Trees, Trees, Trees, Glorious Trees
by Josh First, President, Appalachian Land & Conservation Services Co., LLC
August 24, 2023
When the year 1900 arrived in America, the greatest amount of human growth and development ever upon the surface of Planet Earth was well under way. Fueling that growth and development were trees of every sort and from every corner of the eastern side of the nation.
Oaks, maples, beech and birch trees from Pennsylvania, New York, and West Virginia made strong, durable railroad ties that enabled the new railroads to lay stable track across the prairie and reach the west coast. Ancient hemlock and white pine were cut in Pennsylvania’s mountains, shipped westward on the new rail lines, and sprang up anew as homes and commercial buildings across the Mid-West and West. White oak beams as strong as iron shipped out from Pennsylvania on iron rails and sprang erect again as mine props across the West and Southwest, where copper, silver, gold, and other important metals and minerals were dug out of the earth to become manufactured back East into telegraph lines and then-newfangled communication equipment made in Upstate New York and New Jersey.
The “slash” residual leftover parts of cut trees, limbs and skinny tops, were piled high on the spot where they had fallen and slow cooked into charcoal for use in blacksmith shops, where iron and steel were forged into the tools that newly minted farmers needed across the Mid-West.
Eastern hardwoods and softwoods were at the very heart of America’s 19th century western expansion. So much so, that when the year 1900 arrived, nearly the entire East had been wiped clean of trees. Like nothing remained except in steep or remote places where men and machines could not reach, or special groves that were purchased to keep the saw and axe away. This was not the scientific forest management that we practice today, but careless wholesale liquidation of a limited resource. Photos from the turn of the 19th century into the 20th century show entire mountainsides bereft of trees and turned overnight into poor cow pastures and mediocre crop fields. Looking at these historic black and white photos, with their endless stumps and raggedy eroding dirt piles, one would think that Nature would have never been healed.
But we would be wrong to think this way, because since 1900, the trees have returned in force. In fact, trees have made such an incredible comeback since the year 1900 that they now threaten some of our prized infrastructure like underground pipes and overhead power lines. Trees are amazing things, and their great size and widespread profusion across urban and rural landscapes alike is now becoming a real management challenge. Certainly you have trees in your neighborhood or along your own rural road that are growing into the power lines, or that have fallen across the power lines (don’t touch those trees! They are electrified and you can die if you touch them). Or maybe you have had the RotoRooter guy out to your house to clean your sewage lines, like I have, of the tree roots that have grown into the pipes and clogged them.
The return of trees to Eastern America has been a great success story, but they also pose some challenges. Many landowners understandably marvel at the great size of the trees in their forests, or in their yards, while simultaneously wondering if those beautiful trees are going to fall and destroy the family home. Trees are indeed magnificent even glorious symbols of creation, and now that they have returned to their former homes in great force and have gotten everyone’s attention, we have an opportunity to discuss them. So here are some concise thoughts on the trees you are likely to encounter either in your neighborhood or in your own private forestland.
● A lot of urban trees were planted right around the year 1900, as part of the “Beautiful America” movement that sought to improve and naturalize America’s developed landscape after a hundred years of breakneck growth with brick, asphalt, and concrete. Those trees are now about 123 years old and at the very end of their lives. If you live in an urban place, you may have noticed large limbs falling off of them, or you have seen entire trees up-ended by storms. These old urban trees require an experienced tree surgeon to manage properly. Do not attempt to cut them down yourself, and do not cut them down as they stand whole, because then they surely will fall on something valuable and create huge damage. If you have doubts about this advice, go online and watch some “Idiots With Chainsaws” videos. You do not want to be one of those guys.
● Urban trees have root systems that we do not see because they are underground. But because they are out of sight does not mean they should be out of mind, because tree roots can cause significant damage to house foundations and underground utility lines, including your home’s sewage pipes. When you plant new trees, or manage existing trees in your yard, think about not just how tall and heavy they will become, but how large and wide-ranging their root system will become.
● Urban trees, especially yard trees from around a home, are almost always full of nails, old power line insulators, horse shoes, railroad spikes, and your grandma’s clothes line hardware. The larger the tree, the more deeply buried inside its wood these items are hidden. None of these metal and ceramic objects saw out well on a sawmill, and in fact any one of them will severely damage or destroy a saw blade. Therefore, as much as most homeowners might think that the large logs that result from felled street and yard trees have significant lumber value to the tree surgeon, the truth is that the vast majority are barely useable as firewood. Unless a powerfully penetrating metal detector shows no hidden “mines” under the bark of a yard tree, your yard tree has no lumber value. Additionally, most urban tree species are not good lumber trees. I recently experienced one exception to this rule, with a large gingko tree from my own back yard. A thorough check revealed that it surprisingly held no metal or hardware, and so we put it through our sawmill. The large slabs we got from this single yard tree will become interesting benches for people to sit on. Large black walnut yard trees can have significant lumber value, so long as their hidden hardware content is not too high and does not require too much damaging surgery to remove.
● Large forest trees differ in financial value to the landowner, depending on their species, their condition, and their location. The best forest trees are large, healthy trees that have a large volume of clear wood and that are easily accessible to men with chainsaws and a skidder, with little to no likelihood of falling on something valuable like a house or a tool shed. Large trees along roads, power lines, steep slopes, and near buildings have little to no value, because deliberately felling them can cause much more damage than they are worth as potential lumber. Hardwoods like oaks, hickory, and sugar maple are worth much more than softwoods like pine or hemlock, though hemlock is increasing in value due to its use as an alternative to expensive western softwoods like cedar, fir, and spruce.
