The Debate Over Clear-Cutting

Clear-cutting a forest is recommended only under certain conditions

Aerial view of trees being cut down in a pine forest
Tahreer Photography / Getty Images

Clear-cutting is a method of harvesting and regenerating trees in which all trees are cleared from a site and a new, even-age stand of timber is grown. Clear-cutting is only one of several methods of timber management and harvest in both private and public forests. However, this method has always been controversial, even more so since the environmental awareness that began in the mid-1960s.

Many conservation and citizen groups object to clear-cutting any forest, citing soil and water degradation, unsightly landscapes, and other damages. The wood products industry and mainstream forestry professionals defend clear-cutting as an efficient, successful silvicultural, or forestry, system but only under certain conditions where non-timber assets are not degraded.

The choice of clear-cutting by forest owners is greatly dependent upon their objectives. If that objective is maximum timber production, clear-cutting can be financially efficient with lower costs for timber harvesting than other tree harvesting systems. Clear-cutting has also proved successful for regenerating stands of certain tree species without damaging the ecosystem.

Current Status

The Society of American Foresters, which represents mainstream forestry, promotes clear-cutting as "a method of regenerating an even-aged stand in which a new age class develops in a fully exposed microclimate after removal, in a single cutting, of all trees in the previous stand."

There's a debate about the minimum area constituting a clear-cut, but typically, areas smaller than 5 acres would be considered "patch cuts." Larger cleared forests more easily fall into the classic, forestry-defined clear-cut.

Removing trees and forests to convert land to nonforest urban development or rural agriculture isn't considered clear-cutting. This is called land conversion, converting the use of land from forest to another type of enterprise.

The Issues

Clear-cutting is not a universally accepted practice. Opponents of the practice of cutting every tree within a specific area contend it degrades the environment. Forestry professionals and resource managers argue that the practice is sound if used properly.

In a report written for a major private forest owner publication, three extension specialists—a forestry professor, an assistant dean of a major college of forestry, and a state forest health specialist—agree that clear-cutting is a necessary silvicultural practice. According to the article, a complete clear-cut "usually creates the best conditions for regenerating stands" under certain circumstances and should be used when those conditions occur.

This is opposed to a "commercial" clear-cut where all trees of marketable species, size, and quality are cut. This process doesn't take into account any concerns addressed by forest ecosystem management.

Aesthetics, water quality, and forest diversity are the main sources of public objection to clear-cutting. Unfortunately, an often disinterested public and casual viewers of forestry activities have overwhelmingly decided that clear-cutting is not an acceptable social practice simply by looking at the practice from their car windows. Negative terms such as "deforestation," "plantation forestry," "environmental degradation," and "excess and exploitation" are closely associated with "clear-cutting."

Clear-cutting in national forests now can only be done if it's used to further the improvement of ecological objectives to include wildlife habitat improvement or to preserve forest health, but not for economic gain.

Pros

Proponents of clear-cutting suggest that it's a sound practice if the right conditions are met and correct harvest methods are used. Conditions for which clear-cutting can be used as a harvesting tool include:

  • Regenerating tree species that need full sunlight to stimulate seed sprouting and seedling growth.
  • Dealing with sparse, exposed, or shallow-rooted trees in danger of being damaged by wind.
  • Trying to produce an even-aged stand.
  • Regenerating stands of tree species dependent on wind-blown seed, root suckers, or cones that need fire to drop seed.
  • Salvaging over-mature stands and/or stands killed by insects, disease, or fire.
  • Converting to another tree species by planting or seeding.
  • Providing habitat for wildlife species that require an edge, new ground, and "high-density, even-aged stands."

Cons

Opponents of clear-cutting suggest that it's a destructive practice and should never be done. Here are their reasons, although not every one of these can be supported by current scientific data:

  • A clear-cut increases soil erosion, water degradation, and increased silting in creeks, rivers, and reservoirs.
  • Old-growth forests, which have been systematically clear-cut, are healthy ecosystems that have evolved over centuries to be more resistant to insects and disease.
  • Clear-cutting inhibits the sustainability of healthy, holistic forest ecosystems.
  • Aesthetics and quality forest views are compromised by clear-cutting.
  • Deforestation and the resulting removal of trees from clear-cutting lead to a "plantation forestry" mentality and results in "environmental degradation."