Landowners have many things in common, but atop their list of similarities is a never-ending to-do list. If you strive to provide suitable habitat and a potential safe haven for wildlife on your property, consider timber stand improvement projects. Better yet, make each project a collaboration with state representatives or the federal government to get support, management ideas and financial assistance.
We spoke to Jeff Taylor, a Whitetail Properties Land Specialist in Mississippi and Louisiana, and Kip Adams, the National Deer Associations chief conservation officer, to learn about timber stand improvement (TSI) techniques and program options available to landowners. Here’s what they had to say.
Timber Stand Improvement 101
Timber stand improvement projects improve a timber stands’ composition, structure, condition and health. Adams said some landowners use TSI projects to create revenue from their property, but many of those who purchase land through Whitetail Properties plan to use the land for hunting and creating ideal food and cover for wildlife. Therefore, a better, more-fitting term is forest stand improvement (FSI). FSI is a new and emerging concept focused on removing undesirable trees to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor. Like TSI, this allows for early successional forest growth that provides browse and bedding for deer and other animals.
Regardless of the name or project motivation, the improvement techniques are the same. To reduce forest density and a thick overstory, people can cut (or fell) trees, hinge-cut trees, and girdle and spray trees to kill them slowly. Follow-up TSI best practices involve conducting ground-level projects to improve the habitat, like creating food plots, applying herbicides and using prescribed fire to promote native vegetation growth.
Taylor said 75% to 80% of private forest land in the Southeast isn’t growing at its maximum potential, which puts timber stands at a higher risk for wildfires, insect infestation and forest damage. Timber or forest stand improvement projects help wildlife and the environment, and they’re great for all property sizes, including 5- to 10-acre plots.
“There’s no doubt 99% of landowners would benefit from this,” Adams said. “Even if your property is well managed, by doing more FSI, you can make it better for deer and other wildlife. This is not a one-and-done thing. You can work on something every year because succession is always marching on. The smaller the land parcel, the more important FSI is to drawing and retaining wildlife to your property.”
Taylor agreed and said landowners with small properties might struggle to find a contractor or logger to assist with projects in a tight space. However, the projects are still beneficial, so he recommends exploring the options. You can choose to do the work yourself and pay out of pocket, or you can apply for a state or federal government program to get help and funding.
State and Federal Programs
The availability and logistics of state and federal timber management programs vary based on location and the type of work your property requires. All state and federal programs have an application process. Some even have a waiting list, so be patient and diligent when applying. If you’re accepted, someone will explain your obligations and responsibilities to you. If you accept the terms and agree to conduct the work, you’ll often get financial assistance as you improve your property.
“All of them are different from a signing and application period to the length of contract you’d be involved in,” Taylor said. “All the details are specific to the program.”
For example, Mississippi has the Forest Resources Development Program (FRDP), which provides cost-sharing assistance to eligible landowners for establishing and improving a crop of trees. It’s funded by the severance tax paid from timber harvest and covers up to 75% of the total cost of implementing one or more practices, up to $7,000 per year. Many states recognize forests are owned by private landowners so they offer financial incentives and work with citizens to implement specific forestry practices designed to produce timber and enhance wildlife habitats. FRDP is unique to Mississippi, but other states have similar programs.
Check with your state wildlife agency or forestry agency to find programs available in your state. Or contact a registered forester or wildlife biologist in your state for more information and management ideas.
On the federal side of things, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is the largest conservation program in the U.S. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) administers it through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The five-year program has a continuous application period, but the NRCS has a cut-off date to evaluate and rank eligible applications.
Those selected receive technical and financial assistance to enhance natural resources and improve business operations. Many people use the program to improve grazing conditions, increase crop resiliency, or improve the cover, food and water available for domestic and wildlife species. A local NRCS conservation planner will work with you to develop and achieve conservation and management goals for your property. Visit the USDA webpage on the CSP for more information.
Other popular federal programs include the Conservation Reserve Program, the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. If you’re interested in applying for a government program, visit the USDA website to explore your options.
State and Federal Program Pros and Cons
Receiving financial assistance and professional help are great benefits to established programs, but landowners must submit an application and meet the physical and record-keeping requirements outlined in the program contract. Additionally, most programs have designated contract lengths, which could hamper landowners from selling their property while under contract. Adams said some people don’t think the programs are worth the effort, so you must decide.
“The process can be onerous at times as far as the application process and the reports that you have to do,” he said. “Some people think it’s worth it to jump through the hoops to get the funds and help, but some people may not be interested in signing up for a government contract. They can still gather information from resources, learn about the different improvement techniques, and choose to do the work themselves or hire somebody to have it done.”
If you want to apply for a program, connect with a state representative or visit the USDA’s NRCS webpage to find something suitable and start the application process. Taylor said the sign-up period for most federal programs is in the spring, whereas the application period for state-level programs ends in July.
If you don’t want to enroll in a government program or you don’t get selected, you can still meet with a forestry commission representative in your state to get management ideas for your land. You can also work with someone at your local county extension office.
“Everyone has goals and objectives as a landowner,” Taylor said. “The forest is a dynamic system, so there’s always something to stay on top of, even if it’s on a small scale as far as making a food plot bigger, creating an edge effect on the property, or daylighting roads, which is the clearing of undergrowth about 20- to 30-yards on each side of the dirt road.”
Whitetail Properties has multiple LandBeat videos to help landowners get tips and education on timber and forest stand improvement projects. Check out the following videos to get started: