By Rex Storm, Certified Forester
The use of clearcutting today in Oregon forests is a science-proven tool for meeting
diverse management objectives, including desired conditions for the healthy native
tree regeneration to establish a young forest. Many of the mature forests seen today
across Oregon are the result of successful past clearcutting and reforestation—which
demonstrates its effectiveness at regenerating native trees (such as Douglas-fir
and ponderosa pine). In recent years, clearcutting has comprised about 25% of the
acres annually harvested on all forest ownerships in Oregon, with the remainder
being a thinning harvest or another type of regeneration harvest that appears as
a “partial cut.”
Professional foresters and other forest specialists draw from nearly 100-years of
local experience and improved science when prescribing clearcutting as a tool to
harvest mature trees and establish a new young forest in Oregon. Forest professionals
apply clearcutting with prudent consideration of environmental, economic, and social
concerns. Oregon’s Forest Practices Act & Rules (OFPA) include many measures that
regulate the use of clearcutting on private and non-federal lands—while assuring
two key operational results: 1) successful reforestation; and 2) natural resources
Clearcutting and Science. Professional foresters define “clearcutting”
as the harvest of nearly all standing mature trees within a specific area for the
purpose of then regenerating a new young even-aged forest. Although on the surface
this may appear to be a harsh practice (a recent clearcut admittedly is a stark
contrast to the prior tall forest), both science and professional experience has
proven that clearcutting successfully emulates natural disturbance and regrowth
processes that occurred in Oregon forests prior to settlement in the 1800s. Furthermore,
scientists have confirmed that the resulting forests, grown after clearcutting,
actually can have desired biological characteristics to similar natural forests.
Less well known is the fact that forestry professionals carefully prescribe clearcutting
as an effective tool for harvesting and regenerating native Oregon tree species
having a “shade-intolerant” (i.e., sun-loving) ecology. Many of Oregon’s forest
trees cannot successfully establish and grow well under the shaded canopy of larger
trees; these tree species demand open areas having full sunlight created by disturbances—such
as clearcutting. Additionally, clearcutting can be the preferred option to harvest
and regenerate entire areas where nearly all the overstory trees are very unhealthy,
dying, or dead—when such trees are so unhealthy that any other partial-cut harvesting
of the area could not be successfully reforested. In these two situations, silvicultural
scientists have confirmed in recent decades that clearcutting, and subsequent reforestation,
is highly successful at achieving desired biological and productive outcomes similar
to natural forests.
The Forest Landscape with Clearcuts. Research by forest scientists
has shown that, in large landscapes, a variable, moving pattern of younger to older
forests perpetuated by clearcutting provides dynamic and diverse habitat that sustains
plant and animal biodiversity. Conversely, in some areas, a lack of disturbance—either
clearcutting or natural events—appears to negatively affect some desirable plants
and animals. The open-young stage of forest development has an important role and
niche in the ecology of Oregon’s forest native flora and fauna.
Oregon’s 30 million acres of forestland prior to settlement in the 1800s, were a
“mosaic” of three different forest conditions: 1) young-open forests; 2) middle-aged
dense forests, and 3) older complex forests with large trees. These native forests
were established after major natural disturbances that killed most trees in an area—wildfire,
pest outbreaks, storms, slides and floods. Clearcutting is a way to create a managed
forest “mosaic,” by emulating these natural disturbances to regenerate and begin
a new forest. Many of Oregon’s current “second-growth” forests illustrate the success
of clearcutting and regenerating native, sun-loving trees.
When considering nature and the environment, maintaining a portion of forest area
within each of these three ages would be desirable. This makes sense because each
of these three forest age-conditions provides their own unique and important ecosystem
values that the other two cannot. Each age-condition offers uniquely different tree-size
structures, vegetation, aesthetics, biodiversity, aquatic life, birds, wildlife,
and forest watersheds.
Managed Forests in a Modern World. Today, the needs and values
of both rural and urban communities do not allow us to rely on large-scale, and
uncontrolled, catastrophic natural disturbances to regenerate forests. Oregon property
owners and rural communities especially cannot accept those large wildfires that
threaten life, property, timber, commerce, air quality, and valued forest resources.
Instead, foresters carefully prescribe harvest and regeneration methods, including
clearcuts, to manage forest areas using methods that mimic natural disturbances,
while producing desired timber yields and protecting key resources.
In Oregon, a clearcut area is a temporary condition because the state’s forest law
requires prompt reforestation, and a young open forest must be established soon
after harvest. Reforestation success on non-federal forests in recent decades has
been achieved at a rate of 99% due to improved seedling, planting, and protection
Clearcuts with Reserve Trees. Foresters and forest plans on some
forest ownerships have begun to utilize a variation of the clearcutting method,
where some standing overstory trees are retained after harvest—called “clearcut
with reserves,” or “modified clearcut.” A clearcut with reserves has varying numbers
of canopy reserve trees that are not harvested to attain goals other than regeneration.
Extra overstory green trees are left indefinitely for strategic purposes, such as
structural diversity, habitat, shelter, aesthetics, and/or public policy. The consequence
of this extra retention in shade-intolerant trees is slowed regeneration establishment
and retaining a second age class of additional overstory, creating a two-aged forest.
Depending on habitat needs and other conditions, foresters may plan for trees to
be retained within clearcuts individually or in small or large clumps.
Professionals Prescribe & Manage Clearcuts. Forestry is an objectives-driven
profession, and the site-tailored prescriptions for clearcutting are best made by
forest professionals who seek to accomplish objectives of the forest plan, landowner,
and Oregon law. Foresters carefully account for the environmental, social & economic
costs and benefits of each harvest & regeneration decision involving clearcutting.
Oregon forest professionals and land-management experts for more than a century
have continuously improved the science, technology and experience surrounding clearcutting.
