A yellow birch in fall colors down in Island Falls.
A question that may come to readers who are unacquainted with the woods industry, especially as they read about markets and forestry is, “What, exactly, is a tree worth?” I can’t give a straight answer to that question, and the truth is that anyone who does is either wrong or a lot smarter than I am, as the answer, like everything in the woods, is highly variable. The specific market value of a stem is going to depend on the species, grade of the tree, and market conditions. Most importantly, however, is the answer to the question “of what value to whom?” A tree is going to be valued differently by landowners, loggers, and mills, each of which have differing interests in the value chain of producing a finished wood product.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s use the case of a landowner. The rate a landowner is paid for standing timber (trees before they are cut down) is called stumpage. Stumpage is going to vary all across the state: county to county, month to month, and firm to firm. Nonetheless, the state of Maine compiles and publishes averages for these rates every year. This report breaks down price both by county and by product. For instance, looking at my favorite species, sugar maple, in the area I live, Aroostook, you can see these variations. Pulpwood is measured in tons, while sawtimber and veneer are measured in “MBF” or “thousand board feet.” Board feet is the measure of how many 1’x1’x1” units a log can produce at the mill.
These numbers are great, but they are not of much use without determining how much wood a tree actually contains. To solve this problem, log rules (based usually on formulas) are developed. These rules contain assumptions of a tree’s shape and taper as well as mill efficiencies to estimate volume based on given variables. These log rules are numerous and determining which to use can be as complicated as the math within the rule itself. Scribner, Doyle, and International ¼” are all common rules used in the east, but there are still more, such as the so-called “Maine rule.” This wide variety reflects a great variation in local utilization standards.
To give a little perspective, let’s look at a 17” diameter sugar maple. According to the international ¼” rule (the ¼, by the way, refers to the kerf, or the amount of volume lost to sawdust during milling), assuming it had two 16’ sawlogs, the tree would yield 410 board feet. Using average Aroostook county numbers, that’s worth $120 to the landowner. Of course, most trees in the forest are pulpwood, so looking at a similarly sized tree and a more obscure log rule developed for pulpwood by analyzing data from Bingham, Maine, that tree yields about a ton of hardwood and is worth $13. It’s not much, but when you consider there might be hundreds of trees per acre, it adds up.
Obviously, you aren’t going to go into the woods and start measuring all the trees in the forest, so foresters use sampling to estimate total volumes in a given piece of land; we call this timber cruising. A high-tech piece of equipment called an angle gauge (pictured) helps determine basal area per acre, which can be viewed as the square footage occupied by the trees’ stems in a geometric plane. The angle gauge includes or excludes trees in a plot based on size and distance. Counted trees are measured by diameter. Once data is collected, information can be used to calculate the total volume by product and species, and from there, the revenue yielded to a landowner by a specific harvest can be determined.
The question of value for trees and woodlots is a challenging question, and answering it is a large part of a forester’s job. But for both foresters and the public at large, the question should not be addressed in isolation. Maine indeed has a deep-rooted tradition of public use for its woodlands, and for recreationists and a tourism industry that depends on them, our forests hold value that is difficult to quantify. Likewise, the wildlife population in Maine depends on our forests. Personally, I have never had a business meeting with a moose; but if I did, I have no doubt they would assign some sort of value to the maples they feed on. So no; I cannot exactly give a straight answer when asked how much a tree is worth, but I do know it’s worth an awful lot.