hunting club had to work on the roads themselves. Trees that should have been left for erosion control were cut, as well. Hunting opportunities dramatically declined, especially turkeys. In fact, they have not seen or heard a gobbler on their land since the timber was cut. 

These two examples show that while the timber goals were met technically, they did not help the wildlife, soil or plant life the way that it could have. Randomly selecting someone to cut your timber without doing your research can often result in unforeseen consequences. I personally have never seen this strategy result in the best possible outcome. In fact, from what I have witnessed, doing nothing would have almost been as good as what was done. I highly do not recommend landowners to use this strategy, and the two groups that I mentioned will tell you the same. It was a difficult lesson for the one group, and one of the frustrations that people with hunting leases often experience. 

The second strategy that can be utilized is to hire a forester to help with your timber stand improvement. This strategy does come at a cost, depending on how much work you want the forester to do for you. A forester can do a lot of things to help landowners to reach their goals. 

Foresters can walk your property and create an inventory of what trees and habitat that you have. This is especially helpful for those who do not know a red oak from a white oak, or a willow oak from a pin oak. I feel that it is always good to know what plant life you have on your property for multiple reasons, including hunting and timber marketability. With this step, a forester can also give you an idea about the value of the timber on your land, and in the case of storm loss, help with possible losses that can be claimed on your taxes.

Once an owner has this knowledge, they can then decide if it is the correct time to conduct your timber stand improvement. A forester can play a major role in this part of the process by finding buyers that will meet the expectations of the landowner. Foresters interact with timber crews daily and often know their strengths and weaknesses. Timber crews are also likely to do their best when working with a forester because they know that if they make the foresters happy, they can help them in acquiring future jobs. 

Once they have found a buyer that they are happy with, they will help with negotiating the contract that is in their best interest and monitor the cutting to ensure that the contract is being meet. Always remember, it is your land, and you are the one to make the final decision in the process. If you have questions or concerns make sure to talk with your forester. That is what you are paying them for. 

After the timber has been cut, foresters can help with clean-up, prescribed burns and replanting. They can also help with soil, plant and wildlife management and possible use of herbicide applications to control unwanted plants that grow after the soil disturbance, especially dreaded sweetgums. 

When implementing timber harvest on your property, help from the local Georgia Forest Commission brings a great amount of knowledge to the decision-making process and can be there to help answer a lot of questions.

Two of the biggest positives I feel foresters provide landowners are creating a management plan and learning about and applying for government cost share programs. A forester will not only help with the writing of a management plan, but they will be there with you for as long as you need them to see the plan through. This can include the entire process from maintaining, cutting and replanting. Often landowners are completely unaware of all the cost sharing programs and tax programs that are available to them. This one service can almost pay for having a forester help with the process.

All of the landowners that I know who have utilized this strategy have been happy with their results. It is in my opinion, as well as others, the best strategy for those who do not know a lot about land management or do not have time to deal with the process that can be very time consuming. The only downside is that it does cost to get these services for the time involved and the education that is required to be a forester does not come cheap, but for many it is money well spent to gain the advantage of the knowledge they bring to the table. 

The next strategy is for the landowner who might want to do more of the work themselves but just need a little help with knowing what to do and how to go about doing it. Most states, including Georgia, have a forestry commission. Every forestry commission that I know of has on-staff foresters who are paid for by the tax payers of the state.  For example, you can contact your regional office and have a forester come out to your land to help write a land-management plan for your property. This service in Georgia is offered at this time free of cost. Like stated previously, foresters have a wealth of knowledge and can help a landowner to avoid costly mistakes that could result in loss of money, or a delayed return on your timber stand improvement. The biggest difference using your state forestry service is that after that, it is up to you to carry out the plan. If this is possible for the landowner, it can result in money saved. 

Foresters will also come out to your property to help let you know if your timber is at the point that it is ready to be harvested. They have access to the latest market reports to help in the decision-making process like non-state employed foresters have that private citizens might not be able to access. However, the Georgia Forestry Commission encourages landowners to utilize private foresters in the search for timber buyers and drawing up contracts since this is something they cannot do. State forestry commissions provide these services because the majority of timber land is held in private hands. These forestry services are provided to protect water quality, timber resources needed for the economy and wildlife. 

