The Best Tree

One question that I am often asked is, “What is the best tree to plant?”  The quick answer to that question lies at the intersection of the specific site qualities and the landowner’s objectives.  In other words, it often can and will be a different answer for different people.  For example, the site qualities may dictate that loblolly pine is the “best” species for a particular site, but if the landowner wants to engage in pine straw production, that species choice likely won’t work due to the lack of markets for loblolly straw.  So, selecting the most appropriate species is an important decision and one that your forester can help you make.

All that being said, many times the species selection may be a “no-brainer” due to the extremes of the site, i.e. it may be so dry or wet or sandy that only one pine species is really appropriate.  In those instances, the decision is easy – Mother Nature made it for you!  However, in many cases, the landowner must evaluate his or her goals and objectives, as well as local markets, in order to make the best decision.  The landowner should also be aware of the characteristics of each species, plus the strengths and weaknesses of those species.  Let’s review the major commercial pine species:

David Stephens,
David Stephens,

Pinus Taeda  –  Loblolly pine is by far the most planted pine species in the Southeast, making up about 80% of the seedlings planted each year in that region. Known to many locals as “black pine” due to its dark appearance, it has even been planted north of its natural range into parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, and southern Illinois.  There is a reason for its popularity – loblolly grows very rapidly on a wide variety of sites.  It does especially well on those sites with heavier, clay-based soils, but does poorly on sandy sites or excessively wet sites.  Loblolly has high nutrient requirements and responds very well to fertilization, which has allowed it to expand onto sites that were traditionally reserved for slash pine.  It is a prolific natural seeder that usually produces a plethora of cones each year and often seeds into abandoned fields, leading some folks to call it “field pine.”  Loblolly has shorter needles, making it undesirable for pine straw production.  Loblolly also tends to be more crooked, possess more limbs and has wood that is less dense than other species, although the more recent genetically improved varieties have begun to overcome many of those issues.  It also is less tolerant of fire and more susceptible to bark beetles than other pine species, especially in overstocked stands.  Since it grows naturally in hammocks, loblolly competes well with hardwoods and responds very well to thinning.  It is slightly less desirable to sawmills because it does not produce as much grade lumber as other pine species.

David Stephens,
David Stephens,

Pinus Elliottii  –  Slash pine grows naturally on sites along the Coastal Plain of the U.S. that are alternately wet and dry, such as flatwoods sites and in the margins around cypress ponds and swamps.  It is often planted up on beds because the sites it is chosen for often have a high water table.  Slash can grow on a wide variety of sites, and when planted on the right site, it can grow quite rapidly.  Its needles are longer than loblolly and hold their color better, making it a desirable species for pine straw production.  It is a little more tolerant of fire and bark beetles than loblolly, but it does not withstand hardwood competition well at all.  Slash pine tends to grow straighter, and it has less knots, as well as slightly more dense wood than loblolly.  Our most serious problem with slash pine is its lack of natural resistance to fusiform rust, a spore borne disease that affects pines in their early years.  Fusiform rust can kill the young pines but often will simply deform them via stem galls, degrading their value to lumber mills or rendering them useful only for pulpwood.  If thinned properly and grown long enough, slash pines can make fine stands of timber that have high percentages of utility poles and sawtimber.


Pinus Palustris   –  Longleaf pine, also known as “longleaf yellow pine,” once covered much of the southeastern United States, but now is just a fraction of the acreage that the early European settlers found.  It can grow well on a wide variety of sites, including sandy sites where loblolly and slash do not perform well.  Longleaf is a slow starter and tends to stay in the “grass stage” where it looks like a tuft of grass, part of its natural defense against wildfire.  Longleaf pines have long needles (surprise!) that help to protect a large, sliver bud from fire, particularly in its early stages.  Its needles are preferred by pine straw buyers and bring a premium price on the straw market.  However, longleaf pine is usually more difficult and expensive to establish than loblolly or slash pine, and it is very sensitive to competition in its early stages.  This often requires multiple herbicide treatments and/or prescribed burns to control the competition and release it from the “grass stage.”  The lumber is prized by sawmills and pole buyers salivate over natural longleaf pine stands, but it must be grown to a longer rotation (35 to 40 years) than loblolly or slash to attain its maximum economic value.  Longleaf tends to be more resistant to insects and most diseases, and it is much more fire resistant than slash or loblolly pine.  It is also often preferred by wildlife managers because of its tendency to produce a more open canopy that does not shade out herbaceous ground cover and because it can be safely prescribe burned at a very young age.  More longleaf is being planted now with the advent of containerized seedlings, increased knowledge, better cultural practices, and government cost share programs that bias toward longleaf pine.

