Science in Christian Perspective



Is Clearcutting a Responsible Forestry Practice?

Division of Forestry West Virginia University
Morgantown, West Virginia 26505

From: JASA 32 (Dec1980): 204-206

The history of clearcutting is reviewed, and ecological and economical justifications for its use are given. Objections to this practice and the dilemma for professional foresters are discussed.

The clearcutting of timber, especially on national forests, has provoked much debate in popular and professional journals, in public forums, and in legislative deliberations. Just what is this practice? A technical definition (FordRobertson 1971) is:

A silviculture system in which the old crop is cleared over a considerable area at one time; regeneration generally artificial, but natural regeneration sometimes possible by seeding from the air - from adjacent stands - or from seed and/or advance growth already on the ground.

It should be noted that clearcutting, as defined, includes concern and planning for regeneration. The removal of timber we often see on private lands, especially small woodlots, consists of the harvesting of all merchantable trees with no concern for regenerating the forest. This is not forestry nor is the practice, when almost all trees are logged, clearcutting.

It may be helpful to review the history of clearcutting.

History of Clearcutting

The history of clearcutting in the United States, as in Europe, has followed a somewhat predictable pattern. Early inhabitants who existed mainly by hunting and fishing considered the forest as their larder and generally lived in harmony with it. This sometimes led to worshipping the forest or the gods thought to dwell in it. With the development of an agricultural society, the clearing of forest land became a noble endeavor. Trees were cut and burned, converting forests to fields, or forests were cut for use without thought for the future. Once the social structure developed to the point where philosophers were tolerated, voices arose warning of the need for preserving the forests and legal steps were taken to accomplish this. That stage was reached in the twelfth century in Germany (Glacken 1967), for example, and in the United States in the late 1800's.

As a reaction to the destruction of the forest when exploited without regard to its regeneration, it is often assumed that selecting only a few individual mature trees from the forest for cutting from time to time will best preserve the resource. The selection method, then, develops a forest with trees of many ages on an area, and this process is termed "unevenaged management." That system was formalized in Germany in about 1760 (Troup 1928). The record-keeping and growth and age data necessary to use the selection method successfully are costly and complicated to maintain. Also, the small openings in the forest made by removing individual trees or small groups of trees favor those species that can grow in shade and discriminate against trees intolerant of shade, which are often the fastestgrowing trees in the forest. Harvesting costs are high as large areas must be covered to obtain an operable volume. As a consequence of these and other complications, the only good examples of intensive management under the single-tree selection method are found in the mixed forest of fir, spruce, and beech in some of the high terrain of Central and West Europe (Smith 1962). All those species are tolerant of shade. It is interesting to note that today only 4% of Germany's forests are managed under the selection method. In Switzerland, the citadel of the selection method, only 15% of the forests are managed this way (Roach 1972). 

Many foresters in the United States advocated the development and maintenance of unevenaged stands by the selection method from the beginning of forestry in this country in the early 1900's through the 1940's (Smith 1962). Clearcutting was not generally favored. For example, E. G. Cheyney wrote in his 1942 American silviculture text:

Although there are a few conditions under which clear-cutting is the only reasonable system to use, in general its disadvantages far outweigh its advantages. It is seldom used in Europe except in connection with artificial reproduction, and it will probably not be used any more extensively in this country when we have reached the stage of intensive management, except for handling certain species that are not grown in Europe, such as the serotinous-coned species and some light-seeded species like the cottonwood.

The lag in American silvicultural thinking is emphasized when the preceding statement is compared to one made by Troup in his 1928 British silviculture text: 

And, in general, the predicted world shortage of timber, particularly of soft woods, is a factor which is likely to raise the importance of this (clearcutting) system to a level never attained before, since measures necessary to meet this shortage must include the formation of extensive plantations of conifers on areas where they have not existed previously or where they have been depleted by wasteful methods of working. Everything therefore points to the increasing importance of the clear-cutting system in spite of any disadvantages it may possess.

As the problems inherent with the selection method became more and more apparent in America, emphasis shifted toward evenaged management. Clearcutting of all trees, drastic site preparation by burning or machinery, and artificial regeneration by planting or direct seeding was in the vogue by the late 1960's (Smith 1972). Clearcutting, long used in the southern pine and Douglas-fir regions, spread into other forest regions, including the Appalachian hardwoods. By 1970 half the total volume of wood removed from national forests came from clearcutting; (Congressional Record 1972). Alarm was voiced by citizens disturbed by the ugliness which accompanies clearcutting, and various arguments were brought forth against this practice. A November 1973 judgment by a District Court in West Virginia ruled against clearcutting on the Monongahela National Forest on the grounds that it violates the Organic Act of 1897 which provided the Forest Service legislative authority for selling timber. Senator Hubert Humphrey and others submitted a bill in the 93rd Congress to repeal the Organic Act. The National Forest Management Act of 1976 which resulted allows clearcutting where it is determined to be the optimum method.

Economic Justifications for Clearcutting

Clearcutting, by concentrating logging operations and

Foresters are often faced with recommending clearcutting and suf fering the wrath of a misinformed public.

maximizing the volume of timber removed from a given forest area, is often the most economical harvesting system. The seed-tree method, which usually involves leaving 2 to 10 trees per acre to provide seed for regeneration, may be almost as attractive economically, but that method has failed many times to reproduce the forest. The shelterwood method, which leaves perhaps half the trees in the original stand to protect the site and provide seed, the shelterwood trees to be harvested later, or the selection method is obviously not as economically attractive.

