Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Why the Forestry “Profession” Should Harshly Criticize High-Grading

The below opinion piece was originally printed in the Winter 2016 issue of the National Woodlands magazine, of the National Woodland Owners Association. It addresses such an important topic and a common problem here in Pennsylvania that I received permission from the author as well as the magazine editor to reprint it here. Please feel free to write a response and share your thoughts after reading it.

Why the Forestry “Profession” Should Harshly Criticize High-Grading
by Dan Pubanz 

In the Autumn 2015 issue of National Woodlands was an article discussing why landowners high-grade their forests. While the explanations of these causes are clear, the concluding paragraph stated that “the forestry profession should be careful about harshly criticizing these short-term actions until we can provide long-term movement toward sustained yields while meeting short term economic and ecological needs.” If the forestry profession truly considers itself a reputable profession, it should vigorously disagree with this statement.

The woods on left were high graded 20 years ago, the right likely awaits the same fate.
While a lack of landowner understanding can often be a cause of high-grading, in many cases, high-grading is actually implemented by formally trained foresters.  In the most egregious situations, it is knowingly imposed by the forester on an unknowledgeable landowner.  Even more insidious are the more subtle degrades that take just the highest-quality trees from a forest and camouflage it by also taking a few other lower-grade trees. Foresters have long lamented the public’s poor perception of the practice of forestry and the forestry profession. Every high-graded woodlot only reinforces that perception and we are kidding ourselves of we think it doesn’t. Landowners are free to do with their land as they see fit and landowner-instigated high-grading will continue. However, a forester should never be involved in that process.

The problem of high-grading lies, fundamentally, with a lack of ethics. In forestry, we are asked to condone short-term greed that produces long-term detrimental impacts, both to the land and to the community. While other professions have standards that are supposed to curtail short-term greed (at least in theory), in forestry we accept this greed with a shrug. High-grading a forest is not justifiable even if driven by financial need. It would be far better for a cash-strapped landowner, before degrading the forest’s productivity, to sell the forest to someone who has the ethics to manage for long term sustainability.

High-graded acreage is a primary driver impeding movement toward sustained yield. Once a woodlot is high-graded, poor quality timber will occupy the site for generations before another harvest producing high-quality products can occur. In many cases, we are managing lands today that were high-graded decades ago. These lands are still far below their productive capacity and decades from being capable of sustainably producing sawlogs. We harvest the low-grade cordwood in an effort to improve their degraded condition and to supply markets with some fiber. Arguments that we should continue to accept unsustainable high-grading until we reach long-term sustainability are mystifying, at best.

Since at least 2005, the Society of American Forester’s position has been that an SAF forester’s obligation to the SAF Code of Ethics would be met as long as the forester explained the negative consequences of high-grading to the landowner. In short, foresters expect that as long as we explain the negatives, we are absolved of any responsibility for the adverse consequences. It is unlikely that the American Medical Association would accept such an approach. A better approach is found in the Forest Stewards Guild Principles, which state, in part: “When the management directives of clients or supervisors conflict with the Mission and Principles of the Guild [which preclude high-grading], and cannot be modified through dialogue and education, a forester or natural resource professional should disassociate.” The public will never regard forestry as a true profession until the “profession” takes a firm stand against any and all high-grading, and eliminates forester involvement with high-grading.

High-grading is never defensible and should always be harshly criticized by the forestry profession.

Dan is a consulting forester who manages Wolf River Forestry LLC in Shawano, Wisconsin.


John Mc said...

Nicely written. I wish more forest professionals would follow the Forest Steward's Guild policies.

John Matel said...

Good article. People unfamiliar with forestry often think of high-grading as "selective cutting. Indeed, landowners makes the choices, but, as you say, they should be actively discouraged for doing what is not in the best interests of their forests. Thank you for writing this.

Edward Jedrziewski said...

