What’s Good for the Goose May Kill the Gander
The great pitfall of “forest health” lies in people’s tendency to over generalize. What works in one forest may prove disastrous elsewhere. For example, high-elevation forests like lodgepole pine evolved with less frequent, more intense wildfires. These burns created a patch of grass here, a small stand of young lodgepole there, and some dense old-growth nearby to form a classic mosaic, supporting everything from elk and deer to pine martens and owls. But years of fire exclusion and logging have allowed lodgepoles to grow into larger, more uniform stands with little diversity. Pine beetle epidemics and large wildfires are on the rise.
But thinning and burning the understory would be absurd here. Scattered clearcuts and more intense prescribed burns would more closely follow historic natural patterns of fire. In the high country of Idaho’s Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, for instance, large hot fires occasionally burn dry, south-facing slopes creating huge brushfields, while sparing the spruce and fir on moist north slopes. Viewed from above, the patchwork of trees and openings is difficult to distinguish from clearcuts in adjacent logged areas—except for the roads.
Foresters prescribe distinct treatments to different forests. Clearcutting ponderosas can be like amputating the leg of a heart attack victim. So can thinning lodgepole. But when economic and social pressures transcend genuine forest health considerations, land managers may prescribe the wrong treatment in the wrong place. That’s why clearcuts have a bad name, and why folks think selective cuts are always best. Clearcuts assault people’s senses, while a selectively thinned forest seldom draws attention. But aesthetics don’t always equate to good forestry. Selective logging has become synonymous with good forestry, yet if only large, valuable trees are selectively cut, it’s nothing more than high-grading.
Of course, logging plans must account for social and economic factors. Modern technology allows for logging that’s lighter on the land than past practices, but not without tradeoffs. Helicopter logging can eliminate the need for roads in some areas, but to make a profit, loggers may have to cut bigger, more valuable trees, like mature ponderosa pines and larches—often the very fire-adapted, fire-dependant species foresters are trying to restore. More traditional equipment like grapple skidders and feller bunchers cost less, but require roads and skid trails. Some state-of-the-art machinery, like harvesters and forwarders (that together form a “cut-to-length system” that cuts, limbs and loads trees on the spot) can range far from roads, reducing the number of roads required. Equipped with wide, rubber tires, the machines cause less erosion and soil compression than traditional equipment, and they can process small-diameter fir thickets that may be impractical to log otherwise. But together they cost about $700,000.
Every technique has benefits, each has faults. Much depends on the types of trees to be cut, when they are cut, the nature of the terrain where they grow, the going price of lumber and pulp, and whether the trees are on public or private land. Logging on private lands tends to have a more singular focus. Expensive, time-consuming thinnings and prescribed burns don’t boost the bottom line of timber company ledgers. And timber companies are in business to make money. If they don’t, a lot of elk habitat could be sold and used for other profit-making ventures—like subdivisions or exclusive hunting resorts.
In contract, agencies charged with stewardship of public lands may view logging to restore and maintain healthy forests as essential, even if they have to do it without making a profit—much like they use controlled burns to maintain healthy elk winter range. Like prescribed fire, logging can be an important way to restore natural vigor to a forest.