I turned off the main road and started up the long driveway back into the woods. As I slowly drove back, I noticed numerous sugar maples, (Acer saccharum). Other names for the sugar maple are hard maple or rock maple, but sugar maple is what I prefer.
It got me thinking.
As a conservation/agronomy guy, I tend to look at things from a crop standpoint. Meaning I am looking for a way to fully utilize the products of the land. Remember, conservation is wise use! The Northeast as a whole has woodlots and forests that are growing with little or no management. There are even aged woodlots that sprang up out of old abandoned farm fields all over the state. Many have never had any type of forest management. Those prime deer and grouse brushy young forest stands of 20 to 40 years ago are now getting up in age, like the rest of us.
Logging occurs in some areas, but sound management for a species like sugar maple is lacking in many areas. There are some very well managed maple sugar stands in our area, especially in Clinton County. But there are many more that are sitting idle.
As I continued my drive, I noticed white pine (Pinus strobus), popple or aspen (Populus tremuloides), white ash, (Fraxinus americana) eastern hophornbeam which goes by other names like, hardhack or ironwood (Ostrya virginiana), hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis), wild apple (Malus) and a few scattered elms (Ulmus americana).
From the various species, the silhouetted shapes of the pines, and the smooth ground that they grew on, deduction told me I was looking at an old pasture or hay land that had grown into a woodlot. My bet goes with pasture being the last use before the trees took over. The white pines had numerous stems and branches which meant they were growing in the sunlight in their youth and attacked by the white pine weevil (Pissodes strobi). The hophornbeam is a species that cattle don’t graze or browse so they thrive after the cattle are removed from a site. The art of figuring out what happened in the past, making the present day woods what it is, is interesting, forest forensics at its best.
My grandkids asked me once,” why would someone build a stone wall in the woods grampy”? They know the answer to that question now.
So now that we figured out what caused the woods to be what they are, now we must determine what we do next. With all the poor quality pine and aspen in the woodlot, and the marketability of maple syrup and maple sugar products increasing all the time, managing the lot for a sugar bush is a very good possibility.
On the other hand, managing for maple saw logs is the other option depending upon the size of the crowns, tree diameters and the spacing of the trees.
Sugar maple management for logs is different than for maple sap production. Saw logs come from trees that are grown with tighter spacing, or more trees per acre. The lower branches never form or die off due to the lack of sunlight. Saw log trees have straight boles and are devoid of branches until you get to the top crown of the tree. Well managed sugar maple demands an excellent price.
For maple sap production, you want just the opposite, a fully branched, wide and full 360 degree crown that gets the full exposure of sunlight to produce lots of sap. Remember photosynthesis and all that conversion to sugar stuff I talked about a few months ago.
This is where it gets interesting. If the sugar maples are getting middle aged and have a small crown, you probably should manage for saw logs. You will want to keep a tighter spacing, but still thin so the tree grows in diameter. You need to look up at the crowns of the trees and make a decision on what you will keep and what will be culled out. Depending on the age and diameter of the maples, it will make a difference on how you thin out the woods and what trees will be culled. There are some excellent articles on the internet about sugar bush management that anyone considering doing some forestry work should take a look at.
If you have young sugar maples that are growing in the shade of the pasture pines, hemlock and aspen, it’s time to start thinning out the inferior species so the sugar maples can get sunlight.
First, select the best maples by looking for the straight, healthy, larger diameter trees and mark them so you know what to keep. Then start culling out the pines and other trees so you allow the sun to reach your crop trees. Before you start dropping trees, walk around the trees and look for the best areas to drop the culls so you don’t damage other maples when you start felling. Work from the outside edges and work your way into the interior of the woods. If you look carefully, you will work out the puzzle and sequence of which one to drop first so it opens a spot for the second tree to drop into and so on.
As a small do it yourself woodlot owner you can take the time and care to avoid as much damage as possible to neighboring trees, and skid roads. You have time on your hands, it doesn’t all have to be done in one or two seasons, take your time, do it right. This is long term management.
In commercial timber harvesting it’s the cost of fuel, labor, insurance etc. and the economics of the product, along with the timing and weather factors that sometimes affects the quality of the harvest operation. With timber prices low, its means more products need to be harvested to pay the bills and it needs to be done in the same amount of time. This puts the pressure on and can give loggers a bad reputation. These guys have hundreds of thousands of dollars wrapped up in equipment and the bank wants their money on time, we can all relate to that.
As a small woodlot owner, with time, careful felling and thinning’s at periodic intervals you should be able to establish a nice little sugar bush and provide a little added income. Culled wood can be your energy source, sold for firewood, or sawed out into boards for home use, like building a sugar house. Work with a neighbor who owns a band saw mill. Outdoor stoves burn all kinds of wood that would otherwise be wasted. If you have tap-able trees at this time, use the wood for the boiling process. Remember, keep the money local!
The maple syrup industry is starting to grow and the demand for maple products are increasing worldwide. We have a golden opportunity in the north east to manage our woodlots for forest products to provide energy, saw logs, and especially maple syrup. So manage those sugar maples as you would any other crop, because they are. They are your specialty crop! Organically grown and sweetened by the sun!
If you don’t feel comfortable doing it yourself, hire a forester and have them handle the project. They can inventory the woodlot, make a prescription for management and handle the contracting and logging oversight and supervision for you.
Whether it’s for saw logs or syrup production, in the end you will have a valuable product. Sweet opportunity is knocking at your door. All you have to do is open it!
Get the training and do it safely.
Rich Redman is a retired District Conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and an avid outdoorsman. His column will appear regularly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.