Planning for Wooded Acreages and Woodlands

People own wooded acreages and woodlands for a variety of reasons that may include: timber production, firewood production, recreation, wildlife habitat, aesthetics, alternative forest products, and promoting clean air and water. Most of Iowa’s forestland is privately held, and the majority of ownership is fragmented into an average of 48 acres (USDA Forest Service data, 2021). In fact, the average size of an individual forest or woodlot ownership has been steadily declining for several years due in part to population growth, urban sprawl, and changes in land ownership. 

Studies indicate that the probability of a sustainable woodlot decreases as the population increases. At the same time, most woodlot owners want to be good stewards and protect and enhance the forest that they own. To achieve this goal, careful forest planning and management is required especially when managing the land for multiple objectives.

Aerial image showing a forested property with a white outline around the ownership boundary of the property
This aerial photograph clearly marks the property boundaries. The next step is to identify and delineate resources to help inform management goals.

Setting goals and objectives

Setting goals is the first step in woodland stewardship. Before the woodland can be improved clear goals and objectives need to be formulated. Goals are benefits derived from managing the forest. Objectives are specific management activities that help accomplish the goals. The goals should be clear, direct, and attainable. For example, one goal may be to manage part of the woodlot for firewood and timber production. Marking poor quality and low valued species from high valued species is an essential objective to achieve this goal. Another goal might be to manage the land near the home for aesthetics and wildlife or improve the woodland for fox squirrels. An associated objective for improved squirrel habitat is to “identify and release at least three potential den trees per acre.” The goals should be compatible with the land uses, owner objectives, and flexible enough to allow for changes in markets and future resources.

Getting to know your woods

A forest is more than a bunch of trees, it is very important to become familiar with the woodlot before managing it. Walk through the woods and consider the important benefits the woodlot provides. Write the benefits down and rank them by importance. During the walk:

  • Identify the property boundaries and clearly mark them with posts, fencing, natural barriers such as bluffs, rivers, and streams.
  • Identify accesses and easements.
  • Identify the trees and other plant species that exist in the woodlot by completing a resource inventory. Look for invasive plants such as multiflora rose, buckthorn, honeysuckle, and garlic mustard.
  • Look at the land characteristics and features and think about how they may influence the usability of the site.
  • Evaluate riparian (streamside) areas as well as factors that may impact water quality (e.g., gully erosion).
  • Look at the historical and current land uses.

Resource inventory map

A complete resource inventory should be taken of the land. One of the best ways to accomplish this is through the use of aerial imagery, which may be obtained from a variety of online sources. A simple, yet effective, means would be to print aerial images and delineate resource boundaries using a pen or pencil. More advanced delineation may be accomplished using a variety of smartphone mapping apps.

Regardless of technique, identify the upland and bottomland vegetative cover, clearings, bodies of water, adjacent land uses, cropland, windbreaks, and orchards that were identified during the initial walk-through. Topographic maps are an excellent complement to aerial imagery.

The information from the inventory can then be compiled to create a resource map. A useful resource map would include details such as roads, trails, clearings, dense timber areas, high-value timber areas, bodies of water, sites known for wildlife, houses, invasive species, and sources of recreation. Put the most important features that you want to manage in plain view. Keep in mind that this information is not suitable for all resources. For example, if you are managing for high-value timber, a detailed inventory should be done. Professional foresters are available to assist with detailed forest inventory and should be an initial point of contact for any forest management activity. Visit our forestry contact directory to find professional foresters in your area. 

Arial image showing a forested property with different resources outlined to create a resource inventory map
The identified resources have been outlined on this resource inventory map to help determine potential areas for planting, timber management, windbreaks, prairies, and aesthetics.

Planting

Consider planting trees and shrubs in open areas or empty fields. Purposes of planting could include timber production, wildlife habitat, riparian buffer stripswindbreaks, and beautification. Successful tree plantings require planning, site preparations, selecting planting stock (seedlings or direct seeding), and post-planting maintenance. A little time spent planning the planting may mean the difference between a successful and unsuccessful planting.

