Open Journal of Forestry
2013. Vol.3, No.4, 99-103
Published Online October 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 99
Family Forest Owners’ Motivation to Control Understory
Vegetation: Implications for Consulting Forestry
Alex C. Londeau, Thomas J. Straka
School of Agricultural, Forest, and En vi ronmental Sciences, Clemson University, Clemson, USA
Email: tstraka@clemson . edu
Received July 16th, 2013; revised August 15th, 2013; accepted August 22nd, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Alex C. Londeau, Thomas J. Straka. This is an open access article distributed under the Crea-
tive Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any me-
dium, provided the original work is properl y cited.
Forest vegetation management has evolved as a recognized component of intensive forest management
practice. It involves the management of competing vegetation necessary to obtain the high yields expected
in modern forest plantations via control of interfering plants that influence regeneration outcome, impact
timber stand development, and limit native plant and wildlife diversity. It includes cultural control, fire
control, mechanical control, biological control, and chemical control. The public perception of forest
vegetation management, especially chemical control, is sometimes negative due to health and environ-
mental concerns. It is an important tool in the forest management alternatives available to consulting for-
esters managing family forest lands (the vast majority of private forest land in the United States). We re-
port on a study that addresses the motivations of family forest owners that implement forest vegetation
management practices and the motivation of those who chose not to implement after forester recommen-
dations to do so. For those who do implement forest vegetation management, improvement of wildlife
habitat and increased timber growth was the main motivation. For those who did not, cost was the main
concern. Size of forest holding plays a major role in determining who will practice intensive forestry.
Keywords: Forest Vegetation Management; Chemical Control; Family Forest Owners; Consulting
The evolution of forest vegetation management (FVM) as a
recognized component of intensive forest management practice
was described by Wagner et al. (2006). FVM involves the ma-
nagement of competing vegetation necessary to obtain the high
yields expected in modern forest plantations. It operates by
controlling interfering plants that influence regeneration out-
come, impact timber stand development, and limit native plant
and wildlife diversity (Stout & Finley, 2001). Interfering plants
mainly suppress natural plants by shading the understory, but
also compete for water, space, and nutrients. By impacting
forest stand development, interfering vegetation tends to create
a suboptimal future forest stand, one with a lower future timber
value (Jackson et al., 2009).
FVM is not just one practice, but an integrated series of prac-
tices (Jackson & Finley, 2011; Wiensczyk et al., 2011). It can
include cultural control (maintenance of a “healthy” mix of
desirable trees species that supports a robust forest with an
unopportunistic environment for interfering plants), fire control
(use of prescribed burning to reduce undesirable vegetation),
mechanical control (removal of interfering plants by hand tools
or machinery by cutting or pulling, commonly called weeding),
biological control (introducing an insect or disease that is det-
rimental to the interfering plant), and chemical control (use of
herbicides to reduce competition between undesirable interfer-
ing plants and the trees in the productive forest).
Integrated vegetation management (IVM) involves the use of
the proper range of control methods. IVM uses the concept of a
pyramid to delineate the treatments: cultural control is at the
bottom and chemical control at the top of the pyramid. As a
forester moves from cultural to fire to mechanical to biological
to chemical control, the practices become more complex and
costly. IVM involves starting at the bottom of the pyramid and
moving up to more complicated and costly treatments (Nowak
& Ballard, 2005; Miller, 2006; Smallidge, 2009).
In both recently-established forest plantations and naturally-
regenerated forests, tree survival and growth is controlled by
succession, a major process impacted by competition between
trees and other natural vegetation. This competition for re-
sources takes place in a battle for nutrients, water, and light,
and by the temporal and spatial segregation of roots and shoots
of neighboring plants that allows for completion for space and
time (Balandier et al., 2006). The foundation of FVM is devel-
oped around this competition to employ techniques that opti-
mize timber production while ensuring plant diversity. It is an
intrinsic constituent of silviculture. The primary decision on
competitive factors impacting tree survival and growth is silvi-
cultural system: even-aged (clear-cutting, seed tree, or shelter-
wood) or uneven-aged (individual or group selection), with
intermediate treatments of competition control and thinning
(Nunamaker & Valachovic, 2007).
The first textbook on FVM defines the term as “the practice
of efficiently channeling limited site resources into usable for-
est products rather than into noncommercial plant species”
(Walstad & Kuch, 1987). Wagner (1994) defined it as “manag-
ing the course and rate of forest vegetation succession to
achieve silvicultural objectives.” In North American silvicul-
ture textbooks FVM generally includes release and site prepa-
ration treatments (Wagner et al., 2006). Timber volume gains
from FVM are well-documented for the various forest-growing
regions of the world and FVM has become associated with
intensive forest management, primarily from chemical control
(use of herbicides), especially in the American South (Wagner
et al., 2006). Herbaceous and woody vegetation control in
southern forest plantations has become a recognized practice
when intensive forest management is practiced (Stringer et al.,
2010; Osiecka & Minoque, 2011). Herbaceous weed control
with herbicides has become closely associated with FVM. It is
the top of the pyramid; it may be very costly, but it is also every
effective (Vasic et al., 2012). The general public has also come
to associate FVM with chemical control and this has resulted in
public perceptions of FVM sometimes not enhancing sustain-
able forestry practices.
Public Perceptions of FVM
The use of FVM is a common component of silvicultural
practice around the world; however, preferred methods differ
by continent. For example, in Europe most herbaceous weeds
are controlled by site preparation and in North America chemi-
cal vegetation control is most common (Ammer et al., 2011).
Within North America, the southern US has attempted to de-
velop competitive advantages in the international timber market
with a focus on intensive high-yield forestry and strong support
for the use of herbicides as necessary for effective FVM
(McCormack, 1994). North American forestry studies have
shown chemical control in timber production produces low
risks to humans, soil, water and wildlife, while Europeans feel
herbicides are a “serious threat for the maintenance of the set of
multiple functions that forests provide” (Ammer et al., 2011).
European-based forest certification systems, like the Forest
Stewardship Council, take a much harsher view of chemical
control than North American-based forest certification systems,
like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.
Not all forestry studies support the North American conclu-
sion that FVM is a necessary part of intensive forest manage-
ment. Some find results from research studies to be inconsistent
in terms of the permanency of the growth and yield gains from
FVM, the effects of overstory and gap size, the effects on
ground vegetation control, the opposite effects of woody and
herbaceous vegetation management, and the effect on species
richness (Ammer et al., 2011).
Even in North America, some perceive FVM to be detrimen-
tal to forest sustainability goals. Research has tended to focus
on the high yields that result from FVM and not on contribution
to ecosystem management goals. Changes in cultural patterns
may be necessary to gain a focus on ecosystem management
concerns (Newton, 2006). Wagner et al. (1998) surveyed public
perceptions of risk and acceptability of FVM alternatives in
Ontario. Participants were given nine FVM alternatives and
asked to rank them from riskiest to least risky. In order of riski-
ness, the alternatives were: aerially-applied herbicides, biologi-
cal control, ground-applied herbicides, mulches, prescribed fire,
site preparation, cover cropping, grazing animals, and manual
cutting. Public acceptance was lowest for aerially-applied her-
bicides (18%) and second lowest for ground-applied herbicides
(37%). There results suggest that strong public support can be
obtained for FVM programs that do not include herbicides
(Wagner et al., 1998).
Chemical control using herbicides has gained favor in North
America due to its effective and low cost relative to results.
International forest certification systems certainly discourage
broad use of forest herbicides. Herbaceous weed control meth-
ods have developed somewhat independently and the use of
non-herbicide methods (mechanical, manual, thermal, and bio-
logical) seem to be almost discouraged. Greater public concern,
changing perceptions of risk, and international forest certifica-
tion systems may combine to encourage a wider use of control
alternatives (Little et al., 2006). The changing demographics of
America’s family forest owners (FFOs) certainly will affect
public perception of these alternatives. What impact could this
have on consulting foresters who have these owners as their
main clients?
FFOs and Undesirable Vegetation
Family forest owners (FFOs), the main clientele of forestry
consultants are surveyed nationally by the USDA Forest Ser-
vice. The last survey was in 2006 (Butler, 2008). That survey
showed FFOs had a strong concern over the issue of undesir-
able vegetation, or the problem solved by FVM. Statistics in
that survey were stated in terms of area owned by FFOs and
number or population of FFOs. This was an important distinc-
tion. At the extremes of forest tract size, say owners of small
tracts (less than 5 ha) and owners of large tracts (greater than
2000 ha), there are many, many owners of small tracts and few
owners of large tracts. Thus, statistic alone, area or number of
owners will skew an interpretation of impact on the total forest.
Data from that survey, the National Woodland Owners Sur-
vey, is available for analysis using table making software de-
veloped by the USDA Forest Service (Butler et al., 2013). Ta-
bles 1 and 2 were developed using that software. The survey
included key health concerns of FFOs, including the issue of
undesirable vegetation. Nearly one-third of FFOs (32%) were
concerned with undesirable vegetation and these owners con-
trolled one- th i r d of family forest a r e a .
Table 1 shows the distribution of FFOs by size of forest
holding by both area and owners. Table 1 also shows this same
distribution for only the one-third concerned with undesi rable ve-
getation. The two distributions are surprisingly similar. Notice
Table 1.
FFOs concerned with issue of undesirable vegetation by size of forest
holding by total FFO population and area and the one-third of FFOs
concerned with the issue, 2006 (Butler, 2008) .
