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Forest Management: A Guide to How its Done

Forest management is the branch of forestry that includes operations necessary to conserve, protect and improve the forest by applying the scientific, economic, legal, and technical principles of forestry. Management may be purely for conservation purposes or include controlled harvesting of wood for commercial purposes.

Management of a forest involves three essential functions: control of the forest composition and structure, harvesting and marketing of forest produce, and administration of the forest property and personnel. It is a complex, multidisciplinary endeavor that requires considerable expertise and skill.

Forest management includes a plethora of activities such as – 

  • Silviculture
  • Water management
  • Wildlife management 
  • Biodiversity management
  • Timber harvesting
  • Fire management
  • Planting of trees and other vegetation

Sustainable Forest Management

In forest management, a stable forest land base must be maintained. This means protecting land from would-be developers and stressing that the forest’s goods and services are irreplaceable. It means ensuring the continued existence of forested land in a particular region and recognizing a specific forest’s value. 

This may involve securing sponsorships from various stakeholders for specific areas or programs within the forest, working with non-profit organizations concerned with protecting and securing the land, and controlling the areas in which timber can be harvested. If the forest is grown for timber production, forest management includes maintaining the forest’s capacity for sustainable yields, such as replacing trees and preventing fires. 

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Sustainable forest management recognizes that forests are complex ecosystems that contain many forms of life. Thus there is particular emphasis on re-introducing species that once lived there, protecting habitats of existing species, and controlling invasive species. The richer a forest’s biodiversity, the more likely it is to flourish and survive. 

Measures to promote biodiversity include the prevention or control of poaching, fishing, hunting, mushroom and plant harvesting, rockhounding, and other human activities within the forest.

Forests are constantly changing, but forest management aims to prevent or reduce the effects of unwanted changes caused by fire, invasive plants, weather, diseases, insects, harvesting, and pollution. This involves –

  • the construction of firebreaks, 
  • patrolling and observing the forest regularly, 
  • looking for signs of disease in trees and other plants, 
  • identifying the presence of invasive insects and animals, 
  • taking steps to prevent soil erosion, e.g., by ensuring sufficient vegetation ground cover 
  • monitoring and improving water quality, and 
  • minimizing soil contamination and pollution.

Involving the local community, landowners, and other stakeholders in forest management and conservation through outreach and educational programs is an essential part of forest management. The quality and nature of recreational activities in the forest must also be controlled. This means creating and enforcing rules and regulations for using or entering the forest for recreational or commercial purposes.

Forest management has been described as applied forest ecology because it manages the trees and other plants to capitalize on the tolerances and ecological capability of different ecosystems and species. It involves an understanding of how forests respond to disturbances that remove trees and vegetation. 

Effective forest management is intimately associated with an appreciation of a forest’s ecology and an understanding of its biophysical characteristics. It enables foresters to make predictions about the forest’s survival and future conditions and develop successful management plans. A forester must know the characteristics of the site to be managed, such as the quality, texture, and nature of the soil, the site’s topography, availability of nutrients, and soil moisture content. 

Knowledge of the growth rates of tree species that occur in the forest, the type of leaf litter they produce, and their characteristics feeds into forest wildlife management programs. Leaf litter can alter the pH of the soil, and so can fires. The age of the different trees is also crucial for stand development and preservation. 

Dead trees host numerous fungi, insect, and bird species and must be protected as much as living trees. Weed control helps to preserve newly planted saplings until they grow tall enough to survive on their own. This requires a knowledge of herbicides and biological weed control methods that can be used to manage different kinds of plants while leaving the trees unharmed.

Part of forest management includes pruning the lower branches of trees to allow more light in

Forest management includes pruning the lower branches of trees in winter and fall to allow more light into the understory and easier timber harvesting. It can be aimed at enhancing the ecological complexity to promote income, wildlife or recreation. 

Various organizations have developed best management practices to inform forest management and minimize the environmental impact of timber harvesting and other human activities. They focus on the importance of biodiversity, the preservation of wildlife, fisheries, and water quality.


Silviculture is the science of managing the establishment, composition, health, growth, and quality of forests and woodlands to meet landowners and society’s needs sustainably. Techniques of silviculture include, site preparation, planting, thinning, harvesting, pruning, and controlled burning. 

