What Do People Mean When They Say “Clearcut”?: Colville Example

I think we could all agree that this is a “traditional” clearcut.. CanWel, Fernie, BC

Maybe the term “clearcutting” means so many things to so many different people, that it’s not helpful in understanding people’s specific concerns with forest practices.  Let’s go to a case we’ve discussed recently on the Colville. Here’s a statement in the KRCG press release that Matthew posted here:

The plan signals a significant increase in logging – including a large areas of clearcutting – as much as 25,000 acres per year across the 1.1 million acre Colville Forest and above prior recommendations.

Now, if we assume that the Colville will clearcut in the same proportions it currently does, FACTS  shows (if my extraction is correct) about  90 acres of clearcuts since 2000. Those are in ski areas, rights of way and a rock pit.  Those are not actually clearcuts in the timber harvesting sense, although timber was probably harvested.  So we don’t know exactly what KRCG considers a “clearcut”.  For example, clearing rights of way could be considered clearcutting because all trees are removed.  But it is not clearcutting in the regeneration sense.  The word clearcutting has a long association with timber harvesting and not with clearing land for other purposes.  That’s how it’s defined in the Dictionary of Forestry (Helms).  That’s also what the famous clearcutting controversies were about, which lead to NFMA, which lead to planning rules and plans and so on. The Forest History Society has a brief history of those clearcutting controversies by Jerry Williams.   I know some readers lived through those years, I’d be interested in your perspectives on that history.

When I worked in south-central Oregon in the 80’s, I remember a field trip with Weyerhaeuser and a professor from OSU about how we should make our clearcuts larger, as that was more efficient.  That was the “latest science” of the time.  We had just stopped doing selection (“pick and pluck” and Keen’s classification of ponderosa pine) and were not too inclined toward  the whole clearcutting idea, which originally came from the Wet West Side.  But we got into it, and then came along some people now saying you should make clearcuts smaller for apparently good reasons.  Then Jerry Franklin came up with “big messy clearcuts,” for more good reasons.  These, I think, were bigger than the previous small ones, and perhaps bigger than the original large ones, but they had more different kinds of material left.  Anyway,  all these clearcutting trends were always about timber, not clearing for rights-of-way nor subdivisions or whatever else. The alternatives were always shelterwoods or uneven-aged management- other silvicultural choices.  I’m also not sure that “small clearcuts” had a defined size that distinguished them from group shelterwoods or group selection, or “wildlife openings” or…  The idea of all these different choices seemed to be making sure the right conditions were present for regeneration to be successful. Perhaps the way the word is used today, it means something else. But what exactly? Is a clearcut in the eye of the beholder?

Given all that history, when Jim Coleman says in this comment:

“clearcutting is happening now and this year 5-60 acre clearcuts have gouged out of the Sherman Pass area up to 5,500′ elevation – and in full view of the Pacific NW National Scenic Trail and adjacent a Forest Service Scenic Byway.”

And yet the EA for the Sherman Pass Project says (in response to one of Dick Artley’s voluminous comments on the project).  (The FS had 50 pages of responses to his comments out of a 238 page EA).

“Silviculture: No clearcuts are planned for this project. While the purpose and need for this project is to protect the highway and powerlines from wildfire impacts, visual quality objectives have been considered. “

What are we to make of it?  I don’t think of hazard tree removal along roads or powerlines as “linear clearcuts” because of my history with the term. But perhaps some people do.  Or maybe it depends on the size of the opening, either relative to tree height or not, or the size of the trees that remain.   How do you think about the term?

10 thoughts on “What Do People Mean When They Say “Clearcut”?: Colville Example”

  1. Clearcut will always be an emotionally charged term. I don’t see a lot of difference between management defined as clearcuts or the new vogue ‘variable retention harvests’. I would like to add that I have seen some pretty compelling research stands in western Oregon that showed that gaps under 5ac led to a stand conversion to shade tolerant species like grand fir. Many of the shade tolerant species don’t supply the same structure required by fish as DF (due to faster decay rates).

    • Thanks, Jim.. what is a “variable retention harvest” ?
      It’s interesting that over 70 years some ideas haven’t changed. Like by varying size of openings you can favor different species. Then the only question is which ones to favor, where and why? Diversity for climate resilience, or species that lead to habitat different birds, ungulates or fish might prefer? More adapted to fires? Less prone to insects and diseases? What was there in 1800?

      • Variable retention harvest is the regeneration method being espoused by Jerry Franklin and others. In some circles it is called a “large, sloppy, clearcut” or “ecological forestry”. The intent is to get regeneration and to create a 2-aged stand by retaining trees from the current stand. The retained trees are in an irregular pattern and may be in groups of different numbers of trees or as single trees. It is basically a “clearcut with reserves”, but some feel that it is less intensive than a clearcut due to the number of trees that are retained and the pattern they are retained in.

        • So it’s two-aged, but not exactly a “group shelterwood” .Certainly if there were enough residuals, it’s more like small patch openings with thinning. And of course, in some areas, all or most of the trees are dead, which would make leaving too many (beyond snag requirements) still not contribute green overstory.
          I’m thinking four “regen” clearcut parameters. (not powerlines or road rights of way)

          How large is the area in one unit?
          What proportion over and mid story living retained? (0 to 100%)
          What proportion over and mid story dead retained? (0 to 100%)
          How clumpy are living trees retained? (0 to 100%)

          A classic clearcut would be ( 5 acres or more (?), 0, 0, 0). At some point of “proportion living retained” though it seems like it would cease to be a clearcut and be more of a thinning with openings).

