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A Final Cut?

I would like to share my experiences managing a wood lot I have been familiar with all my life. I have had the good fortune of doing the logging here for the last three cuts, each spaced fifteen years from the prior. I have witnessed the forest transition through many varied stages of growth—from when I first knew it as a thick stand of young pine typically found when an abandoned field turns to forest, to the present forest of scattered +24" diameter- breast-height (dbh) white pine with some red oak in the overstory and pole-sized (6-10"dbh) hardwood in the understory.

Somewhere in a closet of our house is a photo taken when picture postcards were first available. It is a shot from Alstead Center west to Bennett Road, with the Bennett house quite visible above a pasture. Today the scene is just woods with tall pine standing over mixed hardwoods—no pasture or house in sight. Within the stand itself, there are a couple of stone walls lined with big red oak and sugar maples, parent trees of the hardwood present in the understory. There are also several large piles of fieldstone handpicked to facilitate farming—more testament to the land’s best use of a hundred or so years ago. These clues establish a timeline of when that pasture was no longer grazed, was abandoned, and reverted—slowly at first—to forest.

I came on the scene in the early 60s as a teenager hunting, unsuccessfully, for grouse and deer. I remember it as thick pine, and I remember a thinning harvest in the mid 60s. In the late 70s, after becoming a licensed forester, I began to manage the property, and supervised a marked timber sale of mostly pole-sized white pine. The logs went to Claremont Lumber, a sawmill sawing white pine (that mill site is now a Walmart superstore). The lower grade logs went to Elmendorf, a facility also in Claremont that made Oriented Strand Board (OSB)—again a manufacturing facility now out of business. The timber sale was a thinning, removing the more poorly formed pine to favor those with potential to flourish. A few acres with trees too small to be marketable were purposely girdled. This was a cost-share practice supervised by Marshal Patmos as the County Forester (fortunately, the Extension Service and benefit of a County Forester have stood the test of time).

Fifteen years later I did another "thinning cut," using a cut-to-length system where trees are cut into sections at the stump and carried out of the woods by a forwarder. I removed more low-grade pine, firewood, and several loads of white birch. That birch went all the way to Westbrook, Maine as boltwood, a short log sawn into squares then turned on lathes to make beads, pot handles, and golf tees. At that time it seemed every woodlot had white birch, and the best market option was with Saunders Brothers in Maine. That company and the market are no longer—a result of competition from other countries, but also a decline in available resource. The forests in general are aging, and the shade-intolerant birch that came in with the pine reached maturity and got snuffed out by other species.

Another fifteen years later brought another thinning—and this time a major change was the development of a hardwood understory coming in under the pine. This understory was not intentional, and was initially unwelcome, as continuing to grow pine had been an objective. (However, the soils are fertile, and white pine seedlings just cannot compete against hardwoods.) This new understory forest included red maple, sugar maple, white ash, and a small number of beech with most stems showing the potential to develop into high-quality forest products—especially the sugar maple. Now the management focus shifted to the development of the hardwood as well as continuing to thin the pine.

This now brings us to last winter and the "final" cut of the pine overstory, which was at the same time a thinning of the understory. The objective was to leave enough overstory to shelter the sapling and pole hardwood, protecting them from ice or wind. Trees were cut with chainsaws and purposely directed to fall where damage to the understory could be minimized. It is now apparent that the cutting cycle of fifteen years can continue for at least two more times, removing a few more pine and retaining the better quality hardwoods. Another management option—given the proliferation of red and sugar maple—is that of a sugar bush. The slope is away from the current access, but when the maples reach tapping size, the advances in maple technology could make it a viable option.

My point is to illustrate the changes in the growth and maturity of our forests. The pine was big and straight, but more recently showed signs relating to overmaturity—with red rot, black knots, and optimum product value in decline. The understory patiently waited in anticipation for its turn in the sun. The frequency of harvests with continuing management has enabled this forest to maintain a vibrant forest of thrifty high-quality stems. The final cut doesn't relate to the end, but more to that of a beginning—accepting that nature will match species that are best suited to the evolution of our forests.

Written by: Peter Renzelman

CCCD Associate Board Member & Forester



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