Woodland management

The Management Plan Process

In broad strokes developing a plan for your woodlot has 3 steps. Step 1 is to determine what your goals are, which determines what your lot will look like in the future, point B. Step 2 is assess your woodlot as it is now and how it is not meeting your goals, point A. Step 3 is figuring out what you need to do to get from A to B. Of course, once you create the plan you will need to implement it, so step 2 should not assess only your forest’s current conditions but also the resources available to enact your plan.

Step 1: Setting Goals

Goals can be specific or general. For example your goal may be to provide habitat for pine warblers or to provide habitat for wildlife in general. In addition to providing wildlife habitat some common goals for NOVA woodlot owners are to maintain a healthy forest, to protect water quality, to provide recreation, and to maintain scenic beauty. These are your woods, so you can set whatever goals you want, remembering that you are sharing the woods with its many non-human residents who are depending upon you to be good stewards of their home. Just make sure your goals are not contradictory, such as wanting lots of flowers but not wanting to attract bees.

Who owns the woods in your community? 

  • Individual landowners

  • Common open space

  • Parks

  • Right of ways - Utilities, VDOT, railroad, etc

Natural wooded areas are a beautiful and invaluable resource for any landowner or community. Unlike most material assets, they appreciate over time. In the past, the woods managed themselves nicely. Unfortunately, we have removed some elements that helped the woods manage themselves and introduced new elements that interfere with that management. In present-day Northern Virginia, at least some care is needed to keep the woods from degrading, turning an asset into an increasingly expensive problem. It is wise to make a forest management plan to look ahead for 20-25 years. 

Trillium trail.jpg

What are the threats to your woods?

  • Herbivory from deer 

  • Invasive plants

  • Invasive insects

  • Trash, dumping

  • Encroachment

  • Soil compaction

  • Land disturbance

  • Silt from uphill construction

  • Erosion

How are you or your community benefiting from the woods?

  • HIgher property values

  • Cooling

  • Windbreak

  • Stormwater capture

  • Privacy

  • Screening undesirable views

  • Sound barrier

  • Hillside stabilization

  • Reduced maintenance and noise and compared to mown-and-blown areas 

  • Beauty

  • Walking trails

  • Sitting area

  • Mental health

  • Play area

  • Clean air

  • Birds and other wildlife

Are your woods unique?

  • Are there any features such as a stream, seep, vernal pool, unusual plant community, eagle nest or beaver den that need protecting?

Step 2: Assessing your woodlot

 

What is happening in your woods already? This can be daunting for landowners because it is seen as needing a lot of technical expertise. But it does not have to. The assessment should be done with your goals in mind. If your goal is an aesthetically pleasing woodlot, then nobody is more qualified than you to determine if your woods are pretty or not. Generally speaking the most important data to collect are the species present, their general condition, the presence of young trees, and the presence of non-native invasive species. Some of this requires plant identification, which is much easier with apps like iNaturalist that can identify plants with the snap of a cell phone camera. You may or may not want to identify every plant, but at the least it is important to develop a high level view of the invasive versus native species composition and any other threats. 

When assessing condition, look for die-back in the top of the crown. It is normal for shaded lower branches to die. Also look for fungal fruiting bodies – mushrooms or conks – on the side of trees or around the base. Keep in mind that a healthy forest will have some standing and fallen dead trees. The standing trees provide homes for cavity nesting birds and small mammals like chickadees and flying squirrels. The fallen trees are also habitat for many animals and an important resource for ecto-mycorrhizael fungi. These fungi form beneficial relationships with tree roots and are important for tree health. They are also everywhere, so you don’t need to worry about adding them to your woods.

Non-native invasive species are things that were imported by humans and are doing ecological or economic harm. Non-native invasive plant species can harm the forest ecosystem by crowding out native species, changing soil chemistry and, in the case of vines, killing mature trees. Non-native plants have much lower rates of interaction with the animals and insects that live in your woods. A recent study found that breeding bird success declined as their forage area fell below 70 per cent native. While non-native plants should be discouraged in general, those that are known to be invasive should be removed by pulling, repeated cutting, or chemical application. When using pesticides always read and follow label directions.

The final general aspect of a healthy forest is regeneration. Trees get old and die, and a healthy, sustainable forest should have young trees that are growing up to replace them. The greatest threat to forest regeneration is excessive deer browse. If your property is in NOVA, then you have a deer problem, and you will need to manage it somehow through repellents, barriers or lethal methods.

The last part of the assessment is you. What skills, tools, time and financial resources do you have to do woodlot management? A saw, shovel and wheelbarrow may be all you need to do forest management. Before you use a chainsaw you should take a chainsaw safety class and equip yourself with chaps, hearing and eye protection, hard hat and leather boots.

Step 3: What’s missing or needs to go?

Once you have your goals and assessment in hand, you can start writing a plan. It is often easier to identify resources that need to be added –plants, skills or tools –  than those things to remove. You may need to add plants or habitat elements like nesting boxes, if you want to support specific species. Or you may need a shovel and mattock for planting or grubbing out invasive trees and shrubs. When planting under trees it is best to use smaller plants that do not require digging a large hole in the root system of established trees.

