The Cost of Forest Thinning Operations in the Western United States: A Systematic Literature Review and New Thinning Cost Model

TitleThe Cost of Forest Thinning Operations in the Western United States: A Systematic Literature Review and New Thinning Cost Model
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2022
AuthorsChang, H, Han, H-S, Anderson, N, Kim, Y-S, Han, S-K
JournalJournal of Forestry
Date Published12/2022
Keywordseconomic feasibility, forest harvesting, logging machine, machine productivity, machine rate, technical reports and journal articles

Mechanical forest thinning treatments are implemented across the western United States (US) to improve forest health and reduce hazardous fuels. However, the main challenge in thinning operations is low financial feasibility. This study synthesized the stump-to-truck cost of forest thinning operations in the western US based on operations research articles published over the last 40 years (1980–2020). We systematically selected and reviewed 20 thinning studies to analyze key variables affecting machine productivity and harvesting costs. The average cost of forest thinning was lowest for a mechanized whole-tree thinning operation at $21.34/ton or $2,075/ha. Feller-bunchers and skidders showed the highest productivity in felling and extraction machines, respectively. We found that extraction cost accounted for the largest proportion of the stump-to-truck cost of forest thinning (33%, 43%, and 34% in whole-tree, tree-length, and cut-to-length thinning, respectively). Tree diameter and machine travel distance are common variables affecting thinning productivity and thus cost, regardless of the harvesting methods used. With thinning productivity and cost data from the selected studies, we developed a spreadsheet-based model to estimate thinning costs for various harvesting systems. This literature synthesis and new thinning cost model can help foresters develop a cost-effective plan for thinning operations.

Study Implications: Forestland managers often have a keen understanding of the cost of operations based on personal experience and rules of thumb and try to increase productivity and reduce costs whenever possible. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to integrate high-resolution operations research into their planning because these studies can be very site specific and tend to use statistical designs that are not always easy to interpret or apply in practice. This review provides a comprehensive synthesis of research on mechanical thinning operations in the western US with two main implications for managers: (1) broader knowledge of thinning operations with an understanding of key variables and their effects on productivity and cost and (2) better information, data, and tools that can be used to calculate and compare the productivity and cost of thinning for various methods and systems to quickly evaluate alternatives in planning. This literature synthesis, along with a new thinning cost model, can help managers develop more efficient treatments and ultimately reduce treatment costs.