Originally published October 2000, revised 2007
Many landowners clear brush or timber for aesthetic reasons rather than economic reasons. In fact, clearing brush or timber when woody plants are not overabundant often decreases land value and income potential.
Aesthetics relates to perceptions of beauty, which are learned responses shaped by peer pressure, education, and experiences. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What is pretty to one person may be ugly to another. Many landowners believe brush and timber are undesirable because they developed this perception through the influences of families, neighbors, and peers. Generally, these people are good influences who help us learn important values, such as right from wrong. But we should also recognize that we develop our prejudices and biases through the same influences. For example, these otherwise good influences sometimes cause people to believe that only a certain skin color is acceptable even though God created several, or that other nationalities are substandard even though most Americans originated from other countries.
Many issues influence management decisions on farms and ranches. Hopefully, profitability and sustainability are two of them. A relatively small amount of brush and timber on a property, such as 15 percent woody cover, can increase income and land value. Fifteen percent woody cover that is well distributed across the landscape can support substantial populations of bobwhite, turkey, and white-tailed deer. Land with reasonably good quail or deer hunting can earn at least $3 per acre relatively easily through hunting lease income. If 15 percent woody cover causes a whole property to earn $3 per acre, the woody cover actually may be earning $20 per acre. It is difficult to net (cash basis) $20 per acre from a cow-calf enterprise over the long-term on native range.
If you follow the rural real estate market much, you will notice that a substantial percentage of buyers are not full-time farmers and ranchers. Although most new buyers want to continue farming or ranching the land, many also want the land to support wildlife and associated recreation. A 1983 study by Pope, Adams, and Thomas in Texas demonstrated that the mere presence of deer on land contributed over $50 per acre to land value. Land prices have increased quite a bit since 1983, so the presence of deer probably contributes more than $50 per acre to land values today. Although we do not like to see urban development of rural land, land with trees is worth more for residential development than land without them.
Woody plants have substantial value beyond their economic value. They stabilize stream banks and steep slopes better than most other alternatives. Much erosion has been caused by clearing woody plants from steep slopes or from the banks of creeks and rivers. Many wildlife species depend upon woody plants to provide essential components of their habitats. Woody plants in riparian zones (near streams) tend to provide some of the most important plant communities for many wildlife species.
Depending upon technique and woody plant size and density, brush or tree removal generally costs $50?400 per acre. Does the increase in cattle or wheat income pay for or justify the cost of clearing brush or timber? Most likely, the answer is no. So why do people decrease potential income opportunities, decrease land values, and increase expenses by clearing brush and timber? Possibly, they make decisions to clear brush and timber based upon incorrect information or prejudiced aesthetic perspectives.
Of course, woody plants can be excessive for cattle, crop, and even wildlife goals. Eastern red cedar encroachment provides a classic example in many portions of the Cross Timbers and Prairies area of Oklahoma. Prevention management is much more practical and economical than after-the-fact control. We recognize that woody plants should be managed as part of the overall landscape. As with most management issues, appropriate woody plant abundance rests somewhere between all or none.
In general, some woody plants are good for the landscape. Brush and timber can be beautiful and valuable.