Forest owners and managers progressively work to improve harvesting methods, while
also refining reforestation success following planned harvests. Further monitoring
and research continuously improves harvesting methods. Logging operators typically
follow detailed directives to effectively implement management prescriptions.
Strong Oregon Laws and Clearcuts. To address concerns about natural
resource effects from harvest and reforestation, Oregon has comprehensive forest
laws regarding clearcuts. The Oregon Forest Practices Act & Rules (OFPA) safely
promotes the economical growing and harvesting of forests. Oregon’s strong program
of harvest regulation protects water quality, fish & wildlife habitat, as well as
future forest growth. Ongoing monitoring and research assure that specific clearcut
practices employ environmental safeguards. The OFPA defines a number of resource
protection outcomes applicable to clearcutting, including: limit clearcut size;
tree buffers on streams & wetlands; required wildlife leave trees & down logs; prevent
ground & vegetation disturbance near water; limit ground disturbance; minimize roads;
retain buffer vegetation during burning & release; timely reforestation with native
seedlings; and required well-distributed “free-to-grow” young trees within 6-years
Effective and Economical Tool. Because forest product markets are
competitive and global in scope, clearcutting is attractive as often the most effective
and economical method to harvest and regenerate many native Oregon tree species.
Related post-harvest activities that promote reforestation success—such as tree
planting, vegetation release, or prescribed burning—also are efficiently applied
in clearcut areas. Similarly, the control of insect, disease, and wildfire hazards
can be easier and more effective when clearcutting is an available management tool.
Clearcutting and regeneration is also a viable tool to consider for accomplishing
restoration of overcrowded, unhealthy, damaged or dead forests.
Managers making clearcutting decisions choose from a range of management options,
consistent with forest laws, valid forest plans, current forest silvicultural principles,
time-tested local experience, and locally-tailored science. Professionals engaged
in harvest & regeneration decision-making may include the: forester, silviculturist,
forest engineer, forest biologist, hydrologist, recreation planner, economist, forest
fuel specialist, and others.
Clearcut Controversy. For several decades, extensive public misinformation
and litigation surrounding the environmental virtues of clearcutting has clouded
the efficacy of using this method to harvest & regenerate an Oregon forest. Most
current concerns about clearcutting stem from misinformation and a lack of distinction
between past and modern standards for logging & reforestation. Clearcut areas can
be relatively unattractive for a few years after harvest and reforestation, which
contributes to misperceptions about presumed (wrongly) harm to the environment due
to clearcutting. Criticism of clearcutting misuses the term to falsely slander the
practice, or even to mislabel activities that are simply not clearcutting—such as
land-use change clearing for residential development or permanent forest clearing
for agricultural use.
Today’s clearcutting standards have evolved to address those past environmental
concerns. Further misunderstandings arise from misinformation and a failure by many
to distinguish the validity of different forest plan objectives—such as production
forests, or multiple-use forests, managed forests, forested rangelands, roaded natural
lands, or private forests—where clearcutting is logically and scientifically a proven
tool to manage native forest tree species. Confusion about these very basic matters
of current harvest regeneration standards and applicable forest plans has fostered
unnecessary controversy about clearcutting.
Biological Diversity. In 2011, I attended a public walking tour
to visit a large forested natural area recently purchased by the Portland, Oregon
Metro Regional Council of Governments (the 1,200-acre Chehalem Ridge Natural Area).
Led by the Area Ecologist, one of the group’s tour stops was within a 35-acre open-grown
young forest about 10 years old, which was thriving with a mix of small conifer
& hardwood trees, shrubbery, grasses and forbs. The birdlife and wildlife activity
was obvious about us that day, as the open forest also afforded panoramic views
of the lush landscape surrounding our group. The visitors chattered with interest
and satisfaction about the special biological diversity and aesthetic views at this
The Ecologist was proud of this unique patch of young forest; assuring the tour
visitors that the natural area’s soon-to-be written forest plan would strive to
replicate this young forest opening, by managing to always keep a portion of the
forested Natural Area in this young & open forest condition. The Ecologist told
us that the forest is always growing, and this particular 35-acre patch would not
remain young, open or wonderfully diverse very much longer. As the years passed,
this patch would become a dense and darkening grove of trees where the tall tree
canopies would overtop the diverse undergrowth, shading and eliminating much of
today’s vegetative and wildlife diversity.
The real surprise for many tour visitors came when the Ecologist explained that
this biologically-diverse young forest in the Natural Area was created by clearcutting
ten years prior! The previous landowner had carefully harvested using the clearcut
method, successfully planted conifer tree seedlings, and then tended the area to
assure a diverse blend of conifer, hardwood and shrub vegetation establishment.
Those quite ordinary—and often criticized—clearcut and reforestation activities
completed by the forest landowner 10-years ago are today celebrated by the Natural
Area Ecologist and other Area visitors!
As a forester, I also am proud of this wonderfully-diverse patch of the Natural
Area, because I know that foresters all over Oregon, every day, manage their forestlands
with care to assure that there is biological diversity reestablished in their clearcut
harvest areas—just like the bio-diversity found here in this one-time clearcut located
in Portland’s Chehalem Ridge Natural Area.
Summary. Clearcutting is a well-proven harvest and regeneration
method in many situations or forest types across Oregon, where determined by skilled
forestry professionals to be most suitable. Careful planning and implementation
of harvest and reforestation prescriptions, in compliance with state regulations,
are keys to realizing the benefits of clearcutting while avoiding possible negative
impacts. Oregon’s professional foresters and forest operators have the knowledge
and experience to understand the benefits and risks of clearcutting. Working with
natural resource professionals, foresters provide essential guidance for its proper
application in meeting landowner objectives and broad public goals.