Words from the Woods: Environmental Benefits of Active Forest Management

Reversing climate change

In this month’s post I would like to introduce a topic which I feel is critical and poorly understood: the ability of active forest management to help in the global fight against climate change.

At first glance, this may seem an uncomfortable topic to many from a political standpoint. Some may not like the concept that loggers and sawmills can actually do more to protect and save the planet than the most avid career environmentalists can possibly do while sitting behind desks in air-conditioned steel buildings in downtown Manhattan. Modern forestry has the potential to “steal their thunder”, so to speak, in very practical and measurable ways. Others at the other political extreme often won’t engage upon the topic of climate change at all, or dismiss it as unimportant. Rightly or wrongly, maybe they fear that admitting the topic’s importance opens potential floodgates to additional counterproductive governmental taxation and regulation.

The hardwood lumber industry certainly has a long history of demonstrating this second attitude, going back many decades into second half of the previous century in which the science behind climate change was perhaps less obvious and more debatable. Among other negative consequences, this ostrich-like approach allowed producers of concrete, steel, plastic, and other wood substitutes to market themselves to the public as environmentally acceptable—or even friendly—when in fact their processes generally emit huge tonnages of carbon while lacking any of the remarkable carbon storage, sequestration, and regenerative abilities of wood.

Wood is good and for reasons beyond its superior aesthetic qualities, but our industry—perhaps in hardwoods more so than in softwoods—has failed to celebrate or promote the fact. In the general absence of education, today’s public is left with a fifty-year-old children’s book—Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax—to be its primary guiding insight into modern-day American forestry.

I am happy to write that our short-sighted approach may finally be changing now, and hope I can speak more to this point in future blog posts.

So how does wood act to reverse climate change? Specialists can describe these processes in far greater depth than I can, but I like to consider three simple factors, in order of increasing power:

  1. Through the storage of carbon. Approximately half of the dry weight of wood is carbon, which adds up quickly per tree and per woodlot. On a global or even a regional eastern US scale, banking carbon through storage is a huge beneficial feature especially of mature forests, though all forests store carbon.
  2. Through the sequestration of carbon. I find it easiest to think of sequestration as the volume of carbon no longer locked into standing trees, but now into manufactured products such as doors, cabinets, flooring, stair treads, furniture, mouldings, panels, other architectural millwork, and wooden pallets. These items have “useful” lives ranging from a few years to hundreds of years. Beyond that, most eventually wind up in landfills where their carbon—again, 50% of the dry weight of the lumber—is kept out of the atmosphere indefinitely, or perhaps permanently. When a tree dies of old age or rots and falls over naturally in a forest, much of that carbon is soon released back into the atmosphere. But if the same tree is instead actively managed via professional logging and sequestered into various lumber products at a sawmill, a greater percentage of the carbon from that original tree is kept out of the atmosphere for decades, centuries, or longer.
  3. Through the growth of new trees. While all trees grow and pull carbon out of the atmosphere in doing so, young immature trees grow at much faster rates than older mature trees. This isn’t unlike the difference between a 15-year-old person and a 60-year-old; the teenager, other factors being equal, needs to consume more fats, proteins, and carbohydrates on a daily basis to sustain him or herself. In the case of trees and global warming though, younger doesn’t equate to a larger weekly bill at the grocery store; younger is clearly more effective. Because the Earth is warming, we should WANT to pull carbon out of the atmosphere at the highest, most efficient rate possible. The growth of new trees, especially when unhindered by crowded canopies found in unmanaged forests (blocking sunlight), or by invasive understory plants, or by the browsing habits of under-controlled and overpopulated deer, accomplishes this.

Storage is important; it is better to have large standing trees acting as carbon sinks than for that same ground to be used for something other than forest. I suspect we can all agree on that. But sequestration and growth, working together, provide the most powerful environmental benefits which the planet’s forests can provide. While new trees can—and do—grow in an unmanaged forest, active forest management multiplies that growth rate many times over while adding carbon sequestration to the equation.

“A sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fiber, or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.” – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, August 2019

Words from the Woods: Environmental Benefits of Active Forest Management

Gutchess Lumber Co., Inc.’s “Words from Woods” series consists of a monthly article written by our fifth-generation President and Chairman Matthew Gutchess.