All activities involving vegetation in a national forest must have a silvicultural prescription. This is an official document that contains a plan for a series of forest treatments that include wildlife habitat improvement, timber harvesting, cutting down trees in campgrounds, and controlled burning. The prescription considers economic, ecological, and societal objectives and limitations and is usually prepared by a certified silviculturist.

Water Management

Healthy forests are essential for abundant supplies of clean water. Forests serve as vital filters for and collectors of drinking water for people. Rivers and streams in forests support the plants and wildlife and create refuges for rare endemic species. Forest management includes regulating water flow, increasing water yields, and reducing drought stress in a forest.

Forests need water to survive, so water table levels must not be allowed to fall too low.  Trees reduce water-related environmental risks such as landslides, desertification, and salinization. The methods used to manage water in forests depend on its geographical features and the forest’s sensitivity to water-related issues. However, the primary goals of forest water management include –

  • maintaining ideal groundwater levels to ensure stable growth conditions for trees;
  • ensuring maintenance or improvement of water quality;
  • protecting natural resources from water damage;
  • maintaining and enhancing recreational conditions in forests.

Forest managers aim to maintain permanent vegetation cover, limit soil compaction, maintain high quantities of organic matter in the forest soil, and promote water infiltration of the ground.

Fish and Wildlife Management

Tree density, the extent of canopy closure and canopy height, and the number of fallen and standing trees affect the quality of wildlife habitats. Observing, knowing, and understanding the various species of wildlife that inhabit a particular forest is vital for forest management and necessary for habitat preservation. The forest provides food, cover, and water to nature in all its forms.

Careful forest management can ensure the availability of food for wildlife all year round. Thinning to preserve mast-producing trees and shrubs, for example, helps to sustain wild turkeys, black bears, songbirds, and deer through winter. Mast is the part of forest trees and shrubs that consists of seeds, nuts, and edible parts of plants and trees. Examples of soft mast include blueberries, elderberries, juniper berries, and raspberries. 

Deer, moose, rabbits, elk, hares, and grouse feed on the buds, leaves, and twigs of woody plants. Dead standing trees provide nesting places for birds, bats, and other small mammals and a supply of insects for food. Fallen trees, branches, and brush piles serve as hiding places for reptiles, amphibians, insects, and ground-dwelling mammals. Forest managers ensure that dead trees are not cleared away or used by campers as firewood but preserved as habitats for wildlife.

Restocking rivers and streams with fish and monitoring frog populations to track water pollution are a part of forest management. Many waterfowl species depend on natural cavities in trees near permanent water for nesting, while certain owl species prefer to live in large tracts of coniferous forest. 

Vernal pools in forests are shallow depressions that fill with water when groundwater levels are high. They are not permanent and lack fish but provide essential breeding grounds for insects and amphibians such as wood frogs and mole salamanders. These pools can be unknowingly destroyed when dry through land management and use, so forest managers keep an inventory of where they are to protect them.

Maintaining fish & wildlife is an important part of forest management

Federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Forest Management Act require the maintenance of viable populations of wildlife. This may necessitate population surveys and counting of fish and wildlife species in forests to ensure sufficient genetic diversity and breeding conditions. Overpopulation of forest environments by certain species may also need to be dealt with to keep ecological systems in balance and prevent other species from dying out.

Biodiversity Management

Although a forest’s biodiversity is generally considered to be best preserved by leaving it alone, past interference with the forest by humans can lead to loss of species and lower biodiversity. Biodiversity management thus primarily involves the restoration of damaged areas of the forest to their natural state and the preservation of existing undamaged sites.   

Biodiversity is vital on three different levels, namely ecosystem diversity, species diversity, and genetic diversity. They are all interconnected because no organism lives in isolation. When an ecosystem becomes fragmented, this limits the spread of plants and animals and makes local populations more vulnerable. For certain species, this creates the need for wildlife corridors linking various tracts of land to which they need access for migratory and reproductive purposes. 

Biodiversity assessments and identifying species that can be safely re-introduced or encouraged by various means to return to the forest are a part of forest management. This can involve the restoration or cultivation of habitats that have been destroyed, planting particular trees that provide food and shelter for the desired species, and recreating water sources. This must all be done while maintaining the integrity of the ecosystem.

Biodiversity management also involves protecting threatened species and their habitats, eliminating invasive species, and appropriate disturbance management such as prescribed burning. Some plants will only germinate after a fire. Each landscape is unique, so plans have to be developed and implemented at multiple levels for a specific forest, depending on its geographic location and environmental characteristics.

