While much of what permaculture focuses on is agriculture, one of my main impetuses of getting involved with the movement was indeed timber and forestry. Seeing the affects in both my hometown state of Ohio in Wayne National Forest and then out west in the Redwoods in Northern California, well I was shocked and appalled. While the local foods scene has grown in order to combat industrial agriculture, it is indeed harder to enter into the local timber scene but a very vital crux of reversing the damage. It is not impossible and the aim for this article is to highlight just how pivotal this issue is and options. Humans seem to have an insatiable thirst for lumber and pulp. Consequently, forestry monocultures still remain an enormous production system and its cascading negative environmental impacts such as a decline in biodiversity and the hydrological cycle. While it would be great if we didn’t use lumber, well it is indeed part of our modern system. And we can lessen this need but most likely, we will never eliminate it.
Trees are grown like any other crop, for a harvest in the end. The end product of a trees life maybe high end furniture for the Chinese market, pulp for toilet paper in the EU, or a wooden spoon sold at Ikea or a local farmers market. Forests hold crops of diversity while a key distinction must be made around language in this moment. Plantation, is a monoculture and not a forest. Forests have inherent diversity with multiple layers. While plantations may have multiple layers through the weeds that have grown, the monoculture style does not make it a forest. It is the diversity that makes it a forest. In forestry operations trees are most often grown in plantations for the end goal of harvest or clear cuts of biodiverse forests occur. This is because like any other monoculture, it requires specialized and expensive equipment juiced up on fossil fuels. So when people say trees are being planted, if they are a monoculture, they are most likely not providing the ecosystem services that forests do. Moreover, timber is extracted from diverse forests as well, sometimes sustainably, which can actually spur growth and forest health, and mostly it is not sustainable. Monocultures can also lead to devastating and horribly tragic fires as is the case nearly every year in Portugal these days with its extensive pine and Eucalyptus production.
Permaculture Timber and Forestry: Personal Account
Since 1983, my family has owned Treasure Lake in Northern Kentucky, USA and most of the land is wooded; around 40 acres or 16 ha of hardwoods. The woodlands are an oak, hickory, and walnut forest complex forming the main canopy species (mixed mesophytic). It is extremely diverse and has been lightly logged twice in the time we have owned it. The first one I don’t remember but in late 2012, I was around for the second. My grandfather comes from the south in the states where many of his relatives had Pine plantations so the idea of cutting the forest was something he had talked about for years. When he tried to do it 10 years before there was no market for our extremely valuable hardwoods. However with the growth of China and their moratorium of cutting trees in their country, our mills had been restarted and funded through supply and demand economics. They had the demand, we had the supply. So I talked extensively to the logger before he cut. I told him we weren’t looking to take out too much and to not overdue it. I feel he and his crew did a good job of that. It still is hard to walk around and see the stumps and tree tops strewn about the forest. It was only 25 trees, but yielded $30,000, which we split with the logger. It was a rough economic time for the project, so I helped facilitate the process rather than fighting it. The results were an augmented canopy, poorly put in logging roads but in nonetheless, and subsequent blow downs of other trees near by. The forest changed, and well honestly there was a lot more paw paw and spicebush trees as this canopy break did cause new forest dynamics.
Video from the Paw Paw Master Class.
Timber and Forestry Considerations
If you do own forested land, you do have the choice to gain economically from the forest. While I always advocate for non timber forest products first, again I know my own observations from the years after this harvest mentioned in the personal account above.
More light came into the understory which means explosive growth of paw paw, spicebush and sugar maple; all non timber forest products (NTFP). Also the tree tops left behind I did harvest some firewood but now that these tree tops are seven years old, the oaks are yielding chicken of the woods mushrooms, another NTFP. It did bring in some more non native Bush Honeysuckle but that is so rampant anyways that I am not bothered by it because I do extensive chop and drop throughout our wooded area of the non natives. The roads did also bring new access which have been utilized through walking tours and hunters, again NTFP. Because they were poorly designed it did cause erosion and siltation but I did extensive, miles worth, of log jams, one rock dams, and other measures to restore natural hydrology. This is an important mission and forestry logging roads are polluting for sure.