Our January-February 2018 harvest was a fascinating experience for me from my dual landowning and sawmill managing perspectives. I hoped that my woodlot and the company would benefit more or less equally from this event. Conflict of interest, right?

Not really. The optimal cutting strategy from the one perspective more or less equaled the optimal value strategy from the other.

My woodlot is certainly small enough for a one-man logging crew to manage, and with John Mueller’s guidance both the fall herbicide work and subsequent winter harvest went very well. The harvest itself proceeded generally from bottom of the hill to the top, working its way out towards the egress from the property over the course of about three weeks. The harvester did a great job in my woods, minimizing any detrimental impact to the landscape.

As I’ve written before, the harvester left all treetops–branches and leaves–in the woods to provide a variety of important environmental and economic benefits, even though some would consider these “unsightly” in the immediate aftermath. Already and less than four years later, these tops aren’t nearly as visible as they were in early 2018 due to the vigorous growth across the forest floor and within another four, I expect all but the largest stems and branches will be difficult for a casual observer to find.

After my sawlogs—primarily sugar/hard maple and ash—were trucked to the sawmill, the harvester smoothed out the access roads (or “skid trails”) in a very presentable and easily navigable fashion. Walking these trails in the spring was both easy and educational, as I took in the dramatic transformation of the woods.

As John had anticipated the previous fall, a few of my sugar maple stumps showed signs of over-maturity; trees had rotted out from within their heartwood centers during recent decades of harvesting inactivity, losing some of their valuable snow-white sapwood closer to the outside of the tree. But 90% or more of the massive stems ranged in quality from reasonably good to excellent, with corresponding value to the mill or to veneer log buyers. Most of my ash trees were smaller than my maple, but most made good white and straight-grained lumber (much exported to China once kiln-dried a month or two following, just prior to the unfortunate trade war).

Other trees cut of all species were primarily culls left in the woods, designed to open space in the canopy for their healthier neighbors and also to create opportunity for regeneration on the forest floor. We used herbicide on some beech and cut others in areas with potential benefit, but left most standing due to lack of potential for other species in those areas. My beech and black locust stands seemed to require other management strategies in combination with cutting, and we weren’t overly aggressive with either. In 2018 the more pressing need was simply to open the canopy and stimulate stronger forest growth.

Regeneration in the first year varied with the section of the woodlot. By June, acres of two-leafed green maple seedlings perhaps numbering in the hundreds of thousands—I couldn’t possibly guess—quickly blanketed most regions in which invasives hadn’t gained a stranglehold. Ash seedlings also sprang up, fewer in number but faster-growing. Some beech and black locust, too, regenerated primarily from root suckers. Brambles of various types grew four feet or more that first year, generally (like the maple and ash) where invasives had been less prevalent. Invasives themselves had lost considerable ground to the herbicide, and I spent most of my summer weekend mornings pulling or chopping the tenacious survivors in an effort to help the regenerating natives along and win the battle once and for all.


Words from the Woods: Environmental Benefits of Active Forest Management

Gutchess Lumber Co., Inc.’s “Words from Woods” series consists of a monthly article written by our fifth-generation President and Chairman Matthew Gutchess.

In one way or another I have mentioned deer, and deer browse, in each of my monthly blog posts so far. Why is this topic so important to me as the owner of a small woodlot, and more generally important to the basic health of a northern hardwood forest?

This would be a great time to interject a (perhaps overdue) disclaimer; even though they are essentially residents of my hill, I know less about deer—their lifecycles, their diets, their habits—than many of my readers might. By all means, if anyone happens to notice a specific opportunity for me to explain something more accurately—or catches an outright error—I would love to be aware of these for my own continuing education. I derived most of the statistics I present below from Wikipedia.

Our forests and our deer have evolved together over the past 30 million years or so, and the relationship can be mutually beneficial. Some studies suggest that deer provide benefits to mature trees by returning nutrients (specifically nitrogen) to the soil. When deer face sufficient “natural” predation from wolves, bears, cougars, cayotes or other large carnivores, their populations are generally low enough that their browsing of the new growth of young native trees are not a serious threat to the forest. Unfortunately, as humans have driven most of these predators away from our forests and toward extinction over the past century, deer populations have exploded one hundredfold, disrupting this critical balance between deer and forest.

