Woodscaping Your Property

Hilary Woodcock and Karl Davies
June, 1994


Why Did People Own Forest Land in the Past?

The southern New England forest of the 1990's is a product of successional processes on landscapes extensively modified first by Native Americans and then by European settlers.  Many seventeenth century European settlers noted that the forests they found in the New World had a park-like appearance, with large, widely-spaced trees and little vegetation in the understory.  This was the result of the Native American practice of periodic burning to improve food supplies for the game they hunted.  As the settlers cleared the forest and established farms through the 1700's, the landscape began to resemble the agricultural landscapes of their European origins.

But soils in the New England hills are thin and rocky.  Farming this land was hard.  As settlement extended west through the 1800's, many New England farms were abandoned and the forest reclaimed the land.  White pine was a common colonizer of the abandoned pastures and fields.  As these trees matured in the early 1900's, their harvesting and processing created an important lumber industry in southern New England.  Most of our present forests have developed since this time.

These shifting patterns of land use in southern New England have given us a landscape rich in reminders of the past.  Where there once were fields and pastures, stone walls still crisscross the forest floor.  Cellar holes mark the locations of old farmhouses and barns.  Old town roads, farm roads and logging roads often have large trees growing in them, but they still provide clues as to how the land was used in the past.  Throughout the region, every stage of old field succession to forest can still be found within the space of a few miles.  

Why Do People Own Forest Land Now?

Now, in the late twentieth century, agricultural and forest products industries still have a place in southern New England, but recreational, wildlife and aesthetic values are increasingly important to society.  In contrast with earlier times, most people who now own a piece of forest land do not expect that their land will provide them with a livelihood.  Ownership of forest land often primarily represents a desire to secure a place far from the stress of the office and city where the natural world cn be enjoyed in peace and privacy. 

Although forest investments can be very profitable in the long-term, most forest landowners are happy if short-term returns can just help cover mortgage payments and real estate taxes.  Indeed, many owners are uncomfortable with the way forests look after the thinnings and harvests needed to make forest investments profitable.

Do You Need a Management Plan to Achieve Your Goals?

If your goals include timber production, a management plan is very important.  If aesthetic and recreational values are your primary objectives, and if financial needs are not a controlling factor, you may decide not to manage your forest.  But how will your forest develop if successional processes and natural disturbance are allowed to be the dominant factors in landscape change?  Will views become obscured?  Will trails become overgrown?  Will cellar holes and old stone walls slowly disappear under leaves and debris?  Will areas of old field and brush habitat, dependent for their maintenance on human disturbance, become less common?

The preceding questions suggest that letting nature take its course may result in a forest that is not only different from today's, but possibly less diverse than the one you enjoy at present.  Even if timber production is not one of your goals, the process of preparing a management plan requires that the plan preparer, and possibly the landowner, become intimately acquainted with the property's physical and biological environment, and identify the forest's special features. 

A management plan need not be limited to the information needed for timber management. In addition to soils, topography and forest type information, a plan can describe cultural and aesthetic features to be preserved or enhanced.  Are there big old trees, relics of the time when there was a sugar bush or fence rows on the property?  Do cellar holes show the location of old homesteads and barns?  Are there stone walls or wire fences along old field boundaries?  Are there old town roads bordering the property and old farm roads through it? 

Are there rocky cliffs or overlooks that offer views of sunsets, distant hills or nearby valleys?  Are there ponds, swamps, streams or other water features that offer special scenic values?  Does the property include any of the increasingly rare, early-successional old field habitat preferred by certain wildlife species?  Are there stands of beech, white birch or yellow birch with special visual appeal?  An inventory of  these sorts of features forms the basis of a woodscaping plan.

What is a Woodscaping Plan?

Woodscaping may be defined as the careful landscaping of forest land to reveal the 'genius of the place'--those features that make a place special and unique.  This entails working with the forest vegetation to feature the property's assets, increasing recreational possibilities, and at the same time, preserving the integrity of the forest ecosystem.  Many activities that fall into the category of woodscaping may also be the the means through which timber management goals are achieved, even though the goals in woodscaping are very different.  A woodscaping plan can reconcile these potentially conflicting purposes of ownership.

A woodscaping plan can often be created through selected add-ons to new or existing Chapter 61 or Stewardship plans.  These add-ons may include a more comprehensive description of your property, plus proposals for activities for which there are no financial incentives and which therefore might not be included in a Chapter 61/Stewardship plan.  Supplementary maps included in woodscaping plans may be accompanied by photographs and routes for self-guided tours for guests and visitors.  There could also be a written review of past land-uses and ownerships based on research of historical records. 

What Are Examples of Woodscaping Activities?

Woodscaping is most often indicated for frequently-used areas with easy access, i.e., near buildings, existing roads and trails,  plus areas of particular aesthetic, recreational, or wildlife

habitat interest.  The latter could include areas near streams, ponds and wetlands, plus stone walls and potential scenic overlooks.  Management practices that come under the umbrella of woodscaping range from simple to ambitious and include the following activities.

    Creating a trail system linking features of interest to improve access and provide opportunities  for hiking, cross-country skiing and wildlife observation. 