● Many forest owners understandably marvel at the great size of the trees in their forest. Some people like the wild old trees just the way they are, which is big and beautiful and often mysterious, and other people want the trees harvested and turned into money in the bank. Either choice is a good choice, and each choice comes with downsides. The downside of an old, dying forest is that it can become unusable because of all the decaying, dangerous, falling limbs. The downside of letting a nice timber tree grow too big is that it eventually begins to turn into an old man, with branches sprouting everywhere and heart rot setting in. Trees that are over-mature and past their prime are worth less than trees that are in their prime, because with old age wood begins to die and rot. Dead, rotten wood full of limb knots does not make useful or valuable lumber.
● “High grading” a forest is almost as bad as letting the forest just die of old age. High grading is where harvesters take only the highest grade trees and leave the low grade trees. Low grade trees today being mostly red maple and black birch, which though native to Pennsylvania, are becoming bad environmental actors like non-native invasive trees. A lack of naturally occurring low grade forest fire has allowed high graded red maple and black birch forests to proliferate, at great cost to wildlife and landowners alike. Pennsylvania’s mixed oak species provide acorns that feed wildlife, as well as lumber for industry and a good timber check to the landowner. Your forest should be managed to grow multiple generations of valuable hardwoods, like mixed oaks, that feed both wildlife and people. “Select cut” is often a euphemism for high grading. And there is nothing wrong with an aggressive “clear cut” that removes a mature even-aged forest, and replaces it with a new, naturally regenerating native forest that grows on its own from the wild seed bank already in the soil. A good forester, forest owner, or land manager will be able to clearly explain your choices.
● Large, healthy, sound forest trees only have value when they have reached the sawmill, where they can be turned into useful lumber by a skilled sawyer. For a large hardwood tree to reach the sawmill, a skilled forester must assess its potential volume and value of wood, and mark it for harvest. Then a timber buyer must pay an experienced bulldozer operator to make high quality, low-erosion trails and roads for loggers and their skidders to operate on. A skilled logger must then reach the tree with a chainsaw, safely fell the tree, and then drag it out of the woods to a log landing with a powerful skidder or a bulldozer. At the log landing, the logger must then assess the tree’s visible imperfections and defects and cut it into correctly sized logs that maximize its value to the sawmill’s eventual clients. Then a log truck must come and take the logs to the sawmill, where hopefully the lumber produced will not be subject to too much sunlight, heat, or rain, any one of which can cause nice lumber to become unusable waste wood.
Every step of this process from forest to sawmill involves skilled men with large, expensive machines burning barrels and barrels of expensive diesel fuel, and taking real risks; none of this process is cheap. It is very expensive from beginning to end.
When a landowner says “That’s a five hundred dollar tree right there,” you can tell them to go ahead and try to find that five hundred dollars hidden away under the tree’s bark. A tree isn’t worth a nickel as lumber until it is properly felled in the forest and then properly sawn up into useful lumber at the mill. A lot of nice looking trees in the forest turn out to be hollow or to have fatal defects that only reveal themselves when the tree is sawn up at the mill. That “five hundred dollar tree” often ends up being worth about twenty five dollars of firewood. Many trees do saw out to beautiful hardwood lumber, and that is the hoped-for benefit of the risk-taking the timber buyer enjoys. But in between the “five hundred dollar tree” and the firewood tree, there are a lot of mediocre trees that become low-grade, low-paying pallet wood and railroad ties. I find the exciting “five hundred dollar tree” to be elusive and uncommon.
● Trees can be planted as seeds or as saplings. I myself plant thousands of tree seeds every Fall. As I write this, I have already scattered hundreds of peach pits from our peach tree harvest, and I have begun to scatter or plant hundreds of apple and pear cores as we process these fruit harvests. Up next I will be planting hundreds of chestnut tree burrs and the nuts they contain. My target areas are locations we have done a timber harvest on, or in fenced areas where deer cannot browse the young tree sprouts and saplings as they begin to grow into productive mature trees.
● Based on my long experience as a tree-loving homeowner, I have come to the conclusion that new yard trees should be fruit tree saplings that homeowners can directly benefit from every year, or bushy softwoods like arba vitae and ornamental spruce, which provide maximum privacy and screening from neighbors, without the risks of becoming too large for their environment. Urban trees should not be the ubiquitous pin oaks or silver maples that grow into dangerous giants, or similarly sized tulip poplars. The best urban trees are those that grow out as much or more than they grow up, thus providing shade, privacy, and wind-break, as well as bird habitat, without the eventual risk of becoming gigantic falling missiles that the big hardwood species pose.
● In sum, by 1900, America was denuded of trees from the entire East Coast all the way to the Mississippi River. It was an environmental disaster that we can all see has, thankfully, largely healed. That healing is the result of human planting as well as natural regeneration. Each of us can play a direct and very enjoyable role in managing the trees in our lives, whether they are individual yard trees or entire forests made up of hundreds or thousands of trees. To those inclined to the husbandry of trees, as I am, there are abundant books, pamphlets, videos, and the advice of state forestry employees and other forest owners available. Whatever steps you take with the trees in your life, think them through carefully, get advice and guidance, and use professionals where real physical or financial risk is involved.