Deer tend to browse on seedlings of tree species which provide them with the most nutritional benefit, in hardwoods chiefly sugar maple, red oak, walnut, and other native species of relatively high economic value. They do ignore some hardwood species, such as red maple and beech. The scientific consensus—and my primary fear—is that, left unchecked, deer are transforming our hardwood forests beyond recognition, and only these dwindling few deer-resistant natives will be left. (American beech boasts little commercial value due to the heavy and brittle nature of the lumber, and further is subject to a widespread, crippling beech bark disease as well as a new and mysterious beech leaf disease.) Also, as I have written before, by failing to browse upon invasive species, ferns, and other forest floor plants which constrain the regeneration of native hardwoods, overpopulated deer harm the forest indirectly as well as directly. As few as 20 white-tailed deer per square mile can start to destroy the forest environment.

Human hunters can help to reduce deer population in the short term, or at least keep it from increasing further. Indeed, some argue that deer populations in the eastern US are only now returning to pre-European contact levels following unsustainable levels of hunting by humans during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. But fewer people are hunting these days, and hunting activity is uneven at best across our landscape of today.

Here is a 2017 Vermont editorial pointing to an interesting relationship between science and a deer hunter’s perspective:


Dense deer populations are concerning for other reasons not related to forestry. Deer are the preferred hosts of Lyme Disease-carrying ticks which affect 300,000 Americans per year. Per Wikipedia, as annual averages, deer also kill 200 people through auto deaths and cause over $1 billion in related property damage, as well as nearly another billion in estimated losses of field crops, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. But I would argue that the threat which overpopulated deer pose to trees—and therefore to the Earth’s climate—dwarf these other factors in long-term importance.

In a future installment I hope to return to this subject and more specifically what, if any, plans the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC, or “DEC” for short) has to prevent deer from destroying our forests as we know them, so our grandchildren still have something to enjoy.


Words from the Woods: Environmental Benefits of Active Forest Management

Gutchess Lumber Co., Inc.’s “Words from Woods” series consists of a monthly article written by our fifth-generation President and Chairman Matthew Gutchess.

Walking a woodlot with an experienced forester is a fascinating experience. Rather than just looking at a snapshot of the various sights and sounds and smells, trees and herbs, sunlight and shade, birds, insects and other wildlife, paths, fences, and other marks of human presence as they exist today, one can imagine the woods as they might have existed long ago. Perhaps better yet, one can anticipate the potential those very same woods hold for future growth and diversity, depending upon the exact plan chosen for forest management.

Even before cruising my timber, I knew my primary objective would be to build long-term value in my woodlot. The potential growth and health of the forest for many decades to come would determine all of the harvesting activity. For a tree to be considered, the removal must thin the stand (allowing for rapid growth of new or remaining trees), be at risk of over-maturity and decline prior to my next anticipated harvest in approximately 15 years, or be an ash tree vulnerable to imminent attack from the emerald ash borer. (NOTE: we did leave 2-3 high quality ash trees well apart from one another deep in my woods in the unlikely event that low species density would help the ash to survive the invasive insect, unfortunately almost certain to enter my woodlot over the next few years.)

John Mueller, a 33-year veteran forester who manages Cortland’s division of Natural Resources at Gutchess Lumber, cruised the woods with me and helped me to weigh my options. From walking dozens of company woodlots with John many years earlier, I had complete confidence in his ability to assess the pros and cons of marking this tree for harvest, or leaving that tree for a potential future cycle. John pointed out subtle factors I would have missed, such as leaving effective barriers to protect vulnerable growing trees against sudden exposure to wind damage, opening the forest canopy to allow sunlight, water, and nutrients for the young seed sources already established, and determining optimal equipment access/egress from the woods.

Invasives and beech and black locust management—species I plan to discuss further in future blog posts—were also carefully considered. We decided to spray invasives in the early fall ahead of our projected harvest in the winter, through an experienced licensed contractor. The spray turned out to be effective, suppressing the invasive garlic mustard and swallow-wort for a year or more while allowing me a practical opportunity to manage my surviving and more scattered honeysuckle bushes by hand (a project which I wrote about in my August post, and which has given me a satisfying sense of accomplishment).
It would be unrealistic to expect to solve all of my woodlot’s problems through one harvest, but John’s active forest management plan created the only truly practical opportunity for complete future recovery. Sugar maple and other beautiful natives could regenerate on this fantastic growing ground by leaving treetops in the woods, protecting against deer browse and restoring critical nutrients back into the soil. John’s experience and careful thought process set the stage for all of this to happen.

