New York Forest Owners


(This 1118th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 26, 2012.)


Jim DeLellis leading his NYFOA Woods Walk


The New York Forest Owners Association (NYFOA) was created in 1963. It represents an outgrowth of a program of woodland walks initiated by Professor Svend Heiberg at the Syracuse forestry college. Due to Heiberg's Scandinavian pronunciation, those visits to valuable private woodlands were more often referred to as Valks in de Voots.


The mission of NYFOA is to promote sustainable forestry practices and improved stewardship on privately owned wooded property in this state. It is then a voluntary group of people who care about our trees and forests and are interested in their thoughtful management for the benefit of current and future generations.


Earlier this year I joined one of the NYFOA Niagara Frontier Chapter's scheduled woodwalks on the property of Jim DeLellis in Allegany County. About forty of us sat through some interesting general presentations, followed DeLellis on a hike through his lovely woods of mixed hardwoods and softwoods, and then shared a picnic lunch. I came away from the experience deeply impressed with the commitment of these people but worried about the future of their estates.


We in New York are fortunate in our wooded area: about two-thirds of the state is forested; that's almost 30,000 square miles. That compares with only a quarter tree-covered in 1880, when forests were still designated "unimproved lands."


I say fortunate because the benefits our forests provide are many; among them: they purify our water, mitigate flooding, absorb greenhouse gasses, support wildlife, reduce weather and climate effects, offer recreational opportunities, add to our scenery, provide wood and paper products and offer employment opportunities.


It is important to understand that, despite our many state parks, 80% of our New York forests are privately owned and managed. Which brings us to a key question: what is the quality of those forests?


The answer is, of course, mixed. There appear to be four basic types of forest management. The first is simply: Do nothing. The Forest Preserve of the Adirondacks is by state constitution maintained "forever wild." (Lumbering does continue within the blue line but that is because not all the land is state owned.) For a variety of reasons many landowners follow this same management policy.


But management implies doing something and at the opposite extreme of doing nothing is clearcutting. Most of us view clearcutting negatively but there are times when it is appropriate: for example, to defend against forest fire; to open transmission line lanes; to remove storm-damaged trees and allow regeneration; and to replace non-native trees with native trees. Still the sight of a clearcut is often not a pleasant one.


Few forest owners practice clearcutting except, for example, very locally to site a residence. Instead they harvest some of their trees. And this is where owner decisions are made.


One alternative is called high-grading - taking out all the valuable trees. Trees differ strikingly in value. Only one percent of our timber-size trees today are worth $60 or more. This is due to high-grading in the past. While some of this is done willfully - take the money and run - more often it has been done because landowners did not obtain appropriate management advice.


High-grading has long been the policy of New York forest owners. The result: most of our forested lands are now low grade. We have, according to Wayne Clatterbuck, "millions of acres of degraded stands that have little left to manage," and so today we grow less than a quarter of those of Germany, where silviculture has been employed for two centuries; our timber harvests are less than a tenth of theirs.


NYFOA members are addressing these problems. They are working with Department of Environmental Conservation foresters and some of their own group who have received special training and are designated master forest owners to improve and protect our woodlands. DeLellis is one of those master forest owners and he was able to show us the results of his own better practices.


I salute these folks, but I recognize a serious concern they face in maintaining their property. It is a rare case when the income from their lands matches their expenses. Their heirs will have to face this problem and today too often the interests of the young lie elsewhere.


For more information about NYFOA visit


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Jim Minor, president of NYFOA, provided the following additional information:


            The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) estimates that after a timber harvest only 30% of regeneration efforts are successful (!).


            To reinforce our commitment to educating our members, NYFOA has strong ties to Cornell Cooperative Extension and their Master Forest Owners program and to SUNY's college of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) as well as working with DEC.


            Another threat to our forests is parcelization. With New York's high taxation, owners feel that they cannot afford to keep their property and so sell it, often breaking it into ever smaller parcels as they do so. Thus what may have been an 800 acre parcel 50 years ago, after several sell cycles, may be the equivalent of eighty 10 acre parcels with a concomitant hodge-podge (or lack thereof) of management objectives.


Jim DeLellis adds:


 " NYFOA members are addressing these problems. They are working with DEC foresters and a select few of their own group who are designated Master Forest Owners. These are members that have received special training and certification at the Arnot Forest of Cornell University and offer their services to forest owners through the Cornell Cooperative Extension." DeLellis is one of those Master Forest Owners. During the woodswalk he illustrated the results of his own forest management practices which were geared toward timber production, wildlife and recreation.


Peter Smallidge responded with a few additional thoughts (and a correction):

-             Jim may be thinking of the Cornell University study that found only 30% of stands that had been harvested (and allowed sunlight to the forest floor) were likely to regenerate. The two primary barriers, which varied by region of the state, were deer browsing and interfering vegetation. This study was based on a survey of foresters who reported on the most recent forest they visited.

-             I appreciate your comments about the validity of clearcutting in some circumstances. Clearcutting is an important tool, and like all tools should be used correctly and in the right situation. Clearcutting is a "regeneration method" that assumes a definite capacity of the forest to regenerate. Thus, clearing a house lot is deforestation, not clearcutting. As you noted, clearcutting is infrequent in NY. Clearcutting would be recommended for a variety of reasons, such as: (1) to clear and rejuvenate a fully degraded forest after repeated high-grading, (2) to create early successional habitat that is used by some species of wildlife, (3) to regenerate trees that require full sunlight to grow (such as black cherry or aspen or to plant a new species) assuming those species have a definite capacity to establish and survive within the clearcut. I suspect that most people find a fresh clearcut visually offensive, but also most people wouldn't recognize a seven-year old clearcut except because of its very dense growth.

-             I wouldn't be surprised if "most" of our woods were degraded, but I couldn't prove that. Probably "many of our woodlands" is a more easily defended phrase. Wayne Clatterbuck (a great guy) is from TN and they may have a different set of circumstances.