Moreover, if we would have cut more or what is called high grading the forest, there would have been a negative impact. High grading is where you take every tree that is valuable and what is left takes a very long time to regenerate. It leaves scrub forest behind and lots of non natives and often less wildlife habitat. Most of our trees that are harvested are also mast producing like Black Walnut and Oaks. The loggers do often leave the hickories behind so sometimes our Oak-Hickory-Walnut forests turn much more the hickory side of things.
Again, the logging roads did cause erosion and although there are measures in place to reduce erosion they weren’t very well built. They put them in through utilizing a bulldozer, which is also how they extract the logs out. This means it is easy for the loggers to move harvested logs around the poorly designed trails because of the horsepower behind the bulldozer but future use isn’t as easy with less horsepower. This is the reason horses were once pivotal in the logging industry because they didn’t require roads. Roads will always lead to erosion although again if done properly (right grades and channels on the sides) there will be dramatically less.
Ideally the building industry would evolve its laws to use more roundwood timbers to reduce the cutting of big trees and plantations. Roundwood is superior in strength for the smaller diameter. However roundwood pairs well with timber framing, an almost lost art in the modern world. Also, building codes call for what is called stamped wood, which means it is dried properly in accordance to certain regulations. Although most of what I have bought at big box stores in terms of lumber, processed timber, it is not properly cured but big box stores and their corporate chains get away with it. Ideally there would be more local saw mills, even small cooperatives, or homestead centered ones utilizing the portables mill. However the drying and storing of the subsequent lumber is difficult especially if you want the stamped wood for construction. For barns and other outbuildings it is a great choice. That is where community investment comes in because a more sustainable approach can come forth. When the export market of wood was at its peak before the Trump tariffs, Kentucky had a small economic uptick because of these sales. This boom became bust with the tariffs and even if you do have timber worthy of cutting you are sitting on it because the economics just aren’t there. That is because the big box stores are subsidized and the plantation monoculture reigns with these subsidies. A local timber scene would create a steadier stream of cutting making local economics healthier, not at the whim of geo politics, and make healthier forests because you would want to manage your resource for longevity rather than short term profits like many of my neighbors did during the boom period.
Timber and Forestry: New Systems
New systems can be designed so that they are a diverse plantation style yielding multiple products. One of the keys to know about planting timber trees is that as they grow you must remove lower branches frequently and on time so that the trees grain is not damaged. If you wait until the tree has larger branches and then prune them it can leave behind scars and even lead to epicormic branches, which is where a hole is formed due to larger limb die off. This often leads to non-useable timber and if you walk through the forest and see a unique large tree there, often, it is because of this or poor form that it was left behind by past loggers. Lower branches will naturally prune themselves if there is enough shade going to the lower branches through dense planting. Some trees, no matter how dense you plant them, it will require this pruning. Subsequently in a permaculture forestry operation we would set the system up to stack in space and time to yield multiple yields and spur this natural lower branch pruning. So you would have a fast growing tree that could give firewood or polewood and biomass, usually a nitrogen fixer. This would also nurse the other trees along as they would be shaded more quickly producing slower growth, which for timber you want tight growth rings. That is why old growth timbers are so incredibly valuable. A redwood tree grown for timber now does not have the same quality as the old growth trees of the past even if they are a similar diameter. The modern ones will have much more space in between their rings due to clear cutting and fast regrowth in full sun. This means less strength and higher susceptibility to pest and rot issues. You don’t have to take all of these nurse trees down at once but maybe over a three to five year period so there isn’t a crazy amount of sunlight coming in at once. Also you might have a glut of polewood and would be better to space the harvest out.
