40 Points of Light: a New Forest Stand Improvement Technique for the Family Forest



Managing hardwood forests better then we do in Central Minnesota is intelligent for the health of the planet and the productivity of commerce in our local economy. Central Minnesota has productive hardwood forests especially if we managed them over the long haul (100+ year rotations) for high value products.

Up to 80% of the productive forestland in central Minnesota has been grazed enough blocks in the past 100 years to change the composition of regeneration in the forest away from high value long lived species (HVLLS) such as Oak, Maple and Ash towards scrub and short-lived pioneer species such as Aspen, Ironwood and Prickly Ash. High grade logging (cutting the best and leaving the rest) has also occurred on a high percentage of these acres. In short, we have unintentionally steered our forests away from HVLLS.


These high graded forests are resilient.  Many still have a remnant seed bank and HVLLS in the form of saplings and seedlings trying to work their way through the brush and short lived pioneer species that dominate these forests. These HVLLS need to be released through light intensity management. A “point of light” every 33 feet, approximately 20 feet in diameter would serve as a template. A future scenario of 40 large (16 to 20 inch diameter) HVLLS per acre would be a fully stocked stand. In essence we are planning for the composition of future forests with this approach.

Up to 40% of the privately owned forestlands are being managed by the “hand of god”, or “mother nature knows best.” Perhaps at times loving a damaged resource to "death".

Landowners do not like clear cuts, or sloppy loggers or being cheated by desperate loggers. Many landowners would not think of cutting trees, even if they could be convinced that their forest could be improved by a commercial cut. You can’t stand trees back up once they have been cut. Many people are interested in caring for their forests with a light hand on the land and are pushed away from the tools the forestry community has offered them over the last 40 or 50 years. These tools include pulp woodcuts and even-age managed forests whose management cycles always seem to end in a clear-cut.

In contrast to the 40 Points of Light technique proposed here, establishing HVLLS hardwood forests in open fields is challenging. Oak, maple and ash trees planted in open field settings grow at much slower rates, if they survive, then natural seedlings in the forest. Small rodents girdle these trees by the thousands along with other competition problems.

If you look at the simple calculation: carbon sequestered is equal to pounds of wood grown (wood is ½ carbon by weight),  then managing established seedlings and saplings makes much more sense. If we compare the value of managing the 2 to 6 inch (diameter) “lost forest” to  freshly planted trees for carbon sequestration, we are comparing tons vs. pounds of sequestered carbon per year on the average 40-acre forest.

With 40 points, we also have the other 2/3’s of the forestland area left in tact as a buffer. This intact forest creates options for future generations.  This practice would cover about one-third  of the land and leave two-thirds untouched (40 points of light x 20 ft diameter circle equals 40 x 314 sq ft = 12,560 sq. ft.). For this reason cost per acre of Forest Stand Improvement or, FSI, ($50 to $100 per acre) should be a fraction of the more intensive Timber Stand Improvement, or TSI, approach ($150 to $300 per acre) or that of planting hardwood trees in an open field setting ($300 to $400 per acre).   
We have a history of reaching out to landowners in central Minnesota through tax incentives and government cost share programs. The 40 Points of Light idea is new and needs to take into consideration that the best people to sell this might not be the traditional movers and shakers (i.e. Soil & Water Conservation Districts or Department of Natural Resources foresters). If we want to get large land areas covered by this practice, I think we may need to cost share the training of the vendors, (that is, inspired local natural resource practitioners) then encourage them to find the work and prioritize the practices that gets us the most bang for our buck as a society. We should use private commerce as a driver on this project.

There is a discussion that needs to happen on how to go forward with the development of specifications for this new practice we should call Forest Stand Improvement (FSI).  I think we could put specifications together that the average well trained FSI specialist could follow without the guidance of a paint gun. We need vendors that can tell an oak from a basswood with out leaves to look at and we need stewardship plan writers to create better communications on land potential. Trained foresters could mark the leave trees if necessary. 

 We have Stewardship plans written on thousands of acres in our area with some habitat typing information. We could require this information on lands covered by stewardship plans written in the future so that a HVLL species list could be prioritized for each stand based on potential. FSI specialists could be trained to do this by eye if necessary. The more cookbook we can make these specs the easier it will be to train vendors.

Weather-wise, we have two beautiful months before summer (March and April) and two beautiful months after summer  (October and November) to get this work done. Working in hardwood forests without their leaves is a must for the safety of the vendors and the health of the stand.    
Goals and Objectives:
1. Develop FSI specifications by identifying and prioritizing HVLLS. Create a prioritized list of these trees for each landscape based on the land potential measurement system known as habitat typing.  

2. Invigorate young stands of high value long lived (HVLL) hardwood species in forests with a grazing and/or high grading history through a 40 Points of Light approach. Release 2 to 6 inch target trees by cutting or girdling 2 to 8 inch trees that over top them. Girdling would be preferred but not specified on 5-inch diameter and up cut trees so we create wildlife snags and to keep thinning slash to a minimum (that light hand on the land). A list of trees that can be killed easily by girdling needs to be generated.

3. Establish locally owned, economically viable, natural resource-based businesses, which advocate the long-term stewardship of natural resources. Encourage other agencies to develop their work plans to include this fledgling work force through competitive bidding targeted at the local work force.

 4. Create a guild of tree improvement specialists who not only know their trade as craftsmen would, but know the neighbors and can get the ground covered on the private property that dominates central Minnesota’s landscape.

5. Work with the Minnesota DNR and the University to establish educational opportunities. Establishing proper use of tools and safety equipment, specifications for cutting on the ground, computer communication skills, and GPS skills will be needed. Encourage group (bottom up) thinking in this process.

6. Work with established forestry co-op’s, private landowners and the DNR to identify acreage where this Forest Stand Improvement cutting can be tested.

7. Evaluate the program with outside critical thinking after the first year or 1000 acres, whichever comes first.


The 40 Points of Light method is another tool we could use to engage landowners in the management of their hardwood forests for the future. I like a tool box with many good tools in it.  I once read that on average all the private land in the state of Minnesota changes hands every 12 years. We can not expect landowners to take the long term approach that hardwood forest management demands against this background unless we offer good tools for them to use. 40 Points of Light offers a business incubator, a new way to manage hardwood forests with a light hand on the land and an opportunity to engage the private land owner in the high speed, ever changing world we live in.

Greg Nolan
Snowy Pines Reforestation