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The sound science of clear-cuts

Clear-cuts are used to help regenerate species that can’t compete in mature forests. Two of the most notable species that are clear-cut are aspen and jack pine. In order to maximize regeneration, aspen (pictured) must be clear-cut.



Clear-cuts are used to help regenerate species that can’t compete in mature forests. Two of the most notable species that are clear-cut are aspen and jack pine. In order to maximize regeneration, aspen (pictured) must be clear-cut.

The Department of Natural Resources’ Forest Resources Division is in charge of managing the timber on state forest land. The DNR’s Wildlife Division is in charge of managing the critters. But because forestry practices have a big impact on wildlife habitat, the two divisions co-manage state forests to benefit both timber and wildlife. And although the divisions sometimes have different ideas, both agree on one, often misunderstood, technique: clear-cutting.

“Clear-cutting is a sound scientific management technique for harvesting and regenerating certain forest types,” explained Deb Begalle, forest planning and operations section manager with the Forest Resources Division. “Usually it’s for shorter-lived species—such as aspen and jack pine—which are also sun-loving species. They need a lot of sunlight to establish and grow.”

Clear-cutting involves removing virtually all the timber from a stand, which encourages regrowth of the preferred species. But it doesn’t involve stripping the landscape as it did during the timbering era.

“Clear-cutting isn’t what it was 100 years ago,” Begalle said. “We leave some trees in place for a variety of reasons—for wildlife, for aesthetics, sometimes in clumps, sometimes individual trees.

“People are averse to the look of clear-cuts. They see a lot of slash (branches, logs and other debris from natural occurrences or logging operations) on the ground and find it unsightly. But the slash puts nutrients back into the ground as the branches decompose. It also provides micro-habitat for wildlife species, such as salamanders, and brush piles for rabbits.”

DNR wildlife biologist Mark Sargent says young aspen is important to a host of species – grouse, woodcock, deer, rabbits, hare, moose, elk and numerous songbirds.

“In the case of grouse, young aspen stands provide brood-rearing and nesting habitat and, as they grow older, they produce winter food via buds,” he explained. “But young aspen also provides browse for deer, elk and moose—leaves, stems, tops and bark. As the trees grow larger, they grow out of the reach of the animals.”

But along with aspen, Sargent said, come other shade-intolerant plants—raspberries, forbs, dogwood and hawthorns—that provide food or cover for wildlife, too.

“A clear-cut can create outstanding browse and still provide habitat for grouse and woodcock,” he added. “It’s a win-win situation.”

The most critical characteristic of clear-cuts is that they really don’t last long. “We always assure trees are going to grow back quickly,” Begalle said. “In the case of aspen, it will come back so quickly that within a year we have seedlings all over the place.”

Aspen is typically managed on 40- to 60-year rotations for several reasons. That’s not only when the trees have good timber value, but when they’re prime for regenerating.

“The older it gets, the less well aspen regenerates,” Begalle said. “Aspen sort of uses up its vitality. It regenerates through its root system and if it’s losing vitality, it won’t produce as many sprouts.”

While the cuts are well-planned, one of the things the DNR is sometimes criticized for is not leaving buffer areas around clear-cuts.

“We usually do not leave buffers along private property lines, because people then think that’s the property line,” Begalle explained. “A lot people utilize or build on that uncut area because they believe the cut is the property line. And if we left buffers along all the property lines, that would leave thousands of acres unmanaged.

“We try to keep aesthetics in mind,” she continued. “If we have long-lived tree species, such as white pine and oak, we will try to leave those along roadways and private property.”

Clear-cuts do not work for all trees, such as hardwoods or saw-log conifers, but where short-lived, shade-intolerant species are concerned, both Wildlife and Forest Resources division staff agree: Clear-cuts are clearly the way to go.

For more information about how the DNR manages Michigan’s state forest land, visit www.michigan.gov/forestplan.

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2 Responses to “The sound science of clear-cuts”

  1. Madeleine says:

    This is bs science. New science shows that old growth supports waaaay more life and gives way more back to the environment than clear cutting. Too bad there is none left and you are allowing for none to come back. Sucks that like this have so much influence. Money talks – that’s why they call it “human needs over animals rights” instead of “human greed over preservation of what’s left of our only home for humans & animals alike – Earth.” We all need air to breath, we can’t pay off ‘mother nature’ in the end, like companies do lobbyists.

  2. JB says:

    Madeleine: Your comment ignores the fact that short-lived species such as aspen and jack pine can never become old growth. They are fire dependant species that require so much sunlight to regenerate that they can only regenerate in fire-scorched or clear-cut areas. Forest fires are, in most places, no longer left to burn untended, so eliminating clear cutting would greatly endanger the indigenous trees and shrubs that require high levels of sunlight to reproduce. This article clearly states that clear cutting would not work in the type of forests that can become old growth: hardwoods and saw-log conifers.

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