The Clearcutting Controversy
-- Myths and Facts

This article, one of six in a series, was written by consultants working in the forest industry. We are grateful to them for sharing their expertise...WVU-ES Editors

Kevin Belt, R.F., Consulting Forester
Appalachian Forestry, Johnson City, Tenn., and
Robert Campbell, R.F., Consulting Forester
Appalachian Forestry, Hinton/Beckley, W.Va.

In a previous article of this series, I included clearcutting as one of several viable silvicultural methods. It is a method recommended when the landowner's objective is to grow "sun-loving" tree species as the future timber crop. Unquestionably, clearcutting is a viable management alternative. It is also a very controversial subject. As I step into this controversy, I want to provide some facts about clearcutting, address some misconceptions, and discuss the ongoing controversy.

It is perhaps both a mistake and a tragedy that foresters have chosen to call clearcutting exactly that. Although an accurate name for the practice, it was also the name of another practice from the turn of the century. The old form of clearcutting from the 1800s and very early 1900s was an economic practice--cutting all that was usable to a sawmill. Since most timber at that time was large, old-growth timber, nearly all timber was usable--therefore all timber was cut. This total exploitation on the scale of many thousands of acres, in addition to the use of creeks as skid trails, roads, and flumes, left the region's forest resources in an apparent state of ruin. The profession of forestry sprouted in reaction to the practice, and foresters sought to ease the impact of logging by creating "selection management." This new management harvested fewer stems at relatively frequent intervals, while leaving some forest cover on each harvest area.

As nature recovered and the clearcut forests sprung forth and grew back, both the foresters and the public were satisfied with selection management. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, foresters realized from long-term observation of selection management that tree species composition was becoming less desirable, that timber quality was decreasing, and that genetic qualities were deteriorating. All too often selection management had become "high-grading" (taking the best and leaving the rest), and reproduction in harvested stands became successively poorer.

Reluctantly, foresters realized that "even-aged management" must enter as one of the possible cures to such ailments. Even-aged management meant starting these stands over to renew their growth potential with full sunlight, hence obtaining better quality products and a better species composition. The name for this corrective method became "clearcutting," perhaps an unfortunate choice of term considering the previous history of exploitative clearcutting.

Modern, even-aged management is done to improve regeneration--actually planning for the future crop. Many people find this ironic since a common misconception is that clearcutting is the opposite of sustainable, healthy forestry. Let us consider some facts and misconceptions about modern clearcutting.

MYTH: Clearcutting is the same as deforestation.

Deforestation is the removal of a forest with no intention of establishing a future stand of trees. In the 1700s and 1800s, eastern America was being deforested though, at the time, "deforestation" was not even a word. Furthermore, who today can complain about a rolling pasture in the Greenbrier Valley or the productive cropland of an Ohio or Indiana farm? Deforestation is occurring today in Brazil and other tropical areas in the form of agricultural conversion.

Silvicultural clearcutting is both a harvest and a regeneration of the forest, and is done to improve future stand quality, growth, genetics, and species composition.

MYTH: Clearcuts are the end and death of a forest.

In West Virginia, after any clearcut the forest immediately springs back with ample regeneration. In a clearcut stand of hardwoods, that regeneration is of excellent quality and species composition. The natural regeneration from clearcuts in West Virginia eventually ends up as some of the nation's finest quality hardwood timber. In both the Deep South and the Great Lakes region, pines are normally planted after clearcutting because those areas are particularly well suited to growing high-quality, fast-growing pines (unlike Appalachian hardwoods, pines do not dependably spring back from advance regeneration, root stock, and seed stock). Clearcuts can actually be a part of sustainable forest management.

MYTH: Clearcuts cause immensely more erosion than partial cuts.

Actually, erosion has almost nothing to do with how much wood is removed, but has almost everything to do with how it is removed. Erosion from logging comes through road building efforts. If a logger is good at staying away from streamsides, good at building roads with as little slope as possible, good at placing water-bars on those roads, and good at using culverts at stream crossings, then that harvesting operation causes very little sediment movement and precious little sedimentation of streams, regardless of cutting method. If a logger builds roads in or near streams, builds other roads straight up slopes, and practices nothing in the way of Best Management Practices, then we can expect a great deal of mud, regardless of cutting method. Common sense and ample research have shown that cutting trees causes no erosion whatsoever-- removing the logs by way of roads is the source of sediment from logging. Non-road areas of clearcuts are comprised of the root mass and humus of a forest soil. This root mass is the world's best sponge for rainfall and runoff, regardless of the presence of stems. The forest industry must control erosion by controlling the quality of its road building and road lay-by efforts. (Best Management Practices--Soil & Water Conservation)

MYTH: Clearcuts are biological deserts with no potential for wildlife habitat.

