Iowa's Woods

Iowa’s 2.1 million acres of woodlands, representing 5.7% of the total land area, is a most valuable resource for the state. Its value includes the beauty of the woodlands, the habitat for wildlife, site protection for hilly landscapes, and a significant contribution to the Iowa economy through forestland production of veneer and sawlogs, primary manufacturing of those logs into lumber and secondary processing into finished product.

Iowa’s woodlands are almost all privately owned, with the majority still owned by farmers as part of the farm operation. Public ownership including the major state forests (Shimek, Yellow River, Shephens, and Loess Hills), state parks, and the county park system consist of approximately 8% of the forest land area. National ownership of woodlands in Iowa is almost non-existent; the state does not have a National Forest and federal ownership consists of National Monuments and Wildlife areas.

Private ownership is varied, from less than an acre to as much as several thousand acres in corporate ownership.  Most woodland owners have 30 to 150 acres of woodland.

Iowa’s forests are mostly deciduous or hardwood trees; the only significant softwoods or conifers native to the state are redcedar found throughout the state and white pine and balsam fir in northeast Iowa. The remainder of Iowa woodlands are hardwood forest with great species diversity. In the lumber industry, hardwoods refer to deciduous broad leaf trees such as oaks, walnut, basswood and cottonwood and softwoods refers to confer or evergreen species. The designation "hardwood" or "softwood" has nothing to do with the hardness of the wood. Iowa’s climate and soils contribute to some of the best hardwoods in the world, including black walnut, white and red oak, white ash, and black cherry. The value and demand for these species is well recognized; Iowa also produces many other species of hardwoods which are used for wood products but less recognized because of their relatively scarcity. Other hardwoods which are marketed in Iowa are basswood, sugar and silver maple, river birch, hickories, black and green ash, honey locust, Kentucky coffeetree, butternut, red mulberry, sycamore, cottonwood, aspens, willows, boxelder, and other oak species. These trees are used for furniture, crafts, cabinets, novelties, carvings, pallets, cooperage and many other uses. 

Forest crops are long term investments; many of the species harvested today in Iowa are 80 to 120 years of age before they have reached harvest size. Most trees will have some lumber volume and value as they approach 16 inches in diameter, but will attain much greater volume and value as they get larger. Landowners usually sell trees as stumpage or standing trees. Value is affected by species, quality of the trees, ease of logging, size of the timber sale and limitations or restrictions placed on the timber sale.

When woodland owners make the decision to market or sell their timber, they should utilize a forester to assist in the process and solicit competitive bids from loggers. Iowa has more than 200 bonded timber buyers and loggers. Timber buyers inspect and submit bids for the trees for sale. If they are selected, they should enter into a contract agreement with the landowner, outlining the agreement on both sides, including what is to be harvested and limitations on the logger. In most cases, the landowner is paid shortly after signing a contract or at least before any harvesting is done. The logger is responsible for harvesting the standing trees and is usually allowed 12 to 18 months to complete the harvest. Loggers often avoid harvesting in the late spring and summer to minimize degradation of the cut trees. Logging during the cooler months results in less degrade of quality in the logs during the time period from cutting the tree until it is processed by the veneer or sawmill.

As the trees are cut and skidded out of the woodland, the logger determines the optimum cutting of the trees into logs to maximize the value of the harvested tree.  Very high value logs may become veneer logs and may be shipped outside Iowa and in some cases are exported to European veneer mills. Iowa does have a single veneer processing plant in Grundy Center which produces sliced high-grade veneer. Other logs depending on the species and quality are sold to other sawmills depending on their demands and products they produce. Number 1 and 2 sawlogs will produce high quality furniture and trim lumber while pallet logs will be used for production of lumber for pallet construction or railroad ties.  

Sawlogs are cut into lumber with large circular saws or with band sawmills. Iowa’s forest industry has more than 60 sawmills, in 45 counties, located throughout most of Iowa.  Sawmill waste, including sawdust, slabs, and edgings, are mostly burned in boilers to produce energy needed for lumber drying. Other uses of waste from sawmills are chips for paper or mulches for landscape applications.  Some sawmills use de-barkers to removed the bark before sawing and have markets for this bark product as landscape mulches.  After sawing, the green lumber is stacked with spacing stickers and either air or kiln dried.  Lumber which is to be used for outdoor applications is air dried and ready to use; lumber which is to be used for indoor applications or furniture, must be kiln dried to reduce moisture content to 6 to 8%.  After drying, lumber is surfaced (planed) and shipped to the secondary processors in the state for production to the finished product.

Iowa’s secondary processing industry has more than 350 woodworking industries from small individual cabinet and furniture producers to large manufactures of wood products. These individuals, families and companies convert Iowa’s fine hardwood lumber into the beautiful finished product.  

The wood industry in Iowa is not a large industry, but is a major contributor to both the economy of the state and the beauty of the finished product from our renewable and diverse woodland species.  Next time you look at a piece of beautiful furniture produced in Iowa, appreciate everyone involved-the Tree Farmer, the logger, the sawmill and the craftsperson.