Is clearcutting harmful to fish?

This is an op-ed piece that William Wade Keye* submitted to the Sacramento Bee at the beginning of July, in response to two articles (“State to assess Battle Creek logging activity and effect on salmon” and “Troubled waters of Battle Creek“) and an editorial (“Governor needs to keep pledge at Battle Creek”) they published highlighting purported environmental damage in the Battle Creek watershed. It is published here with his permission.

Recent Sacramento Bee articles pitting clearcut logging against salmon recovery efforts in the Battle Creek watershed whittle complex resource management issues down to a false, if convenient, dichotomy. Such eco-populism is understandable, but its assumptions need to be challenged.

To foresters, clearcutting is the dreaded “C word”. If there ever was a candidate to lose a sylvan popularity contest, that would be clearcutting. It’s ugly and widely viewed as environmentally destructive.

Even most loggers don’t like the look of a fresh clearcut, which typically appears as if a bomb just went off.

Clearcuts are disturbing. Hence, the “C word”.

Clearcuts disturb (Image from Wikipedia)

Why would any landowner in their right mind choose this apparently abominable practice? Yes, I know the stock answer: greed, short-term profits and all that. Rape the land and leave nothing for the future.

I’m not going to argue that people who own working forests aren’t in it for the money, although I think there’s much more to it than that. But sure, they want to make the land pay.

Farmers don’t farm just for their health, or for somebody else’s aesthetic pleasure. They do it to live, to make the land pay.

Forest landowners are the same. Wood, like corn, soybeans or pork bellies, is a valuable commodity. We use forest products in almost countless ways, everyday. Our wood has to come from somewhere, which leads us to forest management and the pros and cons of various silvicultural practices.

The Bee articles critical of clearcutting contain implicit assumptions driven by aesthetics. Dominant is the view that more aesthetically pleasing practices, such as selection timber harvest, are preferable for fish habitat because they produce less sedimentation.

Evidence-based science does not uniformly back this intuitive belief. The reason is that even-age management (including clearcutting) impacts a given piece of forestland much less frequently than uneven-age systems (such as selection). Impacts are greater (KABOOM!) but less recurrent.

Forestry is a uniquely long term enterprise. If a clearcut is prescribed, the “bomb” goes off, seedlings are planted and the site may not be disturbed again for decades. Access roads and skid trails can be put to bed and remain so until the stand is ready to harvest again – typically in 50-80 years.

It is said that “nature abhors a vacuum”. Tree growth that follows successful (and legally required) reforestation after a clearcut illustrates this principle perfectly. Young trees reach for the sky, drinking up abundant sunlight and soil nutrients.

In contrast, the classic selection harvest requires the forest to be managed on a fairly continual basis. Periodic light harvests are generally spaced 10-15 years apart. During each entry, access roads and trails must be reopened – triggering new potential bursts of sediment delivery to aquatic systems.

Although counter-intuitive, it is possible that if even-age management were prohibited in the Battle Creek watershed, the cumulative effects as far as soil transport and sediment delivery would actually be greater. Uneven-age management would be considered more pleasing to the eye, but could mask impacts potentially more damaging to salmon recovery.

Finally, the Battle Creek articles did a disservice by pitting timber harvest against fish, a zero sum duality that ignores the many factors contributing to our difficulty in restoring anadromous salmonids. Those threats include dams and water diversions, in-stream habitat loss and degradation, polluted runoff, oceanic factors including predation, fishing, poaching – the list goes on.

I believe forestry belongs on that list, along with urbanization, agriculture, industry – all of us. It’s just too easy to single out clearcutting, ugly as it is.

Because nature really does abhor a vacuum, one really should visit a forest plantation a few years, or a few decades, after a clearcut “bomb” has gone off. It’s impossible to deny how impressive a vigorously growing young forest can be, how amazingly regenerative nature really is especially after a clearcut – which in some ways mimics the effect of a wildfire.

These kinds of images don’t seem to show up in the media when the “C Word” comes up.

And remember, regardless of the aesthetics of any given silvicultural system, we get to use the wood fiber that flows off a managed forest, creating homegrown wealth, jobs, tax receipts, energy and valuable products.

*William Wade Keye is a California Registered Professional Forester and former Chair of the Northern California Society of American Foresters



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