It seems most folks are put off by clearcutting. Their emotions tell them that what may look unsightly is also unhealthy. In some cases they might be right, but there are reasons some places are harvested that way.
The species of trees present in the forest are a large reason. Some baby trees cannot grow under the shade of bigger ones. We call these trees shade-intolerant. Most pines as well as valuable hardwoods like black cherry and black walnut belong to this group.
Some trees, like hickories, birches and most oaks tolerate some shade. Maples, beech, persimmon, tupelo and ash will begin to grow under extreme shade. Most understory trees like dogwoods and hornbeams will develop under shaded canopies.
If we only selectively cut down trees we would eventually lose our shade-intolerant trees. Nature keeps that from happening. Forest fires are largely caused by lightning. They create large cleared areas for shade-intolerant trees to develop. However, it’s not a preferred method.
Foresters try to limit the size of these cleared areas for numerous reasons. That’s one reason why prescribed control burning is a critical practice. Limiting the available fuel helps keep fires from starting and makes them easier to control if they do.
I think there is no question clearcutting is essential for healthy forests including healthy wildlife. However, limiting harvest acreages is important especially on steep slopes. Proper forest road construction is important too. Poor forest road design can cause more erosion than anything else.
Many people think that economics is the biggest reason to harvest this way. It’s not. The goal of this strategy is to develop a healthy forest with desired species. Removing weedy exotic trees is an important component. Timber harvesting is important, but not as crucial as maintaining a sustainable forest. Often, loggers don’t want to be bothered by removing unmarketable trees.
Healthy forests have higher photosynthetic rates. Trees grow faster and more useful timber can be harvested. Much of it comes from shade-intolerant trees like our common loblolly pine. Thick stands often result in weak growth. Lower branches become parasitic and overall photosynthetic rate is less.
Newly established forests also provide food and cover for wildlife. Diversity provided by blocks of varying maturities is healthy for most wildlife. This method provides edge areas many wildlife species love.
Not all situations lend themselves to clearcutting. Uneven aged stands provide a diverse environment where numerous wildlife species thrive. This is especially true for many non-game species.
Utilization of all harvest methods is the best answer. People driven totally by their emotions don’t realize we’ll lose biodiversity if we don’t open some areas up to sunlight. Some folks object to clear-cutting because it makes the landscape look ugly. They would prefer clean-cutting, since all residue is shredded and applied to the area once harvesting is complete. This is not always the best technique to slow down erosion or provide cover for wildlife. Either way, opening up an area is necessary to provide a place for shade-intolerant trees to grow.
Squandering resources by losing species is not acceptable. Trees are one of our greatest resources. A healthy forest is the best situation for limiting soil erosion. Learning about the requirements of all our trees will help us manage them.
There’s a ton of misinformation on the internet describing clearcutting as an outdated practice. It’s not true. The practice might be overused out of expediency sometimes, but it’s a sound silvicultural technique.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).