Land Owner Plants An Appreciation Of Our Forests

The preferences, passions and land management styles of forest landowners are as varied and complex as the parcels they own. Dr. Walt McPhail's passion as a landowner is to help others learn about the benefits of proper forest management. Not surprisingly, his land is a veritable “how-to” model for pine forest management.

“My entire tree farm is an ongoing working demonstration of timber management practices,” McPhail said. “The managed stands for timber and wildlife contrast sharply with adjoining unmanaged stands. Hopefully, visiting landowners and tour groups leave motivated to improve timber management on their land.”

A practicing veterinarian, McPhail is also an active tree farmer who raises loblolly pines in the scenic Piedmont region of South Carolina. A portion of his land has been in McPhail's family for 140 years, although he has significantly added to this acreage during the past 20 years.

McPhail's extensive holdings include more than 1,000 acres of forestland and 400 acres of standing timber that he owns. He manages another 1,500 acres of forested land on behalf of his extended family and friends. Roughly 1,100 acres in his portfolio are certified tree farms with the American Tree Farm System.®

“I enjoy helping others learn about the intertwined benefi ts of sustainable forestry, soil and water conservation, and wildlife management,” said McPhail, who is passionate about sharing his hard-earned knowledge with others. For him, the rewards of tree farming go beyond a monetary return on investment. He enjoys nurturing an appreciation of land stewardship within others, with a focus on generations to come.


McPhail's intensive management style could be defined as part inspiration and part innovation, mixed with a healthy dose of hard work and science. His primary goal is to maximize timber yields and total return on his investment, which encompasses the wildlife habitat on his land.

In the past 10 years, McPhail has reforested nearly 1,200 acres, planting roughly 575,000 loblolly and cypress seedlings. He plants about 500 trees per acre, using containerized seedlings because of the superior root system, which helps improve their growth rate. McPhail estimates that using container seedlings improves growth by 10 percent, which means reaching the same timber volume a year and a half earlier on a 35-year rotation.

The productivity of McPhail's pine tree plantations are boosted through a combination of hardwood control using BASF herbicides, fertilization and periodic thinning.

McPhail controls hardwood brush from competing with his pine plantation for water, sunlight and nutrients by using BASF Arsenal® herbicide Applicators Concentrate (Arsenal AC). McPhail began using Arsenal AC to control hardwoods in 1991, in order to reduce the soil compaction and erosion caused by bulldozers. Arsenal AC provides intelligent, long-term vegetation control by affecting enzymes found only in plants – not birds, mammals, fish, insects or humans. Compared to many forestry herbicides on the market, Arsenal AC uses less active ingredient.

According to McPhail, controlling hardwoods with Arsenal AC allows his loblolly pines to grow stronger and faster than untreated forests, and lowers wildfire risk by reducing fire fuel loads. It also stimulates wildlife habitat by increasing plant diversity and promoting the growth of food plants used by wildlife such as deer and game birds.


Generally, McPhail fertilizes young pines that are seven to eight years old about one year after hardwood control, and older pines around one year after thinning and hardwood control.
Always looking to manage his property with the best available methods, McPhail researched the feasibility of using human waste called “bio-solids” as a fertilizer, and then worked with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control to approve the first application of bio-solid fertilizer in the state on his timberland.

The state applied bio-solids on 20 acres in 1998 and on 60 acres in 1999. Although fertilizer works slowly and its immediate effects are hard to gauge, McPhail asserts, “After one year, the pines we had fertilized with bio-solids showed about 10 inches of new needle growth. And there was no new growth visible on the unfertilized trees across the road.”


McPhail tracks tree growth and yields through computer software programs designed to help analyze and determine optimal management options. To monitor management efforts, trees in McPhail's demonstration plots are banded and annual growth is recorded.

His detailed record keeping has demonstrated a dramatic difference between managed tree growth and unmanaged growth. Plots of trees managed through fertilization, selective herbicide use and thinning have grown 4/10ths of a diameter inch per year or four times as much as unmanaged trees that have grown only 1/10th of a diameter inch annually.

McPhail conducts a first thinning at 15 years, second thinning at 23 years and third thinning at 29 years. He personally selects and marks all trees to be thinned based on shape, size and growth. The final harvest occurs at about 35 years. He estimates that this pine rotation model generates income of more than $3,000 per acre.

“The decisions you make now in selecting trees affect your return in 20 to 25 years,” McPhail said. “You can make an extra $400 per acre by select cutting the right trees at the right time.”


The development of strong tree plantations goes hand-in-hand with improving wildlife habitat. In addition to timber management plans, state biologists have prepared written wildlife management plans for all of McPhail's certified tree farms.

Private hunt clubs lease the majority of McPhail's land. He works with the clubs to ensure food plots are planted and managed to attract diverse wildlife.

Working with the federal government, McPhail also established a wetlands reclamation project. In all, 18 acres of low-lying cropland have been converted back into wetlands, providing habitat for a variety of waterfowl species. As part of the reclamation project, McPhail used a cut-stump technique with Arsenal AC to remove willow trees and constructed three ponds that are manually controlled with gates to regulate water levels.

The wetland reclamation site is leased for duck hunting. Six acres of corn, along with 400 to 500 mallard ducks, are raised annually. Since 2001, McPhail has purchased and introduced nearly 2,000 ducks onto his property.

The deer and turkey hunting leases, which average $15 a year per acre, and duck hunting leases add to McPhail's total investment return. Hunt clubs are willing to lease his land at roughly twice the going rate because of his successful wildlife management practices.


“From a cost standpoint, the tree farm is virtually self-sufficient after initial purchase,” McPhail said. “Money from thinning operations and hunting leases are put back into the tracts for hardwood control, fertilization, and soil and water conservation practices.”

McPhail hopes his vision of sustainable forestry will help maintain the forest from generation to generation through reforestation using good site preparation, planting genetically superior trees, making provisions for wildlife habitat and employing vital soil and water conservation practices.

“I can't tell you how often landowners have been on the property and suddenly understood the impressive differences that various management practices make,” McPhail said.
More than 100 landowners and foresters visit McPhail's tree farm annually for tours of his demonstration plots. He also spends many hours educating members of his community about the benefi ts of proper forest management.

“The best part is that these landowners want to learn more about managing their trees for sustainability,” McPhail said.

This has led McPhail to become a driving force in advancing knowledge of tree farming and wildlife management techniques. He co-founded the Anderson County Forestry Association and established the Greenville Forestry and Wildlife Society, which boast flourishing memberships today, thanks to McPhail's efforts.

His dedication has earned him widespread recognition. Most recently, he received the 2004 BASF Sustainable Forestry Award and also was named 2004 Southern Region Tree Farmer of the Year. McPhail also received the 2003 South Carolina Wildlife Federation's Conservation Award for forest conservation. And in 2001, he garnered honors as South Carolina's Tree Farmer of the Year and Master Tree Farmer of the Year.

“It's about teaching other people, getting them interested and motivated to make their own land better. That's what I want to be remembered for,” McPhail said.

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