Notes from a County Forester: What is High-Grading
By: Ethan Tapper, Chittenden County Forester
If you are even tangentially involved with the world of forest management, you have probably heard the term “high-grading” or “high-grade logging.” These terms refer to the ugly underbelly of the world of logging, where loggers or landowners have engaged in timber harvesting purely targeted at the pursuit of the almighty dollar. I thought that in this article it would be helpful to discuss high-grading, what it is, and how it affects us.
High-grading is the process of cutting the highest-value trees in a forest while leaving behind all or most poor-quality, low-value trees. High-grading is not done as a part of a comprehensive management strategy, but rather as an economic means for extracting dollars from a forest in the most efficient way possible. High-grading is a purely extractive practice without consideration for any ecological variables, more like drilling or mining than anything one could call sustainable forest management.
There was a time when the prevailing wisdom was to “cut the big trees to let the little trees grow.” Loggers or farmers would cut the biggest and most valuable timber out of their woodlots and return years later to forests well-stocked with more valuable trees to be cut. The amazing resilience or forests in New England, which seem to be able to respond to any disturbance with abundant growth and regeneration, made this idea possible. It wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that the forest management community began to recognize the effects of high-grading on forests, and change their tune. It became clear that high-grade logging leads to stands which are less healthy, less valuable and less productive in the future.
So, what impact does high-grading have over the long term? Research shows us that while high-grading provides a large initial payoff, stands which were more responsibly managed produce the same amount of income over time, but are exponentially higher in quality and health than high-graded stands. High-graded stands have less species and structural diversity, which means they are less resilient to disease, natural disturbance events, and invasive species, and feature poorer wildlife habitat in general. Additionally, because of the low value of high-graded stands, they often must be managed using more disruptive logging equipment and techniques in order to make them healthy again.
My land in Bolton is a good example of this, as it was high-graded by a previous owner. The extent to which this practice fundamentally altered the character of the forest is stunning. Loggers aggressively targeted certain high-value species (in my case, mostly red oak) for removal, leaving behind a monocrop of diseased beech and red maple. Structural diversity is low, with virtually all large trees removed, and the understory is dominated by non-commercial regeneration. As a result, my only recourse as a landowner has been to regenerate large areas by removing as much unhealthy stocking as I can, which requires intensive logging. Even with this aggressive intervention, it will be decades until the effects of high-grading are diminished in my forest.
There is nothing wrong with harvesting large, valuable trees. Cutting mature timber is part of how new forest are regenerated and how landowners realize economic benefits from forest ownership, which helps them pay their taxes and fund additional stewardship activities on their land, de-incentivizing subdivision, and development. Most responsible timber harvests involve the removal of mostly low-grade material (pulp, firewood, and chips) in addition to some high-value logs and veneer from trees that are mature or declining. The removal of these mature stems should be done as part of a well-thought-out management strategy to encourage regeneration or release healthy, immature stems. Harvests like this elevate the quality and health of trees in our forest while compensating landowners and loggers, and providing loggers with an economic incentive to cut the job.
This fall there are a lot of acorns on the ground. I see them being eaten by deer, bear, turkeys, squirrels, and chipmunks. I’ll bet those acorns taste awful good, but I also think of how many acorns an oak tree would cast if all those animals would just let them sprout and grow. Those animals remind me of loggers and landowners who engage in high-grading, trading a short-term payout for the long-term goal, and valuing their bank accounts over the well-being of future generations.
Ethan Tapper is the Chittenden County Forester. He can be reached by phone at (802)-585-9099, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at his office at 111 West Street, Essex Junction.