Four Decades of Management

The author on his land. Photo by Chris Churchill.

Dive-bombed by deer flies and jabbed by blackberry thorns, I was in a rush to cut down the beech trees that were blocking the growth of some young white pines, a preferred species for my hundred-acre tree farm in Epping, New Hampshire. But after years of woods work, I know that “in a rush” and “chainsaw” make a dangerous mix. There are a lot of things to do when managing a woodlot, so I decided to leave the beech for a cooler, less buggy day, opting instead to check on a stand of white pine a few hundred yards down a skidder trail.

During three major timber harvests on my land over the last three decades, I’ve been amazed by the hard work, skill, and team effort (well, most of the time) of the logging crews as they drop and drag trees marked for harvest. Looking back, it’s hard to envision that I would ever cut any trees, let alone thousands of board feet of them. As a boy in Haverhill, Massachusetts, I spent whole afternoons in the woods surrounding Round Pond behind my parents’ house. Those tall pines became my buddies. And as the modern environmental movement picked up steam while I was in college at Tufts in the late 1960s, I certainly would have checked the tree hugger box.

That arboreal ardor helped shape my decision to buy some woodland of my own a few years after I graduated. I wanted 10 acres or so to build a small house, preferably along a creek. I ended up with a much bigger parcel abutting the Pawtuckaway River. Except for some isolated signs of cutting, most of the overgrown forest seemed largely untouched since the early 1900s, when it reclaimed cropland and pastures memorialized by stone walls stacked by the Folsom family, who owned and worked this land for centuries before me.

I found a spot to build my little house next to the creek. Unable to afford finished lumber, I hired a local logger to cut enough pine to give me rough-cut framing timber and for him to make some money. But his tree-cutting decisions were based more on what was most efficient for him, not necessarily best for the forest. Troubled by how the land looked after the job, I sought advice from a forester with the county extension service. Walking the land with me, he provided my first real lesson in how to see the trees for the forest. He noted areas where too many or the wrong trees were cut and others where the land and surrounding forest were unnecessarily damaged. Moving deeper into the woods, he pointed out sections that looked nicely dark and deep, but were not healthy. Struggling for room to grow, the trees were crooked and scrawny, with bare lower branches. And too many trees means too little light reaching the forest floor to stimulate the growth of seeds and acorns. Given the soils and other characteristics of my land, he suggested I encourage more economically valuable species such as oak and white pine to balance the abundance of hemlock, maple, and other attractive but less marketable trees.

Four Decades of Management Image

A timber harvest in 2009. Photo by Phil Primack.

So while I got my 2x6 lumber for my house from that first cut, I also got a lesson: Much as I thought I cared for my woods, I didn’t really have a clue about how to properly manage them.

I hired a forester, aptly named Chip Chapman, to develop a forest management plan. These plans are the blueprint for smart and sustainable woodland practices. They describe the land’s current condition, such as soil types, vernal pools, topography, and drainage patterns. They note special historic and natural features – my plan marks the locations of a half-dozen trees notable for their size or age – as well as rare and endangered species.

This plan was the basis for two timber harvests in the mid-1990s. Chip marked the trees, contracted with the crews, and oversaw the work. I observed but kept out of the way. Rather than taking out and profiting from commercially valuable trees, the goal of these first operations was to thin out overcrowded sections –to remove low-quality trees, leaving behind stronger ones to keep growing and to seed healthy offspring that would now have room to thrive in newly created open patches.

The land can look badly scarred after a timber harvest, even one that’s professionally planned and carefully conducted. Standing trees can get snapped off or dinged by equipment. Piles of branches and other woody debris known as slash dot the woods. Rutted and often muddy logging runs leave some parts of the land nearly unrecognizable. This battered appearance can deter nervous landowners from even thinking about logging their properties – I was a bit overwhelmed during my first cut – but it doesn’t take long for the woods to recover, for the mud and gouges to disappear, and for rabbits and other wildlife to find homes in the slash, which decomposes to replenish the soil.

Chip also suggested that I seek certification through the American Tree Farm System. In New Hampshire, that requires, among other things, at least 10 acres (check), a written management plan (check), and “commitment to harvesting forest products in a silviculturally sound manner” (check, I hoped). After filing the paperwork and an on-the-land inspection, I was approved in 1999. The green Certified Tree Farm sign, its four edges declaring the program’s goals of Wildlife, Recreation, Wood, and Water, is proudly posted at the entry to my woodland.

Four Decades of Management Image

White pine regeneration alongside a skidder trail. Photo by Phil Primack.

It’s been more than 40 years since I first fought an army of mosquitoes to visit this land. It’s taken the contributions of many, including my current forester, Charles Moreno, to get these woods into a condition that feels right. Former skid runs now form a trail network across the property. White pine and other species are thriving, to be harvested someday by me or some successor to keep up with the management plan (and to help pay the hefty New Hampshire property tax). Mighty white oaks shed acorns to feed deer and other wildlife, which find winter protection in the shelter of thick hemlocks. Clear-cut patches yield new growth that provides food and building materials for beavers, who create ponds and wetlands that benefit two- and four-legged creatures alike. And I’m doing my small part to fight climate change: an acre of trees absorbs as much CO2 in a year as a car emits in 26,000 miles of driving.

In 1998, I granted a conservation easement on most of the property to the Southeast Land Trust of New Hampshire, protecting the land from development. Well-managed forestry work is still permitted, even encouraged.

I don’t know who will own these woods after I become compost, but I hope they do as well for me as I hope I have done for the owner before me, Mary Folsom Blair. She was a conservationist long before the term was popular and kept amazing journals. “Oh, the pink and white beauties half hidden in the leaves, the brawling stream, the soft breeze, the balmy air,” this Quaker school teacher wrote in a 1908 entry. “Then the next day by the meadow dam, looking up at the blue sky from the foot of the pines. It is a long look up to those pines. How they swing and sway so gracefully when the wind blows. And Macduff and Box, the collies, on guard at head and feet. Such moments are worth living for.”

I’m pretty sure I know exactly the place where she and her dogs were sitting. The meadow is now a beaver pond. Tall pines still abound. May they forever swing and sway.

Adapted for Northern Woodlands from an article that first appeared in Tufts Magazine, that university’s alumni publication. This series is sponsored by the Stifler Family Foundation, in support of forestry practices that promote healthy and sustainable forests and wildlife habitat.

 
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