Logging and the English Language

Some of the ways in which we describe timber harvesting go back over a hundred years. Since then, meanings for some of the words have been lost.

“Lumbering” is the process of cutting trees and making lumber, such as two-by-fours. That was the primary objective of timber harvest during the historic logging era. Many cities in the Midwest were built using Lake States lumber, which is worth more money than all the gold that ever came out of California. Today, lumbering is sometimes incorrectly used as a synonym for harvesting trees.

Most of the Lake States trees harvested today are used for forest products other than lumber. So, “lumbering” is no longer a particularly useful term. And when referring to removing trees to make products, we now call that logging, timber harvest, forest harvest, or just plain cutting trees.

“Timbering” is another antiquated term that is still sometimes used. The word “timber” refers to merchantable volumes of wood growing in a forest. The “ing” form (or gerund, in grammar) of the word really doesn’t make much sense, especially when referring to harvest. It might be more appropriately applied to a growing forest, rather than a logging operation. But that’s not what people mean. Timbering is another poor synonym for harvesting.

More recently, the term “select cut” is misused to describe the positive aspects of a “selection harvest” or “selection management system”. At first blush, this sounds a bit nit-picky. However, there’s a dark side to the use of the term “select cut”. Less than honest timber buyers will “select the best and leave the rest”, leaving a damaged forest. “High-grading” is the more common word for this poor practice.

Other times, “select cut” is used to simply mean a partial cut. The idea is to leave some trees to avoid a clearcut. This, too, can be quite damaging to some kinds of forests. Some forest types respond well to clearcutting, and partial cutting will only serve to impair regeneration.

One must ask which trees are being “selected” for harvest and why. Too often, the objectives have little to do with forest improvement, forest ecology, or forest owner benefits.

“Selection management” is applied to forest types that regenerate and grow in partial shade. The premier forest type for this management system is our northern hardwoods, consisting of tree species such as sugar maple, beech, basswood, and yellow birch. Trees are selected for harvest with a specific set of criteria and the overall goal of improving the characteristics of the residual stand.

“Northern hardwoods” is actually a rather poor label for a distinct forest type. It’s not just “hardwoods that grow in the north”. There are particular associations of tree species that comprise a northern hardwood stand, dominated by sugar maple.

Management and harvesting are not synonyms. Management is a term for a collection of practices designed to produce specific outcomes. Harvesting is one of those practices. Furthermore, while harvesting always has products as an objective, the practice often is also used to encourage regeneration and improve the quality of the residual stand.

“Old growth” is another commonly misused term. Correctly used, old growth refers to a set of forest characteristics, although the elements of a particular set of conditions are argued among the ecological community. A single tree is never “old growth”, although it might be an old tree. A stand of large diameter trees is not necessarily “old growth” (and usually is not).

A single tree can be large and, perhaps, old. Large trees are often not as old as people might think. A three-foot-diameter black willow or cottonwood might be only 50 years old. Conversely, a three-inch diameter black spruce might be 150 years old.

An “old” tree does not have a specific number of years by definition. Old is a relative term based on the various lifespans of different tree species. For a quaking aspen, 75 years is old. For a white pine, 200 years might be a more appropriate number for “old”.

Then, there’s the confusing terms “hardwood” and “softwood”. These are admittedly poor terms but they’ve hung around in the forestry lexicon nonetheless. Hardwoods are broad-leafed trees. Softwoods are conifers. The terms really don’t have anything to do with wood density, although, generally speaking, broad-leafed trees are denser than conifers. However, there are many exceptions.

Confusingly, there’s that annoying word “popple”. To a logger, this means quaking and bigtooth aspen. Most foresters shy away from the term because of its ambiguity, except when talking to loggers. And then, popple sounds a lot like poplar. Poplar might include additional species, such as balsam poplar, tulip poplar, and white poplar. Common names for living things is why Carl Linna invented scientific names based on Latin.

Lastly, there’s the word “pine”. It seems that most people are tempted to call any tree with needles and cones a “pine”. The fact is, most Lake States conifers are not pines. There are cedars, spruces, firs, and tamarack. They are not pines. Correct taxonomy becomes especially important when diagnosing tree pest issues, monetary values, or environmental services.

Forestry is filled with terms that are sometimes misused but fun to learn about. It’s part of the jargon that all professions must deal with. Even a seemingly common measurement can be ambiguous. Take diameter, for instance. Is it the diameter at 4.5 feet (standard) or diameter at stump height? There can be a significant difference in a logging contract.

Asking people to define their terms is a good idea. Words sometimes do matter. Clarity in conversation, and especially in contracts, can go a long way to avoid misunderstanding. In some cases, this clarity can mean the difference between thousands of dollars or the quality of forest health and vigor. Yet another good reason to hire a professional forester to help manage woodlands.

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