Producing firewood from a woodlot can be an excellent forest management opportunity. Properly marked and administered, firewood cutting can produce immediate income while increasing the long-term value of the woodlot. However, cutting the wrong trees for firewood is as senseless as burning the furniture those trees could have produced. Ask a forester how firewood cutting could fit into your management plan and improve your woodlot.
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Many foresters are enthusiastic about the woodlot management opportunities created by increased firewood demand. The state is two-thirds forested, and more than half of that forest is hardwood. One of the most discussed forest management problems in recent years has concerned the abundance of small, poor quality hardwoods. Forest landowners have not had a market for the increasing volume of "green junk" accumulating on their woodlots. Firewood cutting can help solve that problem.
Woodlot owners can benefit from firewood production in at least three ways:
Firewood removal can contribute to timber production and other management objectives if the woodlot owner carefully decides when, where and how to cut that firewood. Opportunities can be broadly grouped as they relate to conventional harvesting: "Following Timber Harvest," "Prior to Timber Harvest" or "Intermediate Stand Management."
The best opportunities for firewood production are found immediately after the sale of merchantable timber. Crop trees have already been harvested, so they do not interfere with access or utilization. Limbs and tops, as well as residual trees, are available as firewood. The landowner's plan for regenerating a stand not only can incorporate firewood removal, it also can benefit from that removal.
On sites where pine has been harvested, reestablishment of pine is generally a good investment. Whether from natural regeneration or from planted seedlings, the establishment of pine reproduction is helped by controlling or reducing residual material. This usually includes many standing hardwood trees. Chemical control of hardwood stumps as the trees are cut for firewood can reduce the competitive threat from resprouting.
Where regeneration of a hardwood stand is desired, it is usually good practice to cut all standing trees. Those trees remaining after harvest are generally of low value because of stem defect, poor form or species. For the same reasons, they are not likely to develop into valuable crop trees. After felling all stems, the new stand develops from seeds or sprouts, depending on the species and site. Stumps of small trees cut closely to the ground (lower than 6 inches) during the fall or winter provide the most vigorous sprouts. Regeneration from seeds may be obtained from the current year's crop on harvested or nearby standing trees, or it may come from the accumulation of previous years' crops already on the ground.
Removing firewood from a mature timber stand prior to harvest requires more care than a post-harvest operation. Marketable "crop" trees which will be sold for timber at future harvests must be identified, so they will not be damaged when other trees are removed. Trees to be removed for firewood include those with crooked, dead, partially rotten, diseased and small stems as well as those of undesirable species. Although access throughout the stand is generally easier before harvest, available firewood volume is much less, and its removal without damaging crop trees can be difficult. A well-done preharvest firewood cutting can reduce logging costs and enhance the appearance and perhaps the harvest value of the remaining stand.
Management of existing stands should include only those activities that protect, upgrade the quality or improve the growth rate of potential crop trees. Crop trees must be identified by their anticipated performance and merchantability which, in turn, depends on species, vigor, form and quality.
Desirable species vary with site quality but may include yellow-poplar, gum, ash, walnut, oak and pine. Crop trees should have dominant or co-dominant crowns, so they must be as tall as most of their neighbors. Trees with the longest, straightest stems and small branch diameters are excellent crop trees. Trees with insect, fire or mechanical damage, or small shoots sprouting from the limbs and trunk should be removed for firewood.
Crop trees compete for space to grow. Proper distribution of crop trees depends primarily on the individual tree's size, but distribution is also affected by species, age and site quality.
A stand that has substantially fewer crop trees than indicated should be harvested and regenerated. Poor cutting practices, grazing, fire and mismanagement have created many such degraded, poor quality stands.
Stands which contain an adequate number of crop trees in addition to some culls benefit from timber stand improvement (TSI) cutting. Large cull "wolf" trees, unmerchantable species, crooked and forked stems, firescarred, damaged, diseased and dying trees should be removed. Dead and decaying snags left standing have considerable wildlife value. Smaller "understory" and "suppressed" trees can also be removed. While understory removal does not particularly benefit crop trees, it does use material that otherwise might not be utilized.
Some stands have so many trees with crowns in the main canopy that the growth rate of crop trees suffers. These stands should be thinned, paying attention not only to crop tree characteristics and protection but also to crop tree spacing and distribution. The ultimate objective of such management is vigorous, uniform diameter growth of crop trees.
Most firewood thinning opportunities are found on sites which are moderate to good in stands between 20 and 60 years old. These stands can continually supply half a cord per acre of firewood each year while simultaneously producing a valuable timber crop. Older stands may lack the vigor to respond to thinning. Younger stands should not be thinned because crop tree identification and response are uncertain. Also, releasing young hardwood trees frequently reduces quality because branches remain, or sometimes form, lower on the stems.
There are many ways to conduct firewood removal, ranging from the give-away of logging slash and residuals to the complete processing and sale of cut, split and delivered wood for $100 or more per cord. Near metropolitan areas, firewood cutters frequently pay as much as $10 per "pick-up" truck load for "stumpage" (standing trees which may be felled, cut and removed). The best method for conducting firewood removal depends upon accessibility and distance to market as well as the amount of time, interest and energy available to the landowner.
Most landowners have found it necessary to control both access to, and the cutting of, firewood. Control may be exercised by issuing permits for specific dates and times or by distinctly marking areas where wood can be cut. County forestry and extension offices often maintain lists of firewood cutters, cutting areas and local market information.
Administration of firewood sales can affect how well the woodlot owners' objectives are accomplished. Selling everything within a marked boundary is frequently effective in motivating a cutter to clean up an area. Sale of wood by the "pick-up" truck load discourages removal of small, rough and hard-to-reach trees.
Since firewood cutting is extremely dangerous, it should be done carefully. The cost of even a minor accident can more than offset any potential savings. Consider leaving dead snags in the woods for their wildlife value rather than taking the high risk of felling them. Tops and limbs frequently fall while these trees are being cut.
Chainsaws are the major cause of accidents among professional loggers. Firewood cutters should take appropriate precautions by learning safe techniques, using well-maintained equipment and wearing appropriate clothing and protective gear. The chainsaw operating manual should be thoroughly read and understood before operating the saw.
If others are cutting firewood on your property, require them to work safely. Provide separation between cutters so they do not endanger each other, but do not allow anyone to work alone. It is generally advisable to carry adequate liability insurance.
Content for this page was written or compiled by CCE of Schuyler County.
Last updated February 7, 2023