Clearcutting – Right or Wrong

Remarks before the House of Commons Committee on Natural Resources

Ottawa, Canada, April 13, 1994
Patrick Moore, PhD

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you to speak on clearcutting in forestry, a subject that is both controversial and highly complex in nature.

I am particularly appreciative of this opportunity to speak as a life-long environmentalist, a founding member of Greenpeace who served for 15 years as an international director and campaign leader, and as a member of a family that has worked in the forest industry for over 90 years. I hold a Bachelor of Science degree in Forest Biology and a Doctoral degree in Resource Ecology. I was a founding member of the B.C. Round Table on the Environment and Economy on which I served for four years. As Chair of the Forest Practices Committee of the Forest Alliance of B.C. I am working to develop higher standards for environmental performance in the industry.

The Forest Alliance is a B.C. forest industry-sponsored initiative to respond proactively and progressively to the environmental challenges faced by the industry today. The Alliance is a non-profit, non-government organization, registered as a Society in B.C. It has a board of directors of some 30 citizens from all walks of life and all parts of the province. The mission of the Alliance is to assist industry in developing and implementing sustainable forest practices and to inform the public of all aspects of forests and forestry.

The directors of the Forest Alliance believe there is no other sensible course than to find the appropriate balance between the environmental and economic values that are derived from forests. It is absolutely essential that representative areas of forest ecosystems be preserved as parks and wilderness areas. The Forest Alliance supports the B.C. government program to double the area of land in parks and wilderness to 12% of the land base. It is also essential that forestry and forest harvesting be continued as they are the economic backbone of our province and indeed of much of Canada. We therefore support the maintenance of large areas of managed forest lands, where forestry must be practiced on a sustainable basis.

Many Canadians would be surprised to learn that Canada accounts for fully 25% of all international trade in forest products, amounting to $25 billion annually. This means Canada has by far the largest stake of any country in demonstrating to the world community that we are practicing forestry in an environmentally acceptable manner. The Forest Alliance believes the best way to achieve this goal is through the negotiation of international agreements and conventions on the definition of sustainable forest practices. These negotiations must include governments, industry, and environmental groups. We call on the government of Canada to give more support to their representatives who are presently working towards this goal through the UNCED (United Nations Commission on Environment and Development) process with too little official recognition.

One of the more confusing aspects of the debate over forestry involves the distinction between forests that are protected as parks versus forested areas that are managed for timber production.

In order to gain public support for wilderness protection, the environmental movement has found it effective to contrast images of pristine wilderness with images of recently clearcut forests, especially with examples of the worst looking practices available. The public is therefore led to believe that the choice is one between natural beauty and total destruction, with nothing in between. In fact, the land use plans of every jurisdiction include areas designated both for wilderness and for forest management. Where forest management is designated only about one percent of the land is cut in any given year and it takes only about ten years for the clearcut site to become aesthetically pleasing again. Therefore, even in areas where clearcutting is practiced, the land is only rendered “unsightly” for about 10% of the total forest growth cycle.

When considering the subject of clearcutting in forestry it is necessary to begin with a broad overview of land use patterns. There are three main categories of human development on the land: urban and industrial, agriculture, and managed forests. The delineation between these types of land use is seen most sharply in regions of high population density such as western Europe and Asia. It is important to recognize the fact that most urban and agricultural land represents clearcuts that have not been reforested. The deforestation of land for urban and agricultural purposes must be clearly distinguished from the reforestation of land that occurs after clearcutting in forest management. Some environmental groups have taken to using the term deforestation as synonymous with clearcutting even when the area is subsequently reforested with native trees. This leads to the impression that every area cut becomes a wasteland when, in fact, the record of successful reforestation in Canada is very impressive by world standards.

Let us state at the outset that the Forest Alliance recognizes that there have been far too many examples of destructive forest practices and that there is good reason for the present high level of public concern over clearcutting and other management issues. We submit, however that it is not the concept of “clearcutting” that is the main problem. Rather it is the manner in which the clearcutting has been carried out, and in particular the manner in which forest roads have been constructed and maintained on steep slopes that has caused the greatest environmental impact on forest lands.

