How To Harvest Wood While Nurturing Forest Health

In Blog, Wood is Good by Morgan Dix

Is cutting down trees bad for the environment? And can the silvicultural selective cutting method help?

As a manufacturer of solid hardwood furniture for residence halls, we get this question a lot.

And it’s an important one because there’s some legitimate confusion around it.

logging clearcutFirst, whenever we think about cutting trees for any sort of manufacturing process, we immediately think of the worst case scenarios. We imagine the slash and burn model of clearcutting which has denuded ecologically rich tropical rainforests in South America and old growth stands in the Pacific Northwest.

Like a giant gaping scar on the land, the upturned soil and stumps create an apocalyptic image in our mind’s eye.

And it’s true, some logging practices—think clearcutting—destroy habitat with wanton disregard for the community of life and the long-term health of the forests and biosphere.

But there’s more to the story.

Nurturing Forest Health Through Selective Cutting

selective cutting harvest intensity spectrumJust like tending and cultivating a vibrant garden, there are approaches to harvesting wood—mostly in the context of silvicultural systems—that nurture the long-term health of both the forest and its inhabitants.

Selection or selective cutting is one of the approaches that we often use here at DCI as part of our sustainable forestry practices.

The selection or selective cutting approach to harvesting wood is part of a sustainable silviculture system. That means it nurtures the health of the forest and its wildlife.

But how does selection cutting compare to other forms of tree cutting which are harmful to the ecosystem?

The Big Difference Between ‘Selection’ And ‘Selective’

example of selective cutting preparationHere’s what you need to know.

The selection model of harvesting timber emerged from the study of old growth forests. It’s an approach to forest management which, according to wikipedia, “manages the establishment, continued growth, and final harvest of multiple age classes (usually three) of trees within a stand.”

Andy Shultz is a forester with the Maine Forest Service. And in an article about the practice of selective cutting, he makes important distinctions between ‘selection’ cutting and ‘selective’ cutting. Selection cutting a silviculture practice. Selective cutting is a less ecologically sensitive approach to harvesting timber.

Here’s how Shultz explains it.

Professional foresters are taught in school how to use a number of silvicultural systems, including the selection system, as a menu of alternatives for managing woodlands. Forestry professors are quick to point out that ‘selective cutting’ is NOT a silvicultural system.

Unlike selective cutting or harvesting, selection implies a decision made on the basis of silviculture, which the Society of American Foresters (SAF) defines as: ‘the art and science of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health, and quality of forests and woodlands to meet the diverse needs and values of landowners and society on a sustainable basis.’

Ok, so that might be a little confusing. So far I’ve been using the terms selection and selective cutting interchangeably. That is the convention, albeit a little confusing.

The key point is that when you hear loggers refer to this term, you need to consider the context carefully. Don’t assume they are employing the more sustainable approach.

So let’s get clear about why Andy Schultz makes a strong distinction between selection and selective cutting.

What Is High-Grading?

high grading clearcutsOk. So we know that selection cutting is part of a well-established and ecologically sensitive forest management system called silviculture.

But what is the negative meaning of “selective cutting” and why is it a problem? Why are the aforementioned forestry experts drawing such a strong distinction?

To answer these questions, we need to understand the concept of high-grading.

According to an article adapted from the Cornell Cooperative Extension News Service, high-grading is a type of forestry, “where the highest grade (or value) trees are removed. By cutting only the largest and most valuable trees, you remove those best suited to the site.”

They go on to say that, “Cutting the best trees (those of highest value) and leaving the low value, often diseased or malformed trees, is all too common.”

Be Careful of Greenwashing

It turns out that foresters and loggers often use the terms ‘selection’ and ‘selective’ interchangeably.

Why?

Because selective logging has a bad reputation. On contrast, selection logging is environmentally sensitive. So selective logging can be a misleading term. And this confusion plays into the hands of the loggers who employ high-grading techniques.

Think of that old adage, “To the confusion of our enemies!” Companies can use the term to obscure their less-than-ecological approach to logging.

In essence, it’s a devious form of greenwashing.

And that’s exactly why experts like Andy Schultz are so careful to make this distinction. Once again, let’s be clear about the differences.

Here is how Wikipedia distinguishes it.

Used correctly, the term ‘selection cutting’, ‘selection system’, or ‘selection silviculture’ implies the implementation of specific silvicultural techniques—usually either ‘single tree selection’, ‘group selection’ or a combination of the two—to create an uneven-aged or all-aged condition in a forest stand, one more akin to a late successional or ‘climax’ condition.

Small Patch Clearcuts

In some situations, under the direction and guidance of licensed state foresters, we also employ small patch clearcuts. Like all of our harvesting practices, we do it with the highest attention to the effects on the ecosystem.

It’s important to remember that clearcutting, in this context, is also a silviculture system. It’s not a slash and burn technique like the old-growth cuts we saw decades ago in the Northwest.

