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Clear-cutting is not an evil in and of itself

I’ve been having this conversation for years but I never really get tired of it. I hadn’t had it in years but then, the other day… it came up again…clear cuts. You would expect there would not be much too say besides the normal… “clear cuts are bad and wrong,” countered by, “…stupid tree hugger environmentalists are lost and out of touch with reality,” then, “clear cutting is a visual blight and destroys wildlife habitat,” followed by “trees are a crop which need to be harvested and then they grow back again.” Well, now that I start arguing with myself I guess the conversation could go on awhile and in fact it has gone on this way for some time now.

This latest conversation was with a friend who holds a MS in Geo-Chemistry.

She is a geologist by trade but an artist and domestic engineer by choice. Now she is, of course, very intelligent and “wise to the ways of science” but her opinion is that “clear cuts are bad and wrong… they are ugly and destroy wildlife habitat,” which are not her exact words but my paraphrasing and is the main argument of most people I hear speaking negatively about clear cutting.

So, where am I coming from then? you might ask. Do I think clear cutting is bad and wrong or do I think those opposed to it are “crack-pot environmentalist” and timber is simply a crop to be harvested? Why, neither and both of course. Clear cutting is just one of many silvicultural options when managing a forest and it can be done badly and is therefore wrong or it can be done wrong and is therefore bad but the thing to remember is that yes, there is a right time, right place and a right way to do clear cuts. Secondly, and you can quote me here, “society’s perception of and reaction to clear cuts has no rhyme of reason to it.”

Consider if you will the feelings of loss, sadness and disgust many people tend to feel when passing a huge clear cut up on the side of beautiful majestic mountain cloaked in a verdant coat of velvet forest, teeming with wildlife. This huge gaping scar with its straight lines forming the fingerprints of man’s greed in squares or triangles of barren bomb scape, set in the middle of a sea of gorgeous forest. This really bothers people, creates whole movements, and generally shapes the publics mind about clear cutting. That it is bad and wrong.

But on the other hand consider your last plane flight across vast expanses of fertile farm lands. Looking down from on high, you see awesome geometric patterns in the fields, which are radiating variations of earthy colors creating a kaleidoscope of green, gold and brown... circles, squares and triangles. So wholesome and beautiful it looks from car or plane, those waving fields of grain.

Compare that to the beauty of Schweitzer Mountain bathed in summer sun with its broad verdant tapestries of green, hemmed in by patches of alpine forest on all sides, forming gorgeous meadows in summer and big white slopes, twisting while turning a broad, beautiful and exciting paths from peak to bowl and ridge to rim.

One gets a sense of peace and tranquility when viewing a golf course… so green, so open, little ponds here and there, such nice houses and well kept yards and usually even some very nice trees about here and there.

Well, yes as you probably guessed some time ago where I am going with this… they are all clear cuts but the main difference is the reasons they are done, not the end effect and that much of society does not seem to understand that the entire midwestern USA is a giant, humongous clear cut which is not allowed to go back to its natural state. Nor could it because most of the species that were a part of the tall grass prairies are now extinct, and the streams and rivers tend to be dead because of the fertilizer and pesticide runoff and as much as 60 percent of this lost habitat, is used to grow feed for cattle. Now the cattle have contributed to the complete loss of ecosystems in entire other regions and the Midwest too, but that is another story.

So, a farm field of waving grain looks beautiful to us when it is actually more of an environmental problem than clear cutting has ever come close to being. One of the oddest things to me is that the general public seems to think that clear cuts, which are done for “the fun of it” are beautiful but clear cuts which are done for necessity, for the timber products we ALL use and depend on and prefer, I might add, well… those clear-cuts are ugly and we imagine them to be very bad for the environment too.

I suspect if you were to ask a moose, deer or elk, and if they had a decent understanding of ecosystem dynamics and forest management, they would say: The truth is that if clear cuts were completely banned but given that fire will not run rampant and routinely as in the past, well then the great majority of the ungulates (deer, elk, moose) would starve because they eat brush and such, not trees, and the brush grows in the forest openings which come from forest management such as clear cuts these days. This is because the natural processes which caused openings in the forest in the past, namely wildfire and huge outbreaks of beetles, well these are costly in lost resources we all need, as well as, very dangerous when it comes to rampant wildfires. Okay, the ungulates probably don’t care about the lost resources for humans but they need openings for food.

So, we really do need clear cuts to provide diversity of the forest ecotype as a whole, which creates more diverse habitat and more diverse forage. We also need them for proper land management or as one of several methods of timber harvest; such as in relatively small patches, when the trees are infested with disease or insects for example and these need to be done on moderate to mild slopes with irregular boundaries while leaving snags for wildlife trees. Then the clear cut must be replanted with a diverse timber stock, roads closed and seeded to prevent erosion.

Clear-cuts are wrong and bad when they are done in excessive size, with excessive road building, on excessive slopes, with unstable soils, when done too close to major streams, when done in a drainage where clear-cuts are already the majority of forest type (is a newly planted clear-cut a forest?). At any rate, there are many instances of, places where and eras when clear-cutting was abused, it was excessive and it was not done with long term planning for wildlife habitat and stream protection.

But clear-cuts are not bad or wrong because they are ugly, because that is a personal perception of the beholder... the deer, elk and moose think they are gorgeous. No, clear cuts are bad and therefore wrong when they are done improperly, or excessively which is mainly a problem because of erosion from the roads and into the streams which covers the gravel beds with silt and smothers the fish eggs. That is the main problem with clear cuts, not that they are ugly or destroy all wildlife habitat. Be against them if you are but just know when and why you should be against them.

I think it is also interesting, that despite the public image, a timber company is a Farmer who only harvest every 40- 80 years, does not plow up the soil subjecting it to erosion, does not use pesticides or fertilizers as a regular application (rare) and who allow the public and the wildlife to utilize their land freely. This is very different than the way other private farms are run and we should be glad. Just food for thought.

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Author info

Michael White Michael White is a Realtor with Coldwell Banker - Sterling Society and a consultant for Northwest Group In-Land. He has a BS in Forest Resources & Ecosystem Management and specializes in land, ranches and homes with acreage.

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