The Debate Over Clearcutting

A Typical Clearcut. Brian Lockhart, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

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

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

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

Current Status

The Society of American Foresters, an organization that represents mainstream forestry, promotes clearcutting 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 is some debate about the minimum area that constitutes a clearcut, but typically, areas smaller than 5 acres would be considered "patch cuts". Larger cleared forests more easily fall into the classic, forestry defined as clear-cut.

Removing trees and forests to convert land to non-forest urban development and rural agriculture would not be considered clearcutting.

This is called land conversion — converting the use of land from forest to another type of use.

What's All the Fuss About?

Clearcutting 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, one forestry professor, one assistant dean of a major college of forestry and a state forest health specialist agree that clearcutting is a necessary silvicultural practice. According to the article, a complete clearcut "usually creates the best conditions for regenerating stands" under certain conditions and should be used when those conditions occur. Check out these clearcut myths and facts developed by the Virginia Department of Forestry (pdf).

This is opposed to a "commercial" clearcut where all trees of marketable species, size, and quality are cut. This process does not take into account any of the concerns addressed by forest ecosystem management.

Aesthetics, water quality, and forest diversity are the main sources of public objection to clearcutting.

Unfortunately, an often disinterested public and casual viewers of forestry activities have overwhelmingly decided that clearcutting is not an acceptable social practice simply by looking at the practice from their car windows.

Negative terms like "deforestion", "plantation forestry", "environmental degradation" and "excess and exploitation" are closely associated with "clearcutting".

I have written a history of how forest ecosystems are now treated by natural resource professionals to include most foresters. Clearcutting in national forests can now only be done if it is used to further the improvement of ecological objectives to include wildlife habitat improvement or to preserve forest health but not for specific economic gain.

Pros

Proponents of clearcutting suggest that it is a sound practice if the right conditions are met and correct harvest methods used.

Here are conditions that can include clearcutting as a harvest tool:

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

Cons

Opponents of clearcutting suggest that it is 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 clearcut increases soil erosion, water degradation and increased silting in creeks, rivers, and reservoirs.
  • Old growth forests, which have been systematically clearcut, are healthy ecosystems which have evolved over centuries to be more resistant to insects and disease.
  • Clearcutting inhibits sustainability of healthy and holistic forest ecosystems.
  • Aesthetics and quality forest views are compromised by clearcutting.
  • Deforestation and the resulting removal of tree from clearcutting leads to a "plantation forestry" mentality and results in "environmental degradation".