Is Clearcutting Bad?

There are few practices in forestry that draw public ire quite like clearcutting, and understandably so, but is clearcutting bad? Properly implemented, clearcutting can be a great tool to harvest timber, promote healthy new growth, and improve wildlife habitat. That said, as with anything in forestry, it is a matter of scale. No one wants to see miles upon miles of rolling clear cuts, but small, targeted clearcuts among tracts of mature timber can do great favors for a landscape over time. Here are several reasons why a clearcut may just be the best prescription for a forest.

Some Species Benefit From Clearcutting

When a forester or landowner decides to harvest timber, they must look at not only what trees they want to remove, but what trees they may want to keep and what trees they want to grow in the future. Every tree has unique attributes that factor in to these decisions. For example, balsam fir is incredibly valuable for dimensional lumber, but it is shallow-rooted, prone to rot and rather brittle. If a harvest is done in a stand of balsam fir, a forester may have no choice but to clearcut the stand, as root damage from machine entry and windthrow from openings in the canopy threaten to do severe damage to any trees that remain.

Other species, such as quaking aspen, thrive when clearcut. When a stem is severed, new shoots are sent out through roots and stumps. Clearcutting species with this characteristic can be an effective way of regenerating them. This is a practice known as coppicing. Moreover, species such as aspen simply cannot survive in the shade of other trees, as their ecological niche is to grow in clearings after fire and disturbances. Thus, if one wishes to maintain these species as a major component in the stand, the only management option is to regenerate the stand through clearcutting.

Clearcutting can be a great way to regenerate aspen.
A stand of quaking aspen overtopping sugar maple and softwood. Such a stand is a candidate for clearcutting in order to promote future aspen growth.

Clearcutting to Improve Forest Health

Other times, a stand of trees may be so stricken with disease or in a state of decadence that there is little choice but to clearcut the stand and start over. This is common problem with sugar maple stands in the northeast. While sugar maple is a highly valuable species, it tends to grow in tandem with American beech, which can be overwhelmed with the devastating beech bark disease. When a stand is infested with infected beech, thick growth of beech sprouts choke out all other species, ruining the value of the forest for timber and wildlife alike. In such a situation, it may be best to clearcut the stand, allowing other, more valuable species to compete with the beech, thus restoring the forest.

Beech bark disease infested stands may require clearcutting.
An American beech stem covered in cankers caused by beech bark disease

There are other situations where a stand of trees may be unhealthy simply from age. An even-aged stand (a group of trees of roughly the same age) will reach senescence at the same time. If they are left to grow too long, a clearcut may become necessary as any remaining trees would be too old to withstand the pressures of a harvest. The result of any partial harvesting would be catastrophic, and much of the residual stand would end up blowing over.

This stand of spruce is unstable.
This stand of red spruce is decadent and unstable. Any further openings in the canopy could cause the stand to collapse over time. It’s best to harvest all the stems now by clearcutting.

Clearcutting to Plant a Stand

Sometimes, it may be best to clearcut a stand in order to create a site for planting. While planting is not necessary to regenerate a forest, it helps grow the most desirable species and allows for easy regeneration in drier climates or ecological regimes that may depend on fire to spread seed. Planting forests is incredibly common in the American southeast and northwest, and so clearcutting is common in these areas. However, even in the northeast and Midwest, planting is used as a means of forest improvement after land has been degraded from diseases or poor prior harvesting practices.

Spruce plantation.
A plantation of spruce in northern Maine. Spruce is on the decline in Maine, and planting helps preserve it.

Creating Wildlife Habitat With Younger Forests

It’s no secret that humans love big trees, and why wouldn’t they? Big trees are beautiful. But mature timber doesn’t always make the best habitat for wildlife. The dense canopies choke out sunlight to the forest floor, preventing growth of young trees and succulent greens that many animals feed on, and the wide-spacing of tree stems can make it difficult to hide from predators. In a situation where a landscape is skewed too much toward mature timber, it can make good sense to introduce scattered clearcuts to create younger stands and provide species such as deer and rabbits with cover.

Wildlife loves younger trees.
This moose loves the eye-level browse provided by younger trees.

When Can Clearcutting be Bad?

I don’t want to come off as romanticizing clearcuts or acting like they aren’t a concern. Clearcutting can be a problem, as it is used far too often by industrial foresters and ethically-dubious landowners. However, it is primarily a question of scale. If 1% of a landscape is harvested by clearcutting every year, then trees will be allowed to grow to one-hundred years of age. Even without the considerations mentioned above, this could still result in a healthy, well-managed, and aesthetic forests for recreation, wildlife, and industry alike. Now, let’s say we bump that number up to 3%. Trees would only live to 33 years. That forest would be far too young, and fresh clearcuts would overwhelm the landscape. The land would resemble more a factory than a forest. Unfortunately, this is all too common in some parts of the country, such as the Pacific northwest.

Heavy harvesting pressure creates an ugly and broken landscape. However, this is more a result of too much harvesting than clearcutting.

Clearcutting, then, is neither good nor evil. Like any tool, it can be excellent in its proper place, but used too much or in the wrong conditions, it can do a lot of damage! Just as I wouldn’t bring my car to a mechanic that only had a hammer in his toolbox, clearcutting shouldn’t be a go-to method for managing forests. Use it when it makes sense. No more, no less.

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