Total family for est One-third concerned
Size of forest holdin g
(ha) %Area%Owners %Area %Owners
1 - 3 7 6.4 7 60.6
4 - 20 22 30.8 23 27.9
21 - 40 16 6.8 15 6. 3
41 - 200 32 5.3 30 4.7
201 - 400 8 0.4 8 0.3
401 - 2000 10 0.2 11 0. 2
2000+ 5 0.1 6 -
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Table 2.
Characteristics of one-third FFOs expressing concern over issue of
undesirable vegetation, 2006 (Butler et al., 2013) .
Characteristic %Area %Owners
Owns over 20 ha of forest area 70 2.8
Over 55 ye ars of age 70 65.1
College gra du ate (B.S. or higher) 45 34.5
Income greater than $50,000 64 52.4
Had a forest managem ent plan 22 5.4
Harvested t i mber with forester advice47 25.4
Receive d management advice 43 17.1
Source of management advice:
State forestry agency 27 9.4
Federal age ncy 15 3.9
Extension 10 4.1
Forestry consultant 22 4.9
Forest industry 8 1.3
Logger 10 2.7
Non-profit or ga niz a tio n 2 0.6
Another landowner 10 3.3
while it may seem that not a great a proportion of FFOs are
concerned with the issue, when forest area owned by concerned
owners is considered, then the issue becomes one of major
importance. Tracts greater than 40 ha included only 6% of
FFOs in the concerned third, but that 6% of owners controlled
55% of family forest area. Area, and not just number of owners,
must be part of any analysis that involves FFOs.
The National Woodland Owners Survey Table Maker also
allowed for a detailed analysis of that nearly one-third of FFOs
who had a concern over undesirable vegetation (Butler et al.,
2013). Table 2 shows the proportions of these owners in terms
of key characteristics. Only 13% of them own tracts larger than
20 ha in size, but 70% of the area owned by the group is in
tracts larger than 20 ha. There may be a few of them, but they
own very large holdings.
Older, more educated, FFOs, with higher incomes, tend to be
more concerned with the issue (Table 2). As you’d expect,
more active managers (those with management plans or who
recently harvested timber or consulted a forester for timber
harvesting advice) were more greatly concerned with the issue.
The forestry advice question is one of the more interesting
questions on the survey, at least in relation to consulting for-
estry. Those FFOs who sought forest management advice were
much more likely to be concerned with the issue. But where did
they get that advice? State forestry and other agencies was the
top listed source. However, forestry consultants were a close
second. Federal agencies and extension have a primary respon-
sibility to provide advice, but both had lower percentages than
consultants. Other sources were also much lower than consult-
ants in terms of advice. Apparently, consulting foresters are one
of the largest sources of forest management advice, at least in
terms of undesirable vegetation.
The source for forest management advice is such a surprising
result it seems necessary to ask the question: how does this
relationship affect other issues in the survey? The survey had
seven biophysical issues (like water pollution or fire) and ten
sociopolitical issues (like endangered species and property
taxes). The relationship of consulting forestry being a very
strong secondary source of forest management advice held
across both biophysical and sociopolitical issues consistently in
terms of area and nearly always in terms of owners. In fact, the
survey identified state forestry agencies and other state agencies
separately. They are combined into one category for Tables 1
and 2. If state agencies are separated out, forestry consultants
are the number one forest management advice source in dealing
with endangered species, lawsuits, regulations for timber har-
vesting, and timber theft issues.
Forestry Consultants’ Clients and FVM
FVM is one of the costliest practices clients of consulting
foresters confront. Site preparation and planting are also costly,
but they are usually considered mandatory to the type of FFOs
that invest in a forestry consultant. FVM is not as mandatory;
the results are not as predictable and the increased yields not
guaranteed. There are many factors that influence the decision
to use FVM or not; it boils down to benefit/cost analysis by the
forest owner who will make an ultimate decision on cost-effec-
tiveness (Howle, Straka, & Nespeca, 2010).
FFOs that used FVM (or chose not to use it in situations
where it was recommended) and were clients of a consulting
forester were surveyed to determine their attitudes towards and
motivations concerning FVM. This study was confined to FFOs
in the southeastern United States. A survey questionnaire was
designed to elicit basic information about two central questions
1) does the landowner utilize FVM and 2) what motivation(s)
drove their decision, along with a few demographic questions.
A large southern forestry consulting firm provided a list of
clients that had used or rejected FVM options.
The clients were allowed to suggest motivations for imple-
menting or not implementing FVM practices. If possible, they
were grouped into predetermined categories on the “question-
naire” used to lead the conversation towards specific questions.
Seven categories of motivations for FVM were eventually de-
veloped from the discussion: 1) eliminating competition for
improved timber growth, 2) improvements to wildlife habitat, 3)
most cost effective, 4) aesthetics, 5) fuel reduction/safety, 6)
forester recommendation, and 7) proximity to residential areas.
