How to Hire a Forester

What to know to get the results you want
By Kathleen Hatt

Photos by Kathleen Hatt.
Like farmers, foresters are skilled at growing crops. While farmers' crops are usually harvested annually, the crops foresters oversee may go years, even decades, between harvests. Knowing how to encourage growth and when to harvest timber is only part of a forester's job.

A valuable asset

A 2002 study found that woodlots were responsible for over 7 percent of total farm income for Northeast farms that had woodlots. According to the 2002 Census of Agriculture, 60 percent of New Hampshire's farm acreage is woodland, while Maine's farm acreage in woodland is 47 percent and Vermont's is 42 percent. All three states' woodland acreage had increased from previous estimates. Although the size of woodland assets is growing, cashing in on that growth may require patience. "Consider your woodlot not in terms of this year or next, but in terms of 80 to 100 years," says Tim Fleury, forest resources educator with the University of New Hampshire extension service.

Defining woodlot functions - how a forester can help

Traditionally a source of firewood, fence posts and perhaps lumber, farm woodlots have other valuable functions. Assessing and helping you increase the value of your woodlot are some of the things a forester can do. According to Carol Redelsheimer, director of science and education at the Society of American Foresters, a forester can help you define your goals, whether they are centered around potential income, conservation, preservation or a combination of all three. More specifically, a forester can help:

Who qualifies as a forester?

Foresters typically hold a bachelor's degree in forestry. Generally curricula are accredited by the Society of American Foresters and include study in the areas of forest ecology and biology, measurement of forest resources, management of forest resources, and forest resource policy and administration. Certified Foresters are required to have five years or more of qualifying professional experience. Candidate Certified Foresters have less than five years' experience.

In the Northeast, woodlots can be a significant part of farm activity and farm income.

Currently, 17 states have some form of registration or licensure of foresters. In the Northeast, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire have licensure; New York, Rhode Island and Vermont do not. Connecticut is the only state that also has a form of registration or licensure for loggers. Redelsheimer distinguishes loggers from foresters: "A logger is trained and skilled in cutting and marketing trees. A forester's job is to grow trees. Part of growing trees is harvesting. Harvesting facilitates the growth of forests."

Tractors and chain saws are the most common equipment used in logging farm woodlots. Over three-quarters of northern New England farmers own at least 10 acres of woodland.

What to expect

How a forester approaches your property will be governed by your objectives and goals for your woodlot. A forester will often begin by walking with you through your woods. Before any plan is made for continuing work, it is useful to have the forester locate boundaries from existing markers and then inventory your forest's assets. This inventory will serve as a foundation for a forest plan and as a baseline for tax purposes. Cutting timber may make you liable for payment of a severance tax (the tax paid when trees are severed, i.e., harvested) and income tax. The federal government and some states assess an income tax on the sale of timber. Timber is generally treated as a capital asset, like stocks and bonds.

In conjunction with inventorying woodland assets, a forester can estimate the value of standing timber and identify plant communities, wildlife habitat and wetlands.

If harvesting timber is best postponed until your timber is more mature, timber markets are more favorable, or if your timber stand is, in general, in need of some improvement, a forester can help. Timber stand improvement usually entails encouraging favorable growth by pruning and thinning.

"Should hunting be one of your goals, a timber stand can be altered to improve wildlife habitat, even habitat for the specific species you may wish to hunt," says Redelsheimer. A forester can designate trees to be pruned or thinned to encourage that species.

Finding a licensed forester

In some states, New Hampshire for one, county foresters are available to make a preliminary assessment of farm woodlots, perhaps walking the property. They generally can provide information about the process of selling timber. Also known as district or service foresters, county foresters are available at no charge. In New Hampshire, county foresters can be contacted through the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. In other states, they can generally be contacted through county government or state forestry offices. For more specific help, especially for a detailed forest plan or for structuring a large timber sale, a county forester may recommend working with a private licensed forester. "A well-structured timber sale may more than pay for the cost of a consulting forester," says Fleury.

"Of utmost importance in working with a professional forester is trust," says Fleury, "but it is also necessary to do your homework and understand the timber sale process and what to expect in terms of fees and yields." To locate a forester, Fleury suggests starting in your local area, since a nearby forester will be familiar with local conditions. The licensed forester you select can arrange for an ecologically sound harvest, arrange for a contract, and utilize knowledge of the forestry business and timber markets so you get the best price for your timber. They can also help you consider wildlife habitat, recreational uses, how your woodlot will look following harvesting, and whether a timber harvest will impact water quality.

About half of farmers in northern New England harvest trees. About a third of those farmers engage the help of a forester. If you are contemplating harvesting timber in your woodlot, depending on your agreement with a forester and your goals for your woodlot, a licensed forester will:

As you make agreements, bear in mind that while handshakes are neighborly, they are not legally enforceable contracts. In many states a contract must be written in order to be legally enforceable.

What about payment?

Foresters are most commonly paid an hourly rate, according to Redelsheimer, but may be paid a per-project rate for a management plan. When a forester is involved in managing a timber sale, compensation may be by the hour or, less commonly, as a percentage of the sale, says Fleury.

"Whatever financial arrangements you have, make sure you have a written contract detailing services and cost," advises Redelsheimer.

An eye to the future

As you consider hiring a forester for your woodlot, remember this, says Redelsheimer: "A forester's eye is always on the future. A forester can decide how to make desired results happen."

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and editor and has been a frequent contributor to Farming since 1998. She lives in Henniker, N.H.