Clear cutting can be an option for managing pioneer tree species

Proper forest clear cutting can help some tree species adapt to full-light conditions.

Over the eons of time, tree species have developed growth characteristics that allow individual species to be adapted to differing site conditions. When properly applied, clear cutting forest stands can help create a site regeneration atmosphere that is favorable to the establishment of tree species adapted to full-light conditions. 

There has been a general public backlash against the forest products industry when clear cutting harvests are conducted. Concern over visual quality and potential negative environmental impacts have fueled resentment toward the practice of clear cut harvests. In many situations clear cut management practices are a benefit to the forest and the associated forest ecology.

Although many tree species are adapted to partial or filtered light conditions there are groups of tree species adapted to full-light conditions. These “full-light” species are generally referred to as intolerant or pioneer species and require full sunlight conditions from seed germination through maturity. Limited, partial or selective harvest of timberlands does not provide conditions for establishment or growth these pioneer tree species. If all timber were managed by selective methods eventually the pioneer tree species and their associated wildlife populations would decrease throughout our forested regions.

In Michigan, jack pine, red pine, aspen, tamarack, balsam poplar and white birch are included in the tree species listed as “sun-loving” or “pioneer.” In nature, natural disturbances such as wildfire, flooding and wind throw help create full-sun conditions suitable for these kinds of trees to reestablish. We can help create similar growing conditions for pioneer species by properly applying clear cut types of harvests. Care needs to be taken when considering clear cut stands. Erosion, accelerated water run-off, increased localized temperatures and blow down of adjacent timber can be issues and need to be assessed when determining which stands are best managed by this method, often referred to as “even-aged management.”

Managing forest stands to favor pioneer tree species can benefit more than just the trees. Many species of wildlife feed on, nest in or use these stands for cover. Ruffed grouse, deer, woodcock, hair, black bear and, in Michigan, the endangered Kirtland’s warbler all benefit from even-aged management of differing species of trees. Harvesting with a schedule to create stands of differing age classes in the same vicinity of one another will also help enhance the wildlife value of even-aged type management.

This isn’t to suggest that all timber stands should be managed using even-aged methods. Selectively managed and unmanaged stands also support their own varieties of tree species and associated wildlife. To maintain overall healthy forest ecology, all management stiles need to be considered and worked into planning.

Overharvesting next to or in the vicinity of lakes, rivers and streams can negatively impact water temperatures and create soil movement issues and needs to be avoided regardless of the management plan used. Michigan has developed standards for harvesting timber near open water to help protect the resource. These managed areas adjacent to open water are usually referred to as “riparian management zones” or “RMZs.”

For more information on forest succession and tree species adapted to various timber management stiles, view the Michigan State University (MSU) Extension Forest Ecology Series Unit 7 covering continuous change in the forest.

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