How to Sell Timber From Your Land

Seven tips on how to sell timber before you decide to harvest and sell the trees on your property.

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Unsplash/Meritt Thomas

One of the great things about country living is having trees next door. You can’t find quieter neighbors, and trees have a multitude of benefits: beauty, wildlife habitat, windbreak, privacy and income, among others. Timber is a valuable commodity, and since most landowners only have timber harvested once or twice in a lifetime (at least on a large scale), some careful thought and a few simple actions before you sell your timber can ensure the process is done right. These tips are all about how to sell timber.

1. Mark your property lines

Surprisingly, some landowners only vaguely know the location of their property lines. But accurately marked lines are like a breath of fresh air for timber buyers. Buyers can offer a more aggressive price since they need not worry about accidentally cutting a neighbor’s timber – and the hefty fines associated with it. Accurately marked boundaries also make cruising timber (figuring up timber value) easier.

If your lines aren’t marked, and you only vaguely know their location, a few things can help. First, check the county courthouse for plats, deeds and tax maps. If your land was surveyed in the past, plats show exactly where the lines and corners are located. If not, some deeds contain detailed descriptions of lines and corners. And though the lines on tax maps aren’t guaranteed to be accurate, they do show you where the county thinks your land begins and ends for tax purposes. Many counties now have plats, deeds and tax maps online.

Once you’ve verified – on the ground and with your neighbors – where the lines and corners are located, you can spray one or two horizontal lines on trees within five feet of the boundary, facing the boundary. Reserve three horizontal lines for trees near the corner. A group of trees with three painted lines is the established sign for corner. And just remember: When in doubt, call a surveyor.

2. Know your forest objectives

To practice sustainable forestry, landowners must plan long-term. This often means sacrificing some present-day profits for the benefit of future generations. Decisions made today about timber harvesting will have a long-lasting impact.

Defining and prioritizing forest objectives can help landowners plan. To identify objectives, ask yourself a few questions: What do I want to manage for? For recreation, aesthetics, profit? For wildlife? If so, what species? Deer? Songbirds? Snakes? The answers to these questions will guide your forest management, particularly when and how you harvest timber. Of course, many landowners will answer yes to several of these questions, which is what makes forest management both challenging and enjoyable.

Then, with objectives defined, it’s time to figure out how to achieve them: A forester is your go-to resource for help in doing that.

3. Call your local service forester

Usually bedecked in green or brown and adorned with a badge, the service forester is frequently confused with a park ranger. But job responsibilities differ. Whereas rangers enforce forest laws, foresters manage the growth and production of trees. For foresters, most states require a four-year degree in forestry and successful completion of a certification exam. In addition, many states employ service foresters, whose main purpose is to help landowners in their county or district with forest management.

Service foresters can provide landowners with a wealth of information, especially information related to growing and harvesting timber. Usually, the forester will come out and walk over your land with you, then give suggestions and answer questions. In some states, the service forester may even write a forest management plan – for free – tailored to your objectives.

And although service foresters can’t oversee timber sales for you, they can provide you with a list of timber buyers in your area, sample contracts for timber sales, and information on government-run cost-share programs for replanting.

So if you own forestland, have your local service forester come out and walk through your forest.

4. Cut through myths and misconceptions

Of course, you’ll want to talk to your service forester about harvesting timber, especially what gets
cut – everything or only a few trees here and there.

In many ways, cutting everything, also known as clear-cutting, mimics a natural disaster, such as a forest fire or hurricane. So to human eyes, clear-cuts look ugly. Nonetheless, many plant and animal species absolutely thrive after a clear-cut. In fact, to sun-loving species like pines and songbirds like the Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea), a clear-cut looks like paradise. But plants that need shade and animals that need old growth habitat won’t survive. No matter how you harvest timber, whether through a clear-cut or selective cut (with some trees remaining), you’ll be favoring some species over others.

