Tips for Economically (and Ecologically) Successful Timber Sales

October 21, 2022 11:47 AM

Forests and the invaluable products they provide (tangible and non-tangible) are often an afterthought in Iowa. However, efforts such as the recent Governor’s proclamation declaring October 17-21 as “Iowa Wood Products Week” seek to change this. During this week, we highlight the significant contribution that forests and forest products provide to the Iowa economy. Significant is an understatement – just consider the facts from a 2017 economic report:


  • Over 17,000 people employed in forestry-related jobs, with $1 billion in annual payroll. Output from these positions support an additional 35,000 jobs.
  • $5 billion annual economic impacts to Iowa’s economy.
  • $10-40 million in standing timber sold each year. While impressive, this number should be WAY higher (see my thoughts below as to why).


Not too bad, considering our ~3 million acres of forest (85% of which are privately owned, by the way) only account for 8% of Iowa’s total land! $5 billion in economic impact coming from 3 million acres – that’s $1667 per acre each year!


Again, as 85% of our woodlands are privately owned, active management of this resource by Iowans is the foundation of this economic impact. Luckily, we as forest stewards have the ability to exponentially increase this impact! As an example of this, let’s consider timber sales on private lands. Whether income from timber is a management goal of yours or not, most private forest landowners do end up undertaking a timber sale at some point. After all, timber harvest (when done correctly, under the guidance of a professional forester) is a highly-effective tool to achieve a range of forest management goals – from water quality to wildlife.


Many folks, however, hastily jump into timber sales without proper guidance and planning. This frequently leads to lower overall value received from the sale (see my point above), reduced efficacy in achieving forest management goals, and decadal negative impacts to timber quality and the wide range of compound benefits our forests provide – such as clean air and water. Undertaking a timber sale on your land is a BIG decision, and one not to be rushed, or feel pressured to do. Also, a decision that should not be made alone (call your professional forester!). So, in honor of Iowa Wood Products Week, and to ensure we have perpetual high-quality, sustainable wood products (and compound benefits that trees and wood provide) – here are top things to consider regarding timber sales.

Photo 1. Iowa's forests annually grow 2.5 times the volume of wood we harvest. Oak timber sale, Shimek State Forest, Iowa.

          1. Foresters, loggers, and timber buyers – know the roles of the key players.


Timber sales involve four main players – the above three, as well as YOU the private forest steward. Each has a critical, albeit very different, role. Knowing these roles is critical for a successful sale. Foresters guide landowners in the long-term management of their woodlands, and frequently prescribe activities (such as timber harvest) to achieve landowner goals. Foresters will help you decide when a sale is needed (based on economic and ecologic principles), mark specific trees to harvest in order to achieve goals, solicit bids from buyers, and oversee the harvest to ensure quality. Loggers then safely (and impressively) fell standing timber that has been marked by foresters, and remove it from woodlands (Photos 2, 3). During harvest, loggers strive to minimize impact to harvested and residual trees, forest soils, and waterways. Timber buyers then purchase select logs, based on quality and volume desired by mills. You must be bonded with the state of Iowa in order to purchase standing timber. If someone knocks on your door and asks to purchase timber – check the Iowa Bonded Timber Buyer List first, then call your forester. In summary, you and your professional forester should be deciding when and what to harvest – period.

Photos 2, 3. The role of loggers is to safely fell timber and remove from woodlands, while minimizing impact to residual trees, soils, and waterways. Photo 2 (left) shows a "skidder" dragging a high-quality black walnut log to the landing. Linn County, Iowa.

          2. Don’t rush or feel pressured to sell.


As stated above, your forester will advise on the right time to sell – based on the current condition of your woodland, and your future goals. An interesting example exists on the economic side of things. An 18-inch diameter black walnut may fetch a nice price today, and timber buyers may readily purchase it from you. However, give that log a few years to reach 24 inches in diameter (trees increase in volume at approximately 3% per year), and the value increases almost exponentially. The reason is that as logs increase in size, that volume become more valuable per unit. In other words, bigger logs often bring more value than simply the added volume. A forester is your guide here (sensing a pattern?). They will assess current timber condition and advise on the right time to sell – based on your goals, market conditions, and ecological impacts. Remember that timber harvest is a serious decision with decadal impact. Don’t feel rushed or be pressured from buyers.


          3. Be aware of how trees and logs are valued.


Foresters often get asked “how much is that tree worth”? The answer is – it depends. This vagueness frustrates many landowners. It is often stated that the true value of your timber is “how much someone is willing to pay you for it”. A simple statement, but true. Timber, although a crop, is different from corn and beans. You simply can’t call the cooperative and ask on current timber prices. The value you receive from your harvest is based on what buyers are willing to offer you, which depends on MANY factors. Bids from buyers on a single sale often vary significantly – which underscores the importance of soliciting multiple bids for your sale. It’s not, however, that one buyer is feeling generous that day, and the other is looking to lowball you. Each buyer and/or logger has differing overhead, mobilization costs, equipment and labor considerations, and market outlet for your specific species and the quality (or grade) of those species. Thus, they pay what they feel is appropriate in the context of those factors. Another factor is distance from mills. Timber in eastern Iowa (short distance to the majority of our mills) often brings more bids and higher prices versus timber in central and (especially) western Iowa. In the case of the latter two, it’s often advisable to lump sales with your neighbors, as larger sales will often bring more bids – even with great distance from mills. Soliciting multiple bids will ensure you receive the true value of your timber. Also, without a forester’s guidance, how would you know the volume, species, and grade of the timber cut off your property? In other words, how would you know exactly WHAT you’re selling? Again, you should be sensing a pattern here, as to the value of working with a professional forester.


          4. Timber harvest often results in a temporary “messy” look – that’s OK!


In general, logs are harvested in 16-foot lengths, although length varies more as quality increases (e.g., veneer grade logs). Thus, tops are often left in the woods following harvest (Photo 4). This temporary “mess” often upsets landowners, and may result in an initial negative opinion of the forester and logger. However, residual wood is to be expected following a professional harvest, especially in even-aged management systems (e.g., shelterwood and clearcut harvests). In addition, residual wood actually offers great benefit to the forest landowner for a number of reasons. First, wood will eventually decompose and add organic matter to forest soils. Dead downed wood has exceptional wildlife value, for critters such as reptiles, salamanders, and insects. Downed wood/tops may also act to protect young seedlings and existing desirable regeneration against deer browse. Specific directions regarding residual wood may also be written into the timber sale contract with the logger/buyer. So, expect a temporary “mess”, but realize the value of this downed wood!

Photo 4: Clearcut harvest to promote oak regeneration. Brayton Research, Teaching, and Extension Forest, Delaware County, IA. Note the residual downed wood following harvest.

If you’re sensing a trend – it’s on purpose. Having your timber sale planned and administered by a professional forester will see you coming out ahead both economically and ecologically!

Further detail on timber harvest may be viewed in a recent article in Wallaces Farmer.

Learn more about Iowa forestry and woodland stewardship by enrolling in the 2023 offerings of the Master Woodland Steward Program!