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Why Is Clearcutting Bad for the Environment?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The environmental effects of clearcutting are often cited by activists who are trying to put a stop to the practice. They include a range of negative results, from loss of habitat to an elevation in stream temperatures which can cause fish to die off, but all of them reflect major changes that can take decades to correct. Numerous activists have suggested more environmentally sustainable alternatives to clearcutting, such as selective logging, and hope that as more consumers become aware of the potential dangers of clearcutting, they will seek out sustainably-harvested timber.

Clearcutting, or clearfelling, is a logging practice which involves completely clearing an area of trees, regardless of their size and usability. Remaining scrub and brush are usually burnt in large burn piles that can cast a smoky haze over the area for several days. A clearcut area may be relatively small, or may span for miles, and is often clearly visible through the air, along with the scars of logging roads cut to access it. The abrupt removal of trees can have a serious environmental impact on the surrounding area.

Clearcutting may profoundly alter local rivers. If logging comes close to the banks of the river, as it often does, it eliminates the shady shield of trees, which can cause the temperature of the river to elevate. Even a few degrees can make a huge difference to native plants, fish, and amphibians, and can cause a significant population decrease. Numerous organizations monitor global rivers and have warned that extensive clearcutting could result in the extinction of some fish species, as they are driven out of their native habitats. Clearcutting also softens the banks of the river by enabling erosion, which can cause them to collapse into the water.

In addition to harming rivers, clearcutting also alters the water cycle in general. While trees are growing, they help to trap and retain water, along with precious topsoil. When trees are removed, water runs over the surface of the earth rather than filtering into the aquifer. The water runoff can cause flooding, and take valuable topsoil with it. As the water trickles downhill, it carries the topsoil into the river, turning it brown and muddy and carrying the useful nutrients out to sea. The excess of nutrients in the marine environment can be harmful to marine organisms, and cause further population damage, which can sometimes extend for several miles offshore.

Clearcutting also destroys habitat for a wide variety of animals, including many endangered species. Birds, reptiles, and mammals all face habitat destruction due to clearcutting. Many of these animals have difficulty seeking out new habitats because the surrounding areas may be clearcut or filled with human inhabitants. Some animals have adverse interactions with humans, especially large predator species and animals such as raccoons which adapt readily to human encroachment on their habitat. Others are simply incapable of adapting and quietly die off. The effects often extend into the surrounding ecosystem as well, by removing a link in the local food chain.

The results of clearcutting are not only felt in the immediate area. Clearcutting also has an impact on the quality of the atmosphere, beginning when the trees are cut down. Trees help to filter pollutants from the air, and are also an important part of the carbon cycle. Removing trees has a direct impact on the environment, especially when combined with slash-and-burn practices which result in scorched earth and in a serious increase of environmental pollutants.

Because of the numerous negative effects of clearcutting, many people concerned about the environment are trying to educate consumers about the practice. It is possible to obtain sustainable lumber, such as that labeled by the Forest Stewardship Council. By purchasing sustainably harvested lumber, consumers send a message to logging companies that they want healthy wood from healthy trees, and an environment which is healthy in the long term.

What Is Clearcutting?

Sometimes referred to as clearfelling, clearcutting is a type of forestry and logging practice that requires most or all trees across a certain area to be cut down. Typically, the practice takes place across 20 or more acres at a time. Because it is the most efficient way to handle lumber, clearcutting is the most common form of tree removal.

What Are the Methods of Clearcutting?

There are several different methods of clearcutting in a forest. The most common method is the standard and involves removing all of the trees in an area whether they have any commercial value or not. Patch and strip methods are also common and refer to felling trees in patches or cutting them in rows at a right angle to winds, respectively. Sometimes, trees are felled with reserves, which means leaving some of them up to act as shelters for wildlife.

The final two methods of clearcutting trees are known as selection cutting and slash-and-burn methods. Selection cutting, which is sometimes known as ecoforestry, is the process of removing selected trees for purposes such as harvesting or forest health. If the process is for a commercial company, it typically involves removing the most expensive timber. The slash-and-burn method refers to cutting and burning forests to make room for agricultural or other types of construction. Sometimes expensive timber will be harvested before burning the rest. Slash-and-burn methods can be sustainable, such as land rotation, or unsustainable, such as palm oil deforestation.

What Are the Advantages of Clearcutting?

