See the Forest For the Trees

By Keith Robinson

It’s not uncommon for Ward Wilkins to pack a lunch, walk into his 36 acres of forest in the morning and not be seen again until sunset.

There, he might be cutting down a tree ready for harvesting, or he might be clearing out the dreaded bush honeysuckle on the forest carpet. All the while he is spending some time amid the tranquility of his woods.

“It’s a peaceful place to be,” he says. “I never come out in a bad mood.”

Wilkins is among woodlands owners whom Purdue University forestry experts say do it right—stewards who care deeply about the natural resource of their property and manage it well so it can thrive for future generations to enjoy. He has taken the research-based advice of Purdue’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources on how to effectively manage his woodlands to meet his objectives and has offered his land for field work for FNR and agronomy students.

Wilkins himself is a fifth-generation farmer of 620 acres of family-owned land near Linden in west-central Indiana. In addition to the woodlands, the land is used for growing crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. For the Wilkins family, a management plan has been a long-term commitment. It has to be for forestland, which requires nurturing over many years to produce what an owner wants from it.

Wilkins sells wood that he cuts from a variety of trees: white and red oak, white ash, black cherry, black walnut, Kentucky coffee bean and hickory.

He doesn’t know what percentage of his total income comes from wood sales—only that it is very small, hardly worth mentioning. For him, selling wood is an excellent way to “fill in the winter” after the crops have been harvested and make a little extra money. In fact, because his woodlands involve few costs, they historically have generated more net income per acre than his traditional row crops, at least until commodity prices skyrocketed in recent years.

Indiana Gaining Forest Acreage

Surprisingly, there is more forestland in Indiana now than there was 15-20 years ago—4.7 million acres, up 200,000. Purdue Extension forester Lenny Farlee cites several reasons for this.

• The livestock industry’s move from raising animals outdoors to indoors has resulted in gradual, natural conversion of some pastures and haylands to forestland.

• Conservation programs encouraging landowners to plant trees have returned marginal agricultural land to forests.

• Grass, brush and wetlands habitats are becoming forests as more trees grow up in those areas.

“That being said, I think we recognize the potential for a slowdown or even a reverse,” Farlee says.

He is concerned that high prices farmers are receiving for their crops these days will tempt some to convert forestland to farmland so they can grow more crops. That could be a mistake because some forest soil and terrain is unsuitable for farming.

Urban sprawl—the expansion of cities into rural areas—continues to cut into woodlands, although the pace has slowed as proposed housing and retail developments are put on hold in a weak economy.

Farlee considers invasive plant species the biggest threat to forests. One, bush honeysuckle, is native to Asia and Eastern Europe and promoted in the U.S. as an ornamental plant, as an erosion control, and to provide cover and food for wildlife. But it spreads rapidly, forming dense canopies that hinder development of tree seedlings.

Purdue Extension offers programs such as educational field days and an eight-week course to help woodlands owners solve such problems and better manage their property. It also has publications on topics that include marketing timber and improving forest health.

Reasons to Manage

The state and federal governments offer incentives to property owners who agree to manage their woodlands. About 600,000 acres, including Wilkins’ 36, are enrolled in the Indiana Classified Forest and Wildlands Program, which requires that the land be protected from development, livestock grazing and destructive practices that threaten the natural resource. In return, the land is assessed at only $1 per acre for property tax purposes.

There also is incentive in the monetary value of hardwood, used in making furniture, flooring and veneer. Wilkins says some black walnut trees can bring thousands of dollars. Indiana grows some of the best black walnut and white oak in the world.

“So if you’ve got some of them you’ve got to manage them well to get the most value out of them,” he says.

Highly prized trees in well-managed woodlands can increase in value by 6-8 percent a year—even more in a stronger economy, when the housing demand for hardwoods is greater.

Some owners, especially those with very small parcels, might not want anything from their woodlands other than to enjoy the view.

That is a property owner’s right, notes Liz Jackson of FNR and executive director of the Indiana Forestry and Woodland Owners Association, which has more than 800 members with 125,000 acres of forests. But she says well-managed woodlands ensure that old trees will be replaced with the new, called regeneration, and that the view will be pleasing for years to come.

“Many property owners believe their woodlands are very important and feel a real connection,” she says. “Others drive by every day and take them for granted. But if we think about the wonderful aesthetics we have in our woodlands, it brings us a value that you can’t put a price tag on.”

Woodlands do more than give us a nice view and contribute more than $9 billion to Indiana’s economy annually through recreation, tourism, manufacturing and sales of forest products. Jackson says they help to filter the water we drink, clean the air we breathe, offer recreation, and provide food and shelter to wildlife.