(Originally published at National Geographic under the title, “Is Clearcutting U.S. Forests Good for Wildlife?“)
Coming upon a clear-cut in an old forest is a jolting experience. Trees large and small are collapsed one atop the other in tangled jackstraw piles, corpse-like amid ragged stumps, and the ground is rutted with the tracks of heavy machinery. Such was the scene on the August day last year when forest activist Zack Porter and I hiked a newly built logging road in the Pittenden Inventoried Roadless Area, part of Vermont’s 400,000-acre Green Mountain National Forest.
Porter is executive director of Standing Trees, a citizen’s group in Montpelier, Vermont, that lobbies for environmental protection of New England’s forests. The U.S. Forest Service established this 16,000-acre roadless area in 2006, Porter says, but in 2019 the agency reversed its own administrative protections and allowed logging companies access to clear-cut portions of the Pittenden. Porter describes clear-cutting, which involves taking out most or all trees in a given area, as “brutalizing the landscape,” and many other environmentalists see it the same way.
Clear-cutting in federal and state forests has long been widespread and controversial. But now, the Forest Service’s Early Successional Habitat Creation Project represents new reasoning—which is hotly debated—that clear-cutting benefits native fauna. Just about every northern state east of the Great Plains, from Michigan to Maine, has implemented some version of what can be called “logging for wildlife.”
The thinking is that clear-cutting done judiciously can mimic natural disturbances, for example, from insect invasions or from storms toppling older trees, that produce what ecologists call early successional habitat—places where young trees and shrubs predominate and animals that depend on such habitat thrive.
The practice is how the Forest Service justifies its approved commercial timber sales in the Pittenden and seven other formerly roadless areas in Green Mountain National Forest, where loggers are now opening roads and clear-cutting some 15,000 acres of trees.
There’s no exact figure for the total number of acres targeted for clear-cutting under this paradigm, but forest activists say it’s likely in the hundreds of thousands. According to an estimate from the activist group Massachusetts Forest Watch, in that state alone more than 85 percent of the 200,000 acres managed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife may be clear-cut to create young, open habitat.
The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection praises clear-cutting, noting that it is “one of the most maligned and misunderstood forest regeneration treatments.”
Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources asserts that forests “can only be saved by being destroyed”—by keeping them young. For Americans, the agency says, “this means a steady supply of biomass fuel, timber, and wood pulp; it means crisp fall days hunting deer, bear, grouse, and woodcock; it means birdwatchers prowling spring thickets raucous with the songs of warblers returning on migration.”
The Young Forest Project, which is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, now counts among its scores of members “natural resource agencies, wildlife organizations, businesses, land trusts, the U.S. military, universities and colleges, [and] foresters,” according to its website. Members are advised “where to make young forest [and] how to do it the best way.” “Guess what,” the project says, “clearcutting isn’t necessarily bad!”
Some of the biggest, most influential conservation groups are boosters too. Among the Young Forest Project’s partners are the Nature Conservancy, Harvard Forest, Appalachian Mountain Club, and numerous state Audubon societies, including storied Mass Audubon, the nation’s oldest state Audubon Society.
Timber interests are enthusiastic about the approach because it lets them profit from cutting trees while claiming the mantle of conservation. Hunting groups favor it because a younger, less dense forest makes it easier to find the game and birds they’re tracking.
“A lot of people don’t like logging because they view it as destructive,” says Forest Service wildlife biologist Dave King, who’s one of the agency’s most vocal proponents of cutting to maintain young forests. “I used to be one of those people.”
In 2014, King, who’s been with the Forest Service for 22 years and a professor of natural resources conservation at the University of Massachusetts since 1999, published a comprehensive study for the journal Forest Ecology and Management that reviewed the evidence for the “conservation value” of cutting trees to create young forest habitat.
“There are so many studies illustrating the benefits of logging to native bird species,” King says. This approach, he argues, expanded populations of sought-after game birds such as ruffed grouse, woodcock, bobwhites, and wild turkeys. And, he says, it boosted populations of certain migratory perching birds in New England.
Porter, for one, is skeptical. Allowing some of the oldest standing trees in New England to be removed amounts to a dereliction of duty on the part of the federal government, he says.