It should be pointed out that the use of less economical systems is reflected in increased cost of the product, hardly startling news to any who have paid a recent electric bill.

Ecological Justification

Clearcutting is not unnatural. On the contrary, clearcutting simulates nature's fires and storms which create the conditions required for the regeneration of the species covering about half of the commercial forest land in the United States. Fire and storms are as much a part of the natural ecology of our forests as are droughts, diseases, and insect infestations. The vast forests of southern pine, Douglas-fir, and ponderosa pine or even redwood which greeted our first settlers had fire and storm midwives.

Major disturbances are the rule rather than the exception in nature. For example, pines are found in most sections of the country which depend on fires to melt the resins which seal their cone scales, allowing scales to separate and seed to fall. Examples are sand pine and jack pine in the East, lodgepole pine and Bishop pine in the West. Without fires or logging which causes limbs and cones to reach the warmer air-layers near the ground, it is conceivable that some of these species would become extinct.

Clearcutting produces evenaged stands as does nature. For example, aspen, jack pine, cottonwood, willow, and Virginia pine require bare mineral soil for establishment. Even the white pine, redgum, basswood, and yellow-poplar of the eastern hardwood types are generally the result of local or widespread disturbance.

Many of our fastest-growing trees, such as yellowpoplar, black cherry, and most pines, need nearly full sunlight to survive and grow. These are shade-intolerant species. The small openings made in the forest by the singletree selection method do not provide sufficient light for survival and satisfactory growth of such species. As a result, when this selection method is used in a forest comprised of both shade-intolerant and shade-tolerant species, such as sugar maple and beech, the faster growing shade-intolerant species tend to disappear from the forest. The amount of wood which can be produced in the forest is thereby reduced.

Some Specific Objections to Clearcutting

It is often implied that clearcutting deteriorates the site by reducing the nutrient capital. Obviously, logging of any type removes some nutrients from the site, However, wood has a low nutrient content compared to the nutrient-rich leaves, buds, and branches left behind. Even if the entire tree from the stump up is utilized, as is being done with whole-tree chippers, a study in Wisconsin indicated that soil reserves, natural inputs and recycling of elements can supply N, P, and K for an apparently unlimited number of tree crops. Depletion of Ca reserves on that site may begin to limit tree growth after harvest of nine similar 30-year crops, and that could be overcome by additions of lime (Boyle et al. 1973).

Clearcutting is sometimes blamed for severe erosion or even floods. The cutting of trees, per se, causes no erosion in normal forests. Interception and transpiration losses are reduced, however, resulting in more infiltration of water into the ground and increased stream flow for a few years. Most erosion related to timber harvesting comes from poorly designed logging roads (Patric 1976), and roads are necessary with any system (single-tree selection, clearcutting, etc.) unless such exotic techniques as helicopter or balloon logging are used. The influence of clearcutting on floods in major streams is generally insignificant as only a very small fraction of a large watershed is involved.

Damage to wildlife habitat is often cited as an adverse consequence of clearcutting. For some species, such as the black bear, this contention is undoubtedly valid. For other species, deer, for example, clearcutting is very beneficial as it increases available browse.

When questioning the opponents of clearcutting, it becomes apparent that the major objections to this system are related to the unsightly debris, defective logs, tops, and limbs which are left after the harvest. Obviously, a fresh clearcut area is not beautiful, especially when compared to a mature forest. Within a few years after logging, this aesthetic problem is diminished by the natural decay of the residue and rapid growth of regeneration. It is interesting to note that when areas are clearcut and whole-tree chippers are used so the debris is minimal, there is less public objection to clearcutting.

The Stewardship Dilemma

Professional foresters, recognizing the advantages and utility of the clearcutting method in many situations, find their conclusions are suspect by laymen, who are greatly influenced by ecologically and economically unsound information. Foresters are often faced with recommending clearcutting and suffering the wrath of a misinformed public or using a less appropriate silvicultural system. To this time, that's a dilemma with no ready solution.


Boyle, J. R., J. J. Phillips, and A. R. Ek. 1973. " 'Whole tree' Harvesting: Nutrient Budget Evaluation," J. Forest. 71: 760-762.

Cheyney, E. G. 1942. American Silvics and Silviculture. The Univ. of Minn. Press, Minneapolis. p. 167.
Congressional Record. 1972. Vol. 118, No. 30, S2986.

Ford-Robertson, F. C. (editor). 1971. Terminology of Forest Science, Technology Practice and Products. Soc. Amer. Foresters, Wash. D.C.

Glacken, C. J. 1%7. Traces on the Rhodian Shore. Univ. of Calif. Press, Berkeley. p. 338.

Patric, J. H. 1976. "Soil Erosion in the Eastern Forest." J. Forest. 74: 671-677.

Roach, B. A. 1972. "Clearcutting in Hardwoods," Virginia Forests 27(4): 7-12.

Smith, D. M. 1962. The Practice ofSilviculture. 7th ed., John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York. p. 486.

Smith, D. M. 1972. "The Continuing Evolution of Silvicultural Practice," J. Forest. 70: 89-92.

Troup, R. S. 1928. Silvicultural Systems. Clarendon Press, Oxford. pp. 27, 109.

Wiant, Jr., H. V. 1971. "In Defense of Clearcutting," The Consultant 16(3): 64-65.

Wiant, Jr., H. V~ 1977. "The Case for Clearcutting," W. Va. Univ. Magazine 9(l): 13-14.