Overcoming high grading

In 2006 when I first visited a 140-acre tract in the Sinking Creek Valley of Craig County, Virginia, I was too excited about the fresh turkey scratching I found and the deer I glimpsed to examine the property’s qualities more carefully. Later that month after I had purchased the land and thoroughly inspected it, I realized that a previous owner had high graded the timber several decades ago.

Donnie Buckland, NWTF’s grasslands and agricultural manager, explained what high grading is and why this practice is a problem for hunters and land managers. 

“High grading is a logging practice that removes the best and highest value trees – often oaks, sugar maples and cherries or other valuable species – and leaves the rest,” he said. “The remnants are often low-value, diseased or deformed trees. The landowner might gain a quick profit on an investment, but that immediate financial gain is brief, considering the stand may be sacrificed for the future.” 

Similarly, Buckland continued, timber buyers also may be looking for the greatest profits. A diameter-limit cut might also result in high grading. This is when any high-value tree with a diameter at chest height that exceeds an arbitrary number of inches is cut and the remaining trees left. The diameter, defined for grade one logs by the USDA Forest Service, is at least 16 inches. 

“Things can be made even worse if a few years later, a second, high-grading cut is made on top value trees that had since grown and weren’t cut the first time,” Buckland said. “Of course, high grading’s impact on turkeys and other wildlife is negative because usually what is left are low quality cull and non-bearing mast trees such as poplars, red maples and others.” 

High grading was more common in the past when landowners and timber buyers were not as informed and ethical as they are today about the damaging effects, Buckland said. If landowners find themselves with a property, or consider buying a property, that has been high graded, Buckland urges them to contact a state or private forester for assistance.

“A professional forester can help a landowner determine how to deal with a past high grading,” he said. “Sometimes, it might be better for a stand for the landowner to clear-cut what is left and start all over. Other times, a forester might recommend targeted clear-cutting here and there. 

“Another possibility would be to conduct timber stand improvement around the property so that young, mast producing trees could receive more sunlight. Landowners should also visit their local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service office to see if any financial assistance is available for improvements.”

Additionally, some foresters might recommend planting various hard and soft mast producers. The best solution could depend on a host of factors, including the status of the high-graded property’s tree species and the composition of adjacent and nearby woodlots on other private parcels, as well as public land. Again, Buckland emphasized, a professional state or consulting forester would be of great help in making this determination. Professionals can help landowners best design a management plan for their property that factors in wildlife, aesthetics and recreation, as well as future timber production. 

On my land, I had both Virginia Department of Forestry and private foresters visit. After much discussion, I clear-cut one 12-acre section and, with my chainsaw, performed Timber Stand Improvement in several places to free up mast producers. On an 8-acre section, I found patches where cherry trees and young northern red and black oaks were growing, so those trees were spared and the rest clear-cut.

“I want to emphasize that it could take an entire generation for a woodlot to recover from the effects of high grading,” Buckland said. “Landowners would have to understand that they personally might never see the results of their actions to restore a woodlot to health. But they could be content knowing they had done the right thing for the property’s long-term health.”

— Bruce Ingram

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