Clearcutting is an extreme logging method in which resilient natural forests are harvested and replaced with man-made tree plantations that do not replicate the ecosystem services of a healthy forest.
Since 1997, over 1 million acres in California have been decimated by clearcutting and related logging practices.
At the current rate, more than 50,000 acres of California forest are being clearcut every year.
After logging, most clearcut sites are bulldozed and herbicide is applied to strip away any remaining saplings, bushes, and other plants that may compete with the conifer seedlings that start the man-made plantation. This living flora, which is treated as debris and called “slash,” is always piled and sometimes burned. What remains is a moonscape that disrupts the natural forest ecosystem.
Clearcutting is the most destructive form of even-aged logging. In other forms of even-aged management, loggers will leave a seed tree or two to drop pine cones and restock the area. Another even-aged logging method is removing some trees initially, and then removing the remaining trees at a later date. However, in all variations of even-aged logging. timber companies eventually remove all trees and use the cleared land to plant conifer seedlings that grow into an even-aged plantation, instead of a biodiverse forest with trees of many species and ages.
Our forests provide abundant and pure water, a stable climate, wildlife habitat, and clean air. These, in turn, facilitate valuable ecosystem services that benefit people and the economy, including carbon sequestration, timber production, crop pollination, soil fertility, tourism, and recreation. To ensure our communities and future generations receive these critical benefits, we must manage our forests sustainably.
Read the sections below to find out how clearcutting jeopardizes these many gifts from nature.
Clearcuts across the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Increases Wildfire Danger
After a clearcut, planting trees of the same age and species results in a forest that burns hotter and faster than the diverse forests they replace.
Timber companies and lobbyists will sometimes claim that clearcutting land reduces fuel for wildfires – but it’s not true. Instead, they remove mature trees that would be able to resist fire and slow the wind that spreads fire to communities, and leave behind highly flammable plantations.
Studies on forest fires have demonstrated that where even-aged tree plantations grow, fires can burn with greater intensity and speed. Young trees burn more easily than old trees, and after an area is clearcut, the first natural vegetation to grow in is often highly flammable shrubbery.
1“Clearcutting can cause rapid regeneration of shrubs and trees that can create highly flammable fuel conditions within a few years of cutting.” - US Forest Service; US Department of Interior
Not only do plantations increase the severity of wildfires, but the clearcut itself increases the risk of fire. The loss of adequate tree canopy cover exposes the land to increased sunlight, making it hotter and drier. Hotter and drier air from clearcuts can raise temperatures and lessen humidity in adjacent forest areas as well, creating a significant fire hazard.
Considering how the climate crisis creates hotter and drier environmental conditions across California and continues to drive more severe wildfire disasters, we must make every effort to mitigate fire danger - and clearcutting poses a massive and unnecessary wildfire risk.
As home-owners are being asked to change where they build, use non-flammable building materials, and maintain 100-feet of defensible space, shouldn’t the powerful timber industry take some responsibility for not putting the public and other forest owners at risk?
Accelerates Climate Change
Clearcutting releases carbon stored by older trees and replaces them with seedlings that have little ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. To reverse climate change, we must both release less greenhouse gas and store more carbon.
Clearcutting releases more carbon dioxide (CO2) than any other form of logging, and areas that are clearcut will not sequester more CO2 than they release for two decades.
This is true even with a plantation of trees replacing the clearcut mature forest, as young plantation trees have little ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere compared to the original forest.
“Forests are the only carbon capture and storage ‘technology’ we have in our grasp that is safe, proven, inexpensive, immediately available at scale, and capable of providing beneficial ripple effects, from regulating rainfall patterns to providing livelihoods to indigenous communities.” - Alessandro Baccini, Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Research Center
Large amounts of carbon are also stored in forest soils and roots; that carbon is released into the atmosphere during clearcutting operations. Alternative logging methods would produce significantly fewer emissions.
Logging advocates sometimes argue that when you clearcut old, mature trees and convert them into lumber, the sequestered carbon is retained in the wood products. They may also say that mature trees don’t grow at a very fast rate, and therefore don’t take very much CO2 out of the atmosphere, while seedlings grow very fast and have a much higher CO2 removal rate than old trees.
These are myths; as recent studies have proven, the truth is that irresponsible logging practices and forest degradation are turning our forests into carbon emitters, instead of the carbon sinks we need to fight climate change2.
In fact, one study has found that the emissions caused by forest harvesting in the US exceeds total national emissions from the commercial and residential building sectors combined.3
Healthy forests are critical carbon storage centers that annually remove 33% of the amount of CO2 emitted from fossil fuel combustion. Moreover, a 2020 study found that the potential for forests to accumulate carbon has likely been underestimated by 32% - meaning our forests are even more important for fighting the climate crisis than we give them credit for!4
Clearcutting not only releases carbon into our atmosphere, but it reduces the forest’s ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the future.