Depending on the methods used, some experts do agree that there are advantages to clearcutting trees. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that it creates plenty of open space that allows sunlight to reach the tree seedlings that have made their way into the ground. Over time, those sun-filled seedlings will grow and replenish the land with trees. In the meantime, those created clearings are excellent homes or food locations for some types of wildlife, such as deer, elk, or songbirds.

When it comes to the need for harvesting trees, clearcutting is the most economical method for large groups of them. Additionally, clearcutting creates fewer disturbances on the floor of the forest. When a company enters and clear-cuts trees all at once, there is one disturbance to the soil. When going in multiple times, it creates further disturbances and makes it harder for anything else to thrive there in the future.

What Are the Disadvantages of Clear Cutting?

There can be plenty of disadvantages to clearcutting forests as well. In fact, many environmental organizations are against the practice altogether. The biggest problem people see with clearcutting is habitat disturbance. When a large group of trees is felled all at once, birds, rodents, and other animals that used the trees for shelter or food are displaced and need to flee to other areas. When the habitats are altered to make ways for new construction, it can lead to the animals trying to integrate into human areas and may even cause them to be injured or worse.

Clearcutting trees may also lead to increased streamflow. This means that more water can enter a stream system. There are no trees to take it up and release it in the process known as evapotranspiration. When no trees remove part of the water, more streamflow can lead to more erosion, especially during times of high rain, melting snows, or other high-water occurrences. Additionally, clearcutting removes all the threes at once and it will take a while for that water and sunlight to make the area green. This means that during the waiting process, the felled area will not be aesthetically pleasing to the public.

Are There Rules Regarding Clearcutting Forests?

There are rules regarding clearcutting in some areas. For example, special laws in Oregon require that trees remain as buffers along streams to protect the fish's habitats. In addition, the cut area must leave two trees and two downed logs per acre to act as wildlife habitats. When an area in Oregon is harvested, new seedlings must be planted within two seasons. Clearcutting is limited to 120 acres in the state, and an owner who wants to clearcut more than one area must wait for the first one to green up before cutting the next area. However, not all states have such specific guidelines. If you are planning to clear-cut an area, you'll want to check with your local or state regulations first. If you don't do so, you may find that you need to pay hefty fines.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon358823 — On Dec 13, 2013

The only reason we clear cut forests is to maximize profits. Logging companies may do what is necessary by the law so they can continue to operate but people are in business to make money and will cut corners whenever they can to maximize profits. Trying to spin clear cutting into something that is good for the environment is like explaining the positive effects of smoking.

By anon317914 — On Feb 04, 2013

Clear cutting is a tool used to promote new growth in the forest and also biodiversity. That biodiversity then causes new environments for different types of species. Those species such as rough grouse (especially in the hardwood region) need large plots of young forest for several phases of the year. Also, clear cutting gives oaks and hickories (both big components when dealing with wildlife) a chance to out compete the maples and beeches where they are not very useful for wildlife.

Granted, clearcutting is unsightly or an eye sore, but in the long run, it really helps the forest by preserving the biodiversity that most people want. Forests are meant to be that way. To think of clear-cutting a better way, think of it as being natural. Trees get blown down by wind storms, tornadoes and things similar to it, and clearcutting is just a simulation of that in a forest, thus creating biodiversity.

It does cause a little bit of erosion if done at the wrong time of year, but within in a year brambles such as raspberries, blackberries and other native species that are also helpful with wildlife grow in (this is mostly in the hardwoods region on the eastern sides of the states; the western is mostly pine with a couple of exceptions) as pioneer species and eventually seedlings grow back in also. Another problem is invasive species coming into the open area, such as honeysuckle, tree of heaven, and autumn olive.

To explain how this regeneration works, there are a couple of ways. Some are more cost effective while others are natural. One of the ways is by way of the seed bank. The seed bank is a collection of seed from trees that is stored in the soil and the seeds are dormant until the right time presents itself to germinate. This way can be used after clearcutting, but is usually used after a wildfire. Another way is by stump sprouting, with species such as oak, aspen, maple, hickories (I think), ash, yellow poplar or tulip trees just to name a few. The third way is by planting seedlings by hand. This is mostly done for pines and plantations that are used for harvesting purposes.

