Selective vs Selection Cutting: Mind the Difference

There is a common confusion between two terms commonly used in forestry: Selective cutting and selection cutting. While the two terms are often used interchangeably (usually by laymen), they couldn’t be more different. Selective cutting is a non-specific description of partial harvesting that usually refers to high-grading or other destructive harvesting practices. Selection cutting, however, is a legitimate and proven method of sustainable and responsible harvesting that can generate excellent returns for the landowner over time. The confusion is extremely unfortunate, as the two terms potentially represent entirely different methods of harvesting and silviculture with a potentially catastrophic difference in outcomes, so here we will discuss the difference so you know what to watch out for and what questions to ask. If you after reading you want to learn more about selection cutting, check out our silviculture course.

A selection cut is much more beneficial than a selective cut.
A successful selection cut in a mixedwood stand

Selective Cutting

The first thing to understand about selective cutting is that it does not exist. The term will never be used by a professional forester, and if you were to scan a library of literature on forest management, you would not find the term. Rather, it is a laymen’s term that describes a harvest that is anything other than clearcutting. The problem is that there is an extremely wide range of silvicultural systems that aren’t clearcutting, and we have an article on those systems if you want to learn more. So when someone uses the term “selective cutting,” the question is what type of harvesting they are actually referring to, and most of the time, it is used as a nice word to sugar coat two dangerous types of harvesting: High grading and diameter-limit cutting.

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High grading can be described simply as cutting the best and leaving the rest. It is when a logger only removes the highest value stems and leaves the low-quality growth standing. While this can generate a lot of quick profit for the landowner (and sometimes logger), it is disastrous for the long-term value and production of the land. When all the high-value stems are removed, the only remaining stems will be low value, and thus all subsequent growth will be low value. Moreover, the only trees left to spread seed for the next generation will be low value, ensuring bleak prospects for the future of the forest.

If a forest has been high graded, it is not an exaggeration in many cases to say that it has been destroyed. Any reparation that is made to the land after such a harvest (such as planting) will come at a great expense, greatly reducing potential returns for an outcome that otherwise could have been produced at a much lower cost.

Diameter-Limit Cutting

Diameter-limit cutting is similar to high grading, but it is more subtle. Strictly speaking, a diameter-limit cut seeks to remove all trees above a certain diameter. While that is marginally better than outright high-grading, the effects over time are identical. The fact that a tree has reached a certain diameter does not mean it needs to be cut. If a tree is high value, any future growth is going to be high value as well, so these are potentially the most productive trees financially. Cutting them pre-maturely simply because they reached an arbitrary diameter robs yourself of a great deal of future value.

To really understand the effect this can have, watch this video where I show how much of a difference a few years of growth can make in a tree’s value.

Similarly, one robs themselves of future value by not cutting below an arbitrary diameter threshold. If a young tree is a low value species or of poor quality, it will never become a high-value tree. And as that tree grows, all it does is take away resources (mostly light and space) from other higher-value species and individuals. Even though these trees are not worth much money, leaving the tree standing potentially limits more valuable growth.

Selection Cutting

In contrast to “selective” cutting, selection cutting is a legitimate form of timber harvesting based on sound silvicultural principles.

In a selection harvest, individual trees or groups of trees are removed from a forest stand in a series of partial harvests, allowing the remaining trees to continue to grow and produce timber. The goal of selection cutting is to create a diverse, multi-aged forest with a continuous supply of timber while also promoting the growth and regeneration of desirable tree species and individuals with superior quality. You can see a hypothetical progression of a selection cut in the diagram below.

Selection Cut diagram.

Unlike “selective cutting” in a selection harvest, every tree is assessed on its own merits. Silviculturists assess trees based on their growth rate, quality, surrounding competition, and of course species. Trees are removed from every age class. From older cohorts, the overmature individuals are harvested, so to provide a return for the landowner and allow the next generation to grow. From younger cohorts, undesirable species and poor quality individuals are removed so to improve the value, quality, and composition of the forest. One could think of this harvest as combining elements of thinning and shelterwood establishment cuts and integrating them over a series of harvests. Of course, there is a lot of variability in the types of selection harvests and the exact prescription, as these are tailored to the forest itself.

With these crucial differences, the outcome of a selection harvest is far superior. Properly executed, the harvest will yield the landowner a good return while also improving the long-term health, value, and sustainability of their forest.

When You Hear “Selective Cutting,” Ask for Clarification

While at first, differentiating between a selection cut and a selective cut may seem like a quibble, it is anything but! The difference for your land between the two harvesting outcomes could not be more different. That said, the fact is that these two terms can be used interchangeably, especially by people who do not have an academic background in forestry. For example, a skilled logger who takes great pride in his work and successfully implements selection harvests (or partial harvests in general) may refer to it as “selective” cutting. It doesn’t mean he wants to destroy your land, only that he is not particular in his language.

Thus, it is a good idea to ask for clarification whenever you hear the term. Ask what types of trees will be removed, what types will be retained, and what the stand will look like when it is completed. However, I think one question will really answer all the questions you can have: How will the harvest improve future growth? The answer to this question will reveal whether or not it was even considered. If there was no consideration for the future, it is probably a “selective cut.”

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