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Five Reasons to Thin Your Forestland

Five reasons why it is vital to thin the trees in your forest, including wildfire risks, tree health, tree value, wildlife, and wildflowers.

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by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.

Do you own a few acres -- or more -- of forestland? Owning forested land takes work to maintain, but the rewards are worth it. Chances are, if you own forested land, the trees on it are overcrowded and unhealthy.

More than a decade ago, I fulfilled a dream -- a lifelong dream for me -- of owning (40 acres of) forestland... of owning my own forest. The land I bought was just that -- undeveloped land. It had been logged in the past, but it was dense and overgrown... the Ponderosa pine saplings almost like weeds, growing everywhere. At the time, I did not think it was a big deal that the forest was so thick; in fact, I kind of liked it for the privacy it offered.

Today, after bringing that forest to health, I moved on... found my dream partner, traveled the 48 states (seeing a LOT of overgrown forest) and have now again purchased raw land that had been logged in the 1990s and abandoned to nature... so we have a lot of work ahead of us to bring this forest back to health.

Owning forestland is a wonderful thing, but did you know that an overcrowded forest increases wildfire spread, weakens trees -- making them susceptible to diseases and harmful insects -- reduces the number and value of marketable trees, blocks growth of wildflowers and plants, and is unfavorable to wildlife?

Let's look at these five benefits to thinning your forest more closely:

1. Defensible Space. We live in Eastern Washington, where our summers get very dry... and when trees are so close together that their branches are overlapping, fire can more easily spread among the trees on your land... and the closer those trees are to your house, the more likely you'll lose your house in a wildfire... something firefighters refer to as fire ladders.

Groundbreaking research by the U.S. Forest Service in the late 1990s discovered how homes can ignite due to the effects of radiant heat of nearby trees and plant materials. Experts, such as the National Fire Protection Association, now say that people need to create two buffer zones -- one 30' and the other 100' -- to the forest.

While creating these zones will not guarantee your house will survive a wildfire, it gives it a fighting chance. More importantly, I know from personal experience as a volunteer firefighter that firefighters will work harder to protect a house that has a defensible space.

2. Healthy Forest. Abundant resources -- nutrients, sun, water -- what all trees want... but in an overcrowded forest, resources are stretched and many trees just fight for survival. According to numerous scientific studies, thinning increases tree vigor... tree health; it's the best practice you can do to increase the health of your trees.

In one study published in Forest Science journal, thinning lodgepole pines increased the vigor in remaining trees up to 60 percent... and their resistance to the mountain pine beetle.

In another study published in Forest Ecology and Management, low vigor Ponderosa pines were more likely to be attacked by bark beetles than high vigor trees.

Have you been in a forest and seen tress with an overabundance of cones? Lots of tall, skinny trees? Trees leaning over? All are the result of trees not receiving enough nutrients.

3. Timber Value. Trees that are properly spaced apart do not necessarily grow taller, but they do grow fatter in diameter... making them more valuable for people interested in earning money from logging their forests. Personally, I also love the look of big, fat trees!

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), thinning is one of the most important ways to influence tree and stand development. For crop trees (logging for lumber, etc.), thinning is THE best way to grow trees that will become the highest value for harvesting.

4. Wildflower and Brush Growth. Too many trees in a forest create what is called an overstory that blocks light from reaching the ground below -- the understory -- and thus greatly reduces natural forest grasses, wildflowers, and brush. The thinning process expands the diversity of your forest and improves the looks of it as well.

Increasing the diversity of your forest -- especially your understory -- leads to the final benefit... increasing wildlife.

5. Wildlife Benefits. Thinning your trees leads to understory growth, which then increases the food available for foraging wildlife -- as well as shelter for birds and other small animals.

Thinning also increases the open spaces in your forest, giving wildlife more avenues for traveling through your land.

Final Thoughts on Forest Thinning

Thinning your trees offers forest landowners many benefits, from better protection from wildfires to increased health and vigor of remaining trees to more highly-valued trees for logging to increased diversity of plants and wildlife. Remember when thinning your trees to also limb/prune up the remaining trees; for pines, the rule of thumb is one-third pruned up, two-thirds left with branches... doing so also helps the spread of fire and keeps the trees focused on growth.

Finally, most states offer cost-share programs to help forest landowners improve their stands (typically through your state's department of natural resources) ... these cost-share programs pay the landowner for doing the work themselves or for hiring tree-clearing services.

Finally, check out these additional forestry tips:

  • Forestry with Confidence: A Guide for Woodland Owners
  • WA DNR: Small Forest Landowner Office
  • Thinning: An Important Forest Management Tool
  • Tree Thinning 101
  • Why Thinning Forests Can Be Good
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    Avid wellness guru Dr. Randall S. Hansen Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., is an avid bicyclist, adventurist, environmentalist, and student of wellness and photography, with a mission of empowering others to lead great lives. He is Founder and CEO of EmpoweringSites.com, a network of empowering and transformative Websites. Dr. Hansen is also the founder and caretaker of this site, EmpoweringRetreat.com, as well as founder of EmpoweringAdvice.com, MyCollegeSuccessStory.com, and EnhanceMyVocabulary.com. He is a published author, with several books, chapters in books, and hundreds of articles. He's often quoted in the media and conducts empowering workshops around the country. Dr. Hansen is also an educator, having taught at the college level for more than 15 years. Learn more by visiting his personal Website, RandallSHansen.com or reach him by email at CEO(at)empoweringsites.com. You can also check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.

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