Although, some companies and countries still employ clearcutting as a large scale—and ecologically destructive—tree harvesting technique.

And it’s also important to note here that there are opponents of clearcutting who will always disapprove of cutting trees. That’s fair enough, but it represents the extreme end of the spectrum.

At DCI, we practice sustainable forestry and that’s one reason why our furniture is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Cutting Trees And Cultivating Wildlife Habitat

National ForestersAt DCI, when we harvest wood for our residence hall furniture, we work with certified state foresters to establish a plan based on different silvicultural methods.

With each harvest, our certified foresters perform a careful and complex analysis of the ecosystem. That ensures the long-term health of the forest and habitat for local species.

The foresters then send us a detailed report before the harvest (they call it a Treatment). It details the high points of the analysis.

In the Treatment, the foresters focus on creating different age classes of tree and enhancing habitat. To understand the sustainability analysis that goes into these harvests, it helps to see one of these reports.

Below is an example of one of our treatments. The forester uses the term group selection to refer to our approach. The Pennsylvania Forestry Association defines Group Selection this way:

Group Selection removes trees in 0.1 to 1.0 acre areas to create openings in the forest canopy; this mimics the opening of the canopy by the death of individual trees in an old growth forest.

Here’s an example of a real Treatment sent to us from a New Hampshire State forester.

Treatment: Group selection will be applied in this treatment area in order to establish young forest growth, to create a diversity of structure classes within the larger stands, and to enhance regeneration of seedling/sapling trees to maintain or enhance food and cover for wildlife. 

In order to achieve these goals, well spaced groups of 1-2 acres in size will be established in areas of existing storm damage, areas of unacceptable growing stock or species composition, areas of mature timber, or areas that will maximize wildlife habitats such as adjacent to food sources or complementary habitats.

Smaller groups will be used in areas heavy to hemlock to stimulate regeneration of seedling hemlock to enhance wintering habitat.  The amount of area regenerated by group selection will not exceed the goals described for the desired structure composition for the property.

Wildlife Impact: This treatment will primarily benefit wildlife at this entry via the young forest growth established through group selection. Regenerating hardwood seedlings will result in woody browse benefiting wildlife species such as white-tailed deer and moose.

In addition, once young mixed hardwood and softwood growth is established it may create feeding and nesting opportunities for several wildlife species including wild turkey, Canada warbler, wood thrush, veery, black-throated blue warbler, eastern wood peewee, and ruffed grouse.

Because much of the area between groups will be retained, wildlife that currently uses these stands will continue to do so for both cover and as a potential travel corridor. Hard mast—the fruit of beech, oak, chestnut, and other forest trees—production will be enhanced along the edges of groups and throughout the thinning to the benefit of deer, bear, wild turkey and other species.

Hemlock regeneration in softwood dominated areas will be enhanced resulting in improved wind blocking and thermal retention during the winter, which will benefit deer and turkey in particular.

Existing and potential cavity trees, snags, and large down coarse woody material will be left intact to provide denning, foraging, and hibernating opportunities for several wildlife species including yellow-bellied sapsucker, blue-spotted salamander, Jefferson salamander, ribbon snake, and several bat species. 

We will use The Foresters for the Birds documents along with Good Forestry in the Granite State for guidance in determining this. To further maintain habitat for salamanders, the vernal pool guidelines from Good Forestry in the Granite State will also be followed.

For those species that don’t necessarily depend on habitats created from this treatment there are additional habitat types within the property and the surrounding landscape that do provide the necessary values for these species.

Bryan Comeau, Forester I

NH Division of Forests & Lands

Bryan.Comeau@dred.nh.gov

This Treatment gives you a sense of the detailed assessment that occurs before we harvest our timber.

The Forest Comes First

draft horsesTo build our green residence hall furniture, we have to harvest wild timber. At the same time, sustainability is one of the core tenets of our business. And we don’t see these things as mutually exclusive at all.

For us, it’s crucial to consider the effects of our operation on the entire ecosystem. We need to know that our work is not going to adversely affect the ecosystems where we harvest wood.

We also want to know that we have given every consideration to the ongoing health of the wildlife.

This is why we work with Vermont and New Hampshire State Foresters to determine the best way to harvest trees in a given ecosystem.

It’s also why we partner with the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Park in Woodstock, VT. That’s the oldest continually managed forest in the United States.

They are a national park. And to improve forest conditions, they only use draft horses for logging.

(Photos via Flickr CC: Eli Sagor; ESSM Extension Unit; USDA Forest Service Alaska RegionTim Abbott)

————————

To set up an order today or to talk with one of our representatives, you can write to us here or call: (800) 552-8286.

You can also learn more about our industry-leading FSC CoC certification, our MAS certification, and our green materials sourcing, sustainable manufacturing, and our unique zero waste Vertical Integration Process (VIP).

Download the DCI Sustainability overview here.