Forest Health Focus: Clearcut Proof on the Landscape, Forest Growth Cycles Cannot Be Ignored
Analysis of a battle-ground timber harvest show the real ecological story of clearcuts in California''s forests. This controversial harvesting method can be part of a well-planned forest regeneration strategy.
By Brian Rueger
Date Posted: 5/1/2011
Just inside the Giant Sequoia National Monument, southeast of Visalia at about 6,000 feet, three trees each greater than 10 feet in diameter tower over a landscape of young pines, firs and not-yet giant sequoias. Shrubs thrive between the trees. There are abundant signs of wildlife, and hikers are rewarded with crisp air and spectacular views.
The scene is perfect for a peaceful lunch. It looks nothing like a battlefield or desert wasteland.
Mid-way up the hill, a sequoia tree about 30 feet tall that can’t be more than 25 years old obscures the view of the trees that became known as “the three sisters.” Many young sequoias here have sprouted from seeds of those giants; other trees were planted by hand.
This is the site of the three sisters clearcut, an area that sparked controversy, lawsuits and bitter arguments in the late 1980s. In 1986 the USDA Forest Service treated this land to enhance sequoia regeneration and guard against high-intensity wildfire that could pose a significant threat to the ancient trees. Activists cried foul and blocked additional forest management in the area. Media coverage reached fever pitch and continued into the early 1990s.
By the mid-1980s, decades of aggressive fire-suppression policies had allowed unprecedented fuel loads to accumulate throughout many Sierra Nevada forests. Suppressing low-intensity fires that for centuries had cleared the forest floor and scarred but not mortally harmed mature sequoias raised the risk of high-intensity wildfire – fire severe enough to significantly weaken the naturally fire-resistant trees.
Planned Forest Regeneration
The management technique the Forest Service employed was not actually a clearcut, but an even-aged management practice more accurately described as a seed-tree retention treatment. Most of the vegetation on the site was removed via harvest or low-level fire introduced following harvest activity. The mature sequoias were counted on to help regenerate the forest, and other seedlings were planted to protect soils and accelerate reforestation.
Environmentalist sounded alarm bells and warned the Forest Services’ actions would doom the giant sequoias. A November 11, 1987 San Diego Tribune article noted the Sierra Club claim that site characteristics would “make reforestation impossible.” A headline in the May 1990 Audubon Magazine declared “They’ve Been Raping the Giant Sequoias.” The May 24, 1992 San Francisco Examiner quoted assertions that the site would turn into high desert and “trees will never grow on this site.”
Now, some 25 years after the harvest, a vibrant young forest surrounds the three majestic trees. Soils were not lost to mass-erosion as prognosticated. Where doomsayers forecast deforestation, abundant growth appears on the landscape.
California’s forestlands are too valuable to have decisions over how to manage them influenced by inflammatory rhetoric. Roughly 75% of California’s drinking water originates in forested watersheds, more than 500,000 acres burn on average every year and severe wildfire is on the rise. Climate change, beetle infestations and overcrowding are stressing forest resources like never before. As our state’s population continues to rise, greater demands will be placed on finite forest resources.
The three sisters site was not a pretty picture immediately after the 1986 harvest or the prescribed burn that followed. But forests grow and progress through cycles. Forests are dynamic ecosystems that cannot be preserved in a single moment of time. Forest management, therefore, cannot be viewed accurately in a single snapshot and efforts to distort debates based on an isolated image act as a disservice to those charged with actively conserving forest resources.
Natural Forest Cycles
Harvested sites may not be attractive, but ugly and devastating are two different things. Even-aged management, like all forestry, is a regenerative technique. Forestry in California requires replanting by law – harvest is not the end but part of a cycle in which trees age and biodiversity shifts across land and time. Fears that forest management will lead to deforestation, decimate biodiversity or degrade water quality generally stem from a tendency to view harvesting as an isolated activity when it fact it cannot be.
Californians face tough choices regarding their forests and how to manage them. There are carbon-sequestration benefits and clean energy to be had, biodiversity and water resources to protect, renewable building-material and recreation opportunities, and wildfire and community safety to be considered.
Our choices will determine how those values are delivered and the condition of the forests we leave our grandchildren. Such decisions should be made in the real-world context of natural cycles and changing threats to forest resources.
Reprinted with permission from California Forests magazine.
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