Most of the other comments have touched on some other parts that are correct. If the proper Best Management Practices are followed, the erosion can be down to nothing if done correctly. Also there are other ways of doing clear cuts, but they are a little bit different compared to clear cutting and I won't go into detail about those.

I hope that this helps out in some way, in answering some questions about clear cutting, by the way this is from someone who is studying forestry.

By anon299131 — On Oct 23, 2012

I think clear cutting is bad because it is taking away the homes of owls!

By anon287954 — On Aug 27, 2012

Can lumber companies in Saskatchewan now cut trees right up to the rivers or lakes' edge? Was this always the case? Who changed the rules?

By anon252267 — On Mar 05, 2012

This is a simplistic article and rooted in the now widely abandoned (among scientists) theory of climax vegetation where "old growth" reigns and every tree is allowed to rot where it falls. Most of what is considered "old growth" grew up when anthropogenic burners (Indians) who had shaped the existing forest communities for thousands of years were killed off by introductions of european disease like smallpox.

Clearcutting is a tool and like any tool can be used correctly or incorrectly. Drawing a line around a forest and declaring it protected and that to let "nature take its course" is not good science, since no forests in the U.S. grew up in absence of manipulation by man. The goal should be to foster resilient ecosystems, not adhere to old outdated practices. Sustainable forestry is a part of that.

By anon241548 — On Jan 19, 2012

I think clearcutting is bad. Animals may be there to build homes where there were old trees or their homes were before.

By anon200507 — On Jul 27, 2011

The dangers of clear-cutting and deforestation are well known. But the industry uses pseudo-scientist shills to sell their crazy plans in communities all over the world. One example is found in the Hudson Valley of NY, where a town "conservation chairman" named George Baum supported the NYS DEC's plan to clear-cut the forest on Mount Nimham, a recreational area in Kent NY, including the use of herbicides on steep slopes running into the NYC watershed. So watch out for these shills in your community!

By anon185545 — On Jun 12, 2011

i really need to know how a forest regenerates itself after being cut!

By anon162086 — On Mar 22, 2011

If it were healthy for the forest, then it would cut itself down and burn itself.

By anon111420 — On Sep 16, 2010

Clearcuts are very good for the big corporations that dominate the timber industry in that it reduces their costs and maximizes their profits when they cut everything in an area and replant one or two species.

The problem is that the natural habitat is destroyed without consideration of the long-term impacts. Fire hazard is actually increased by even growth replanting; monoculture plantations are more subject to pine beetle infestation, and they require heavy use of pesticides which pollute the stream and rivers.

Smaller timber companies made a decent profit for generations by selective cutting, and were able to come back and cut again and again within one generation.

State and federal agencies both have tended to allow the timber industry giants to do whatever they choose. The reality of this policy is a gradual deforestation of the American West, lost species, and a worsening of global warming.

Residents of the Sierra Nevada support good forest practices, but clear cutting is not in the public's or the planet's interests. But it is a reality.

By anon71886 — On Mar 20, 2010

This article, like many, focused on clear cutting and/or clear felling are quick to draw a conclusion. The issue that is not being addressed is the regeneration aspect of the forest operation itself.

One could visit a farmer's field in the fall after the crop has been removed and draw conclusions about the land owners lack of respect for the environment. This is not the case, as most of the population assumes that the farmer will replant a crop the following year and within a year the area looks the same as it did a year before.

A natural or managed forest will do the same in a longer time span.

Clear cutting is not a detrimental forest disturbance in forests that are driven by disturbance, i.e., Boreal or Taiga forest. Disturbances such as harvesting or wildfires with great environmental impacts often improve biodiversity exponentially and reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by the decay of organic material.

Concerns about erosion and geographic site damage are addressed with proper harvesting techniques and more importantly regeneration techniques that are required by law in Canada under sustainable forest management framework policies and certifications.

Illegal harvesting is a problem in developing countries. However this is a consumer issue, not an environmental issue. Certified sustainable wood fiber supplies are available on the global market, however one must pay to play in a market where consumers want to be environmentally conscious and are ill-informed on forest sourced products.

Articles like this one often paint a negative picture for one of few industries that offer products that are naturally sourced, biodegradable, and stimulate environmental rehabilitation.

If the goal of this article is to bring awareness to the environmental impacts of wood harvesting, the article should at least provide a more environmentally conscious alternative product source.

