Ten land management principles and practices to follow if you own forest in Iowa
Written by Luke Gran, Certified Forester and Owner of Prudenterra, for Iowa Land Management & Real Estate
May 3, 2023
As of 2021, forest land use made up 8% of Iowa or 2.85 million acres. These areas are mostly too steep or wet to grow annual crops but perennial trees can produce a crop of merchantable hardwood timber when harvested at age 60-100 years. 85.2% of this forest is owned by private landowners. We often ignore these areas until some of the trees get big enough and then we sell them (such as white oak and black walnut) and leave all the other ones (red oak, maple, basswood, hackberry, honeylocust, bitternut hickory, Ohio buckeye, and elm) growing in place. Doing this may inadvertently destroy the full productive potential of our forest and limit the values produced in future generations. I invite you to choose a different path with the way you sell timber and manage your forest. If you own a forest in Iowa here are some important practices and principles to sustainably generate timber revenue and grow long-term value in this part of your land2.
- Have a Forest Management Plan to grow a high diversity of trees. Private sector consulting foresters like me can inventory your forest, evaluate the soils it is built on, and bring important information to your attention about the current condition of your woods. We can write a customized forest management strategy and timeline of management, using all of forest science to help diversify the species of trees growing on your land. Areas where a timber sale is justified can be identified based on tree age, quality, and timber markets. Most importantly, we can devise a successful strategy for regeneration of diverse tree species. Many parts of our forests have become dominated by a single species – the all the eggs in one basket scenario – this is not a good strategy in equities, or in timber resources. A more limited “Woodland Stewardship Plan” is another option if you wish to work with a government agent, Iowa Department of Natural Resources District Foresters are also available. No matter who you choose to work with, it is important to get a plan written.
- Work the Plan. If you own a home, the experts recommend a budget of about 1-4% of the value be reserved for annual maintenance and improvements. Many farmland owners make investments to support increased productivity from annual crops. A farmland owner may invest $1,000 per acre (or more) into improved drainage infrastructure on part or all of a field. A myriad of agribusinesses and many farm managers do a great job of helping their clients maximize revenue from their cropland. How much is reinvested in the maintenance of perennial forest? For most landowners I meet, the answer is zero. The timber value of your woods can be quantified in an inventory. It may be that the timber growing on the 60 acres of forest you own is worth$300,000 or more. Similar to a home, the real value can be retained or enhanced with proper maintenance. Unlike depreciation of a home (that requires a new roof, windows, and siding) newly planted trees have the potential to appreciate in value for generations. Also unlike other real estate, forest land enrolled in Forest Reserve with the county assessor is exempt from property taxes. The established trees in your forest aged 10-75 years old, can be improved significantly in value with Crop Tree Release. Most trees aged 80-120 years old are close to maturity and preparation for regeneration underneath or around them; Weed Tree Eradication is essential to perform. Invasive species identified in the inventory must be managed to limit their spread and dominance to prevent them from suppressing tree regeneration. Do the work as called for in the Forest Management Plan.
- Improve access for recreation. A secondary benefit of having a plan and working the plan, is your own satisfaction through greater enjoyment of your land. You will discover new things about your property: special trees of unique species or age, places to take friends and family to see wildflowers, hunt for mushrooms, listen to songbirds, and observe game and non-game species of wildlife. If you or your friends or family love to hunt, forest management can dramatically improve the number of game wildlife using your land by providing more varied habitat types, food sources desired by white-tailed deer, wild turkey, or ring-necked pheasant. A good plan should include clear delineation of trails for forest management access and or logging roads. These also can make great places to hike, snowshoe, or drive an off-highway vehicle or snowmobile.
- Fight back against invasive species. While doing forest inventory work in Iowa, I have seen entire sections, up to 10 acres in size, that have become almost useless for native wildlife and no timber being produced for decades because landowners did not act to limit the spread of invasive species. These threats can be mitigated with strategic herbicide applications and prescribed fire. Follow threat specific management as defined in the Forest Management Plan, this is crucial to retain timber productivity of forests.