It is our belief that it is somewhat inappropriate to conduct high-level public hearings on the subject of clearcutting as a single and distinct subject. Forestry professionals and scientists are keenly aware of the multitude of other issues and considerations that must be taken into account when discussing whether or not clearcutting is appropriate in a given circumstance. By holding hearings on the single subject of clearcutting, the Committee is to some extent playing into the agenda of those organizations that promote a simplistic approach to a highly complex issue, where “right” and “wrong” are not so easily distinguished. While it may serve some political and ideological ends to promote a black and white interpretation of clearcutting this is not defensible on ecological, economic or social grounds.

It would be more appropriate to conduct hearings into the total and highly interrelated set of topics that form the body of knowledge known as “sustainable forestry”. This requires consideration of environmental, economic and social factors, all of which are necessary to the determination of whether or not a certain management regime is acceptable. It is more than trite to state that the issue of clearcutting is anything but clearcut. This is highlighted by the fact that there isn’t an agreed technical definition for the term, although some reasonable attempts have been made.

The question must be asked, “How large an area of land must be cleared of trees before it can be said that it is a clearcut?” For those who have studied the question it is obvious that there is no precise answer. It depends on the forest type, tree size and composition, climate, and topography. In general, though, it is reasonable in most cases to state that an area of clearing larger than five hectares is a clearcut. Therefore the question before us today could be phrased “Is it appropriate in certain circumstances, on the basis of scientific facts and human values, to clear areas of forest larger than five hectares as a method of extracting timber and establishing a new generation of trees?”

It is the position of the Forest Alliance that some form of clearcutting is the most appropriate form of forest management in many of the forest ecosystem types in B.C. and Canada. The Forest Alliance’s “Principles of Sustainable Forestry” state that “Where clearcutting is silviculturally appropriate it will be done in a manner that satisfies all the Principles of Sustainable Forestry. Other silvicultural systems, such as single tree selection, will be used where they are silviculturally more appropriate, and can be done safely.”

The present campaign to abolish clearcutting is fundamentally misguided on a number of counts. These include ecological, economic and social factors:

  • It is an ecological fact that many types of forest ecosystems function most successfully when they are periodically cleared and allowed to regrow anew from the clearing. This is understandable from an evolutionary perspective. Forested landscapes have always been subjected to periodic catastrophic disturbances from climate change (ice ages), volcanic eruptions, fire, windstorms, insect attacks and disease. Indeed many types of forest ecosystems, particularly in temperate climates such as ours, are more productive when they are periodically disturbed in a catastrophic manner and will slide into decline if not disturbed.
  • In particular, it is not generally recognized how significant the impact of forest fire control has been on what was the historical “natural” cycle of forest destruction and renewal before forest management became practiced over much of the landscape. Clearcutting, in many of the areas it is practiced, has replaced fire as the dominant force for change in the forest and to a considerable extent “mimics” the impact of fire in the evolution and successional development of the forest.
  • It is an often repeated statement that if an old growth forest is cut down it will never be the same again, that it could never return to its former splendor. This is entirely untrue, the only requirement being sufficient time for the successional processes of the forest to recreate the structures and functions that constitute the attributes of an old growth forest. This does not, as we are also led to believe, require 250-500 years in coastal B.C. rainforest. All one has to do is visit Pacific Spirit Park on Point Grey in Vancouver to see that only 60-70 years is required to develop most of the features of old-growth forest in an area that was clearcut and left to regenerate naturally.
  • It is widely recognized amongst foresters that many species of trees do not grow well in the shade of other trees. In the case of these species it is desirable to create some form of opening or clearcut in order to achieve a successful regeneration of a new generation of trees. Many other species of trees, even though they are capable of growing in shade, are far more productive when they have access to the full sunlight provided by clearcutting. Two of B.C.’s most important coastal species, Western Red Cedar and Western Hemlock, are examples of such species that thrive in full sunlight even though they can tolerate shade.
  • A classic example of the benefits of clearcutting in some types of forest is provided by the extensive coastal rainforest of B.C. where Western Hemlock is the dominant species. In nearly all cases, very old-growth hemlock is infested with dwarf mistletoe, a parasitic plant that robs the tree of nutrition and causes stunting and deformity in the limbs. The mistletoe spreads to adjacent trees by shooting out its seeds which settle and germinate on branches of other trees lower in the canopy. If this type of forest is selectively harvested in the first instance, that is if many of the old trees are left standing, the new seedlings quickly become infected and the resulting new forest will be unhealthy and unproductive. When an old-growth hemlock stand is clearcut, as if it were completely blown down in a hurricane, the mistletoe infection is usually eliminated and the new forest is healthy and highly productive.
  • Some environmental groups have taken to using the term “destructive clearcutting” as if it were synonymous with the term “clearcutting”. This is a highly propagandist use of the language as it gives the impression that there is no such thing as “non-destructive clearcutting”. If we use the comparisons of agriculture and fisheries and employed the word “destructive” in a similar fashion then all farming and fishing could be termed “destructive” because they result in the death of many plants and animals. The real test of whether or not the use of a living resource is destructive or not should be based on sustainability. The Forest Alliance believes it essential to distinguish between “destructive clearcutting” (and destructive forestry in general) and “clearcutting that is not destructive to the forest’s ability to regenerate its biodiversity and produce another harvest of wood”. Therefore the Alliance rejects the practice of using the term “destructive clearcutting” as if it were synonymous with “clearcutting” in general.
  • There are many other ecological considerations that can lead to the decision that some form of clearcutting is the most desirable method of harvesting particular types of forest. These include consideration of soil protection from machinery and roadbuilding, preservation of biodiversity, and provision of habitat for species that prefer recently cleared areas. We would be pleased to provide the Committee with such additional examples.
  • From an economic perspective there is no doubt that clearcutting is often the most efficient method of extracting timber from forests. This is true on a sustainable basis, however, only in forests that are capable of regenerating successfully after clearcutting. If clearcutting were to reduce or destroy the forest’s ability to regenerate it would also damage the future economics of the operation on that site. This is particularly true in some of the more marginal forest ecosystems such as very dry sites and high altitude forests. On these sites it is often more appropriate to use alternative systems such as partial cutting or single tree selection.
  • At a social level one of the most important considerations in favour of the clearcutting method in many types of forests is worker safety. It is no exaggeration to state that in some of the heavy old-growth forests on the west coast it would be virtually suicidal to practice single tree selection. The trees are too big and there are too many rotten tops and limbs to risk falling timber in amongst other trees. I worked for two years as a bullbucker (the person who looks after the fallers and fixes their chain saws) on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island and can testify to this fact. The reason it is possible to practice more selection and small patch logging in the Swiss and Austrian Alps is because the forest is all second growth and much easier to manage. It will no doubt be possible to manage the second growth in a similar manner in coastal B.C. when the time comes to harvest it.

This leads to another important issue that has both ecological and social dimensions. One of the myths perpetrated in the forestry debate is that we could manage the old-growth forests for timber production while at the same time retaining all the features and values of the old-growth forest. Most foresters with experience in a wide range of ecosystems will agree that in fact it is very difficult, if not impossible, to actually manage old-growth forests. If it were easily accomplished there would be no need to establish parks and wilderness areas as distinct from areas where the forest is managed. From a practical perspective, therefore, the choice must be made as to where the old-growth forest will be preserved for parks and wilderness and where the forest will be converted to managed second growth on a sustainable basis. This leads again to the need for a clearly defined land use plan that sets out the areas designated for these uses.