John and I selected and marked the trees later in the fall, tallying culls (with no direct economic value) and estimating the board footage volumes which would go to the sawmill. Year-end was unseasonably warm but by mid-January of 2018, my ground was frozen sufficiently to begin the harvest.

Words from the Woods: Environmental Benefits of Active Forest Management

Gutchess Lumber Co., Inc.’s “Words from Woods” series consists of a monthly article written by our fifth-generation President and Chairman Matthew Gutchess.

At the risk of over-simplifying a very complex and contentious topic, invasive species are usually defined as organisms which are not native to a particular area. To be considered truly invasive, the species must further be able to adapt easily to the new area, must reproduce quickly, and must harm property, the economy, or the native plants and animals of the new area.

Garlic mustard and swallow-wort, both introduced to North America from different parts of Europe around the 1800s, meet all of these requirements. Both can release thousands of seeds from a single plant, making biological control nearly impossible without unlikely community-wide efforts at eradication. Both crowd out native species in the forest understory; garlic mustard seems to do this by means of poisoning certain beneficial fungi in the soil which helps native plant species to grow. Both are harmful to the reproduction or other activities of native animal species, such as monarch butterflies. Deer—or at least my deer—avoid eating either, preferring to subsist upon native plants which might otherwise survive to compete with the invasives.

Amur, Tartarian, or Morrow’s honeysuckle—I think mine or the majority of mine are Morrow’s, but reading the descriptions and studying photos of all three I’m not 100% sure—native to different regions of Asia, are shrubs which can grow to heights of 20 feet or more. Honeysuckles with hollow stems are considered invasives. Birds eat the berries and disseminate the seeds widely. The shrubs seem to thrive along roadside hedgerows and in the understory of most trees, in my woods including under black walnut and black locust, tree species which typically hinder native competition themselves.

Invasive honeysuckles crowd out native species, perhaps more completely and dramatically than garlic mustard and swallow-wart do. They seem to alter the chemistry of the underlying soil so much that even following removal, the ground underneath can remain barren and devoid of other plants for as much as a few years. Like other invasives, deer don’t or can’t seem to touch it.

Here is an interesting 5-minute video on identifying invasive—or “bush”—honeysuckle and eliminating it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ts4sqG3weWY

As the video suggests, using glyphosate or triclopyr can be an effective way to control larger honeysuckle plants; glyphosate seems effective against garlic mustard as well, at least for an initial kill. Please BE CAREFUL when using such herbicides however, as they can and will surely cause unintentional harm to native plant species—or possibly animals, or people—if not handled against the targeted invasive plants correctly. Wear gloves, and take other recommended precautions.

In my woods, and as soon as I learned something about it, invasive honeysuckle stood out as the obvious first barrier to overcome on the way to improved forest health. (Today and because I am trying to promote heavy maple regeneration, deer have become the most obvious barrier, with garlic mustard and swallow-wart numbers two and three in some order.)
Happily, invasive honeysuckle has certain weaknesses which small landowners in particular with an interest in doing their own woods work might be able to exploit, either without using herbicides at all or in combination with them. The chief of these is honeysuckle’s determination to leaf out and do the bulk of its conspicuous growing very early in the season. In late March and early April, with snow or without it, this invasive is just about the only green thing one can find in my woods (though curiously, copious amounts of water can begin flowing through grapevine at these early dates too). This makes honeysuckle easy to locate on the ground and pull out by horizontal root systems which part easily from the soil, given their small size. The relatively pale green color of its leaves is another giveaway once other plant species become active. At any rate, by mid-May when honeysuckle becomes harder to immediately detect against the rapid growth of other vegetation, its most vigorous growth seems to be over for the year.

So, if you’re serious about controlling honeysuckle in a small woodlot—or you have ample time and interest in tackling a larger woodlot, or the invasive’s presence isn’t yet overwhelming—my advice would be to jump on it early. While I did a lot of clipping and pulling those first few years both before and following my harvest, less and less needs to be done with each new spring. Natives are slowly but surely reclaiming some of the bare soil.


Words from the Woods: Environmental Benefits of Active Forest Management

Gutchess Lumber Co., Inc.’s “Words from Woods” series consists of a monthly article written by our fifth-generation President and Chairman Matthew Gutchess. This is the fourth article in the series.