Removing things can be more subtle. Non-native species are an easy target for removal - your forest cannot flourish if the invasives are taking over. But besides eliminating invasive plants, why would reducing deep shade be beneficial to the environment? If your forest is overcrowded with dense shade you may need to create space for existing or new trees and shrubs. As an example, while wood thrushes thrive in deep shade, indigo buntings prefer more open, brushier woods and edges. Deep shade can suppress seed germination and seedling growth, which reduces regeneration, the shrub layer and herbaceous layer. 

When thinning, keep the trees that help you meet your goals and remove those that don’t. Focus on poorly formed trees or species with less value for removal. Forest trees should be straight, with few lower branches. Maple, beech and poplar have lower wildlife value than oak or hickory. Trees to be removed can be girdled and left standing or felled and left in the forest to provide the habitat mentioned above. 

Having identified things that need to be done, you will need to prioritize them. Items that address an immediate threat, such as removing invasive vines, or those that take time to have an effect, such as planting trees and shrubs that may take several years to produce flowers or fruit, should come first. Not everything has to be done immediately. If your woodlot has been unmanaged for decades, do not think you can turn that around in a weekend.

Elements of a Master Plan

Control of invasive plants

  • One approach would be to create a three year invasives control plan (see the priority list on the Plant NOVA Natives website) followed by a long-term monitoring and maintenance plan. 

Tree replacement

  • The woods should regenerate themselves, but in some situations you may need to be adding trees.

Deer control

  • If excessive deer browse is an issue, can you find a way to exclude them or to protect trees and shrubs until they outgrow their reach?

Management of woods in right of ways

  • It is possible to get an encroachment agreement to allow you to manage vegetation in adjacent VDOT or utilities easements. Those entities generally will not be controlling invasives themselves beyond their routine mowing practices.

Monitoring

  • What is your system for regularly checking for new problems?

Education

  • What is your plan for educating stakeholders on an ongoing basis about the benefits of and threats to the woods?

Budget

  • In any community, relying entirely on volunteers is unlikely to be a good long-term answer.

What are the threats to your woods?

  • Herbivory from deer 

  • Invasive plants

  • Invasive insects

  • Trash, dumping

  • Encroachment

  • Soil compaction

  • Land disturbance

  • Silt from uphill construction

  • Erosion

Do your woods create any problems for humans?

  • Trees at high risk of falling on people or buildings

  • Old tires or other trash causing standing water for mosquitoes

  • Restricted sight lines for traffic 

  • Slip hazards from nuts on sidewalks

  • Criminal activity

Your Legacy

 

One last element of woodlot planning that is often overlooked is legacy planning. One of the biggest threats to forestland is intergenerational transfers of land. Legacy planning goes beyond estate planning by incorporating your vision of your property in generational time. One common mistake is to confound equity and equality in this type of planning. It is equitable to leave the property intact to one heir that shares your vision of the future of the property and leave other assets to other heirs. The award winning Generation NEXT program developed by the Virginia Department of Forestry and Virginia Cooperative Extension can help guide you through these issues.

If you are not leaving your woods to family members, you can still protect them by obtaining a conservation easement.

Misconceptions to avoid

 

“Woods need cleaning.” 

Fallen trees should remain on the forest floor, where they provide food and homes for numerous creatures. Fallen leaves should also remain, as they prevent soil compaction and erosion, shelter numerous creatures, and provide organic matter for plant roots.

 

“The woods are a good place to pile fallen leaves.” 

The floor of the woods has all the leaves it needs. If you pile on extra, they will smother the low-growing native plants.

 

“Dead trees should be cut down.” 

Dead trees are an essential part of the forest ecosystem. They provide perches for birds of prey, nesting sites for songbirds, shelters for mammals, and food for thousands of species of insects. They are also becoming increasingly rare in our human-managed environment. Try to leave them standing, or if they pose a hazard, if at all possible, just cut off the top and leave as much as you can standing.

 

“Paths are harmless.”

A narrow path through the woods is more compatible with the health of the ecosystem than other human activities. By giving people an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of nature, providing a path may stimulate preservation efforts. However, do not be lulled into thinking it is otherwise good for the woods. Humans bring in weed seeds wherever they walk, and the result is very evident along our many paths that are lined with invasive plants. Humans have already appropriated most of the land of Northern Virginia for themselves, so why not build new paths in already disturbed land, and plant trees along them? If you must put a path through the woods, try to minimize land disturbance by letting the feet of walkers do the trail compaction and by steering around trees and shrubs.

Five-leaf akebia smothering trees.jpg

It is essential to control invasive non-native vines before they swallow your woodlot.

A great resource is The Woods in Your Backyard. This is a joint program of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland Cooperative extension designed to help woodlot owners write a management plan for their woodlots. Although the program was designed with woodlots of less than 10 acres in mind, it will also work for larger properties.

 

Those of you with larger properties might want to hire a consulting forester to write a plan for them. The Virginia Department of Forestry maintains a searchable list of consulting foresters.

 

The Virginia Department of Forestry also provides advice and assistance to private landowners from townhouse lots to very large holdings

Find your local VDOF Forester. There is also information about forest management and health on the VDOF website

Need a professional plan? See this link for a detailed description of how a community associatin can create a comprehensive master plan.