Clearcutting: Good or Bad?


by Tony Quadro

Clearcut area showing reforestation

There has been a lot of negative press lately regarding the practice of clearcutting. It can be a very emotional issue because of perceptions that it causes environmental damage. However, most of these perceptions are not true.

The principal objective of clearcutting is to regenerate the forest with healthier trees, not to harvest timber. Timber harvesting is a secondary objective.   In a true clearcut, all of the trees greater than two inches in diameter are cut (as opposed to a commercial clearcut, where only marketable trees are removed). Clearcutting is especially useful in regenerating shade-intolerant species such as black cherry, which is highly valuable and needs full sunlight for optimum development. The practice actually mimics openings that tornadoes and fires create naturally. 

Clearcutting does not cause soil erosion. That is caused by poorly laid out road systems, whether the forest is clearcut or partially cut. Clearcutting can be done without significant erosion or sedimentation if roads are planned and built correctly using accepted best management practices (BMP’s) to protect streams. 

Logging companies do not clearcut just because it is the most economical way to harvest timber.  In fact, it does not save them money. Many loggers dislike clearcutting because it forces them to spend time and money cutting trees they have no use for. Trees smaller than ten inches in diameter are often stunted, poorly formed, genetically inferior trees that are just as old as the larger trees but have no chance of ever growing large themselves, no matter how old they get. It is best not to leave them behind as residual trees taking up space, sun, and nutrients that high-quality trees could use. 


Clearcutting is ugly (one true perception). Diameter-limit cutting, which is cutting all trees over a selected diameter such as 14” (often called “select cutting” or "highgrading") leaves a lot of trees in the woods and can look better than a clearcut, but it degrades the long-term health of the forest because it does nothing to clear away the small, elderly, slow-growing “junk” trees.

Clearcuts can be very beneficial to wildlife. New openings grow very quickly into small trees and berry-and seed-producing shrubs, which provide both food and shelter for wildlife. Clearcutting increases the biological diversity of the forest, which enhances habitat for a variety of wildlife. Some species of wildlife actually thrive better in brushy thickets of seedlings and small saplings. Clearcutting is not deforestation. Clearcuts usually regenerate initially into dense thickets with thousands of tree seedlings per acre. Then they gradually thin out as the stronger trees show dominance and crowd out the weaker trees. Most of the forested hillsides that surround us in western Pennsylvania originated as clearcuts in the early part of the last century. 

Is clearcutting always the best way to regenerate the forest? No, but it is the best in certain situations, especially if advanced regeneration (many healthy seedlings) is present. It then allows the forest to start over, usually with the fastest, healthiest, genetically superior trees outcompeting their slower-growing companions.  Of course, clearcutting is not the only way to regenerate a forest. Other traditional and effective silvicultural methods include the seed tree, shelterwood, and selection methods. As long as a clearcut is carried out using proper erosion practices and sound forestry principles, it is consistent with sustainable forest management.










A special congratulations to

John Hilewick, Westmoreland Woodlands Improvement Association's newest PA Forest Steward!