This opinion piece seems to be highly generalized, more than a little emotional, and not consistent with my observations related to a 400 acre parcel in Rush Township, Centre County, just to the west of the Allegheny Front. It does not recognize the dynamic nature of forest generation in this area and assumes that there is a steady state condition of sustainable yield

My observations are those of an 84 year old retired engineer who was born in the area and has observed changes to the forest ecology and has harvested timber. I can conclude that there has been nothing but change from my earliest memories to this day.

My early memories are of the valleys and hollows filled with the remnants of stumps left over from the days the virgin pines and hemlocks were harvested, the hills having hardwoods usually no taller than about 25 feet, small pastures and farm plots devoid of trees, and hawthorns no larger than shrubs because they were grazed by the free ranging cows.

The parcel I now own was dominated by scrub oaks, typical of the type then found along the ridge in State Game Lands 60. For much of my youth, the scrub oak was about waist high in the game lands.

As time went on, the hardwoods dominated the scrub oak, and there is none to be found in my parcel. The trees matured to the extent that we conducted the first hardwood harvest ever in 1995. At this time we had some red oaks up to about 25 inches in diameter.

I had heard so much about the evils of high grade harvesting that I was surprised that the forester recommended taking everything over 14 inches in diameter. When I questioned him, he pointed out that we had a lot of healthy trees of smaller diameter just waiting for their chance to make use of the light they would receive.

Now it is twenty years later, and we are doing a second high grade harvest in the same area. The timber volume is nearly the same as the first, although the tree count is a bit higher. The conclusion here is that high grading was the sensible thing to do in 1995.

An additional conclusion is that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to high grading. Emotion should be kept out of the decision and sensible practices should be selected to fit the circumstances.

John Matel said...

Mr. Jedrziewski

Truly interesting to have your long term perspective. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for submitting the article on admonishing the practice of highgrading. I’ve stated that we face four significant threats to sustainable forestry in PA: Deer, Forest Conversion, Invasive Species, and Highgrading, not necessarily in that order! But industry and many formally trained foresters continue to do the latter and cast a blind eye. Very frustrating to me. I am convinced that 50% of the time it happens, landowners knowingly do it with full intention of short term profits. The other 50% happens with industry and many consultants that don’t educate landowners enough about the detrimental effects of it. I am convinced through FS research that 80% of the harvests on private lands are highgrades or diameter limit cuts. If we truly “disassociated” ourselves as foresters from getting involved in it, the percentage may drop to 50% or less. The Forest Guild is ramping up in the research end, but may never provide the best avenues to expand the mind that SAF does. However, their Code of Ethics completely stamps out SAF in terms of what a forester should be and do.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. It appears that DCNR is practicing an extreme form of highgrading when they go in and cut down every tree on the ridge tops in southern Potter County. It will be many generations before any timber harvest will take place on these tracts.

Anonymous said...

"Cutting every tree on the ridge top" is not highgrading my friend. Cutting every tree is considered a clear-cut or an overstory removal. And before either treatment is implemented, an abundance of desirable regeneration must be noted in a stand evaluation, also known as stand analysis. This "stand analysis" will support what is being conducted on your ridge tops.

David Maass said...

High-grading is an evil practice. Without markets for low-grade material, however, it's difficult to to cut out poor quality material and have a logger or mill pay the landowner for it. Loggers, even to good ones, are loath to put any effort into cutting a tree and leave it. And many landowners don't have the wherewithal to cut out the junk. Until the markets recognize some value for even low-grade material, it will be difficult to get a true silvicultural timber harvest.

Lois E Brenneman, MSN, FNP said...

A combination of greed and ignorance results in this practice. There is also issues of a lack of value and appreciation for old-stand forests. It would be a cold day in hell before I would allow anyone to take any wood from my land. I appreciate my large trees for the beauty and value they add to my land. Of course, there is a need for hardwoods. I will be the first to admit that I love hardwood furniture. My feeling is that wood should be harvested from land exclusively dedicated for this purpose much as is done with wood for paper production. I have nothing but contempt for persons who allow loggers onto their land simply to line their own pockets. Anyone setting foot on my land to approach me for permission to log my trees would be treated to a diatribe which would make a truck driver blush. His visit would be a short one and he'd never be back again.