As I mentioned in earlier blog posts, in the summer of 2017, I was very curious what the Deerfield woodlot would look like, having seen virtually nothing of it since the 1980s. In my inexperienced way, I had to walk both halves of the stand several times before drawing some tentative conclusions:

  • There were some really big sugar maple trees in there! Most in the upper woods were in excess of 24 inches diameter at breast height (dbh); some were 36 inches or more. Pole trees and saplings on the other hand were few. In the lower woods this species was almost as prevalent but almost all below timber size.
  • There were Beech trees of all sizes in the upper woods—some in pure stands—including pockets of very thick brush spreading right out into the old truck trail around the fence, intensely shading the ground. Not a single stem could be found in the lower woods, likely because this ground—unlike the upper woods—was once cleared.
  • There were White Ash trees of all sizes, but primarily in the 14-24 dbh range. Pole trees were more common in more open sections of the lower woods.
  • The Black Cherry distribution was similar to the ash. Again, trees were generally largest in the upper woods.
  • The Red Oak was more concentrated in certain areas (and as I mentioned in my second blog post, some in the lower woods had been planted in rows. The planted trees had a similarly wide dbh range to the naturally regenerated Red Oak of the upper woods). Most Red Oak was not overly large.
  • Some poplar trees too might have been planted, but more seemed to grow at random; all were found in the lower woods, and were presumably of about equal age. Very few Poplars were smaller than 16 inches dbh.
  • Some Red Maple, Basswood, Shagbark Hickory, Butternut, and White Pine were present, but few and widely scattered. I found no Birch or White Oak.
  • My most pleasantly surprising find was Black Walnut, which I first discovered—some of the larger possibly planted—in two small stands of the lower woods. One small stand in the upper woods was certainly planted, as some of the original pots remained on the ground. Along with one large tree planted on an open hillside, these trees combined to drop huge quantities of Walnuts in 2017 and 2019, but virtually none in 2018 or 2020: an effective squirrel population management strategy in action?

This Walnut of all sizes was nothing I’d ever found in any woods before; I identified it almost through a process of elimination. Initially I confused it with some nearby dense stands of Black Locust, only realizing the two species differed when these (mostly smaller) invasive trees dropped no Walnuts in the fall. Later I noticed that, while slow to leaf out in the spring relative to many other species, Walnut does leaf out several weeks before Black Locust (at least in my woods).

My walks that summer confirmed that nothing had been cut in at least 25 years, probably too long of a time. The upper woods lacked healthy regeneration of anything but deer-resistant Beech, and the lower woods—where overall growth was better—were generally too crowded for the most vigorous stems to have ample room to grow into maturity. Both halves were riddled with enough invasives—which I will discuss next month—to crowd out the native species within a short amount of time. To address these problems, it was clear to me that we needed a harvest.


Words from the Woods: Environmental Benefits of Active Forest Management

Gutchess Lumber Co., Inc.’s “Words from Woods” series consists of a monthly article written by our fifth-generation President and Chairman Matthew Gutchess. This is the third article in the series.

In my job as President of Gutchess Lumber, the two questions I am most commonly asked—primarily by those outside our industry—are these:

Number One: “Why does the Gutchess logo feature a pine tree, given that your company primarily manufactures hardwoods?” Number Two is inevitably some variation upon: “Your company must plant an incredible number of trees to replace those which you are cutting down, right?”

I might take a look at Number One in a future installment, but for the moment I’d like to write a few words about Number Two. GLC has been turning standing trees into lumber in central New York for at least 117 years and counting. Surely the only way to stay in business that long is to replant regularly upon completion of a timber harvest, much as a farmer might plant corn, soybeans, or similar crops every year?

Trees have been in existence for 350 million years (give or take), according to our fossil records. Life had not existed for long on Earth’s landmasses before the first trees sprang up. Forests evolved over time, enduring shifting global climate extremes of hot and cold, of wet and dry but also adapting to sometimes rapid and dramatic changes in localized conditions, such as floods or wildfires. While individual trees die, forests themselves have evolved great efficiency at seeding the ground with their eventual successors. In eastern North American hardwood forests today, new generations of shade tolerant species like sugar maple or beech wait patiently to exploit a small break in the canopy, while the seeds or nuts of shade intolerant species like cherry or walnut can’t accomplish much until some sudden transformation floods the ground with sunlight (but then, it’s off to the races!)