Perhaps the most controversial social issue in forestry and particularly regarding clearcutting is the concern for aesthetics and the popular perception that clearcuts are ugly. This is perhaps the area where the single greatest injustice to truth has been perpetrated by the extremist element in the environmental movement. It is best summed up by an often repeated statement that forms the main thesis of the Sierra Club’s recent publication “Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry”. The statement reads “Anyone can identify destructive forest practices. You don’t have to be a professional forester to recognize bad forestry any more than you have to be a doctor to recognize ill health. If logging looks bad, it is bad. If a forest looks mismanaged it is mismanaged.” I suppose this means that we have among us a breed of wise environmentalists who have no need to practice safe sex because they can spot a person with the HIV virus just by looking at them. Clearly it is ludicrous to take the position that the good or bad of a situation can be judged simply by looking at it. Surely the term “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” applies equally to forestry as it does to art, human anatomy, food, etc. Certainly it must be accepted that some things that look bad are bad whereas others are not and conversely some things that look good are good whereas others are not. This holds especially true when applying what might be termed the “urban aesthetic” to rural scenes such as clearcutting. The rough and jumble of stumps and woody debris just doesn’t look very “neat and tidy” to people who are familiar with clean streets and perpendicular lines.

· Indeed, much of the thrust of the radical environmental position on forestry has to do with equating the urban sense of aesthetics with the morality of forest practices. They would do well to go back and consult with one of the founders of modern environmentalism, Garrett Hardin. In 1968 he published a seminal essay on environmentalism and sustainability titled “The Tragedy of the Commons” in which he explored the historical roots of environmental degradation of the land. One of the more enlightening passages in the paper stated that “the morality of an act cannot be determined from a photograph. One does not know whether a man killing an elephant or setting fire to a grassland is harming others until one knows the total system in which his act appears. It is tempting to ecologists as it is to reformers in general to try to persuade others via the photographic shortcut. But the guts of an argument can’t be photographed: they must be presented rationally – in words.”

  • It is quite obvious that the centrepiece of the campaign against clearcutting is the use of photographs that depict one snapshot in time and space of recent clearcuts on forested lands. The worst examples, from both aesthetic and ecological bases, are used to convince the largely urban public that these acts are immoral and cause lasting if not permanent destruction of the land. The truth is that the land is ever-changing and clearcuts, however vast, will heal themselves even in the absence of human assistance. It is a popular slogan that when an old forest is cut it will never be the same again. This is true but it is equally true to state that if it is not cut it will also never be the same again, as the land is forever changing.
  • There is another important point to be made on the subject of what is often termed a “hidden agenda” in today’s jargon. I refer to the fact that in many instances the real reason for the campaign against clearcutting is not a concern about forest practices but is an effort to prevent forest management altogether, that is to maintain the forest as wilderness. This is a perfectly legitimate aim of individuals and organizations that wish to protect something of what remains of wild nature on the planet. But it is not legitimate to disguise the effort to preserve wilderness in the form of a campaign aimed at a particular silvicultural practice. This only confuses the situation further and leads to a reduced ability on the part of the public to understand the real choices between protection and management.

Having made these points I will now turn to the specific questions raised by the Committee in its news release announcing these hearings.

Clear definitions of clearcutting, selective logging and selection logging. Clearcutting, as defined earlier, is the removal of all, or virtually all the trees over a given area. The area is usually reforested either by natural regeneration or with the assistance of planted seedlings.

Selective logging, otherwise know as :”high grading” or “creaming” is generally a destructive method in which only the best trees are cut and the forest is gradually degraded to a commercially useless state. This was what caused Sweden, in particular, to adopt clearcutting followed by reforestation as the preferred method of forestry.

Selection logging refers to a silvicultural system where only some of the trees are cut but in such a manner as to maintain the productivity and commercial value of the forest. There are a variety of selection systems including single tree selection, partial cutting, small group selection, and patch cutting (which is basically small clearcuts).

A portrait of current harvesting practices throughout Canada
This would require several books. Suffice it to say that clearcutting is practiced throughout Canada, on at least 80% of forest lands, and is considered to be the most appropriate form of harvesting for sustainable forestry in many areas.