    Cutting and/or pruning selected trees and understory plants to highlight specimen trees and other features and to create views and wildlife habitat diversity.

    Thinning stands to create perspectives.

    Clearing overlook areas to create views

    Creating a campsite in an area of particular scenic beauty such as near water or with views.

    Planting native groundcovers, shrubs, and trees along trails and in openings to enhance visual interest and wildlife habitat diversity; also planting fruit and nut trees and bushes. 

    Recreating grazed woodlots, once an attractive feature of New England's landscape. 

    Constructing a pond for swimming and increased wildlife habitat diversity. 

How Much Will Woodscaping Cost? 

A woodscaping plan could be prepared by a professional landscaper, who could also arrange

for the recommended woodscaping activities to be carried out.  This route can be an expensive one.  A woodscaping plan could also be prepared by a professional forester.  He or she can address not only your aesthetic and recreational goals, but also how your costs might be covered through timber and cordwood sales.  Foresters are likely to know operators with low-impact harvesting systems for cutting operations in aesthetically sensitive areas.   

A forester can also identify which areas might be set aside for timber production as a primary goal without compromising your other goals, and might suggest placing part of the property in Chapter 61.  This approach can have multiple advantages.  Not only will your property taxes be reduced, but much of the data needed to prepare the your woodscaping plan can be collected in the course of a cruise for the Chapter 61 management plan. 

If your property is already classified under Chapter 61, existing maps and inventory data may provide important information for a woodscaping plan for those areas where enhancing aesthetic values, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities are your primary goals.  The need for supplemental information may be minimal in these cases.  The table below lists examples of costs of selected woodscaping activities:

Table 1.  Selected woodscaping practices, estimated costs and notes.




Management planning

$400-600 plus $4-6 per acre

Some work may be applied to the preparation of a Chapter 61 Plan.  May include self- guided tours.

Aesthetic thinning to improve visibility through stands

$100 plus $50-100 per acre

Firewood cutting by owner may utilize small diameter trees that have negative commercial value.

Outlook creation by heavy cutting

$100 plus $50-100 per acre

Cost may be partly defrayed through sale of timber and wood.

Clearing trails

$100 plus $.25-.50 per foot

Cost may be partly defrayed through sale of timber and wood.

Pruning softwoods to improve visibility through stands

$100 plus $200 per 1,000 feet

Cost shares may be available if pruning will also improve timber production.

Planting shrubs and trees

$200 plus $10 per plant

Some shrubs and trees may be available on the property.

Planning pond construction


This includes identifying a suitable site, getting construction cost estimates and obtaining permits.

Pond construction


The cost is significant, but makes a major improvement to the property.

Are There Other Benefits to Woodscaping?

Besides the immediate benefits of your increased enjoyment of your property, the investment value of forest land is increased when aesthetic qualities, wildlife habitats, recreational opportunities and timber values have been developed.  Many people find an attractively woodscaped property more visually attractive than either a property which has been left alone or one where timber production has been a priority. 

Furthermore, when you decide to sell a woodscaped property, it is attractive and easy to show.  Your woodscaping plan with its maps, photos and self-guided tour becomes a valuable resource for the real estate agent showing the property.  This information will distinguish your property from others on the market and will relieve the realtor of the need to spend valuable time with potential buyers showing them around the property.

Further Reading

Brush, Robert O. 1981. Forest aesthetics: As the owners see it. American Forests 87(5): 41-46.

Campbell, Susan M. and David B. Kittredge, Jr. 1992. Woodscape crew for small woodlot   management in southeastern Massachusetts. Northern Journal of Applied Forestry 9:116-118.

Davies, Karl. 1991. Forest investment considerations for planning thinnings and harvests.  Northern Journal of Applied Forestry 8:129-131.

Davies, Karl. 1994. Some ecological aspects of Northeastern American Indian agroforestry   practices. Annual Report of the Northern Nut Growers Association 85:25-37.

DeGraff, Richard M. 1995. Changing forests--changing wildlife population. Woodland Steward.   25(6):10-15.

Matson, Tim. 1996. Earth Ponds: Pond Maker's Guide to Building, Maintenance and   Restoration. Countryman  Press. Woodstock, VT.

Mauri, Michael. 1995. Taking the long view: Coming into the history of a woodlot. Woodland Steward  25(6):7-9,22.

Niering, William A. and Richard H. Goodwin. 1975. Energy Conservation on the Home Grounds:  The Role of Naturalistic Landscaping. Bulletin 21. Connecticut Arboretum at Connecticut   College. New London, CT.

Taylor, Sally L., Glenn D. Dreyer and William Niering. 1987. Native Shrubs for Landscaping.   Bulletin 30. Connecticut Arboretum at Connecticut College. New London, CT.


    Low thinning in a hardwood stand showing increased perspective through stand

    Pine stand with lower branches pruned off and thinned for increased visual penetration

    Scenic overlook with foreground trees low-thinned for perspective

    Trail running along stonewall

    Pond bordering woods and field

    Old field area with nearby natural succession

    Agroforestry/grazed woodlot with large oak overstory and bushes, grasses underneath