Written By Jess Alba.

Posted on October 4th, 2021.

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If a tree falls down in a forest, does it ever grow back?

One thing I’ve learned while talking to landowners, students, and the general public about forestry is that timber harvesting has a bit of a bad reputation. Folks I speak to are often intimidated or even repulsed at the idea of cutting down their trees, even if doing so could help them accomplish their forest management goals. Environmental campaigns have done a good job of spreading awareness about the ecological damage done by unchecked logging, and now the practice as a whole leaves a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths. And there is no taste quite as sour- or as misunderstood- as that of the dreaded clear cut.

Clear cutting is the removal of every tree from an area, and at face value that doesn’t sound very good, especially to those who are not familiar with the details of sustainable forest management. Since clear cutting can be used to cause deforestation, the two terms are now sometimes used synonymously with one another even though they are not the same thing.

Take a look at their definitions:

  • Clear cutting- The cutting and removal of every tree from an area.
  • Deforestation- The removal of a forest from land that is then converted to non-forest use.

The big difference here is that deforestation changes land use. Deforestation can occur when land is converted to a wide range of other uses, like mining, farming, or housing. Regardless of what the new use is, the intention is that the forest will not grow back once it has been cut down.

Clear cuts, on the other hand, do not have to coincide with land conversion. They are not inherently negative and can even be used to avoid deforestation as part of a sustainable timber harvest. It is entirely possible to clear cut a stand of trees and then allow the forest to regenerate for the benefit of both future timber and wildlife. Some of these benefits include:

  • Diversifying the stages of forest succession in that area, thus increasing the types of available habitat, which in turn supports a broader assortment of plants and animals.
  • Using the clear cut zone as a blank slate where landowners and foresters can encourage more desirable trees to grow.
  • Selling the harvested timber, which helps the local economy and provides income for the landowner. Landowners that make money from their land are more likely to keep it, which means their property is less likely to be sold and deforested.
  • Using the timber to make wood products that are renewable and more sustainable than the same items made from other materials like plastic, steel, or concrete.

Here’s a more visual way of looking at it. Both of the following pictures are potential end results of a clear cut. The first one is several years after the cut took place and a new array of plants was allowed to take root. The second one was cut, deforested, and converted into a housing development.

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At one point in time both of these spaces probably looked pretty similar. Maybe something like this panoramic picture of a clear cut at the Siuslaw Model Forest.

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Clear cuts usually take place when purposeful deforestation happens, but the goal of clear cutting is not always to cause deforestation; it’s simply one of many tools in a land manager’s tool belt. If a clear cut is done with the intention of letting the forest regrow, then all benefits listed above can be experienced again and again for generations to come. This is a positive cycle of income for the landowner, new habitat creation for wildlife, and job security for the local loggers and millers. This cycle of benefits is broken when clear cutting is used to cause deforestation.

Even though it might look scary at first, when a clear cut is done right it can actually be good for your forest in the long run. If you’re wondering if a timber harvest is right for your woods, talk to a forester about the goals you have for your property.


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