The point is, for 350 million years, as continents collided and came back apart and glaciers advanced and retreated, forests marched across the landscape regenerating themselves by themselves. The species which survived did so because they were by and large phenomenally good at regeneration. Humans weren’t around to plant or replant anything until the last few tens of thousands of years, or about the last tenth of one percent of the great unwritten history of forests. While humans can, and do, harvest hardwoods in an environmentally responsible manner—the overwhelmingly common practice today across the eastern half of the United States with which I am most familiar—when it comes to hardwood stands, we tend to be much less efficient than the forests themselves are at deciding how and where and which types of trees should regenerate below the overstory. Our efforts to “outsmart” hardwoods at their own best reproduction fail as often as not.

Even following the heaviest of hardwood timber harvests—“even age” versus “uneven age” active forest management strategy—the trees felled for lumber, firewood, or other end uses have seeded the ground below them and, if the soil isn’t eroded, invasive species and deer haven’t completely taken over, or nobody is financially motivated by high property taxes or other factors to create a new parking lot, native forests rapidly return, and well within human lifetimes. This happens time and again and is easily demonstrable in our records. One hundred years ago, following a brief 19th century period of extensive clearing for agriculture, New York State was about 20% forested. Today’s commonly accepted figure for total NYS forest cover is 65%. Except for a few stands of softwoods here and there, humans did not have the free time or energy to replant the 14 or 15 million acres which would have been required. For the most part the trees did it themselves, and did so far more effectively than we could ever hope to do.

Gutchess Lumber has owned parcels of timberland since the 1950’s which we’ve harvested in some cases five or six times, each time with an environmentally and economically responsible eye out for future forest health and future value through future harvests. The trees continue to come back strong.
The truth of this seems counter-intuitive—or even impossible—to many outside the industry, perhaps with visions of The Lorax and a permanent-looking cartoon field of desolate tree stumps rooted firmly in their minds whenever they think of forestry. To people commuting past familiar hillsides at 55 miles per hour, our forests can appear as static entities when actually they are highly dynamic environments – continually changing, continually growing, and continually pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere at greater or lesser rates. My own 35-acre woodlot—to which my blog will likely return next month—is the best example of this I know of.

Fortunately, the natural regeneration of our forests is observable, beneficial, and best of all explainable and understandable by anyone with or without a silvicultural degree. Judging by the sheer frequency with which I hear Question Number Two, the hardwood industry—and indeed, anyone who cares about the woods—must find ways to improve public awareness of how responsible forestry works. The environmental and economic stakes are too significant not to make the effort.


Words from the Woods: Environmental Benefits of Active Forest Management

Gutchess Lumber Co., Inc.’s “Words from the Woods” series consists of a monthly article written by our fifth-generation President and Chairman Matthew Gutchess. This is the second article in the series, written May 6, 2021.

While I grew up in the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk area of eastern New York State, my family would make a three-hour drive to visit my dad’s parents in Cortland from time to time, generally two or three times per year. I have only vague recollections of my grandparents’ original home ten minutes away on Circle Drive, but well remember their house (and swimming pool, and ping-pong table, and winter sledding hill!) on Deerfield Heights/Surrey Ave when it was more or less brand new, built in 1976 by the Streeter family.

The 35-acre woodlot, as it existed at that time, was quite different from today’s. Near the top of that hill alongside a hayfield, my grandfather Homer had planted a great number of Norway spruces—most of which thrive and tower tall today—possibly to help manage some generally wet ground just above the house. At the top of the hayfield near the east corner of the long northern border of the property he had also planted a line of blue spruce; I recall thinking of them as the perfect height for slightly off-color Christmas trees. (In later years as they grew larger these trees failed and were removed, testament to the risks of planting versus natural regeneration. However, a line of twenty-nine beautiful red oaks planted just behind the spruce survived and are already nearing maturity in terms of height, if not in volume.)

I usually describe Deerfield’s main woods as split neatly into “upper” and “lower” sections which are divided by a short skid trail with an attractive small and hidden clearing occasionally used as a campsite. Summer evenings after dinner, Homer would sometimes take us along the fence line running all around the outside of both segments of woods in his pickup truck, driving slowly, looking for deer or other animals, or just studying the landscape. (Much of this “road” or skid trail survives today, especially in its upper half. It’s a perfect weekend morning walk with my dog.)

