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Balsam Fir

| Description | Products and Uses | Site Conditions |
| Regeneration | Immediate Treatments | Pests and Diseases |

Description

Range of balsam fir The balsam fir type occurs across the northern Lake States (Figure 6-2). Common associates include black spruce, white spruce, paper birch, quaking aspen, bigtooth aspen, yellow birch, American beech, red maple, sugar maple, eastern hemlock, eastern white pine, tamarack, black ash, and northern white-cedar.

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Products and Uses

Balsam fir is used mainly for pulpwood and small sawtimber. Wood waste is burned for energy. Fir stands provide summer shade for moose, deer, and bear and winter cover for moose and deer. Timber wolves, pine marten, fisher, lynx, and bobcat are associated with this type of woodland. Hares, spruce grouse, and songbirds use these stands for cover and a food source. Balsam fir boughs are extensively clipped for wreaths and small trees are cut for Christmas trees.

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Site Conditions

Balsam fir grows on a wide range of inorganic and organic soils and on wet to dry sites. It is most common on wet to moist sites, where soil moisture is adequate throughout the growing season and standing water may be present during part of the season. On moist sites balsam fir is gradually replaced by northern hardwoods such as sugar maple. On wet sites it usually is dominated by black spruce and tamarack. Good sites are found on well-drained loams and moderately well-drained silt loams, clay loams, and clays. It grows where pH is 5.1 to 6.0, but does best with pH 6.5 to 7.0 in the upper organic layers. A site index (Table 6-1) is most reliable when measuring dominant balsam firs that have not been previously suppressed in even-aged stands or by assessing the site index of associated species (Appendix B-2: Site index curves for balsam fir in the Lake States). The balsam fir site index is unreliable in uneven-aged stands.

Table 6-1. Comparative site index for balsam fir and common associates.
Balsam fir
Quaking aspen
Paper birch
Black spruce
Northern white-cedar
60
70
70
60
40
50
60
55
50
35
40
50
40
40
30
30
35
25
30
25
Source: Johnston, W. F. 1986. Manager’s handbook for balsam fir in the north central states. General Technical Report NC-111. USDA Forest Service, North Central Forest Experiment Station. P. 5.


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Regeneration

Balsam fir easily regenerates from seed on any moist seedbed and seedlings survive well in shadeBeginning at age 30, balsam fir produces good seed crops every two to four years. Wind disperses seed for 80 to 200 feet from mature trees. If enough moisture is available, seeds will germinate on almost any seedbed and seedlings will survive for several years with only 10 percent of full sunlight. The best seedbed is medium-textured mineral soil with some shade. Thick duff with no shade is a poor seedbed. Scarification that incorporates duff will improve the seedbed.

Because balsam fir is very shade tolerant, it can be managed in uneven-aged stands, especially on moist-wet sites. Use a two-stage shelterwood harvest, leaving 60 percent crown cover where advance regeneration is not adequate and where residual firs are known to be windfirm (resistant to strong winds).

Balsam fir also can be managed in even-aged stands by clearcutting in alternate or progressive strips or patches. Use clearcutting where the shelterwood system will lead to excessive mortality from rot, wind, or spruce budworm or where advance regeneration of fir is well established before the cut. Cut strips perpendicular to, and progressing toward, the prevailing wind. Cut strips up to three chains wide with seeding from both sides or two chains wide with seeding only from the wind-ward side.

Where balsam fir grows beneath aspen, cutting only the aspen will release balsam fir, but clearcutting will favor aspen regenerationExcessive slash from harvesting will hinder growth of advance regeneration and provide too much shade over a seedbed. Reduce slash by full-tree skidding.

Balsam fir is seldom planted because of low market demand and the relative ease of regeneration by natural seeding.

Depending on site conditions and the tree species mix that is present, a balsam fir stand can be converted to other forest types. In a mature stand of fir with some aspen, clearcut to produce a stand of aspen suckers with scattered firs. If advance fir regeneration is sparse, place harvest areas within two to three chains of seed-bearing firs. Firs will grow up with the aspen. Once the aspen has matured, cut the aspen, being careful to preserve the firs for longer growth. Some aspen will regenerate in the openings, sustaining a two-species stand. When the firs mature, repeat the cycle by clearcutting.

Where balsam fir forms an understory beneath paper birch, clearcut the birch to release the fir. To reduce spruce budworm problems, maintain some overstory birch by clearcutting progressive strips or small patches. To ensure a birch component in the new stand, scarify the soil in scattered openings and leave seed-bearing birches within three chains. In a balsam fir stand with at least three to five paper birch seed trees an acre, you can retain a birch component by clearcutting the stand in progressive strips or small patches or using shelterwood cutting. Cut strips one to two chains wide and patches one acre or less. Scarify about 50 percent of the harvest area to prepare seedbeds for fir and birch. Whole-tree skidding when the soil is not frozen or snow covered will scarify the site. About eight years after the harvest, thin the new stand to manage the mix of fir and birch.

