Managing Sunlight

forest-lightManaging a forest is manipulating it to provide whatever objectives the owner wants from it, be in growing wood, providing wildlife habitat, or perhaps some sort of recreation. It may appear to be a complex science, but when you get down to it, it’s really managing sunlight, which is what powers the plant world, and in turn, us. So controlling who gets the energy is the name of the game.


Take tree planting: young seedlings require full sunlight to get off to a good start, so the planting site needs to be free of competing vegetation. This is done using a forestry practice called site preparation, and can be done with equipment or herbicides. Once planted, the young trees need continued protection from weeds and grass for a few years until they are tall enough to get by on their own. This practice is called control of competing vegetation, but it’s simply letting the trees have the sun energy instead of the weeds.

A young 15 to 30 year old natural forest tends to grow thickly, with many trees fighting for the same square footage of sunlight. This competition slows down the growth of all of the trees, and there are normally many undesirable trees present. For optimal efficiency of desirable trees present, you make sure they get the lion’s share of the available sunlight. Crop tree release is simply what it sounds like, picking out the trees you want and thinning out the trees around them. It’s sort of like thinning 30 foot tall corn. The undesirables can be removed with a chainsaw or herbicides.


Later in life when the trees are 40 to 60 years old, the trees are much larger and fewer of them can grow per acre and get enough sunlight, so they compete with each other again. Since the trees are hopefully large enough to sell for small sawtimber or pulpwood, a commercial thinning could improve the growth of desirable trees and generate some income. It’s again controlling who gets the energy.


If wildlife management is important, you can improve food availability by releasing food producing trees such as oak, hickory, and persimmon. Making the forest more open grown allows more sunlight onto the forest floor. This will provide energy for smaller plants and shrubs to grow, creating a layer of brushy growth that will provide seeds, berries, and vegetative food (called browse). The brush also provides protective cover for many wildlife species.


If you own some woodland and want it to do good things for you, contact your local state forestry office.

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