Timber management is a type of forestry, looking at forests as timber resources. In this sense, it takes a different take than more environmentally-based forestry practices, which may view forests more as entire ecosystems. While timber management may take into account the larger, holistic ecosystem that the forests are a thriving part of, at its core it looks at forests as being made up of trees which are in turn made up of timber. Of course, a healthy timber management program includes land not being cut, for reserves, so often people who are part of a timber management program may find themselves allied with environmentalists.
The discipline of timber management grew out of an understanding in the United States in the late 19th century that timber was a finite resource. When Europeans first arrived in North America there was roughly a billion acres of forest, and they immediately began felling those forests, both to clear land for agriculture, and to feed a growing nation’s desire for housing, ships, and fuel. By the mid 19th century around 250 million acres of forest had been cleared, and it began to be apparent that the rate of clearing used up until the Civil War couldn’t continue without eventually stripping the continent of its timber sources.
As a result, beginning in earnest at the dawn of the 20th century, timber management became a key part of both government policy towards land, and private ownership. In the United States, the government owns roughly 325 million acres of forest, and practices strict timber management on those acres, holding them in the public trust for future generations and as a reserve for the nation’s times of need. The remaining 430 million acres of timber in the United States are owned by private parties: individuals, families, small companies, investment groups, and lumber companies. These companies handle their own timber management in different ways, depending on their goals, regulation affecting them, and need for steady capital injection.
One outline for timber management that is used by many private companies is called the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, or SFI. The SFI gives all sorts of different rubrics by which companies and individuals can gauge their own timber management. It lays out guiding principles, basic rules of thumb, and sets standards of how forests should regenerate while being cut, what areas should be left free from cutting, and how different areas should be thinned or handled responsibly.
Ultimately, the best timber management program balances both environmental concerns and commercial concerns. Allowing forests to regenerate at a steady rate ensures not only that the ecosystem can stay healthy, but that a constant source of commercial timber will exist in perpetuity. Often, protecting specific threatened areas or wildlife habitat can have direct commercial benefits as well, because of government easements that may exist for timber management programs that look out for the environment.
Generally, regeneration is handled either by allowing natural seeding to take place, or by instituting plantings. Although plantings are substantially more expensive than natural seeding, many people choose planting in their timber management because the growth time to maturity is often shorter, balancing out the added cost. From an environmental perspective, however, in some forests natural seeding is preferable, forcing foresters to make a sometimes difficult decision.