Management plan

Timber, firewood, wildlife, aesthetics, clean water, and alternate timber products can be managed on the same land. Look at the resource inventory map and locate areas where high-value timber can be grown and areas where trees could be planted through direct seeding or planting of seedlings. Examples of high-value timber would include walnut, oak, and maple which can be used as sawlogs for lumber or high-dollar veneer. Your professional forester can create a detailed inventory to determine the available species and the stand density to prevent overcrowding. Remember, the ability of a tree to grow and reproduce is a function of the amount of available light to the tree. From there, practices such as harvesting and forest stand improvement can be done.

Forest stand improvement utilizes techniques such as thinning to an appropriate density, removal of undesirable trees, invasive species control, and marking of crop trees for future seed production and harvest.

Firewood is produced from lower-quality trees that are poorly formed, diseased, crooked, or hold very little timber value. These trees are identified in the inventory and are removed in thinning or crop tree operations. The lack of management and past land uses has created an abundance of firewood. Harder woods such as oak, hickory, and hard maple are more desirable for firewood than species of lower density such as cottonwood, basswood, and soft maple. 

Map of ground cover types on a forested property
A clearly defined map of management goals by resource boundary.

Invasive plant species in woodlands

Invasive plant species are plants that are non-native to the ecosystem under consideration. These plants were brought to the United States (i.e., exotic) and cultivated for ornamental and landscape purposes, livestock forage, soil conservation, and wildlife habitat. Most of these plants stayed where they were planted, however, there are a number of species that have spread to native woodlands. Invasive species tend to spread rapidly and often outgrow and displace native vegetation. Over time, these plants have the ability to completely alter the forest landscape - resulting in negative impacts on timber production, wildlife habitat, soil, and water quality, and other beneficial ecosystem goods and services. 

In Iowa, invasive plant species are often prevalent along forest edges, but may also be found under the forest canopy. Examples of invasive plant species that impact Iowa’s forests include non-native honeysuckle, multiflora rose, buckthorn, non-native bittersweet, and garlic mustard.

Management of invasive plant species is best achieved through early detection and control efforts. Complete eradication may not be possible, however, and many invasive plant species may re-establish within your woodlot through wind and animal-dispersed seed from adjacent properties. Thus, following control efforts with diligent annual monitoring is critical. Repeated combinations of mechanical, chemical, and prescribed treatments are often required for invasive species control.

Professional foresters are able to design invasive species management plans, and forestry contractors are available to assist with on-the-ground control efforts (e.g., herbicide application).

Aesthetics and wildlife

An important goal for many small woodlot owners is to enjoy the property for its beauty, recreational activities, and wildlife. Note areas where recreation and wildlife habitat opportunities have been identified on the resource inventory map, and consider planting a diverse selection of native trees and shrubs for year-round beauty and wildlife benefit. The Iowa DNR State Forest Nursery sells a wide range of native bare-root tree and shrub seedlings. Remember to select species that will tolerate specific site conditions. Additional management practices may be prescribed by your professional forester to benefit wildlife species of interest. Dead and downed woody material has incredible value for wildlife and beneficial insects. Consider leaving downed wood and select standing dead trees as homes for wildlife.

Alternative forest products

Managing for alternative forest products may provide another way to generate income and may potentially develop into a small business. Alternative forest products require time, research, and preparation. Consider what products may be of interest in your area and produced from your woodlot. For example, the resource inventory map may have found an area that is dense with sugar maples trees, which could be used to produce maple syrup. Perhaps you have species along the edge of the woodlot, such as pines or dogwoods, capable of producing cones, boughs, or colorful stems that could be harvested for floral designs. Another common alternative product in Iowa is nut production from black walnuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, and other seeds. Other products may include ginseng and other medicinal plants, mushrooms, raspberries, and elderberries.

Conclusion

A close relationship with your professional forester is critical in order to achieve your management goals. In addition, become familiar with your woodlot by walking the property and monitoring it as often as possible. Work to educate yourself on basic tree and wildlife identification, options for managing the woodlot, and other features of your woodlot (e.g., soils). A wide range of extension resources and programming exist to assist with these efforts.

Additional resources

For more information check out our planning and planting articles and forest products articles. Further information can also be found in our list of forestry publications on the Extension Store. To learn more generally about Iowa's forests check out our Iowa's Nature Forests article.