By Amy Grotta, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension – Columbia, Washington & Yamhill Counties
Lately on this blog we’ve been discussing ways to grow a diverse forest. Many small woodland owners are interested in maintaining diversity on their land, yet strive to do it in a way that also brings in income from timber or other means. For these reasons, I was intrigued by the work of Julian Geisel, who recently wrapped up his master’s degree in the College of Forestry at OSU. His research topic, “Management Strategies for Small, Income Generating and Structurally Diverse Forests” is particularly relevant to small woodland owners. Julian’s research focused on private woodlands in western Oregon, representative of the vast majority of the owners that we work with in Extension. I interviewed Julian about his work.
What question did you set out to explore through your research?
I wanted to know what strategies help make it possible to generate income while maintaining or improving structural diversity on a small-scale forest. Most small woodland owners want or need to produce income from their property. Society values forest diversity, and so do many woodland owners, but many believe it’s not possible to maintain without sacrificing income. However, some woodland owners have been successful at it, and so I wanted to know if there were specific strategies or things they had in common, that other woodland owners could apply.
What methods did you use to accomplish this?
I conducted extensive interviews with six owners with between 25 – 150 acres in the Willamette Valley. These owners all had stated income generation and maintaining diversity as goals in their management plans. In the interviews, we discussed their management philosophy, successes and challenges they had in achieving their management goals, and resources or people that they relied upon. I used these interviews to look for patterns and evidence, and to validate my interpretation, I had another student independently review all the interview transcripts.
In addition, I did field assessments to try to quantify the extent to which these owners’ forests were structurally diverse. I looked at features of the overstory, understory, ground cover, and dead wood, for example. Then, I reviewed each landowner’s records to evaluate how much income they were producing. Finally, after doing all of this work and coming up with my own theories and ideas, I went back to each landowner for a second interview to confirm that my interpretations of what they said were correct.
How did the woodland owners that you interviewed describe structural diversity on their property, and why was this type of management important to them?
Well, structural diversity is sort of a technical term. Some talked about it in terms of having habitat, or areas for wildlife. Some described their property as being more “natural”, and others simply recognized diversity across the landscape; i.e. their property is different from their neighbors’ and that in itself created diversity. Their motivations varied, but included the desire to maintain a functioning ecosystem, reducing pest risk, having more options for selling timber, or simply wanting to do what they felt was best for the land.
Among the landowners, I found a continuum between those that were more income-driven, and those that were very passionate about the concept of diversity, but all of them incorporated some of both into the management of their forest. Some did not think there had to be a tradeoff between the two, some created diversity or income without necessarily intending to in the process of reaching another goal.
How did these owners make money from their forestland?
Some of the income generation strategies included: selling timber, selling specialty wood, renting out a residence on the property, leasing other parts of the property for grazing, selling firewood or boughs, and providing timber management services or equipment for other landowners. Sometimes owners would reinvest the profit from a one-time timber sale into a different type of asset that would provide a more regular cash flow.
Also important were strategies to save money, such as using firewood, construction materials and residential water from one’s own land; sharing resources with other woodland owners; keeping forest operations small and manageable so that the owners could do it themselves instead of hiring out; and learning how best to navigate the tax system.
Finally, owners emphasized the secondary benefits their forests provided, that had indirect value to them, such as mental health, stress reduction, physical fitness, and recreation.
What are the challenges to achieving structural diversity and income generation on a small acreage?
Scale is a problem. Landowners said that setting aside areas as ecological “preserves” is difficult when there are fewer acres to work with. All acres need to contribute to both income and diversity goals on very small properties Additionally, landowners recognized that there are many external factors influencing their forest that are both complex to understand, and hard to control – such as markets, tax systems, and regulations. These things, if not taken into proper consideration, can impinge on their goals.
If one were interested in balancing income generation and structural diversity, what seem to be the most important strategies to be successful?
Everyone mentioned that learning is a lifelong and continuous process. They combined learning by doing, and observing nature with listening to other people’s accounts during classes or by reading up on topics. Having mentors such as family members or neighbors and conducting little documented experiments characterized even more sophisticated managers.
Integrating their actions to achieve multiple goals is another important strategy. The landowners said that without much additional effort, by making small tweaks to their management they could produce income while maintaining or improving forest diversity, or vice versa. One memorable example was thinning plantations and leaving head-high snags. This action increased future income, created snags and made falling trees a little easier and faster.
Cultivating trusting relationships with others seem to be crucial. Forest management yielded successes quicker as a joint effort. So in the end, it’s not about the trees, it’s about people.
Congratulations to Julian on successful completion of his degree. He plans to post more information about his project at his website, http://smallforests.com/