For sustainability, it may seem that selective cuts are always a good idea, the thought being that leftover trees will have a head start in growth. That may be right if you’re leaving behind high quality trees that are straight, vigorous growers. It’s not a good idea – in fact, it’s a terrible idea – if you’re leaving behind low-quality trees or trees of undesirable species. (Cutting the best and leaving the rest is called “high-grading” in forestry lingo, and you never want anyone to high-grade your forest.) Unfortunately, crooked trees stay crooked, hollow trees stay hollow, and stunted trees stay stunted. Like leaving weeds in a garden, leaving low-quality trees in a forest creates more competition for valuable resources such as water, nutrients and sunlight. It also provides a low-quality seed source for the next forest.

No way of cutting timber is perfect. Each method has advantages and disadvantages, and talking to a forester can help you determine which is best for you and your forest.

5. Get multiple offers

When selling timber, beware of “pinhookers.” They’re the bad apples who give legitimate timber buyers and loggers a bad name. If you have a tract of timber, don’t be surprised if a person shows up on occasion with an offer for quick money that sounds too good to refuse. By all means, refuse it. Pinhookers buy timber rights from trusting landowners at prices far below market value, then turn around and sell the rights for twice the price.

To protect yourself against the fast-money schemes of pinhookers, get multiple offers for your timber. Your local service forester will have a list of timber buyers in your area that you can contact to solicit bids. The more bids you receive, the more you can rest assured that you’re selling timber at market value. Serious timber buyers take time to cruise timber and calculate a competitive price. On the other hand, pinhookers love to move fast to seal the deal, knowing good and well they aren’t about to lose money. So, whatever you do, don’t let someone pressure you into selling timber.

6. Check credentials and references

If you get multiple bids, you shouldn’t necessarily accept the highest offer. Unfortunately, an occasional timber buyer may accidentally overbid and then look for ways to cut corners and, in doing so, leave you with an expensive mess to clean up. Of course, the vast majority of loggers know that reputation matters, and they’ll do a quality job even if they happen to overbid. Still, it doesn’t hurt to do your homework.

Ideally, a timber buyer will have several recent references from previous timber harvests nearby. It’s a good idea to contact the references and go look at their cutover land to make sure everything checks out. Also, see if the logging crew has undergone some form of voluntary safety certification, often known as Pro Logger certification (the name varies by state). If everything seems to check out, accept the highest bid. If there’s a conspicuous lack of references and credentials, that’s a red flag. The last thing you want is a logger doing a rush job on your land.

7. Consider hiring a consulting forester

Finally, if all this seems overwhelming, consider hiring a consulting forester. Whereas a service forester can advise, a consulting forester can actually oversee and handle the timber harvest for you. Usually, a consulting forester will cruise your timber to calculate its volume in board feet and tons, mark trees that need to be cut or left, then advertise your timber to every timber buyer within a 60- to 100-mile range. To ensure the integrity of the timber sale, most consultants use a sealed bid process in which bids remain undisclosed until the date of the sale. After selling the timber, the consulting forester oversees the logging for you.

Most consultants charge a percentage of the timber sale and claim that you’ll receive more and higher bids and save yourself from a lot of stress by using their services.

When all is said and done, if you don’t feel like selling your timber, whether on your own or through a consultant, you can always save for that proverbial rainy day. Trees store well in the woods.

Stumped by stumpage price?

In forestry lingo, the offer that a landowner receives for timber is called the “stumpage price,” that is the price for trees still standing on the stump. For timber buyers, lots of variables go into formulating the stumpage price, which is why offers can differ so drastically. The following are just a few variables:

The Three S’s: Species, size and straightness of trees.

Mill Distance: The closer the better. Log trucks get abysmal fuel mileage.

Weather: Timber on elevated, well-drained tracts can receive a premium during a prolonged period of wet weather.

Demand: When demand for new houses crashes, so do timber prices.

Global Competition: The influx of sawtimber from Canada and pulpwood from Brazil can affect local timber prices.

A former timber cruiser, Stephen Bishop lives and writes in an old farmhouse in Shelby, North Carolina.

Finding foresters online:

Society of American Foresters

Forest Guild

Association of Consulting Foresters of America

National Association of State Foresters