“What we’re doing here is going into forests that are farthest on their way to producing the clean water, clean air, carbon storage, and biodiversity that we need most from our public lands,” he says as we walk among lovely mixed hardwoods and evergreens that are slated for logging. “We shouldn’t be liquidating them for short-term gain.”
Young forests are for the birds
The point person at Mass Audubon for spreading the word about the value of early successional forest management is Tom Lautzenheiser, a 47-year-old conservation ecologist who’s been with the organization since 2003. “We’re in the middle of two crises, a biodiversity crisis and a climate crisis,” Lautzenheiser says. “The biodiversity crisis is in part driven by habitat loss and habitat degradation, and one way to address that is to create habitat. That’s the thinking here.”
He singled out the white-throated sparrow, a songbird that depends on young open woodlands whose population has been declining across the Northeast since the 1960s. Following the decline of farming in Massachusetts, forests have grown back and matured, to the point that today relatively older forests make up 60 percent of the state.
The white-throated sparrow’s soft spritely whistle was more common in New England when Lautzenheiser was a young man growing up in the Boston suburbs, and the birds had more habitat. “I’d prefer not to live in a landscape where the sound of the white-throated sparrow disappears or is so rare that it may as well not occur at all,” he says. “Thoughtful forest management can be part of shepherding this species and others through this challenging time.”
Other birds Mass Audubon sees as needing to be shepherded include the eastern towhee, the chestnut-sided warbler, and the blue-winged and golden-winged warblers. They all prefer more open woodland, Lautzenheiser says. They’re “species where intervention can still make a difference to their regional populations.”
Yet according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which collects population data on bird species in North America, all the birds identified as needing logging for wildlife—except one, the golden-winged warbler—are common, and in little danger, across their ranges. None of the game species—American woodcock, bobwhites, quails, ruffed grouse, and others—are in the least bit endangered; they’re so common in fact that they’re heavily hunted every year. As for the white-throated sparrow, Cornell reports that it’s an “abundant” species of low conservation concern.
Young forests don’t help with the climate crisis
In 2019, a bill, H.897, was introduced in Massachusetts that would make all state-owned public lands off-limits to commercial logging. It would provide sweeping forest protections no other state has ever adopted and serve as a national model to preserve wild forests intact, specifically to function as carbon sinks—places that mitigate global warming by capturing a lot of carbon.
Climate activist and author Bill McKibben lauded H.897 as “the cheapest and quickest step the people of Massachusetts can take…to mitigate climate change.” The doyen of conservation biologists, the late Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson, declared the bill “the single most important action the people of the state can take to preserve our natural heritage.”
That Mass Audubon joined arms with the timber industry to defeat the bill shows how fervently the organization believes in the logging-for-wildlife approach to managing forests. Spearheading opposition to H.897, Mass Audubon signed an open letter to legislators urging them not to pass it. “We do not think the best way to maximize the contribution of forests to addressing climate change is to prohibit timber harvest on all state lands,” the letter said. Other signatories included the New England Forestry Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, and the Environmental League of Massachusetts.
Bill Moomaw, a climate scientist and forest ecologist at Tufts University, says this is wrong-headed. Leave forests alone, Moomaw says, and carbon uptake will skyrocket. Indeed, older forests with larger trees hold disproportionately more carbon, according to a 2018 global study. Half of the carbon, the researchers found, is in the largest one percent of trees.
In a 2019 study, Moomaw and his forest ecologist co-authors, Susan Masino and Edward Faison, concluded that “intact forests”—defined as “largely free from human intervention”—are “the most carbon-dense and biodiverse terrestrial ecosystems.” In the U.S., temperate and boreal forests already “remove sufficient atmospheric CO2 to reduce national annual net emissions by 11 percent,” they reported. Older or intact forests in the U.S., they noted, would remove CO2 and store carbon much more rapidly.
In New England, forests protected from logging are capable of storing 2.3 to 4.2 times more carbon than they do now, according to a 2011 report in Forest Science. And a recent study found that old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest hold nearly twice as much carbon as trees in forests managed for timber production.
Undisturbed soil in old forests traps more carbon too. According to Moomaw, there’s more carbon in the ground in a forest that’s 150 years or older than in the standing trees themselves. That’s because over the decades, annual leaf fall and blowdowns of branches transform into soil that retains ever-greater volumes of carbon.