Prescribed burns is another service that they can help with pre- or post-timber stand improvement. They can help with creating a burn plan for your land. If you need them to help with the setting up for the burn or conducting the burn, currently they charge $190 for the first hour and $130 per hour after the first hour at a rate of $13 per tenth of an hour on the machinery. You also have to go through them to get a burn permit whether you do it yourself or with their assistance.  Either route, you are responsible for the burn, but having their help reduces a lot of the risk, especially for those who have not gone through the training to be certified. 

State agencies also can provide seedlings at a reduced cost after you have cut your timber if that is what is needed. Often after thinning, planting trees back is not part of the goal. They are also the agency that you have to go through to apply for most of the cost sharing grants that are available.

This is a great option for the landowner who wants a more hands-on experience but needs a little help with the knowledge along the way. State agencies are paid for by the taxpayers of the state and a great resource that is often not utilized in timber stand improvement. A lot of landowners who I know have benefitted from the use of this knowledge to create great habitat for wildlife and get great returns on their timber.

The final option is the do-it-yourself approach. This is not for those who do not have the time or willingness to put in a lot of time and work. For this to be successful, landowners must immerse themselves in books, periodicals, podcast, seminars, workshops and any other opportunities to learn about timber and timber stand improvement. For those who are willing to put in the time and work, this can be one of the most rewarding of the strategies. 

I myself undertook this strategy because we wanted total control of the process and were willing to put in the work needed to complete the process. We started by looking at every property we saw that was having their timber cut. We would look at the permit to get the names of companies cutting timber in our area. We quickly narrowed our list to two companies. One quickly fell off the list due to not returning calls, leaving us with the company we chose to use. This owner came out and recommend that we hold off for 4 to 5 years to get the best return on the timber and benefit for wildlife. 

Four years later, he reached out to look at the land again, and recommended we hold off one more year. In some ways, he acted much like a forester for us. As the saying goes, do not guide the guide, we felt that with what we had seen and heard about him, we should not question his advice. 

His company had also received recognition for their soil management techniques and received government grants to purchase equipment to help with that process. With us having a wetland and creek, that was a big plus for us when we were doing our homework. 

I also spent a lot of time studying the trees on our land and putting in the time to do the research about the best practice to benefit our property and the wildlife on it, along with making the best profit. To me, this was something fun to do and of great interest to me. It also benefited me to have friends with a lot of knowledge about trees and forestry. My dad was also able to spend time on site to supervise the process being self-employed.

By having a hands-on approach, the timber stand improvement we undertook worked exactly like we planned. We expanded our food plots by marking them out with the timber crew. New food plots were added. We cut the oaks that we wanted removed and thinned the pines, as well. We also saved the money that it would cost to have hired a forester to do this. 

While this last method is definitely not for everyone, it did bring us great satisfaction in seeing all that we accomplished. We turned the profit from the timber into equipment to do the clean-up and grew oaks that we wanted from acorns to replace the oaks that we had an abundance of or were less desirable to wildlife. It also brings great satisfaction knowing that what we have done will be enjoyed for generations to come. We also had our children help in the process, as well, so it was a true family project. 

Here’s a photo example of timber thinning done correctly.

Of the four strategies that I have seen used over the years, the only one that I do not recommend is going into it without a plan. When landowners have conducted timber stand improvement by just selecting someone at random to cut their timber without a plan, I have never seen them get the most out of it they could. Utilizing a quality forester I feel is the safest and surest way to get the most out of your timber stand improvement. The vast knowledge that they bring to the table, the connections that they have, and the vast experiences that they have is well worth the fees that they charge, especially if you have little time to do it yourself, or have little knowledge about it. The method we chose, and to me the most rewarding, is to do it yourself.  This does require the commitment of a lot of time on your land as well as learning about the process. A lot of people do not have the time, the equipment or the desire to use the strategy to its fullest. Using the help of your local Georgia Forest Commission in the process is a great middle of the road strategy. They bring a great amount of knowledge to the decision-making process and can be there to help answer a lot of questions, but some of the decisions are left up to the landowner to research and make. Of the other three strategies it is purely up to each landowner as to which works best for them. I have seen great results from all three strategies. So, like most things in life, there is more than one right answer, depending on each individual situation. 

Timber stand improvement is an important part of active land management that without it your land becomes less and less productive and brings less return on your investment. Do not be afraid to seek out help in the process if you need it. Besides your local forest office, county extension agents and professors at local universities can help, as well. Timber stand improvement might be one of the best things that you will ever do to your property to improve hunting on your land and timber values, as well.

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