Clearcutting Consequences

Clearcutting Consequences

This clear cut  in a Vermont State Forest was performed as part of an effort to regenerate a new forest stand, specifically; spruce, yellow birch, paper birch, aspen and balsam poplar. Native wildlife such as moose, snowshoe hare and ruffed grouse will benefit greatly as trees grow back.

This clear-cut in a Vermont State Forest was performed as part of an effort to regenerate a new forest stand, specifically; spruce, yellow birch, paper birch, aspen and balsam poplar. Native wildlife such as moose, snowshoe hare and ruffed grouse will benefit greatly as trees grow back.

The majority of mainstream ecologists feel that some form of disturbance, whether it be natural; fire, beavers or storms or man-made, such as logging, is necessary for health and proper functioning of an ecosystem. Some forest management practices which may seem radical are employed in regions of the country to achieve desired forest health goals. Clearcutting, for example, is employed in northern hardwood forests in New England due to its efficacy at stimulating regeneration. However, the visual result from clearcutting is undesirable, in which case some forest managers will utilize patch cuts (which are smaller areas of clear cutting) or create low-density shelterwoods.

Shelterwood management methods leave mature trees on site to provide shelter and a seed source to encourage natural regeneration, this is done in three steps: 1) gaining control of competitive understory species, 2) select specimens for shelterwood and 3) the final harvest cut. Understory can be mechanically removed or, if safe and permitted by regulatory agencies, a prescribed burn can be employed effectively. The selection of shelterwood to remain should ideally be done approximately five years prior to the scheduled final harvest. Selection should include healthy, pest and disease free, mature trees which will produce the highest quality seed to ensure the health and vigor of following generations.

Patch-cutting is the clearing of smaller areas of forest stands, for example cutting only 3 acres as compared to 20+ acres for a traditional clear-cut. The benefits of patch cuts include aesthetic and habitat continuity. But it is unclear if these alternative forest management methods have the same outcomes as far as tree regeneration and breeding bird habitat.

A series of patch cuts provides texture for mature forests. In this aerial photo they appear similar to meadows created by beaver action.

A series of patch cuts provides texture for mature forests. In this aerial photo they appear similar to meadows created by beaver action.

A recent study performed by the USDA entitled “Effects of Clearcutting, Patch Cutting, and Low-density Shelterwoods on Breeding Birds and Tree Regeneration in New Hampshire Northern Hardwoods” monitored regrowth on plots in New Hampshire each of which employed a different method. Within the study was a 15 acre clear-cut site, 4 areas of patch cuts ranging in size from 2.9 to 5 acres, and a 34 acre low density shelterwood site. Results showed that the patch cuts regenerated early successional species similar to larger clearcuts, but the species composition was different with plots 3 acres and smaller; more beech and less pin cherry. Shelterwood plots produced higher numbers of beech and striped maple. In all 3 treatment areas early, mid-late successional and generalist birds were found, however, higher proportions and more frequent observations of early successional birds were reported in clear and patch cut study site. To view and download the full text of this study, visit http:http://www.fs.fed.us/nrs/pubs/rp/rp_nrs26.pdf.

Obviously, these methods are only beneficial when employed responsibly by seasoned forest, land and natural resource managers. Prior to making a decision to use a logging method of forest management years of data collection, environmental inventorying and monitoring has been performed and analyzed. Forest stands have to be healthy enough to bear the stress yet in need of a shock to stimulate regeneration. Irresponsible clearcutting can have devastating consequences on the ecosystem, environment and community; removing massive swaths of trees without replanting, providing groundcover or implementing erosion control measures or lacking a stormwater management plan can result in mudslides, landslides, contaminated drinking water, stormwater backups and quality impingements and horrible, uncontrollable erosion. If theses worst case scenarios do not occur, the best possible scenario is the stripping of nutrient content and loss of carbon sink area and water and air quality mitigation. So, as with many things, these are methods that can be implemented with beneficial results and should be considered for management of areas that can tolerate them, but need to be carefully and responsibly used.