The environmental and economic impacts and benefits of clearcutting
Again many volumes are required to cover this topic but some of the more important features were expressed earlier.

“New forestry” and “ecoforestry” concepts”
Canada has some of the most ecologically based forestry practices and policies in the world. (See attached paper “Sustainable Forestry in the Global Context”). There are many good ideas in these areas as well as many that are impractical and based on misinformation.

Logging practices in other countries
Please refer to the attached paper, “Can B.C. Learn From European Forestry Practices?

Referring to the more specific questions raised in the news release of the Committee:

What exactly is clearcutting?
· Clearcutting is not something exact. One might ask “How many contiguous stumps make a clearcut?’ There is no precise answer but it might be generally accepted that in most cases a clearing of more than 5 hectares is a clearcut.

Is it a legitimate, ecologically sound, forest management activity?
· Under certain circumstances and in keeping with many other requirements, yes. It is not legitimate in some instances,particularly where forest renewal is made difficult due to the change in microclimate brought about by clearing.

Or is it merely the most expedient and economical method of harvesting trees?
· The use of the word “merely” is somewhat pejorative in this question. It is more accurate to state that in many cases it is “also” the most economical method (as well as the most ecological). It is often incorrectly assumed that ecological and economic values are always and invariably at odds with each other. While this is sometimes, and even often the case, it is certainly not a universal truth.

Is it the most appropriate silvicultural prescription for many even-aged forest stands?
· Yes. Most even-aged forest stands have a history of catastrophic disturbance that resulted in a new forest springing up from a clearing caused by fire or wind. Although the analogy is not perfect, clearcutting is the closest form of management for timber production to the natural cycle of fire and wind disturbance.

Or is it the ruination of an ecosystem?
· This depends on one’s perspective of time and sense of aesthetics. I can walk through forests my grandfather clearcut 70 years ago. They are beautiful, healthy, productive, and just as biodiverse as the one he cut down. Foresters recognize the difficulty of communicating the time scale involved in forest renewal. Some species of trees have life spans that are many times that of humans and some types of forest require longer than a human life span to regenerate completely. These issues of time are no different for forest renewal than for other long-term phenomena such as biological evolution and mountain building.

Does clearcutting really mimic natural processes such as fire or insect infestations?
· It is important to recognize that the word “mimic” is being used as an analogy and not as if it were perfectly synonymous. The important point is whether or not clearcutting is sustainable on the basis that it is sufficiently similar to “natural’ disturbances such as fire, wind, and insects. The Forest Alliance believes that in many cases it is.

What are the short and long term impacts of clearcutting on the environment?
· There are many scholarly papers on this subject which I am sure the academic presenters will provide to the Committee.

Does clearcutting provide or destroy wildlife habitat?
· Clearcutting both destroys and provides wildlife habitat. There is no doubt that some species prefer permanent forest cover. All species are adapted to survive the temporary loss of some forest cover or they would not have survived down through the ages. Many species prefer clearings where the sunlight reaches the ground and produces more berries and other food for foraging wildlife. Clearcutting on a sustainable basis creates a more biodiverse and productive landscape than if it were all in dense old-growth. It is no secret that aboriginal people regularly burned off forest to provide more grazing land for deer, elk, and moose. As a child, growing up with the rainforest in my back yard, it was obvious that there were more berries in the clearcuts and more food for wild game. It is, however, important to preserve some old-growth in all areas to protect those species that prefer or require it.

This short paper only scratches the surface of a most complex and thoroughly interesting subject. It might be said that forests and forestry are among the most complex subjects known. Forests harbour the majority of living species and represent the most significant interface between the world of human invention and the world of wild evolution. Forests are more complicated than computers, medicine, language, and human history combined.

For this reason, in particular, I urge all the members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources to go into the forests across our great country and learn all that you can about the fascinating history and present knowledge of this spectacular variety of ecosystems. You will find that while there is no doubt that our civilization is causing great changes and impacts in the forest it is not all bad and there is much hope for a sustainable future in the forests of this land.

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