Many conservation and citizen groups object to these clean cuts on any forest, citing soil and water degradation, unsightly landscapes, and limited biodiversity in the resulting ecosystem. The wood products industry and mainstream forestry professionals defend clearcutting as an efficient and successful silvicultural system but only when appropriately used.
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. A clear cut has also proven successful for regenerating stands of certain tree species and desirable for many wildlife species.
Why Foresters Promote The Clear Cut
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." It is not appropriate for every harvest but should be used under certain circumstances.
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, clearcut but usually are limited in most management plans to specific cutting units that seldom exceed several hundred acres.
Remember that removing trees and forests to convert land to non-forest urban development and rural agriculture should not be considered clearcutting. This is a deforestation practice of land conversion or converting the use of land from forest to another type of use.
The Clear-cutting Controversy
Opponents of the practice of cutting every tree within a specific area contend it degrades the environment and limits biodiversity. Forestry professionals and natural resource managers argue that the practice is sound and based on the latest findings that suggest a net positive result on both the forest site and the ecosystem in just a relatively few years.
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.
This is in contrast to a "commercial" clearcut where only trees of marketable species, size and quality are cut. This act of timber "highgrading" is usually done in the absence of a forest management plan where an aggressive logger and willing timber seller consider money as the only harvest outcome.
Clearcutting opponents say that there is an ever-growing public opposition to clearcutting and that the aesthetic look of the harvest is the main source of public objection. An often disinterested public and casual viewers of forestry activities have decided that clearcutting is not an acceptable social practice simply by looking at the practice from their car windows. Negative terms like "deforestation", "plantation forestry", "environmental degradation" and "excess and exploitation" are associated with "clearcutting".
Proponents of clearcutting suggest that it is a sound practice if the right conditions are met. Here are seven conditions:
- 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".
Opponents of clearcutting suggest that it is a destructive practice and should never be used. Here are their reasons, although not every one 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.
- 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".
- The clear cut leads to an ecosystem "killing frost" which leads to the permanent degradation of the entire biosystem.