I’m not completely certain, but believe from the general “pit and mound” topography that the upper section of these woods has never been cleared for farming. This is certainly NOT true of the lower section, which except along its western fence contains no obvious older growth trees. Indeed, I vividly remember a very large chunk of this south-facing acreage as a sunny patchwork of blackberry bushes interconnected by many winding and interesting trails, which diverged from a common point between two large rocks near the gate at the entrance to the driveway. Much less clear in my memory were the four distinct tree species which Homer—and possibly others alongside or just before him—had planted near or among these bushes: more regimented Norway spruce along with red oak, poplar, and black walnut.

When I walked through this “lower” area in June of 2017 following an absence of nearly thirty years, the blackberries and their bright, cheerful trails which I was half-expecting to find were gone as though they had never existed. Instead, a canopied riot of white ash and black cherry—good native pioneer hardwoods—some scattered sugar maples, and dense patches of scaly black locust mixed with the four taller planted species mentioned above, along with—more ominously—various invasives including grape vine, swallow-wort, garlic mustard, and tenacious thickets of honeysuckle.

Homer died in 2006 at the end of a very successful life and career. Walking through these woods today occasionally feels like journeying back through his mind. Why did he plant the trees he did in the locations he chose throughout the woodlot, instead of allowing the lot to naturally regenerate? What was he hoping to accomplish, and what would he think of the startling transformations which have taken place since his initial interest and early work in this property?


Words from the Woods: Environmental Benefits of Active Forest Management

Gutchess Lumber Co., Inc.’s “Words from the Woods” series consists of a monthly article written by our fifth-generation President and Chairman Matthew Gutchess. This is the first article in the series, written April 6, 2021.

Hello!  I am Matt Gutchess, President and Chairman of Gutchess Lumber and its affiliated brands, including our online retail division Forest 2 Home.  I’m also a first-time blogger who is looking forward to discussing various topics which I hope could be of interest to readers.  As a reader, you could be a real or potential employee, a family member of an employee, a customer (or a customer of a customer), a supplier, a contractor, a competitor, an associate of the industry, an acquaintance, a friend; the possibilities are limitless.  It is quite outside of my current experience to write for such a diverse audience, but I hope to change that.

I also happen to own a small woodlot—35 acres or so—adjacent to my house here in Cortland, New York. Through multiple generations of family ownership, we have been growing high quality Sugar Maple with smatterings of Ash, Beech, Cherry, Hickory, Red Oak, Walnut, and other species of hardwoods (with a little White Pine thrown in, and even a Cottonwood, a Quaking Aspen, and a Butternut or two).  Harvested midwinter in 2018 by a single area logger—a top professional—the natural regeneration in these woods since has been both personally and professionally interesting to observe.  It had been many years since true sunlight had reached any part of this forest floor; lack of light combined with severe deer browse doomed any new trees from any possibility of growing.  Prior to 2018, the few trees shorter than 20 feet tall in these woods were badly suppressed.  The harvest did not solve my deer problem—harvests rarely do—but four spring seasons of significant new light reaching the ground are nevertheless doing wonders for the transformation of my forest.

Several months prior to this 2018 harvest, the experienced forester who walked these woods with me commented that they were park-like.  Today, tree-tops cover wide stretches of the ground, returning essential nutrients to the soil from which they came and hopefully also sheltering seedlings of true native hardwoods against the deer and encroaching invasive species.  Time will tell how successful these regeneration strategies will be.  Time will also soon break down and obscure these tops, and evidence of the harvest will become difficult for non-experts in forestry like me to find.

Matthew Gutchess mixed species woodlot. Species include: Sugar Maple with smatterings of Ash, Beech, Cherry, Hickory, Red Oak, Walnut, and other species of hardwoods with a little White Pine thrown in, and even a Cottonwood, a Quaking Aspen, and a Butternut or two.

Matthew Gutchess’ woodlot

I’d like to focus much of my blog on this woodlot, in which I spend so much of my Saturday and Sunday mornings, rain or shine.  Sticking to a reasonable budget, how can I best help these beautiful native species to overcome the challenges which surround them?  Is it a lost cause, or can I prove to myself that basic principles of active forest management can help save 35 acres, or by extension save upstate New York’s world-renowned native timber, and maybe even our environment along the way?