Use the right tool for the job for forest improvement

Forest conservation or restoration requires a pretty big toolbox. Some of the tools we often see and talk about are timber thinning/removal and prescribed fire. But like any other project, a one-or-two-tool solution doesn’t always work. You shouldn’t use a hammer to tighten a bolt, for instance, and you shouldn’t use a wrench to drive a nail. And in many cases, using a combination of tools is best for long-term effects.

In the land-manager’s toolbox are a variety of specialized tools designed for specific applications, and while thinning and burning are excellent, efficient tools, they’re not always appropriate for every situation.

First, let’s briefly identify when you need to even pull out your toolbox. When does a forest need improvement; how can you tell?

A great indicator of the health of a forest is by looking at the wildlife that are there or absent. In forest habitats across the country, there are indicator species that can provide good feedback on the health of the landscape. Wild turkeys are one; quail, another. Birds are the easiest to identify without seeing them because you can listen for their calls. But in each region, big game species also provide feedback on the quality of the habitat.

Another indicator is the presence of invasive plants and trees. In South Carolina, for instance, privet hedge, once planted for decorative purposes around homes or to provide privacy, is a scourge in some landscapes and competes with plants and trees that are beneficial to wildlife. In Florida, it’s saw palmetto and prickly pear cactus. In the West, salt and red cedar are issues. Insert your state here, and you know the offenders in your area.

Stands of dead trees, killed by insects, disease, fire, flooding or any number of causes, are a blight on the forest’s beauty, but more importantly, they threaten the safety of forest users as they fall and are prime fuel sources to feed wildfires.

This short article can’t provide every possible scenario to determine the health of your forest, but contacting your local Natural Resources Conservation Office, an NWTF forester or your state forestry agency can give you the guidance you need as well as help you create a plan to improve/rehabilitate your woodlands.

Back to the tool box…

In addition to tree removal/thinning and burning, there are a number of other mechanical and chemical treatments that will help you achieve the desired outcome for your forest. Let’s touch on a few that you may find useful on your land.

Mastication — This gets its name because, like chewing your food, this powered, mechanical tool uses teeth on a rotating drum, to chew up small-diameter trees, brush and other undergrowth to open the forest floor to sunlight. This is a great option for smaller woodlots near residences/neighborhoods, the topography is such that fire isn’t appropriate or allowed or there is an immediate need to remove vegetation. The waste mulch created can decompose and introduce organic material back into the soil. There are many companies that can provide this service on your land at a reasonable cost based on a per-hour or per-acre basis.

Herbicide — Herbicide application often requires training, knowledge of the chemicals and personal protective equipment, but herbicides can be a quick way to treat a large area for invasive plants and trees. Specific chemicals target specific types of vegetation, so discuss your options with an agricultural extension agent or a forester identify the appropriate chemical for your use. The cons of chemicals are potential impacts to untargeted trees and water sources, expense, and, in some cases, certification.

Roller Chopping — When addressing large swaths of invasive vegetation like palmettos and salt cedar, a roller, or drum, chopper might be the right tool. Usually pulled behind a bull dozer or other large equipment, the chopper is a bladed drum that knocks down and then chops up offending vegetation. It is often used in combination with another treatment, such as followed by herbicid application or prescribed fire.

While this is just a short list of alternative forest treatments to fire and logging, the next time you pull out your toolbox to improve habitat and health on your property, make sure you use the right tool for the job.

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