- Earn financial incentives to improve your forest. Forest management results in improved forest health. Healthy forests produce ecosystem services like clean air, clean water, quality fishing, carbon sequestration, habitat for migrating birds, mammals, pollinators, and managing stormwater erosion to name a few. These benefits are enjoyed by all people, can only be produced or are cheaper to produce in your forest than in a man-made factory. As such, government funding is available to encourage landowners to do the recommended management. In my experience, 10-35% of the cost is reimbursed through two programs:
- The State of Iowa’s Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) program, or
- The United States Department of Agriculture is also offering financial incentives through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
- Improve the value and productivity of your forest. In poletimber sized (6-12” diameter) parts of your forest, the forest management activity known as Crop Tree Release is most effective. It can improve timber quality – growing better formed veneer quality trees as opposed to lumber grade – and double the rate of growth of timber in your forest. The best formed co-dominant canopy position trees between 6” and 16” diameter in your forest are identified every 20-30 feet through a forest (typically by a forester like me). We mark the crop trees to be protected, and also the inferior trees to be killed that are in sunlight competition with the best trees in your forest. If this activity is performed every decade a person can half the time it takes to reach timber maturity – instead of harvesting a 24-inch diameter black walnut at age 120, you can harvest it at age 60. You also increase the nuts/acorns yielded from your forest which is great for wildlife. White oak acorns for example are some of the most desired, nutritious seeds. This slow growing, shade intolerant species loses the race to the top of the forest canopy by faster growing basswood, hackberry, or black cherry on many sites. Once overtopped, the white oak dies in the shade.
- Prepare the land for regeneration. Years before a timber sale, the forest management activity known as Weed Tree Eradication is essential to perform in order to begin to prepare a site for the disturbance of harvesting trees. If only the mature trees are cut from an area of forest and the other trees are left in place, this has the potential to stop the regeneration of tree species that grow into the canopy and you can be left with whole parts of your forest growing only trees that reach a height of 20-30 feet tall instead of the trees that grow 70-100 feet. If invasive species are present under the dense canopy of mature trees, once you remove the mature trees in a timber sale, the invasive species are given more sunlight and they will explode in growth and can rapidly take over an area. Prescribed burning is a great management practice to add to your woodland where you have very large old oaks and have recently cut and treated the weed trees. Burning the forest helps increase germination of fire-adapted species like oaks, hickories, and walnuts while killing many invasive species less than three feet tall.
- Foresters can help you care for more than trees. For example, some parts of your forest may be wetlands or stream banks or channels that can be managed to be more healthy. Other areas may have very steep, sandy, shallow soils that do not support diverse species of trees but do hold pricelessly valuable biodiversity in plants (prairie wildflowers, grasses, and sedges), insects (bumblebees and hundreds of other pollinators) and animals (henslow’s sparrow). Eradicate thick pockets of cedar trees that have encroached into these prairie patches in the forest to help support the continuation of the natural life that has been here in Iowa for thousands of years.
- When you are ready to sell timber, get help from a forester. A forester can help the landowner to clarify his/her goals and objectives, discuss regeneration after the sale, mark the trees the landowner wishes to sell with colored, specialty tree marking paint (at breast height and along the ground level at the lowest side of the tree). The forester creates a map of the trees offered for sale and writes a formal Notice of Timber for Sale. This is posted by mail to solicit bids from at least 30, independent, legally bonded, log buyers. The forester opens the bids and reports to the landowner the name of the firms who responded to the notice and the prices offered. Bidders are notified of the sale prices and decision of the landowner to accept the high bid or reject all bids. The landowner gets paid in full before the trees are cut, and only the marked trees sold are removed from the forest. Landowners earn at least 30% more on average from the sale of their timber, with the forester earning about a 10% commission.
- Plant at least one forest, 5-20 acres in size. Iowa has about half as much forest today than it did at the time of its founding. Who else, but a landowner like you has the opportunity to plant a forest from scratch. We have a machine tree planter and a three person crew with the expertise to operate it. Together, we can put 2,200-3,500 diverse tree seedlings (about 3-6 acres) into the ground in a single day. Hire us to use it on your land. While writing a Forest Management Plan, foresters look for good candidate sites for reforestation such as small, irregular parts of a crop field in a floodplain near a stream, or an area of pasture that is too small to be practical to graze. After three to five years (on average) of establishment activities, canopy closure is achieved and you have a dense forest to enjoy that only needs a little management every decade. Establishment activities include mowing in between the rows in July and October, and banded pre-emergent herbicides – selective ones that will not harm the growth of trees – applied each spring within three feet of each side of the rows.
To grow healthy, sustainable hardwood forest in Iowa, it takes intentional, long term investment, but the rewards are endless. I invite you to join me in this pursuit of realizing a vision for great forest management on your land.
Owner, Certified Forester
Luke is the owner of Prudenterra and is a Certified Forester with the Society of American Foresters (SAF). He created Prudenterra after graduating from Iowa State University (B.S. Forestry, 2008). While working at Prudenterra part-time, Luke also worked at Practical Farmers of Iowa and grew vegetables with TableTop Farm. In 2014, he went full-time with Prudenterra. He lives outside of Nevada, Iowa.
1 Tree Cover in Iowa Web App – Through a cooperative project by the Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium. Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Geographic Information Section, January 26, 2023.
2 USDA Forest Service. 2022. Forests of Iowa, 2021. Resource Update FS-363. Madison, WI: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. 2p. https://doi.org/10.2737/FS-RU-363