Chris Evans, University of Illinois,
Chris Evans, University of Illinois,

Pinus echinata  –  Shortleaf pine grows mostly on clay soils and thrives on many of the same sites as loblolly pine.  Since loblolly grows faster, shortleaf is not commonly planted.  That may change to some degree due to renewed interest in the recovery of shortleaf pine in recent years.  It has short needles, as you probably assumed, and numerous, small cones – shortleaf is a very prolific seed producer.  This species is quite common on the quail plantations in the Thomasville/Tallahassee area and the trees can get very large.  The wood is dense since shortleaf is slower growing than loblolly, making the lumber desirable to sawmills.

Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia,
Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia,

Pinus clausa  –  Sand pine grows naturally only in two areas – the Florida panhandle and in central Florida.  True to its name, sand pine grows on sites that are such deep sands that literally no other pines can thrive on them.  The trees have numerous limbs with very short needles and lots of very small cones.  The species is generally only planted where there is no other commercial option since sand pine is usually only suitable for pulpwood or mulch.  However, on sites that are not too dry, sand pine will produce surprisingly high pulpwood volumes within a relatively short (approximately 20 years) rotation.  Also, since it grows on dry sites that allow for “all weather” logging, sand pine can bring a premium price during extreme wet weather periods.

Chris Evans, University of Illinois,
Chris Evans, University of Illinois,

Pinus glabra  –  Spruce pine is not a southern yellow pine and is not commercially planted.  It typically grows on wetter, mesic sites along river bottoms, creek drainages, and hammocks.  Although spruce pines can and do grow to very large sizes, the trees tend to have excessive crook and sweep.  These properties make it undesirable to sawmills.  However, plywood mills will usually accept it, as will pulp mills.  The needles are small, as are the cones, and in fact, it is difficult to differentiate a young spruce pine from a young sand pine tree.  The needles are small and dark green, and the cones are numerous and tiny.  The bark looks much like one of the hardwood trees that spruce pine commonly grows among.

Making Cent$

We all know that pine trees have value. That’s generally why we grow them – to cut and transform into lumber, paper, utility poles, plywood, boxes, and a myriad of other useful products that make our daily lives what they are. We also know that mature trees can be measured, the volume can be estimated (timber cruise), and a merchantable value placed on them. But what about the trees that aren’t big enough to cut yet?

Over the years, I have often heard landowners and others comment that young trees aren’t worth anything because they are too small to harvest. But actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Young trees are referred to as “pre-merchantable” and they do indeed have value. That value generally increases as the trees age, until one day…. Voila! They are now merchantable. In actuality, there is often a “gray area” of time when the trees are not quite big enough or maybe they are just big enough….. depending on who is making that determination. During this “gray area” of time, trees can often be placed into either the merchantable or the pre-merchantable category.

Foresters who are experienced in timber appraisals have ways to calculate the value of these young pines. These methods often utilize growth and yield models to estimate what volume of timber a stand of trees will produce at a given age. The models take into account the age, species, and stocking of the trees, as well as the site index. The site index is a measure of the productivity of the site, or site quality, for that species and is based on actual measurements taken in broad studies over time. The site quality is generally a function of the height of the trees, while the diameter is generally a function of the stocking. In other words, good soil produces tall trees faster than poorer soil.

