How to Select the Right Tree to Cut for Firewood

Ideally, all forest harvest operations would follow a prescription prepared by a registered professional forester, and the trees to be cut would be marked by a certified tree marker. These good forestry practices are intended to ensure the woodlot is managed to a high standard and is sustainable. Most forest conservation bylaws require good forestry practices for any commercial harvest operations or for operations that will reduce the tree density below a level that is required to qualify as “woodland.”

Although getting professional assistance is the preferred approach, most woodlot owners cutting small volumes of wood for personal use do not hire professional help. How do these woodlot owners decide what trees to cut, what trees to leave – and does it matter?

Sometimes Mother Nature makes the decision for us. Windfall or dead or dying trees can supply most of our winter firewood supply. Forest diseases and pests, such as emerald ash borer (EAB), can cause significant tree mortality. Peter Williams and Terry Schwan have written an excellent paper called Managing Ash in Farm Woodlots; Some Suggested Prescriptions. It is currently posted on the OWA website. (

Have a Plan

All woodlot owners should have a plan that describes their long-term goals and objectives for their woodlot. The Managed Forest tax Incentive Program (MFTIP), not only provides woodlot owners with property tax savings, it also ensures that they identify woodlot management objectives.

Safety comes first when cutting firewood – take a chainsaw safety course.

The management objectives will guide the woodlot owner on what trees to cut and what trees to retain. The volume may be low and the pace may be slow, but the woodlot will still be managed toward an identifiable goal.

There are many different woodlot management objectives. A management objective might be to correct or reverse past management practices. For example, a woodlot that had been heavily pastured in the past may have a very high density of ironwood ( Hop Hornbeam) and little or no other tolerant hardwood saplings, such as sugar maple.

Ironwood is very shade tolerant and normally occupies the forest understory. It rarely makes up more than 10 to 20 percent of the stand composition. Lowering the density of ironwood in a stand that had been grazed would allow for increased sugar maple and other tolerant hardwood regeneration with the objective of creating a more “natural” stand composition.

Another woodlot management objective might be to promote wildlife for viewing or hunting. There are many ways to improve wildlife habitat. For example, a management objective might be to retain and promote mast-producing trees such as oak, hickory and beech. The mast producers can be retained, and some competing trees can be removed to open the forest canopy to promote the growth and productivity of the remaining trees.

In order to encourage regeneration of desired species, the woodlot owner needs to understand the basic growing and regeneration requirements for the species they want to manage. For example, oak is in the intermediate range for shade tolerance. In large-scale commercial operations, oak is typically managed using a shelterwood silvicultural system. The entire stand is removed in a series of partial cuts that allows regeneration to develop over time (up to 20 years). The oak seedlings require sunlight to become established.

A woodlot owner cutting firewood would not use a shelterwood harvest system, but could open the forest canopy enough (about 60 percent canopy cover) around mature oaks to allow for oak regeneration. In contrast, American beech is very shade tolerant, and seedlings survive well under a closed canopy. A selective harvest system in which individual trees or groups of trees are removed is the recommended management system for American beech. The opening left from the removal of a single tree would allow for regeneration.

A Silvicultural Guide to Managing Southern Ontario Forests is an excellent source for information on site and growing requirements for trees and forest management systems in southern Ontario. The guide can be downloaded from the Ontario government website. The guide may also be purchased from Service Ontario Publications (1-800-668-9938) for $27.50, plus tax and shipping. Refer to publication # 108622.

Species at Risk

The habitat for Ontario’s threatened and endangered species is protected under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act. For example, butternut is designated as an endangered species. No live or dead butternut tree may be cut in a woodlot unless the tree has been assessed by a qualified butternut assessor, deemed to be non-retainable, and a permit is issued by the Ministry of Natural Resources. For a complete list of threatened and endangered species in Ontario, including range maps, please go to the Ontario government website at 2ColumnSubPage/276722.html

Special Habitat for Wildlife

The Ontario Tree Marking Guide provides an excellent description of a variety of special habitat for wildlife. Special habitat includes stick nests (most often hawk nests), winter cover for deer or moose, cavity trees, mast trees and super-canopy trees. Each has special value for wildlife and add to woodlot diversity.

The tree marking guidelines are intended to ensure that at least a minimum number of these features remain in the forest after a harvest operation is complete. For example, over 50 wildlife species use tree cavities. Tree markers are required to leave at least six living cavity trees per hectare.

Another special habitat is provided by woody material lying on the ground. Many wildlife species use such rotting trees and branches. Most woodlot owners who cut a small volume of firewood for personal use should have little difficulty meeting the guidelines for special wildlife habitat. Woodlot owners should keep special habitat in mind when cutting firewood. If a cavity tree has limited firewood value, why not leave it? It will provide valuable habitat as a cavity tree now, and in the future, when it eventually falls to the ground.

Selective Thinning

If the objective is to improve the overall growth and quality of the trees that remain in the woodlot, the poorest quality trees should be selected for removal. Some trees have obvious defects and are an easy choice for removal. However, often the choice is not that easy. To decide on the best trees to retain, factors such as potential tree vigour, quality, crown size, position, bark characteristics and forest stand considerations, must all be taken into account. The average woodlot owner cannot be expected to be an expert when selecting trees to remove from their woodlot. A qualified tree marker has taken and passed an intensive course to learn these skills.

The Ontario Tree Marking Guide is an excellent source of information for a woodlot owner, even if they only cut small volumes of firewood. It provides a detailed description on how to assess tree quality and vigour. The Ontario Tree Marking Guide can be viewed at or printed from the Ministry of Natural Resources website. A copy of the guide can also be purchased from Service Ontario Publications (1-800-668-9938) for $27.50, plus tax and shipping. Please refer to publication # 009269.

Woodlot owners cutting firewood for personal use can effectively work toward achieving their woodlot management objectives. If professional expertise is not used, then it is recommended they take advantage of the excellent resources that are available

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This article appeared in the Spring / Summer 2013 edition of the S&W Report

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