Beyond the fast growing nurse tree, you would normally plant at least two other species for later harvest. If we stay with the midwest/ upper Southeast of the states where Treasure Lake is in Northern Kentucky (my home), I would choose black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) as the first nurse tree to be harvested. It will yield polewood for fencing, again reducing strain on plantations as pressure treated posts are both toxic and wasteful. Pine plantations usually grow these posts and then are infused with chemicals to make them rot resistant. However the black locust is rot resistant naturally with its incredible density. They are much heavier but will also last much longer than those even treated! This one of the main reasons why pine plantations exist and switching over to blacklocust could have a tremendous windfall for local economiesand the environment. Furthermore, black locust could also be for firewood and any other of its uses including biomass for mulching, cut and carry for animals, etc. Then my next harvest would be Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina). This is a fairly fast growing tree with a beautiful heartwood and pioneers well in this forest ecosystem as well. The next one, the final to be harvested would be the Black Walnut (Juglans nigra). This extremely valuable tree for timber is a long term harvest and would require very large spacing. However if you do this from the onset it would not produce great timber with all the lower branching and necessary pruning. Thus you can mimic a recovering forest by planting all three of these together and harvest as the system evolves. This is how you fuse diversity with other principles like accelerating succession and stacking in space and time. You get multiple yields and all the extra biomass can be left behind. Early on in the system chickens or dolly sheep could weed the isle leaving behind manures to spur growth in an alley cropping system. The system could be a boon to wildlife instead of being a degenerative monoculture. Remember, before ever planting in something like black walnut you may have to plant the black locust and let that grow for a year to multiple years to create the shade and better the soil.
View the animation of design below by clicking on the images and going forward to explain the concept further through design.
Keyline design can give us the framework for setting up our forestry operations as Darren Doherty has some great pics and examples from that. This allows for the parallel spacing that keyline produces layout wise and the plough does the mechanical soil conditioning before planting. Animals may also be used in managing between the rows or later on in the system as your young trees come out and your older trees still waiting to be harvested thus making a silvopasture situation. The possibilities are endless indeed!
Managing Older Native Forests
Older native forests can be harvested with care and some foresters will say should be. Never clear cut but taking out some of the big trees will again cause new forest dynamics, which this mosaic can bring new forest biodiversity. When a canopy break occurs from the harvest, it is interesting to see how the other trees around it do respond. Often our forests are too over stocked and I know some of the biggest trees we had cut down in our 2012 harvest had trees nearly the same size or slightly smaller waiting for more growth potential. They are now rapidly responding to the light impetus and putting branches off towards the canopy break. The sub canopy and understory species are also, again, growing with tons of intensity as well. Forests are always changing and while the chainsaw does speed it up, it can be healthy when done with care and pace. I know I wouldn’t have wanted to cut more than we did, but it has brought about a fascinating change. I will admit though, you most often have to be willing to let go of your biggest trees which is hard.
I currently know we will harvest some more black walnut one day and am looking for those that have potential. I look up and down the tree to see where the first twist or turn or epicormic branch is to see if the tree has potential. I look around at the other trees it is sharing the canopy with. I have been cutting very large wild grape and poison ivy vines because Black Walnut are very susceptible to vine growth on them with their compound leaf arrangement and furrowed bark. It is hard to cut these vines as they do give food and habitat to wildlife but it is necessary to grow the tree for timber harvest. Vines will rip branches off trees, I see it all the time, and can lead to infection and death. It can also cause the slower growth because of less light and other trees growing in on top of them because of slower growth. If there are walnuts that clearly never will become a timber tree because of their growth habit and are covered in vines, I never cut the vines because of this habitat producing part of vines within the native food forest. Furthermore, if I do see smaller walnuts that have potential for harvest in 30 or 40 years I do prune their lower branches as well to prepare them for their possible future harvest. Who knows if there will even still be a market for them then or some other force of nature takes their life before then.
Again it is a very difficult choice to take a tree out and you better know how you will get it out and how it will be processed before you ever cut. If you plan to do portable saw milling you better have a spot for stacking and drying lumber and know your local laws. Conversely, if it will be sold on the open market as a whole tree log, then most likely you are working with a forester and their payment is often well worth it because of the danger of the job. Never underestimate the danger of felling trees and the bigger they get, well the more dangerous it is. The bigger the tree, the more valuable it is. So leave it to the professionals when need be. However if you need the cash or materials and do it right it can lead to greater forest health. Design those roads well or do it with horses and figure out what to do with those tree tops; firewood, mushroom inoculation, laying on contour, large woody debris jams in streams, and more. We can’t simply fight against what we don’t want, but rather become producers as Bill Mollison stated.
Written by Doug Crouch
Header Art Maya Mor