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forester doing timber inventory in pennsylvania

Timber Harvest Guide for Pennsylvania Landowners

The decision to harvest timber from your land is a significant one as it affects your property for years to come. For forest owners, it is one of the most important forest management operations. Since timber harvesting operations vary greatly from state to state, it is crucial to understand the specific processes involved, how to do it sustainably, and the legalities required for timber harvesting. If you are one of the many thousands of woodland owners from Pennsylvania, this article will guide you to use timber harvesting as effective forest management. We will begin by discussing the ecology and silviculture of timber harvest, followed by marketing your timber and diving into the regulations and permits you need to be familiar with while harvesting and logging timber in Pennsylvania.

Determining If the Timber Is Ready for Harvest

The first thing you want to avoid while harvesting timber is to do it prematurely or too late. To determine the readiness of timber for harvesting, there are several factors such as species, site conditions, seasonality, management plan, and tree health that you need to consider. Ideally, harvesting should always be guided by a silvicultural plan which is prepared by properly assessing the conditions of a given site concerning the management objectives and the stand age. A silvicultural plan will have silvicultural prescriptions that detail the time, location, intensity, and method of harvesting.

While most harvesting operations are based on the diameter of the trees, forest health indicators such as over-crowding, insects and pests’ infestation, diseases, and wildlife management can also help determine the readiness of timber for harvest. Forestry professionals can offer a precise assessment and guide you in making the right decision by conducting a forest inventory, analyzing the timber’s age and health, and evaluating the environmental impacts of the harvest.

Sustainable Harvest Practices

Removing trees from an area is bound to have both short-term and long-term effects on the entire forest ecosystem. The main goal of sustainable harvest practices is to minimize or eliminate the negative impacts while maximizing the positive impacts of harvesting timber. The key principles of sustainable harvest practices include maintaining biodiversity, allowing for natural regeneration, maintaining key habitats, minimal effect on the remaining trees, and sustained financial returns.

Harvesting practices such as high-grading or diameter-limit cuttings are considered destructive for Pennsylvania’s forests. High-grading, also known as select-cutting, involves harvesting only the best trees of the most valuable species. Diameter-limit cutting is a type of high-grading where all trees above a certain diameter are harvested.  This leads to lower diversity and quality of trees, presence of only low-value and undesirable trees species, and difficulty in natural regeneration of desirable species.

A sound and sustainable harvesting system should always consider the tree spacing, species composition, seed-trees or mother-trees, resource allocation, logging plan, environmental impacts such as water quality, visual impacts, biodiversity and so on.

Silviculture and Harvesting

To fully understand the sustainable harvest of timber, it is important to understand a little bit of silviculture.

Based on how harvesting is carried out at the end of a rotation cycle, there are many ‘silvicultural systems’ used by forest resource managers. The different systems result in forests with trees of either one or more age classes. For instance, the clearcut system, seed tree harvest system, and shelterwood system result in even-aged forests while group and individual tree selection systems provide uneven-aged forests.

Moreover, harvesting in even-aged forests results in more light in their regeneration stages while in an un-even-aged forest, little light penetrates the ground through small openings in the canopy. As a result, Even-aged forests promote shade-intolerant tree species like black cherry and aspen while uneven-aged forests will have more shade-tolerant tree species like American beech, hemlock, and sugar maple.

Hence, harvesting timber is not just about taking out trees, it determines how your forest will look like and what tree species you will have. This is especially important because in most acceptable silvicultural systems in Pennsylvanian forests, tree planting or artificial planting is not common.

Marketing Timber for Harvest

Marketing timber can be confusing to landowners not familiar with the process. Often, landowners lose out on significant gains because they did not market their timber properly, resulting in a small paycheck. In Pennsylvania there are 2 popular methods to getting fair market value for your timber.

