Woodlots — which are woodlands in a variety of forms — are integral components of many homesteads. In contrast to large commercial forest ownerships, a homesteader’s woodlot has some inherent advantages for management and applying silviculture treatments (the science and art of producing and tending forests).
There is someone in residence, or at least nearby, to be observing the vegetation’s growth and development. And residents directly experience the local growing conditions such as rain and ice storms, heavy winds and temperature extremes.
There are opportunities to culture and develop forest stands in a relatively intensive way that enhances the benefits and values of woodlots. Values include fuel wood, construction materials, timber sales, water quality and improved habitats for wildlife.
Broad benefits are contributed beyond the property boundaries. These include landscape scale watershed protection, wildlife habitat coordinated with adjacent landowners, and patterns of land use that form an aesthetically attractive visual pattern. Adjacent ownerships can provide a network of woodlots across an area that will maintain the forested landscapes that typify Maine.
There is infinite variety across our woodlots. No two are the same. The complex history of land use and forest harvesting superimposed over our geological history and resultant soil conditions result in mixed patterns of drainage and vegetation.
During the 1600s and early 1700s Maine was over 90 percent forested. But, as settlement and clearing for small farm agriculture occurred, by the 1850s the forested area was reduced to below 70 percent. Following improvements in technology and transportation, such as the Erie Canal and related systems that connected the Hudson River Valley to Buffalo, the Great Lakes and the west, farms of New England could no longer compete.
In addition there were population redistributions following the Civil War. Consequently, small farms were abandoned across New England, including southern Maine, and our forest cover increased back to 90 percent between the 1850s and 1960s.
This history, combined with past forest harvesting, has resulted in woodlots comprised of spontaneous second and third growth forests, old fields reverting to forest cover and a variety of tree plantations spawned by programs such as the federally administered Soil Bank in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
When walking in the woods, we must be aware of stand history and the evidence that remains. Keep an eye out for old fencing, especially when it is embedded in the trunks of standing trees. The depth of the fence wire in a tree stem can provide bonus information. Old rock walls reflect past uses, and rocks tossed from the adjacent ground can tell additional stories. Cellar holes from bygone buildings and dug wells are informative, and dangerous. Blown down trees with heaved up root systems are my favorites for detailed information.
Be savvy about the tree species and what their presence indicates in terms of soil characteristics and growing conditions. Look up at the tree tops and study the ground. But stand still while you’re doing this: Be ever conscious about safety. Envision how the tree roots are distributed. Dig around to feel the surface soil. Study the tree crowns; they are indicators of the health and vigor of individual trees and the stand as a whole. As you traverse the terrain, make note of changes in vegetation, appearance of new species, disappearance of others. When walking in woodlots I like to be able to mark points of reference and take brief notes; for notes I always carry an index card and a wooden pencil stub in my pocket.
Growing conditions are changing and contain a host of new components. Climate change must be appreciated and, perhaps, influence future choices of favored tree species. The increasing presence of aggressive, invasive vegetation is out of control on many sites, especially disturbed wet areas. Imported diseases have disrupted stand structures; chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease and beech bark disease are examples. There are many new insects on the scene; Asian longhorned beetle, emerald ash borer and hemlock woolly adelgid to name a few. We must be vigilant and prepared to deal with these challenges.
Because each woodlot has its own characteristics, a personality of its own, it should have a specific management plan. The plan should contain a map and include plans for silviculture activities such as thinning, harvesting and regeneration. This helps to assure effective care for the resources and continuity of responsible stewardship. Because of the scale of operation possible on homestead woodlots, opportunities abound for fostering aesthetically attractive, healthy, productive woodlots.
Early spring as the snow melts away, and before leaves emerge, is an excellent time to assess conditions in hardwood stands. Winter damage is visible, crowns can be inspected, more depth can be seen and ground conditions easily viewed. Changes occur rapidly, so get out there. Turkeys have been gobbling for weeks in our woodlot.
Maxwell McCormack of Unity is a research professor emeritus of forest resources at the University of Maine and has been a forester for more than 60 years. He may be reached at email@example.com.