My Turn: Clearcuts can be part of healthy forest
I support Mr. Nicolls in his defense of foresters, and second his portrayal of them as highly dedicated professionals (Jan. 29 My Turn). However, I take issue with some of his comments about clearcuts, and would like to offer a slightly different perspective.
Clearcutting is an efficient and economic means of harvesting trees, and for regenerating a new forest. If production of wood fiber is your only objective, clearcutting serves well.
However, clearcutting also has profound and long-lasting effects that are less desirable from the standpoint of other resources (esthetics, recreation, fish and wildlife). In 1992, Dale Robertson, then chief of the U.S. Forest Service, responded to these concerns by directing the service to reduce clearcutting on national forest lands by up to 70 percent. He urged "greater use of individual tree selection, group selection, green tree retention, seed tree, and other regeneration cutting methods...." Interestingly, the policy originated within the professional ranks of the Forest Service - it did not come from a Clinton appointee. The policy is still regularly cited in Tongass planning documents.
Today, clearcutting remains a dominant harvest method only on some larger western forests, and the Tongass. But even here, we see a growing push towards alternatives. The Forest Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game conducted retrospective studies in the mid-1990s to examine the effects of selection logging on forest health and wildlife habitat. The findings show that many of the fears foresters had about spruce regeneration, windthrow, and growth rates of residual trees were unfounded.
If trees are harvested individually, or in small groups of two-three, natural gaps are maintained and understory flourishes, much as it does in a natural old-growth forest. Whether such harvest methods are economical remains an open question, but the Forest Service is beginning to test these waters by offering timber sales that feature modest alternatives to old-style clearcutting.
Change is always hard. The timber industry in Southeast Alaska has been turned upside down by the depressed Pacific Rim economy, the closure of the pulp mills, and public concerns about logging-related impacts on fish, wildlife and recreation. Forging solutions to these difficult problems will require money, patience and a wide vision. Foresters will clearly have a big role to play in that creative effort.