By anon63357 — On Feb 01, 2010

tell me more about loss of habitat. other than that it was really good!

By anon54782 — On Dec 02, 2009

A clear cut removes trees in hopes of good regeneration, and good regeneration usually occurs after a clear cut. The new growth is forced to compete with one another, which allows only the fastest growing, healthiest, and best quality trees to survive. This insures that the forest will be healthy in the future.

Also, it's not like the clear cut area will never produce oxygen again. The trees will regenerate after over a few years, and the area will get back to producing O2 and filtering the air. The "loss of oxygen and the deprived air quality" will not be permanent, so don't make a huge deal of it and say it's the end of the world.

Sometimes a forest stand needs clear cuts. IF the forest stand is compromised of bad genetics, a clear cut will give a chance to start over, make the forest healthy. A clear cut also adds another diverse area for wildlife. The field that is created by clear cuts adds another wildlife habitat the some animals love.

Your article describes how clear cuts never leave buffer zones and erosion is a gigantic problem. If the loggers perform proper BMP's, then they will put in rain bars to stop erosion, culverts a the merging of streams, and only build roads on the least slope. When loggers do this, and leave proper buffer zones for streams, then the erosion will be minimal. Just because a few clear cuts may have been performed incorrectly, it doesn't mean that all clear cuts are bad.

By anon52147 — On Nov 11, 2009

it was very good!

By Gemraticus — On Apr 23, 2008

Clear cutting can certainly be bad for the environment, for ecosystems, for animal populations. However, one really cannot say that clear cuts are *all* bad. It depends on the size of the clear cut, whether or not stream buffers were left, and how the site was prepped. The type of clear cut you describe, particularly the miles-wide one, is more of an equatorial type of clear cut - definitely not an example of sustainable forestry! In the United States, we have fairly sustainable silvicultural practices (in general... not always). Forests in the temperate regions also bound back relatively quickly from a clear cut. And many forest types, particularly southeastern hardwoods, respond well to clearcuts. Not usually so in the tropics, however, due (often) to the soil characteristics.

I'm not a proponent of clear cuts. However, I recognize several things: (1) people use wood, (2) wood is a renewable resource, unlike plastic which is typically derived from petroleum, or metals which are mined from the earth and have a much more severe and lasting effect on the planet than most all logging practices; and (3) people in the United States buy wood products, and they couldn't care less about where that wood is from - hence if you walk into Walmart or Crate & Barrel or Pottery Barn or Pier 1 Imports, you will find many beautiful, cheap 'hardwood' things that are made in Indonesia or China.

We have created a system where, on the one hand we can enjoy our forests and be proud of our 'National Heritage,' and on the other we can purchase cheap wood products from countries like Indonesia. Indonesian forests are being decimated at an appalling rate (~83% of all logging in Indonesia is illegal, according to WWF). But are we concerned with this? Not really... we're concerned with whether or not there's a clear cut in a National Forest nearby, or in the Redwoods, but beyond our borders the whole idea of sustainable silvicultural practices is conveniently forgotten.

This is my dilemma. I have been thinking about this for a while now. We have a relatively decent, relatively sustainable forestry service here in the U.S. (by comparison). But buying wood that was actually harvested here and MADE here (interestingly, it is cheaper to ship our logs to China, have folks there make stuff, then send it back here to sell - is that mad or what!?!) is almost an impossible task, although it would do so much for our environmental karma.

Ultimately (I need to get off my soapbox and get to bed), at the very least if we were in the habit of buying wood products from home, it would be our problem to deal with. As things are now, we have taken our consumption problem and shipped it overseas, putting pressure on poor equatorial countries to rapidly deplete their landscape of natural resources for a quick buck. So back to my original point - clear cutting might be bad, but it isn't all that bad. If we, in the United States, were to consume our own forests instead of other peoples' forests, then we would probably have to have more clear cuts, but we have such a strong appreciation of our forests here that we would certainly be better equipped to deal with the problem than a country like Indonesia. So... more small clear cuts. Beyond that, it would be more a question of whether it would be single species, or mixed species, what thinning practices would be used, if prescribed burning is necessary, etc. All dependent upon the region. Sounds horrifying? Maybe, but at least it would be us dealing with our own rapacious consumption, instead of forcing it upon others.

Sorry if this wasn't organized well. It's late and I'm tired! :o)

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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