Forested land can hold value for Illinois farmers

Timber sales on private lands in Illinois generate about $30 million annually. Currently, there are about 176,000 landowners in the state sitting on 5 million acres of forested land.

ULLIN — “There’s gold in them thar trees.”

Owners of forested land have some money-making options, and expert advice is available to help them turn wood into dollars.

“Even though Illinois is the Prairie State, there is a lot of forest here,” said Chris Evans, a University of Illinois forestry specialist based at the Dixon Springs Agriculture Center in Southern Illinois. Evans and others recently hosted a session here to provide information on potential land-use scenarios.

“There is lots of value in forested land,” he said.

Timber sales on private lands in Illinois generate about $30 million annually, according to Jay Hayek, who heads the Illinois Directory of Professional Consulting Foresters. There are about 176,000 landowners in the state sitting on 5 million acres of forested land.

Soft woods such as pine are not a factor in Illinois. There are no pulp mills in the state and virtually no native conifers used for lumber. But quality hardwoods — often used as veneers — can bring big money.

“Any tree species can be made into veneer,” Hayek said. “However, the highest quality species in Illinois are black walnut, white oak, red oak, black cherry and sugar maple.

“After that, there are grade saw logs, which you get high quality lumber from. Prices are similar to veneer prices. Black walnut is the king of Illinois. It’s always going to be our most valuable species.”

For those who may have recently come into possession of forested land (or longtime owners who have not considered the value of timber stands), University of Illinois Extension can provide some free advice.

“We don’t do cost-share assistance, but we do landowner assistance in terms of helping them identify what they need to do,” Evans said. “We answer specific questions.”

Hayek and Evans strongly recommend that landowners who are considering timber sales contact an independent forester, who can give them an estimate on what their trees are worth. Not all white oaks, for instance, have the same value, even if they’re the same size.

“A lot of landowners think if they have a big walnut, that’ll get them $10,000,” Evans said. “But if it’s knotty or has other problems, it can be valued differently. It’s super variable.”

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There are 60 full-time forestry consultants in Illinois. Hayek said he believes their professional, unbiased assessment of timber value is more than worth the consulting fee.

“If landowners want to maximize profits, they need to contact a professional forester,” he said. “Foresters have landowners’ interests in mind, as well as the resources. The logger doesn’t care.”

An on-site evaluation of timber is a necessary step in the process, according to Hayek.

“Ultimately, you can’t call me up and ask how much my timber is worth,” he said. “Any evaluation of timber needs to be done on site.”

An added benefit offered by a consultant is something called a timber basis. That serves as an economic assessment of value. While insurance companies do not insure trees, landowners suffering a catastrophic event can get some tax relief.

“Say a tornado comes and flattens an entire 40 acres. If you did not have an evaluation done, you could not take a loss on your IRS tax forms,” Hayek said. “If you had known the value, you could write it off as a casualty loss.

“And you can deduct (timber basis) from your taxes. You can make tax-free money from the sale of timber if you know the value. It’s known as a depreciation unit. Few landowners know that.”

As with any perennial crop, trees benefit from proper management. Regular thinning is critical.

Removing shade-tolerant and lower-valued species such as beech or maple reduces competition to the prized, sun-loving hardwoods, and gives them more space to grow.

Controlled burns are the most effective means of thinning forests.

In addition to Illinois Extension and forestry consultants, landowners may receive assistance from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Some cost-share programs are available.

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