          Not sure that the current terminology is very helpful for understanding, nor exactly how that crosswalks with FACTS. But when someone claims that there’s going to be many acres of clearcutting, it would still be helpful to have some kind of shared definition.

  2. Interesting what you found in FACTS for the Colville. Most of the “clearcuts” recorded in Region 6 are there because of post-fire harvest. Forest Service policy is that if a post-fire (or post-insect or post-disease) salvage sale is done and it does not leave a fully stocked stand, that the harvest is recorded as a regeneration harvest (in the Dictionary of Forestry a “salvage” cut is an intermediate treatment, not a regeneration harvest). Most of the places that get fire salvage have 100% mortality in Region 6, so those are recorded as clearcuts. So, just because it says something is a clearcut in FACTS does not mean that it was a green timber sale. I don’t know if any of the Colville clearcuts fall into that category, but just wanted to provide a caveat there.
    Clearing areas for other purposes should not be recorded as a clearcut unless regeneration is planned for. There are codes in FACTS that can be used to indicate harvest with no regeneration. Of course, that doesn’t always mean that everyone records their data in FACTS correctly…

  3. It would be real helpful to know how the Colville plan defined “clearcut,” but they’ve hidden the glossary quite well. Same for “opening,” which is probably the more meaningful term.

    Sharon, regarding tree species and opening size: “Then the only question is which ones to favor, where and why?” The answers have to be consistent with the forest plan.

    FW-DC-VEG-03. Forest Structure
    Forest structural classes are resilient and compatible with maintaining characteristic
    disturbance processes such as wildland fire, insects, and diseases. Habitat conditions for
    associated species are present. Structure contributes to scenic quality and contributes to
    desired landscape character, particularly along scenic byways and highways.
    Forest openings would be commensurate with historical conditions for size and distribution to
    reflect natural disturbance processes. The historical range of variability for forest structure is
    the desired condition. Historical range of variability will be evaluated on National Forest System
    lands at the appropriate scale, given vegetation type and natural disturbance history. Tables 5
    and table 6 contain desired conditions for each vegetation type.

    Table 6 addresses this question by providing a description of the desired opening sizes for the five forest types. Some may be really large.

    FW-STD-VEG-04. Even-Aged Harvest Openings
    If individual harvest openings created by even-aged silvicultural practices are proposed that
    would exceed 40 acres, then NFMA requirements regarding public notification and approval
    shall be followed. These opening size limits shall not apply to the size of areas harvested as a
    result of natural catastrophic conditions such as fire, insect and disease attack, or windstorm.

    Also relevant to what to expect is this guideline:
    FW-GDL-VEG-03. Large Tree Management
    Management activities should retain and generally emphasize recruitment of individual large
    trees (larger than 20 inches diameter at breast height) across the landscape. Exceptions where
    individual large trees may be removed or destroyed include the following:
    • Trees need to be removed for public health or safety (such as, but not limited to,
    danger/hazard trees along roads or in developed or administrative sites).
    • Trees need to be removed to facilitate management of emergency situations such as
    wildfire response.
    The following exemptions apply only to situations where removal of smaller trees alone cannot
    achieve the stated desired conditions:
    • Trees need to be removed to meet, promote, or maintain desired conditions for structural
    stages (see FW-DC-VEG-03. Forest Structure).
    • Trees need to be removed to control or limit the spread of insect infestation or disease.
    • Trees need to be removed where strategically critical to reinforce, facilitate, or improve
    effectiveness of fuel reduction in wildland-urban interfaces.
    • Trees need to be removed to promote special plant habitats (such as, but not limited to,
    aspen, cottonwood, whitebark pine).

    There are additional standards and guidelines that limit openings because of effects on wildlife.

  4. Read the Decision. Answers to public comments are not immutable and you know that. CNF doesn’t use the term “clearcut” any longer- probably because most folks disapprove of it forest plantation roots but instead now use “openings” or “regeneration” cuts- the appearance is similar to cc, however.

    Moderator note from MK:

    This photo was from Tim Coleman, who wrote me and said: I can’t figure out how to post this photo to Smokey Wire – this clearcut was part of several other regent cuts done this year in Sherman Pass Project.

    Tim also previously posted this link, which folks may have not seen. It includes more photos and details on the Sherman Pass Project.

    • Going back to my original thoughts on defining a clear cut… how many acres is the opening? Were the trees removed alive or dead?

      I’ve had trouble myself taking photos that give the same perspective as actually being on the ground so not sure I can tell these things from the photo.

  5. According to Mike Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies:

    “The East Reservoir timber sale in the Kootenai National Forest authorizes commercial logging on 8,845 acres, including clearcutting on 3,458 acres, with most of it in lynx and bull trout federally designated critical habitat. This logging project would rebuild a whopping 175 miles of roads for logging as well as building nine miles of totally new and permanent logging roads in the area. The logging plan would also add an additional 13 miles of illegal user-created roads into the legal road system and open nine miles of previously closed motorized trails.”

    That timber sale has been discussed, debated and dissected on this blog numerous times over the years.

  6. “Thinning” should also have a standard forestry meaning, as well. “Thinning” runs between “Overstory removal” and non-commercial cut and pile, depending on which extreme you subscribe to.

    I would also like to see some other standardized terms, as well as putting some other emotion-packed terms to bed. For example, it is very disingenuous to describe “thinning from below” as “industrial logging”. Should projects which cut trees averaging 14-15 inches be described as “commercial logging”?


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