Six motivations for not implementing FVM were also devel-
oped: 1) not cost effective, 2) pollution, 3) too early in rotation,
4) never implemented control before, 5) short holding, and 6)
not intensely managed.
Results and Discussion
The survey of FFOs in the Southeast resulted in 53 usable
responses out of the 132 clients that were contacted and result-
ing in a response rate of 40%. The 53 clients that responded to
the survey give a total of 64 motivations for either implement-
ing (34 responders) or not implementing (19 responders) FVM.
The leading motivation for FFOs to implement FVM was to
improve wildlife habitat (Table 3). This is somewhat surprising
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 101
Table 3.
Motivations of FFOs to implement FVM, percentage of responses, n =
Motivation Percent of respondents
Wildlife habitat 38%
Timber growth 24%
Aesthetics 18%
Safety or fuel reduction 18%
Cost-effective 6%
Residential area 6%
Site preparation 6%
Tradition 6%
Demonstration 3%
Forester recommendation 3%
Pine straw production 3%
as costly treatments are usually justified by increased wood
yields. Reducing competition for improved timber growth was
the second most cited motivation by 24% of respondents. The
small percentage is also surprising for the same reason. FVM is
a very costly treatment and i n creased wood yield would seem to
be the driving force. However, secondary motivations like aes-
thetics and fuel reduction were major motivations also. One
landowner said, “Fuel reduction and the threat of wildfire is a
major concern for me.” The range of motivations also down-
plays the importance of wood yield, as one landowner put it, “I
just like the way my forest looks without all that underbrush.”
It is obvious that FFOs are not driven primarily by cost-effec-
tiveness when considering the FVM decision and that a wide
array of motivations control the use of chemical control in for-
est management.
Cost was the leading motivation for not implementing FVM
at 58% (Table 4). A strong secondary reason was disagreement
over need. FFOs who use consulting foresters pay for advice
and tend to be more business-minded that the average owners.
They are much more likely to be concerned with cost-effec-
tiveness issues. Pollution (health concerns) was a minor issue,
although one landowner was quoted saying, “I’m worried but
runoff of herbicides from my property, as well as adding CO2 to
the atmosphere from burning.”
Some demographics were obtained: how many forested area
owned, age, highest level of education, and primary manage-
ment goal. Educational level did not seem to be a major factor
in a landowner’s decision to implement or not implement FVM,
while respondents older than 55 seemed to be involved in more
intensive management regimes. This is a little different from
the earlier study cited (Butler, 2008), but considering the major
variable of size of forest holding, the results were identical with
the earlier study (Table 5). As size of forest holding increases
(tract size increases), so does the percent of FFOs that chose to
use FVM; this can be answered by economies of scale (Cub-
bage, 1983).
The types of treatments and their frequency are shown in
Table 6. Other studies have found fire control to be a minor
Table 4.
Motivations of FFOs not to implement FVM, percentage of responses,
n = 19.
Motivation Percent o f responden ts
Cost 58%
Never have/no need 21%
Too early in rotation 11%
Pollution 5%
Lack of help 5%
Short holding 5%
Tract too small 5%
Table 5.
FFOs implementing FVM by tract size (n = 54).
Tract size Percent implementing FVM
<200 ha 50%
200 - 400 ha 60%
>400 h 86%
Table 6.
Treatment type by FFOs who implemented FVM (n = 34).
Treatment type Percent using type
Fire control 63%
Mechanical co n t r ol 19%
Chemical and fire control15%
Chemical control 3%
reason for FVM (Ammer et al., 2011), but our results show fire
control was the most popular form of FVM by FFOs in the
Southeast. Mechanical treatments included chopping, mowing,
and cutting, and occurred on tracts closer to residential areas.
Implications and Conclusion
The decision by FFOs to engage in FVM is significantly af-
fected by the size of the landholding. Like any producer, the
typical landowner seeks to maximize the benefits from their
timberlands. The fact that some landowners were willing to use
multiple, more expensive, and/or more labor intensive treat-
ment types represents their willingness to invest in their family
forests. FVM by FFOs is an important aspect of the intensely
managed forest regimes of the south eastern US.
The most prevalent type of FVM found in this study was fire
control, which most closely mimics the natural disturbance
regime for the region (Gilliam & Platt, 1999). The most com-
mon motivation for using fire control was improving wildlife
habitat; indicating that most landowners are more concerned
with the annual benefits associated with wildlife, whether by
revenues from hunting leases or by maximizing their utility
function, rather than the discounted values of future timber
harvesting. Cost being the most frequently cited motivation for
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 103
not implementing FVM signifies that other landowners are
reluctant to invest in their family forest. More importantly, the
findings of this study show that the size of landholdings corre-
lates directly with the leve l a n d intensity of forest mana ge ment.
This research was supported by the Practicing Foresters In-
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