By Morris Bradford
In the fall of 1982, my father and I set out for our hunting club, anticipating what opening day would bring. As we arrived, we quickly realized that things had changed since our last visit. My dad pulled over to the side of the road and sat in utter silence, looking down into the newly harvested area of our club. The tall timber and clear open bottom where I had learned to hunt and harvested my first deer were no more.
Silence was quickly replaced with anger. At our deer camp, we learned that approximately 400 of the 700 acres on our hunting club had been harvested and there were plans to harvest the remaining land within five years.
The consensus around camp was that the deer hunting would not be as good after the harvesting, so it would be best for us to find somewhere else to hunt. I remember the adults talking about the timber harvesting and how they thought it would affect our hunting. One of my father’s hunting partners said, “They come in here and wipe out everything as far as the eye can see, with little or no thought for the deer.”
Another man said, “They wipe out all of the cover for the deer so they have to stay on the adjacent property.”
Those comments made sense to me at the time. The forest the deer had called home was gone. Many of my father’s friends had been hunting the land for 15 years or more and had become attached in many ways to it, just as I had during my brief hunting career.
It was sad to see the club dissolve. While some of the members remained together and leased another piece of property, others joined clubs closer to home for convenience. Even though my father and I changed clubs and lost track of a few friends, my ever-growing passion for hunting compelled me to read and learn all I could about white-tailed deer and hunting. The more I learned, the more I realized that forestry had far more positive effects on the deer than negative ones. In fact, most of what I read explained that forestry, when properly practiced, was good for whitetails.
That was 21 years ago. Little did I know then that the forestry I thought had destroyed our hunting would become a passion for me and ultimately my career. Today, I am a professional forester working for a private timber company. The company I work for owns or manages many acres that are leased to hunting clubs in the Southeast. Unfortunately, even today some still think forestry is practiced, as the old timers said, “with little or no thought for the deer.”
Some of the hunting clubs to which my company leases choose to drop their leases after we harvest timber because they believe the quality of hunting will be diminished.
When these club members call, we make every attempt to inform them about how and why the hunting on their club will be better because of the timber harvest. Some listen to what we have to say, while others stubbornly hold to their beliefs that forestry is bad for the deer and hunting. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, I hate to see people give up their hunting leases without knowing the truth about the benefits of timber harvesting. Leases are too difficult to acquire these days to give up so easily due to a lack of education.
Part of the problem is that people still don’t have a clear understanding of what foresters do on a daily basis. Foresters and land managers go through a lengthy and tedious planning process long before the first tree is harvested to ensure the long-term productivity of the forest and enhance the wildlife habitat for the creatures that call it home.
As a forest matures, the ground receives less and less sunlight to sustain herbaceous plant growth. Most of the tender buds and leaves that deer browse upon have grown out of their reach. Although an open forest might be a pleasant place to spend an evening while hunting, white-tailed deer benefit very little from it.
Foresters can improve the quality of wildlife habitat in a stand to benefit deer and many other species through different management activities. Today some of the tracts we manage are large contiguous areas of even-age stands that provide little in the way of palatable vegetation or quality habitat for deer after they mature.
I manage an area called the Acme tract. It’s a large contiguous area of planted pines with a few small natural pine and hardwood drains. The wildlife habitat quality of this tract had become marginal to poor at best. The forest floor was a clean mat of pine straw with little or no herbaceous plant growth on which deer could browse. At this stage, the forest has reached a point when almost any type of forestry activity would increase the quality of the wildlife habitat on the tract.
My dilemma as a forester was that the entire tract had become financially profitable at the same time. The best prescription for the tract would be to harvest the entire area and promptly reforest the site. However, as a professional forester, I must follow all company policies and ensure all standards of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) are followed, while maximizing the financial return for this tract.
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative is a program set to assure that forestry is practiced to a common set of standards that each member company must follow. Some of the standards include ensuring forest productivity, protecting water quality, protecting wildlife habitat, protecting special sites and managing the visual impact of operations. Each of these standards is tied to member company policies and is sometimes exceeded by these policies.
The first management problem I faced on this tract was its size. According to company policy and guidelines set by SFI, I could not harvest a stand that was more than 200 contiguous acres. To satisfy the harvest area size limit, I decided to break the large stand into smaller stands under two different management systems.
Under the first management system, I decided to thin the stand to extract some value while enhancing wildlife habitat. By thinning these stands, newly created openings would allow sunlight to reach the forest floor and promote the tender herbaceous plant growth that is a main component in a whitetail’s diet. After the thinning operation is completed, hunters can establish food plots in places where loggers had loading decks.
Under the second management system, I decided to harvest the entire stand and promptly reforest the site. Although many people think harvesting of a mature stand might not seem the best thing for deer, it is just the opposite. A harvested area will quickly recover and go from providing less than 50 pounds of palatable vegetation per acre in a clean and open forest to producing more than 500 pounds of palatable vegetation per acre in the newly created opening just one year later.
Each of these management systems was separated by alternating between thinning and complete harvests and by using terrain features along with natural drainage patterns to establish buffers between the harvested and thinned areas. These buffers were left to ensure water quality, provide wildlife travel corridors and stand between management areas. Because these buffers are left after harvest, they are excellent places to maintain older stands. By maintaining older stands, mast producing trees such as oaks are left to provide cover and food for wildlife, thereby enhancing habitat.
Perhaps one the most overlooked benefits to white-tailed deer from forestry is the “edge effect” created through forestry operations. Whitetails are known as an edge species; that is, they thrive along transition zones, which are abrupt changes in vegetation, such as the edge of a mature stand against a harvested area, or the edge of a thinned plantation against a natural stand. By alternating theses harvest types and using buffers, this once-contiguous stand, with only a small amount of edge, was converted into a diverse forest with many stand types at different stages and lots of edge.
Forestry operations can create many types of edges in a forest. And the more edges you create, the better the habitat will be for whitetails. The better the habitat, the more deer you can maintain on your property.
There are many lessons to be learned about the forest. Appearances can be deceiving. What looks to be a thriving forest might not be what’s best for the forest or its inhabitants. And it’s the job of a forester to recognize the needs of the land and the steps he or she can take to maximize its productivity. So the next time you’re out hunting and see a timber harvest, don’t just assume it’s a negative activity. Look around, take stock and know that there’s more to it than just cutting down trees.
This article was published in the September 2004 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.