With log and lumber prices "as high as they've ever been," woodlot owners stand to make a good dollar these days. But a hasty deal made for the sake of a quick profit can leave landowners shortchanged and disappointed at what's left behind in their tree lot.
"I've seen it happen that landowners have sold timber for $20,000 or $30,000 when in fact $40,000 to $60,000 is being harvested," says Stephen Pitt, stewardship coordinator for the Lennox & Addington Community Stewardship Program.
During the five years the program has been running in Ontario, Pitt says hundreds of woodlot owners have learned how to get the most out of their product, both on the financial end and in terms of maintaining a good lot after a harvest.
While Pitt says there are many "good operators out there," he cautions people to be wary of the few "bad loggers who are giving the industry a bad reputation.
"I've seen forests overcut and you can1t go back for 50 or 60 years," says Pitt. "It kind of breaks your heart when you see it. If I see a forest and then I hear it1s been clear cut, I won't go back."
He says the problem generally in the industry is that landowners aren1t aware of the true value of the wood in their lot. It's a knowledge gap, which Pitt says can be dangerous if a logger turns up with offers of big money for a few acres of trees.
"We like to tell farmers when you take a cow to the sales barn you know how much it weighs before you sell it. It's the same in this case, you should know what you're selling."
Pitt says two practices he sees repeatedly are diameter limit cutting and highgrading. Both, he says, can leave behind a forest that is damaged beyond repair, at least for the foreseeable future. The first involves the harvesting of "all trees greater than a certain diameter," meaning many are cut before maturity. And in the second case, loggers will take "only the very best trees" and leave anything of a poorer quality behind. Through "selection cutting," he says, woodlots can remain "sustainable" even after trees have been taken out.
Pitt says more and more landowners are seeking out help from their local woodlot association or stewardship council, a body within the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. Landowners, he says, aren't just interested in financial gains; they're also looking to maintain a healthy forest and protect wildlife habitats.
Each county has its own council made up of volunteers who are there to look at the needs of their particular environment. They in turn "direct me to do things that need to be done," says Pitt.
"In this part of the world there are a lot of lakes and streams so a lot of work is done on water quality and stream degradation.
"We've worked with landowners to restore little creeks around Napanee ... assisted with fencing projects with farmers and environmentally sensitive stream projects," he says.
Pitt says the council also receives funding requests from different community groups including woodlot and horticultural associations. As well, he says, the council runs workshops and education programs throughout the year depending on what the needs are in the woodlot community.
A thick information package designed to help landowners is a standard feature for anyone asking questions. It covers topics like detection and identification of various tree bugs, how to determine if a woodlot is healthy and proper methods of selling standing timber. A glossary of common terms used in the industry is also included along with clear and concise write-ups on how woodlot owners can protect their investment.
Pitt says anyone considering a more serious approach to his or her woodlot couldn1t pick a better time to do so than right now. He says lumber prices are "as high as they've ever been" meaning lots containing trees like hard maple and red oak are fetching top prices. He says one of the best ways to get started is to contact the local stewardship council and "see if they have any sessions coming up on selling standard timber." Pitt also advises landowners to find out from local chapters of the Ontario Woodlot Association (OWA) about educational packages. "The thing is," he says, "do this homework before you decide to sell. I've seen too many farmers ripped off."
For owners who aren't defined as farmers, a voluntary program called the Managed Forest Tax Incentive program (MFTIP) offers lower property taxes in exchange for an agreement to conserve and actively manage their forest.
Forests that qualify for the MFTIP are reassessed similar to farmland and are taxed at 25 per cent of the residential tax rate. A brochure outlining the program lists a number of requirements; for example, the forest area must cover at least four hectares or ten acres excluding all residences and there must be a minimum number of trees on each hectare.
Pitt admits the MFTIP, a document similar in layout to the standard Revenue Canada publications, is not an easy or straightforward read. The first few pages talk about program eligibility and the tax benefits involved. Later on landowners are "encouraged to prepare and update" their own managed forest plan, a sort of progress report of expected events for a 20-year period.
When it comes to filling out the 16 pages of the plan itself, Pitt says experts in the field are a necessity in most cases. "Most people have to have someone to help. There's a lot they can do themselves, but at some point they have to have a consultant."
Pitt says there are a number of knowledgeable consultants left over from "the old days" when MNR operated what he calls a private land forestry service. He says landowners will avoid costly mistakes by bringing in someone who knows and cares about the industry.
"Get somebody in to make a proper decision. You're not dealing with hundreds of dollars, you're dealing with thousands. It's not only good for you financially, but good for the woodlot as well,
"You can ruin a woodlot very easily," Pitt again cautions.
While the MFTIP is mandatory for landowners who want to qualify for the tax benefit, Pitt points out that the same rules do not apply for farmers. He says farmers already receive benefit for their woodlots under the Farmland Property Taxation Policy. It was brought in 1998 to replace the Farm Tax Rebate Program.
The "complexity" of the MFTIP for landowners is something Bev Kennedy, president of the OWA's Limestone chapter, would like to see changed.
Kennedy, a recent award winner in the Forest Stewardship Recognition Program, operates a family woodlot in Bedford Township. Like Pitt, Kennedy encourages landowners to adopt good management practices on their woodlots. He says, though, that his association and others are appealing to MNR to "reduce the amount of complexity" so the document is "far less daunting" for the average person trying to figure it out.
But Kennedy also admits there1s both "an upside and a downside" to making the management plan a more simple process. On one hand, he says, landowners wouldn't have to do so much work and rely so heavily on consultants to get through the paperwork However, a relaxing of the requirements, he says, "could lead to people not properly managing their property. There's a tendency to do a better job if they have to first do a lot of work."
Pitt can be reached at email@example.com