Strategies for maintaining biodiversity include legislation, captive breeding for release into the wild, seed banks, maintenance and expansion of gene pools within species, habitat restoration, scientific research, education, and preservation of natural areas such as forests and grasslands. For biodiversity purposes, every plant or animal species in a forest matters from the humblest snail to the biggest tree.

Small mammals disperse the seeds of trees. If there are no small mammals, fruit-bearing trees give way to tree species whose seeds are dispersed by wind, changing the entire forest’s composition and reducing its biodiversity. Greater diversity in insect and bird pollinators improves seed production in plants. A mixture of tree types on a stand in a forest minimizes the prevalence of insect pests that attack certain tree species.

Timber Harvesting

Timber harvesting can bring landowners an income, but long-term planning is needed to ensure that it is sustainable. Forest managers know how to harvest timber using methods that preserve the forest and tend stands of trees based on ecological principles. Foresters manage the stands by manipulating their structure using treatments that mimic natural processes.

Clearcutting a large area can mimic a fire’s effects by creating an open space for seed-bearing or sun-loving trees to colonize. Harvesting an individual tree creates a small opening in the woodland that is the same as when a tree dies of natural causes. This ensures continuous forest cover on the land while encouraging the growth of shade-tolerant trees like beech or sugar maple that can survive in the forest’s understory.

Wood can also be harvested to develop roads and paths through the woodlands that can be used as hiking or nature trails. These roads and paths act as firebreaks that prevent wildfire from consuming the forest entirely. Judicious harvesting of timber in a forest can promote larger numbers of wildlife to sustain it and attract visitors.

Pathways are developed in forests for hiking and other uses

Responsible timber harvesting with the help of an experienced forester and a forest management plan can preserve and even improve a forest or woodland and should not be confused with illegal or purely commercial logging operations with no regard for sustainability and wildlife. 

Fire Management

Depending on the type of forest, there may be plants adapted to regenerate and grow after a fire. Fire can be integral to the ecology of a forest, and for thousands of years, it has shaped the diversity of vegetation in North America. It is ecologically unhealthy to suppress fire entirely in areas where plants are fire-adapted as forests may become too dense, rendering them prone to outbreaks of disease and insect infestations.

Controlled burns need to be conducted in these forests to promote their health, and forest managers are generally responsible for planning and implementing these fires. The build-up of fuels at ground level reduces the vegetation’s resilience against fire and drought.

Selective removal of trees prevents uncontrolled wildfires from destroying large swathes of the forest and killing their inhabitants. Thinning out the trees and creating openings in the forest prevent catastrophic wildfires that destroy the canopy.

Controlled burns are called “prescribed fires” and became a versatile forest management tool as people realized that fire suppression was not always desirable or necessary. Fires can be left to burn themselves out naturally or actively prevented, depending on the forest management plan. 

Models have been developed to predict a fire’s behavior and assess a woodland’s susceptibility to fire. This helps in the allocation of firefighting resources and the control of the fire. Prescribed fires can prevent the outbreak of high-intensity wildfires by reducing the build-up of fuel loads in forests and improving wildlife habitats.

Planting Of Trees 

Tree planting in a forest or planting a grove of trees requires expertise in silviculture to be effective. Forest management involves the planting of trees as much as cutting them down. Careful planning is necessary, taking into account the type of trees to be planted, other tree species in the environment, water drainage, availability of sunlight, and the type of soil. Site assessments are thus crucial for the success of tree planting operations.

Overgrown fields and other lands can be transformed into forests that benefit local wildlife, contribute to water quality, and control soil erosion. Selecting tree species that can thrive in the site conditions is essential. Some, like black walnut, larch, red pine, and aspen, are completely shade-intolerant, while others such as red spruce, hemlock, or black gum are shade-tolerant.

Soil pH should be measured to determine which trees will grow best on the site, and soil that is too compacted needs to be torn up, or it will slow root penetration and the flow of nutrients and water.


Forest management is a complex subject that requires considerable expertise in a wide variety of disciplines. It involves knowledge of soils, trees, vegetation, wildlife, water resources, and ecological principles that can be effectively applied to sustain and develop a forest continuously. Regular monitoring of ever-changing forests is vital to create and adapt management plans to ensure their long-term sustainability.