Degrades Our Waters
Clearcutting causes erosion, landslides and contamination of our water supply with sediment and the toxic herbicides used in the clearcutting process. Clearcutting also compacts the ground and decreases the soil’s ability to retain water, ultimately reducing our supply of clean water.
California forests supply 75% of our water - and clearcutting is putting that supply in jeopardy.
Clearcutting compacts the ground and decreases the soil’s ability to retain water, causing drought in some areas and flooding in others, ultimately reducing our supply of clean water.
In addition, we rely heavily on snowpack from the Sierra Nevada mountain range to supply nearly two-thirds of our state’s water needs, especially through the summer. As the climate becomes warmer and drier, the snow we receive melts faster and earlier, depleting the water supplies “stored” as ice and snow.
Clearcutting exacerbates this problem, as trees that would have provided critical shade are removed, causing temperatures to increase and snow to melt. Especially as the climate continues to change, we cannot lose the valuable temperature moderation service our forests perform, as they ultimately help maintain the amount of snow we rely on for water supply throughout the year.
Clearcutting also causes erosion, landslides and contamination of our water supply with sediment and the toxic herbicides used in the clearcutting process.
Clearcutting and the logging roads created to service clearcuts can increase erosion of sediments into creeks and rivers, cloud waters and reduce water quality, and threaten fish species and their habitats.6 A recent study has shown that the amount of sediment in water is directly correlated with the percentage of land clearcut - that is, the more clearcutting there is, the more sediment pollution there is.5
Toxic herbicides used in clearcutting and tree plantations and other harmful runoff can also make their way into our watersheds and fisheries, further polluting waters that healthy forests help keep clean.
Clearcutting reduces biodiversity. Because clearcutting indiscriminately destroys entire areas, plant loss and destruction of animal habitat is unavoidable. Further environmental stress is put on many already endangered species that call the forest home.
Deforestation is the leading cause of biodiversity loss globally. While clearcutting is not technically classified as deforestation, it certainly is a major form of forest degradation, to the point of significantly endangering this critical biodiversity.
Because clearcutting indiscriminately destroys entire areas, plant loss and destruction of animal habitat is unavoidable. Species that need particular conditions to survive may even go extinct due to the dramatic landscape change caused by a clearcut.
Hotter and drier conditions caused by clearcutting and the subsequent loss of tree cover, as well as related soil disturbances, hurt native plants, as do the herbicides logging companies use to keep native plants from returning. The loss of habitat also increases competition for resources, putting undue pressure on our wildlife.
What’s more, clearcutting often introduces new logging roads that cut through the ecosystem and decrease the habitat connectivity that is crucial for many species.
More than 30% of all plant and vertebrate species in the entire US live in California. There are more than 1,000 vertebrate species - including spotted owls, beavers, and coho salmon - that live here, and 65% of those species only live in California!
California is also home to more than 6,500 types of plants, 2,000 of which are endemic, and over 30,000 species of insects, including 1,600 species of native bees.
Our wildlife is critical for healthy ecosystems, economies, and human communities - and yet more than 30% of California’s species are threatened with extinction. To protect these species, we must stop clearcutting.
Magnifies Environmental Injustice
Clearcutting amplifies the adverse environmental and health conditions that already disproportionately affect Indigenous Peoples and other persons of color.
Pollution-generating biomass incinerators and wood pellet production factories are generally located near low income and indigenous communities that have often faced a history of environmental injustice.
For instance, in the southeastern US, a Dogwood Alliance study found that wood pellet production facilities are 50% more likely to be located in counties where the poverty level is above the state medium, and at least 25% of the population is nonwhite. Meanwhile, in North Carolina the Rachel Carson Council found that Enviva, the largest wood pellet producer globally, had operational locations disproportionately clustered around poor communities of color.7
Both the biomass incineration and wood pellet production industries are, in large part, fueled by clearcutting debris and possibly the trees themselves. These incinerators and factories create significant health issues. While limited studies have been done in California, there is a clear pattern of pollution-generating industries that are supplied by clearcutting operating in locations that disproportionately affect low income communities, people of color, and Indigenous Peoples.
We know clearcutting is harmful for local communities, and must be aware of the exacerbated effect this practice has on communities that already face a history of environmental and social injustice - from unfair proximity to environmental hazards, to the myriad of social inequities stemming from redlining.
Undermines Community Vitality for Future Generations
People enjoy recreational activities in healthy forests with an abundance of wildlife, plants and scenic beauty. Sustaining healthy forests also means maintaining sustainable jobs and forest resources that can impact local economies directly or indirectly.
Today, natural, healthy forests in California sustain thousands of jobs in the recreation, boating, fishing, hunting and sustainable logging industries.
Clearcutting jeopardizes robust sustainable economies, and deprives future generations of benefiting from the same vibrant ecosystems and communities forests give us today.
Clearcutting destroys our forests and harms all Californians by:
Increasing wildfire danger
Accelerating climate change
Degrading our waters
Magnifying environmental injustice
Together, we can stop this destructive practice.
From 1997-2018, over 1 million acres were logged in California using clearcutting or some other form of even-aged management. Another 1 million acres were logged using selection logging or some other form of uneven-aged logging.
