Why do we harvest trees in the winter?

by Matt Russell, Charlie Blinn, and Angie Gupta (UMN Extension)

As many of us are nestled inside next to the fire and starting to think about spring, loggers are hard at work across Minnesota’s forests. Just like April is the busy season for tax professionals, winter is the “tax season” for Minnesota loggers.

According to a 2011 survey, many loggers across Minnesota indicated their businesses were operating at full capacity during the winter months. The survey results indicated that over half of the volume of timber harvested in Minnesota was done in the winter.

A 2011 survey of loggers indicated that the majority of volume harvested in Minnesota occurs in the winter.

As Chad Lovdahl of Lovdahl Logging near Effie, MN says on harvesting timber in Minnesota: “What you can do in two days in the summer takes you one day in the winter.”

So why are so many timber harvests done in the winter? In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, some areas only become accessible and/or operable once soils freeze.  Thus, foresters and loggers schedule many of their timber harvesting activities in the winter because of the possibility to operate with frozen soil conditions.

Almost 20% of Minnesota is wetland. Most of Minnesota’s wetlands–including forested ones–occur on saturated soils and may have standing water seasonally or following large rain events. By scheduling timber harvest activities to occur in winter under frozen conditions on these sensitive sites, the forest floor can support logging equipment and will prevent rutting.

It may also be easier to navigate in the woods and conduct timber harvesting activities in the winter. Winter roads provide access under frozen ground conditions to areas that are not accessible in the summer. Foresters and loggers ensure that their roads have adequate drainage to prevent erosion and sedimentation into wetlands and open water.

Sensitive areas, such as stream crossings, are easily dealt with when using properly constructed winter roads. Ice bridges, which are made of packed snow, allow logging equipment to cross streams. The ice bridges melt in spring. Limbs and tops from harvested trees can be used to divert water on a skid trail or logging road away from the road into a vegetated area away from water.

A logging truck loads logs in the winter.

As we know, frozen ground does not start and end on the first and last day of winter. If your woodland is susceptible to rutting and compaction, it’s important to list specifics in your timber harvest contract which will protect soil productivity, regardless of the season of operation.  If harvest activities are constrained to winter operations, specify the need for frozen soil conditions rather than an arbitrary season or month. Inquire with the logger and/or forester about the kinds of equipment that will be used and how sensitive sites will be managed on your property.

There are many soils and sites in Minnesota which can be harvested outside of winter.  For example, pine growing on well-drained sandy soils can be harvested when the soil is not frozen.  Harvesting during the growing season can also increase soil scarification and enhance regeneration of some species.

Have you ever considered harvesting your woodland? Contact a forester to get started. Or, consider joining one of our upcoming Master Woodland Owner classes to learn how timber harvesting can benefit forest health and wildlife.

The University of Minnesota Extension Forestry team.

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  1. Harvesting on non-frozen ground, when possible, will often give the greatest species diversity in your regeneration. Winter harvest very often results in an aspen monoculture. The article makes good points, but winter harvest is just one tool- not the only tool.

  2. We agree John. Of course any kind of timber harvesting will relate to your management objectives, site conditions and other factors. There can be good reasons to harvest timber in any season.

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