Set against a backdrop of worsening fire seasons which scientists posit are fueled by the human-caused climate crisis, the clearcutting vs. selective logging debate rages on.
There are conflicting views on how best to minimize the risk of catastrophic wildfires, and with each devastating conflagration that levels small communities or leaves thousands of acres of wilderness scorched, the debate draws a sharper focus.
The preferred solution to wildfire risk breaks down largely along political lines, with environmentalists in favor of less intrusive forestry management, and logging industry supporters preferring more aggressive means for timber harvesting.
Clearcutting is regarded as the most intrusive means of logging because, as the name implies, it leaves the section of forest being logged almost completely clear of vegetation. It is a strategy that maximizes profit over providing the forest with the ability to replenish itself in a more timely manner, although trees are typically replanted within two years of harvesting.
Selective logging differs from clearcutting in that young trees are not targeted, so that they can mature over the coming years and be ready for logging when they grow to their full size.
According to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, “The practice of clearcutting has changed dramatically in recent years in response to public concerns, scientific findings and advanced harvest practices.
“In western Oregon, clearcutting can be the most appropriate harvest method for certain tree species. For example, clearcutting is often used in Douglas-fir forests because new seedlings need direct sunlight to grow quickly. In eastern Oregon, most common tree species are more shade tolerant, so landowners are freer to use selective harvest methods such as thinning to allow trees to naturally regenerate.”
The OFRI provides a list of pros and cons concerning the clearcutting method.
Cons include the ugly appearance of forest sections that have been clearcut, displacement of wildlife and increased stream flows that can accelerate riparian erosion.
On the other hand, pros include the creation of open forest spaces that allow ample sunlight for tree seedlings and pasture habitats for creatures like deer and birds, maximized profit for timber companies and minimal disturbance to forest soil since clearcutting entails a single visit to harvest the trees while other methods require multiple visits.
In an article entitled “Controversy Over Clearcutting Timeline” authored by Gerald Williams, Ph.D. for the Forest History Society, Williams writes of a “new forestry” ideology that originated in the late 17th Century. It was fostered by Gifford Pinchot, who would go on to become the first U.S.-born chief of the USDA Forest Service and who Williams described as the founder of “scientific forestry” in the United States.
Williams claimed this new forestry constituted the first time an alternative to clearcutting was discussed, and asked the logging industry to “respect all small trees of valuable species, no matter how much they stood in the way of chopper,” as Pinchot wrote in his autobiography.
Even though public opposition to clearcuts has mounted in recent decades due to the ugliness of clearcut areas and habitat destruction, clearcutting remains the most popular method west of the Cascades due to the high number of Douglas-firs in the region, whose seedlings need direct sunlight afforded by clearcuts to grow.
According to Williams, research conducted in the 1950s yielded the conclusion that clearcuts were best to promote Douglas-fir growth. West of the Cascades, 80% of trees are Douglas-firs, according to the OFRI.
Despite these findings, ecological coalitions including the Valley’s own Sasquatch Woods People remain sternly opposed to clearcutting.
Sasquatch Woods People has petitioned the Josephine County Commissioners to ban clearcutting, submitting a draft ordinance that states the process is responsible for “degrading wildlife habitat,” “increasing wildfire danger,” “hazardous herbicides… with negative effects on residents and fish,” and “climate change.”
The organization particularly takes issue with the forestry practices of the John Hancock Life Insurance Company.
“Our reservoirs of clean air and clean water are held in trust by the living and breathing mountains that surround our valley, but John Hancock thinks our bare hillsides are just fine as long as the result is dollars for distant shareholders,” the organization states on its website. “Sasquatch Woods People would like to point out that it isn’t fine, and actually, it’s really just utterly unacceptable and needs to stop right now.
“John Hancock currently owns about 24,000 acres of land in Josephine County. Two other timber investment corporations own another 18,000 acres, for a total of 42,000 acres now being controlled with the main goal of bring(ing) quick profit to distant investors… John Hancock would like us all to know that their US-based timber harvesting is 100% sustainable – you can read about it in their green-washed carbon report – a striking contrast to the clear images of the bald hillsides that formerly sustained us but certainly don’t anymore.”
With both benefits and drawbacks to all methods of forestry, the issue will remain divisive for the foreseeable future. However, Oregonians concerned with the ecological implications of clearcuts can take solace in knowing the state of Oregon has rules governing its implementation, which the OFRI lays out as follows:
“Following harvest, Oregon law requires that trees be left as buffers along streams to protect water and fish habitat. And in the clearcut area, two trees or snags and two down logs per acre must be retained for wildlife habitat. After harvest, seedlings must be planted within two planting seasons, which typically run January through April. Oregon rules limit clearcuts to 120 acres, and adjacent areas in the same ownership cannot be clear cut until new trees on the original harvest site are well-established. This ‘green-up rule’ requires that planted seedlings must be four feet tall or four years-old and “free to grow” before harvest can occur on an adjacent stand, meaning Oregon has an additional standard beyond survival for establishing a new forest.”