    1. Begin by contacting a consulting forester to appraise the value of your timber based on the type, size, and quality of your trees, the logging conditions on your land, and the current market conditions and prices. A consulting forester will mark the trees to be cut, present you with an inventory of the trees to be harvested and submit your timber to potential buyers through a document known as a ‘prospectus’. It contains all the information that buyers need to make an offer including total area of land, location, tree species, tree size and volume, type of sale (whether it is lump sum or per cut), and timeline of operations. The consulting forester will receive all bids and then present them to the landowner to choose which bid shall be accepted.
      Again, foresters can help you with both preparing the prospectus and providing contacts, negotiating contracts, giving suggestions and with the entire official procedure. In exchange for their services they will receive a percentage of your harvest total.
      Extra Tip: While it might be tempting to go for the highest bid, you should also always consider other factors like the reputation of the buyer, the proposed harvesting method including tools and skills, and their adherence to sustainable practices.
    2. The second method for getting fair market value for your timber is selling directly to a REPUTABLE saw mill. These mills employ professional foresters to consult with landowners about goals for their woodlands, assess the timber health, inventory the tree type, size, and quality. As well as mark trees to be cut, and present landowner with an inventory report and a timber contract from the mill. The forester will be present to manage every step of the timber harvest and assure that sustainable forestry practices are followed and your woodlands are not unduly harmed.
      Selling timber direct to a reputable mill will result in more profit for the landowner in almost every instance as the expenses of a Consulting Forester in the option above are significant. The downside to selling timber direct to a mill is you are slightly more dependent upon the integrity of the mill. Things to look for in determining if you are dealing with a reputable mill include:

      • Do they pay in full BEFORE timber is cut?
      • Does the timber contract define WHEN the trees will be cut?
      • Does the timber contract define HOW MANY trees will be cut?

      If a mill is reputable they will have no problem presenting you with contacts of former clients, and even allow you to see bids they made on recent prospectus so you can see their track record when bidding on timber compared to competitors.

Erosion and Sediment Control Practices

When you harvest and log trees, you need to use roads, streams, and skid trails, or even build new ones, which can adversely affect the soil, water, and overall ecology of the area. To deal with this, Pennsylvania has designed environmental regulations that protect these resources from timber harvesting operations.

An erosion and sedimentation control plan is a must for all timber harvesting operations in Pennsylvania. State regulations (25 Pa. Code, Chapter 102) mandate the use of Best Management Practices (BMPs) and the preparation of the plan by a skilled person. Both state and federal laws address earth disturbance activities (including timber harvesting) which can potentially affect the water quality of the Commonwealth. Some of the laws that timber harvesters need to be familiar with include sections 401 and 404 of the Clean Water Act (33 U.S.C. §§ 1341 and 1344), The Clean Streams Law (35 P.S. §§691.1-691.1001), Dam Safety Encroachments Act (32 P.S. §§ 693.1-693.27) and their regulations. The regulations are administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) which has delegated some authority to the local conservation district.

Logging Permits and Requirements

There are several cases where you need special permits for logging your harvested timber. Some of the most frequent ones are when there is the need for stream crossings using bridges, culverts, and fords or wetland crossings. While stream crossing permits are more straightforward, wetland crossing permits can be a bit complicated because wetlands are jointly regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the DEP.

For logging vehicles to travel on traffic roads, it is important to be familiar with the legal and practical aspects. For instance, to travel to a permanent sawmill, vehicles are not required to obtain a permit. However, on posted roads, where the maximum allowable weight of vehicles is indicated, overweight vehicles require a permit, which is issued after signing a road use agreement like an excess maintenance agreement. Also, haul roads connecting to public highways may require an occupancy permit while public roads may need bonds. It is important to note that the legality regarding permits also varies based on local governments.


To sum up, I can’t stress enough the benefits of working with forestry professionals, who can save you time, trouble, and money. Harvesting and selling timber sustainably and profitably is hard, but meeting all the regulations can add to the challenge while its violation might result in serious environmental, financial, and legal consequences. However, relying completely on professional services is also not ideal, which is why as a landowner in a largely forested state like Pennsylvania, to derive the full potential of your land and timber, it is also important to familiarize yourself with the ecology, economics, and regulations surrounding one of the most important forest management operations – timber harvest.
I hope this article has guided you a step closer towards making informed harvesting decisions for your land. The next step is to choose competent and conscientious forestry professionals who also understand your needs and objectives.

Contributed by Sandesh KC

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