A clearcut in Appalachian hardwoods is anything but a biological desert. Because a clearcut receives full sunlight, it actually provides a site for a huge number of sun-loving species to grow and thrive. As a clearcut grows, shrub and herb species more adapted to a shaded forest floor will slowly replace the sun-lovers. As common sense might indicate, a patchwork of uncut stands, clearcuts, and partial cuts provides the most biologically diverse situation.

As any ambitious deer hunter will tell you, a clearcut is an excellent place for wildlife to thrive. However, in all truth, the sum total of wildlife is neither decreased nor enormously increased by a clearcut. To be more accurate, clearcuts rearrange habitat and wildlife population according to its age. A new clearcut is not a particularly good place for a squirrel, a possum, an adult turkey, or a raccoon. A new clearcut is an excellent place for bear, deer, grouse, young turkey, or quail. As a clearcut ages and grows, it provides different structure and different browse and mast species suitable for different animals' habitat and food needs.

Fisheries need not even be affected by clearcutting so long as the proper buffer zones and soil and water conservation practices are implemented. (Best Management Practices--Soil & Water Conservation) Westvaco land is an excellent example of combined and coexisting uses: heavy forest industry, a patchwork of clearcutting, excellent BMP usage, fine hunting, and a rewarding place to fish for trout.

FACT: Clearcutting is ugly.

Sorry, but there is no way around this. Who, in their right mind, would rather stand in the middle of a recent clearcut as opposed to the middle of a large oak/maple/poplar stand? I cannot argue that a well-managed selection system has less visual impact than a recent clearcut. However, personally I would rather see a true silvicultural clearcut that an unmanaged hard sawtimber cut in which only crooked, low-quality stems have been left. A silvicultural clearcut is considerably more uniform than a ragged-looking, commercial clearcut with a few sorry, scraggly trees.

The ugliness of a clearcut soon passes--often sooner than expected. In three to four years, natural regeneration has filled in, the area has lost its brown, disturbed appearance, and the hillside is again green in the summer and ablaze with colored leaves in the autumn. In six to ten years, the young trees are free to grow above all the brambles and weed trees. In 10 to 14 years, the young stand of 25- to 35-foot tall trees is once again a pleasant place to walk through. Finally in 35 to 40 years, the growing trees begin to look like a valuable timber crop.

I would certainly challenge anyone to say that scenic values have suffered in areas where pulpwood companies have long done business. Greenbrier, Pocahontas, and Nicholas counties in West Virginia are very beautiful, as are Allegheny and Bath counties in Virginia, though the area has been home to a huge paper mill and its subsidiary log yards and operations for decades. Likewise, upper East Tennessee and southwest Virginia are no less beautiful for their 90-year pulpwood history. It is worth noting that these two areas have some of the healthiest forests and some of the finer quality timber in the southern Appalachians.

FACT: Clearcutting is not a cure-all, nor is it appropriate everywhere.

Clearcutting is only one of many silvicultural cutting methods available to foresters. In many cases, especially where forest fire history is bad, clearcutting is absolutely the best method and sometimes the only viable method. In many other cases, there are viable alternatives. (Silvics & Silviculture--The Agriculture of Trees) In some cases, clearcuts should not be considered at all. The high-elevation spruce forests of West Virginia are an example of an improper combination of clearcutting, fire, and erosion.

Likewise, even if stand structure and timber quality cry out for a clearcut, location, aesthetics, and management for wildlife or other forest amenities may dictate a partial cut. As a consulting forester, I must weigh these factors all the time.

FACT: Clearcutting is a viable forest management tool which has everything to do with good land stewardship and forest sustainability.

There is no conflict between proper use of clearcutting, and land stewardship and sustainable forestry. Rather, clearcutting can be used to improve forest health, forest productivity, and forest quality. Since clearcutting causes a timber stand to compete from ground level, the future stand will consist of the fastest-growing trees, the healthiest trees, the straightest and tallest trees, and the best quality trees. So long as a clearcut is done in conjunction with proper forestry practices and soil and water conservation practices, then that clearcut has been done with stewardship and sustainability in mind.

FACT: A clearcut can be engineered to suit a combination of needs.

A forester can be employed by any landowner to meet a variety of land management objectives. Make sure your objectives are made known. If a clearcut is recommended on your land, it may be carried out in combination with streamside buffer zones, visual buffers near roads and homes, wildlife runways, wildlife seeding mixtures, etc. A properly done clearcut will have "fingers" of partial cuts jutting into it where streamsides and other buffer zones are drawn. A clearcut need not be exclusive of other forest amenities and resources.

In other words, seek assistance from a forester to ensure that your forest can provide the greatest number of benefits.