Now, back to the growth and yield model: The forester can use these models to fairly accurately project the volume of timber that will be produced by a site at some time in the future. Using those estimated volumes, a value is generated from those volumes based on the appraiser’s knowledge and research of prices for the geographic area. This establishes what is known as the future value. Typically, the future value is then discounted back to the present using a discount rate (interest rate) that reflects the risk and illiquidity involved. In most cases, it will also reflect the desired rate of return of a prospective buyer/investor. This discounted future value results in what is known as the present value.

What the pre-merchantable value really says is, “What would a prudent investor pay for these pines that aren’t ready to cut yet if he/she expects to get a certain rate of return on their investment?” The real litmus test is often whether or not that value seems reasonable. In other words, would someone really pay that for these pines? Although timber is generally a relatively good, safe long term investment, it is not without its risks. Those risks can come in the form of fire, insects, disease, extreme weather (tornado, hurricane, ice storms, volcano eruptions, etc.), political decisions, and uncertain markets. The appraiser must factor in these risks for a particular tract using a higher or lower discount rate. A higher rate lowers the present value (more risk) while a lower rate increases the value (less risk).

So, you see, those young pines aren’t “worthless” after all, and in fact can carry substantial value. That value is generally well recognized in the forestry arena, but is often underestimated by buyers and sellers of property. Keep that in mind next time you look at your young pine stands, and remember, they are increasing in value every day!

Your Forest Management Plan: The Road Map to Success

Imagine going on an extended trip without looking at a map or plugging in to your GPS device. There will almost certainly be some detours, backtracking, and dead ends along the way. In all likelihood, you would eventually get to your destination, but wouldn’t the trip have been a lot more efficient if you had planned your route? A written Forest Management Plan is the equivalent of your “Road Map to Success” in arriving at your destination in the most efficient way. Having a written plan can be your road map to success in managing your forest.

In the case of your plan, the “destination” is your management objective(s). Your primary objective might be maximizing timber revenues. Or it could be optimizing wildlife habitat in general or for a specific wildlife species. Maybe soil and water conservation, aesthetics, or outdoor recreation is your primary focus. Many landowners want to incorporate some elements of all of these into their management plan, but the primary objective should be the one that’s driving the bus. Whatever your objectives, your natural resources professional will have to know what those are in order to prepare a plan that works for you. Otherwise, you will have a road map that takes you to the wrong destination.

A good Forest Management Plan will not only describe the property in detail and address your objectives, but will have many other components. Those components will include various maps (location, topographical, soils, timber type), stand specific recommendations, and a proposed timetable for implementation. The plan should not only tell you the what but should also tell give you the why, when, and how so that you can understand and implement the recommendations. Although the plan should be your “fingerprint” which is unique to you, any good natural resource professional should be able to pick it up, read it, and be able to efficiently implement the plan.

In addition to helping you reach your objectives, your management plan also provides other benefits. It consolidates your information in one place so that you don’t have to go looking for it. The plan also reinforces your agricultural status in most states, and it can make you eligible for entry into the Tree Farm system, which will allow your property to be “certified” under Tree Farm’s umbrella certification. The plan may also be desired or required for certain cost share programs.

You should keep in mind that a written management plan should be a flexible tool, not one that is rigid and unbending. It should be consulted on a regular basis and revised to reflect changes in the weather, markets, financial needs, and objectives. Sit down at least once a year with your natural resources professional to review the plan and make needed adjustments. If you are taking an extended trip, don’t you make changes in your route or schedule along the way due to factors such as road construction, traffic, weather, or desired side trips?

At Southern Forestry Consultants, we do much of our written management plan work in the hot summer months. The mostly indoor work fits in well with 95 degree heat and humidity! The summer also comes after our most hectic seasons: tree planting and prescribed burning. During the summer, we don’t take our foot off the gas, but at least we don’t have the pedal on the floor! It’s a good time for us to spend time with you reviewing your plans and objectives. If your current Forest Management Plan was written using stone and chisel, or if you don’t have a plan at all, contact your SFC forester or biologist to get started preparing your “Road Map to Success.”