Are young forests good for biodiversity?
Moomaw says the science is settled that climate mitigation is never served by cutting trees. But what about the claimed need for logging to “maximize biodiversity” in regions such as the Northeast? He and other scientists say this central tenet of the Forest Service’s early successional habitat creation program also crumbles under critical review.
“Of course, a managed forest can be tailored to the needs of individual species, but that is at the expense of greater biodiversity,” Moomaw says. “Greater biodiversity means not just birds but all species. It means fungi that increase the growth and carbon accumulation by forests, bacteria that build soil carbon, lichens that extract minerals from rocks, and pollinators, including insects.”
Forest ecologist Bill Keeton, a professor of forest ecology and forestry at the University of Vermont, compared biodiversity and the “ecosystem services”—clean air and water, for example—that young forests and old forests provide in the northeastern U.S. The study he directed, published in 2019 in the journal Global Change Biology, came to the same conclusion as Moomaw: A hands-off forest policy is best.
Values assigned to ecosystem services and biodiversity were higher for forests defined as 170 years or older. Those forests support higher levels of carbon storage, timber growth, and species richness than younger forests. They’re more resilient in the face of climate change, exhibiting what the researchers called “low climate sensitivity.”
According to Michael Kellett, co-founder and executive director of Restore: The North Woods, a Massachusetts nonprofit, logging-for-wildlife advocates such as Dave King and Tom Lautzenheiser “are dealing in old science.” He says they “disregard the growing scientific consensus that we need to expand lands and waters that are free of ignorant human intrusion and manipulation.” Kellett says their thinking “is ecologically dangerous.”
Kellett suggests one example of a reality that’s ignored: There are no landscape-scale empirical studies over time and over a large area that show logging is needed for wildlife. “There are numerous anecdotal reports, but no long-term, multi-decadal authoritative studies show that what King or Lautzenheiser say is true,” he says.
“Every day, we work to understand and support the central role forests play in solutions to both the climate change and biodiversity loss crises,” says Michael O’Connor, a spokesperson for Mass Audubon. “If anything, the growing scientific consensus recognizes that habitat heterogeneity, including young forests, is key to long-term forest resilience and to avoiding extirpation of associated species.”
Other scientists are skeptical of young forest logging programs. “There’s no conservation reason for creating more early successional habitat,” says John Terborgh, professor emeritus of environmental science at Duke University, in North Carolina, and one of the world’s top conservation biologists. Clear-cutting trees to expand such habitat, he said, “is a bogus argument, ginned up as an excuse for more logging.”
‘Management for arbitrary human preference’
Kellett believes that the adoption of the logging-for-wildlife idea is cultural landscape nostalgia turned into management practice on public lands. “This whole thing is not to restore natural habitat,” he says. “It’s to maintain a human-created artificial landscape that reflects the lived memory of people alive right now. This is management for arbitrary human preference.”
Given that young forest habitats open up over long periods from natural disturbances—floods, windstorms, ice storms, insects killing trees, beavers damming streams and creating meadows—why not simply wait and let those disturbances unfold naturally? “And wait 150 years?” says King, adding that he and like-minded managers want to grow wildlife populations for present generations to enjoy.
From this perspective, Zack Porter’s description of logging for wildlife as liquidation for short-term gain—the short-term gain of favoring habitat for species people today want to see and hunt—seems apt.
The more widespread the movement becomes, the more biologists and ecologists are speaking out against it, Kellett says.
“When looked at from a biodiversity perspective, factoring in ALL species (insects, fungi, etc.) the losses are considerable,” says Rick Enser, a conservation biologist formerly with the Rhode Island Natural Heritage Program, writing in an email. “If clear-cutting plans were subject to an environmental impact statement, in which a proper cost/benefit analysis was conducted, it would be very difficult to justify the true costs.”
Enser says he’s spent most of his 30-year career working to make complex scientific issues more understandable to the public. “That job obviously becomes more difficult when you have the supposed experts reinterpreting the science for their own benefit. So, I often use a good basic statement of fact when giving presentations or writing articles—that being Aldo Leopold‘s quote from the foreword to his Sand County Almanac: ‘We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.’”
Enser adds, “The only thing that needs to be clarified for people is that their government is abuser #1.”