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Can Clear-Cutting Really Help Forests Thrive?

Updated: May 29, 2022

Clear-cutting is controversial. Seeing whole sections of forest cleared can be unsettling, but science says it has environmental benefits.

While living in Maine for more than two decades, I’ve grown accustomed to the distant sounds of chainsaws and logging equipment. This makes sense, given that 89 percent of the state is forestland. To put it mildly, Maine has a LOT of trees.

In the winter of 2018, my household woke to the sounds of logging equipment. It was close. A neighbor was logging his land. Within days, I saw movement in the thick patchwork of woods that abutted our property. It was a feller buncher, a devastatingly beautiful piece of equipment that felled trees and set them in a pile (called bunching). It was economical. And it was loud!

After a couple of weeks, the operation was completed, the logging equipment hauled off, and the felled trees trucked to a lumber mill. Thankfully, my neighbor had opted for a select cut instead of a more traditional clear-cut.

What is clear-cutting?

Clear-cutting is when all or most of the trees in an area are harvested. Timber companies prefer this method because it’s easier to remove whole swaths of trees than doing select cuts. Ecologically, it removes old and diseased trees, thereby decreasing the spread of pathogens. This also thins the overarching canopy, allowing sunlight to reach the understory.

It was a feller buncher, a devastatingly beautiful piece of equipment that felled trees and set them in a pile. It was economical. And it was loud!

Despite cries from environmentalists and the public’s shock at seeing patches of denuded forest, scientists contend that clear-cutting regenerates forests if done sustainably.

How so, you ask?

It’s argued that clear-cutting mimics fires, diseases, insects, and floods by removing stands of trees. Once thinned and the soil turned by the logging equipment, the forest is prepared for a new generation of trees.

Types of clear-cutting

There are several timber harvest practices, but they can be grouped into three systems:

  • Clear-cut: This method encourages tree seedlings that need abundant sunlight, like aspen, birch, fir, larch, pine, oak, and poplar. Once cleared, the section may regenerate naturally or artificially. This is done by seeding or planting nursery-grown seedlings.

  • Shelterwood: A section of forest is harvested in rotations over a period of about 10 years. The first rotation removes the most desirable trees. A second thins the area further while intentionally leaving stands of trees for seeding. A third rotation fells the seed trees once seedlings are well established. Oak, pine, and sugar maple benefit from this practice.

  • Selection: Sections of a forest are cleared in strips or patches. The opened canopy allows light to reach seedlings. This method works well with beech, cedar, fir, hornbeam, hemlock, maple, and spruce.

Seeing the forest for the trees

Watching the next-door property being logged was difficult. However, seeing it regenerate season after season has been educational. Wildflowers, berry brambles, and honeysuckle filled in most of the exposed ground for the first three summers. By the fourth year, seedlings confidently stretched past the undergrowth. If left undisturbed, the property will fully recover within 30 years.

I’m not a scientist, so I can’t comment about the ecological impacts, but the property is rebounding from what I’ve seen so far.

Further reading

Clear-Cutting Pros & Cons and Its Effects on Forests.” Earth Observing System, September 24, 2021.

Cook, William. “Clearcutting … Is It Necessary?” Michigan Forests Forever Teacher's Guide Website. Michigan State University Extension, 2001 (revised 2010 and 2019).

———. “Timber Harvest Methods.” Michigan State University Extension, September 4, 2014.

U.S. Forest Service. “What Is a Silvicultural System?” U.S. Department of Agriculture, December 2016.

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