In northern hardwood stands with a balsam fir component where the site index for sugar maple is greater than 55, control fir advance regeneration to favor hardwood reproduction and clearcut mature fir if hardwood advance reproduction is adequate. Adequate stocking is 5,000 hardwood seedlings three to four feet tall or 1,000 saplings two to four inches DBH. If hardwood reproduction is not adequate, remove the firs in two or more shelterwood harvests to favor hardwoods.

On less well-drained hardwood sites (with a sugar maple site index of less than 55) manage balsam fir along with other hardwoods. These include yellow birch (plus eastern hemlock in Michigan and Wisconsin) on somewhat poorly drained sites and black ash and red maple on poorly drained sites. To grow only pulpwood, clearcut where fir advance growth is adequately stocked and use shelterwood harvest where it is not. To grow both pulpwood and sawlogs, thin young stands to obtain the desired mix of fir and hardwoods. Then harvest the fir at about age 50 and leave the hardwoods until they mature (at roughly age 100). When the hardwoods are mature, reproduce all species as described above. Selection cutting is suitable where a high proportion of fir is desired.

Where balsam fir occurs with pine on a dry site, eliminate the fir when harvesting to encourage pinesWhere balsam fir occurs with pine on dry to moist-dry sites (usually sandy soils), encourage red pine (or jack pine on very dry sites) by eliminating all fir when harvesting pines.

Balsam fir often forms an understory in mature white pine stands on moist to moist-wet sites. This understory may improve wildlife habitat or esthetics, but for timber production the fir should be removed to facilitate regeneration of white pine or other conifers.

On moist to moist-wet sites where balsam fir is mixed with white spruce, spruce is preferred because of its higher timber value, longer life, and greater tolerance to spruce budworm defoliation. If a mature fir stand has more than 500 well-distributed white spruce that are three feet or taller an acre, clearcut the stand to release the spruce, but take care to minimize logging damage. If spruce regeneration is not adequate, either use shelterwood cutting and scarification to encourage spruce or clearcut the stand and plant white spruce. As the new stand grows, weed out balsam fir during thinnings.

On moist-wet to wet sites where balsam fir is mixed with northern white-cedar and black spruce, minimize the fir component. Broadcast burn harvest sites to eliminate woody debris and undesirable small trees and shrubs to create a good seedbed for white-cedar and spruce.

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Intermediate Treatments

The degree to which competing vegetation should be controlled depends on the management objective and type of site. Mixed species stands enhance wildlife habitat and aesthetics and reduce the potential for spruce budworm damage. On wet and moist-wet sites, balsam fir will eventually grow above associated hardwoods, but on moist sites with northern hardwoods, balsam fir will be suppressed. Balsam fir responds well to release when trees are still young and vigorous (for example, with current annual height growth of six inches or more, a fairly pointed crown, and smooth bark with raised resin blisters). A single herbicide release or cleaning about eight years after a harvest or when stand height averages 6 to 10 feet will help ensure balsam fir dominance.

Desirable balsam fir stand densities are not known for optimum timber growth in the Lake States, but a stocking chart for even-aged spruce-fir stands from the Northeast offers some guidance (Appendix C-1: Stocking chart for even-aged spruce-balsam fir stands).

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Pests and Diseases

The spruce budworm is the major insect pest of balsam fir. Budworm survives best on older trees and in dense stands. To minimize damage, manage fir on a 40- to 50-year rotation, keep large forest areas well diversified by age class, thin stands to maintain vigorous growth, and maintain a high spruce and hardwood component. Insecticide use may be warranted in high value stands that have been defoliated for two consecutive years and that cannot be harvested within five years.

Heart rot and root rot are major diseases. To minimize damage follow budworm management practices to sustain vigorous stands and avoid scarring trees during intermediate cuttings.

Windthrow–trees uprooted or broken by wind–can be a serious condition, especially on wet, shallow soils. Minimize windthrow by maintaining a well-stocked, vigorous stand. Do thinning and shelterwood cutting only on sites where fir is known to be windfirm. When making a partial cut, ensure the windward side is protected by a zone of uncut timber at least one chain wide and make cutting boundaries straight. In mixed stands with hardwoods, maintain a well-distributed hardwood component. If damage becomes severe, conduct a salvage harvest.

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