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Management Options for Northern Hardwood Forest Types
Article #106, April 2006
By Bill Cook

     Forest management practices vary considerably across forest types, site conditions, market availability, and many other factors. There simply is not any single way or best way to manage all forests, or even a particular kind of forest. While nature is a dynamic system that defies simple categorization, there remains a body of knowledge and experience that can be very effectively applied.     

     Northern hardwoods display this diversity more than any other Lake States forest type. The term "northern hardwoods" refers to forests dominated by sugar maple, basswood, beech, and yellow birch. There are dozens of other possible components that vary widely. White pine and hemlock are particularly important species for enhancing wildlife habitat and are the focus of many forest "restoration" efforts.

     Northern hardwoods are the dominant forest cover in Michigan and Wisconsin. These associations are the final stage in several vegetation succession pathways. As our forests age and mature, more and more area becomes occupied by northern hardwoods, at the expense of other forest types. Because major component species also have high monetary values, some forest owners use management to push their forests more quickly towards northern hardwoods.

     Northern hardwoods can be managed using either all-aged or even-aged systems. On more productive sites, all-aged management will produce the highest quality timber and most resemble what many consider to be natural. On less productive sites, even-aged systems frequently work well.

     An all-aged, or uneven-aged, management system is what we often call the selection system. Stands are entered every 10-15 years and a range of trees are removed. The result is a better quality stand. The harvest involves a mix of thinnings and high value trees, taken from all size classes. This should not be confused with a "select cut" as is too often practiced. The difference lies in which trees are "selected." If the harvest does not improve stand quality, then it is not good forestry.

     Individual tree selection spreads the thinning and harvest more uniformly across the stand. This version of the selection system maximizes sugar maple regeneration and development. Group selection removes trees in variable concentrations in order to increase tree species diversity, especially those species that require more sunlight than sugar maple. Selection management mimics the ecological processes that naturally work in northern hardwoods.

     Even-aged management in northern hardwoods can be variations of shelterwood or clearcutting systems. While often considered less desirable than the selection system, even-aged management has its place. On many sites, high quality timber may not be achievable due to site limitations. Clearcutting larger areas of northern hardwoods may be one way to regenerate stands in areas where high deer densities destroy regeneration produced through selection management.

     Shelterwood harvests remove successive amounts of overstory with the idea of stimulating regeneration and "nursing" the young trees into a replacement stand. Once the new forest is obtained, the overstory is then removed. The full sunlight then accelerates the growth of the new forest. Shelterwood management works particularly well with certain other forest types, such as oaks, but has applications in northern hardwoods, too.

     Northern hardwoods, particularly sugar maple, produce some of the most monetarily valuable trees in North America. Sawtimber and veneer are typically bought from forest owners in units of 1000 board feet, or MBF. In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, high quality sugar maple can sell for over $1000 per MBF. That means harvesting only a few hundred trees can net several tens of thousands of dollars, every 10-15 years.

     The key, of course, is "quality" in the trees. Growing sugar maple, and certain other tree species, to meet high value specifications takes good forest management on a productive site. The science is well understood and the techniques are no secret. However, a stand in poor condition may require several decades of recovery and professional management before a high quality condition can be achieved. Management will produce a high quality stand in less time and in greater abundance than leaving things to nature.

     Larger sugar maple trees are not necessarily more valuable. On many of our soil types, discoloration and rotting agents become present when the trees are 14-16 inches in diameter. On other soils, this process may not occur until trees grow to over 20 inches. Knowing the situation in your area is important when determining how to maximize the dollar value of a harvest. A number of other conditions introduce defect and quality degrades. Variable markets can also influence what may or may not be acceptable.

     Northern hardwood management can be the most complex among our Lake States forests. Many variables must be evaluated and combined in order to meet forest owner objectives. Timber marking requires considerable experience and knowledge. Timber harvesting requires a skilled logger appropriately using equipment. Professional consultation becomes more important with northern hardwoods than any other forest type. However, the future of northern hardwoods looks good, especially if you have the right forest on the right ground.

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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at cookwi@msu.edu or 906-786-1575.

Prepared by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005 J Road, Escanaba, MI  49829
906-786-1575 (voice),  906-786-9370 (fax),  e-mail:  cookwi@msu.edu

Use / reprinting of these articles is encouraged. Please notify Bill Cook.
By-line should read "Bill Cook, MSU Extension" Please use the article trailer whenever possible.

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