Figure 1. Total acres logged in California in the past 20 years, with clearcutting and other even-aged management practices tracked in red.
Figure 2. Top ten counties in California that experience the most clearcutting and other even-aged management practices, with Siskiyou, Humboldt, and Shasta counties subjected to the most.
In California, clearcutting is no longer generally practiced on US Forest Service (public) lands. However, California forestry laws and rules still allow clearcutting on private lands except for in Marin, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.
Clearcutting projects must be approved by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) via the Timber Harvest Plan approval process. Timber Harvest Plans that include clearcutting and other forms of even-aged management are often opposed by local communities, but are rarely rejected.
Because plans must be approved, we have complete records of where clearcutting happens across California. The counties affected the most are Siskiyou, Humbolt, Shasta, Trinity, and Tehama. In Trinity county alone, 85% of logging is even-aged management and in the last 20 years, more than 100,000 acres have been cut with this destructive method.
The two largest timber companies in California – Sierra Pacific Industries and Green Diamond Resource Company – collectively own nearly 2.5 million acres of California’s forestlands. Though some of these companies’ timberlands are managed to certifiable sustainability standards, they routinely clearcut significant portions of their forests to maximize profits.
Figure 3. Total acres logged in California across timber companies in the past 20 years, with clearcutting and other forms of even-aged management highlighted in blue. Sierra Pacific Industries and their partners are the biggest culprits, harvesting a massive total of approximately 350,000 acres.
Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) is a privately owned company and is the single largest landowner in California with 2 million acres, largely in the Sierra Nevada but also in coastal redwood forests – more than half of the industrial timber industry’s 2,982,000 acres in California.
SPI started to conduct widespread clearcutting around 2000 and is well underway to clearcut and convert approximately 1.2 million acres from natural forests into tree plantations. SPI states that it adheres to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI®) Standard, but this an industry-created program that is not considered by most environmental groups to be adequate - especially compared to the certification program of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an independent, non-governmental non-profit organization established to promote the responsible management of the world’s forests.
Green Diamond owns around 400,000 acres of forested lands on the north coast of California in Humboldt and Del Norte Counties. These private lands surround Redwood National and State Parks, the Yurok Reservation, and the communities around Humboldt Bay, Trinidad, Klamath and Crescent City. In California, some of Green Diamond Resource Company lands have achieved either SFI certification or FSC certification, but they continue to use extensive clearcutting.
Roseburg Resources Company owns approximately 650,000 acres in Western Oregon and Northern California, including Lassen, Modoc, Plumas, Shasta, Siskiyou and Trinity counties.
Non-industrial private landowners collectively hold another 4,455,000 acres of timberland.
There are other logging methods that are less destructive to forests and the ecological services they provide us. For instance, selection logging involves removing some trees and leaving others behind so that the area is always forested, and hence the disturbance to carbon sequestration, water purification and production, vulnerability to fire, and wildlife habitat is reduced. A selectively logged forest naturally reseeds itself, and the trees vary in age and species.
Another form is group selection, which involves the removal of trees and vegetation for an area of up to 2.5 acres.
Selection logging and other forms of uneven-aged management are preferred by some companies. In fact, they are the only forms of logging that are legal in Marin, San Mateo, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara Counties. Selection logging is financially viable and usually the only logging certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. You can search for FSC certification for individuals and private timber companies at the FSC website.
There are many timber companies that are embracing the benefits of sustainable logging:
Mendocino Redwood Company’s stated purpose has been to demonstrate that forestlands can be managed productively with a high standard of environmental stewardship. After years of aggressive harvesting on more than 228,800 acres that included extensive clearcutting, the company’s goal is to restore its property to a selectively harvested forest of mostly Redwood and Douglas Fir. Stewardship objectives include measurable improvements in aquatic and upslope habitat, old growth protection, clean water, and community well-being, in addition to producing long-term sustainable timber supplies.
Humboldt Redwood Company is modeling its operations on what has worked well for Mendocino Redwood Company over the past 12 years. Within the first week of operation, Humboldt Redwood Company began converting Timber Harvesting Plan (THP) units that had been approved for clearcutting under the previous owner to selection-harvest units on its 209,300 acres. Both companies have a policy of open and transparent operations, and are willing to take interested members of the public anywhere on their forestlands. Humboldt Redwood Company has eliminated clearcutting and received certification from the Forest Stewardship Council. The company is strongly reducing herbicide use, protecting old-growth trees, and focusing on more habitat conservation.
Collins Pine is a privately-owned family company with approximately 94,000 acres of softwood in northeastern California. All three Collins forests—307,000 total acres in Pennsylvania, Almanor, and Lakeview—have been independently certified by SCS Global Services in accordance with the standards and policies of the Forest Stewardship Council. Collins timberlands are biodiverse, multi-layered, canopied forests, not single-species tree plantations. The Collins Company believes that third-party, independent certification of its forestland is the best way to protect the legacy of the total forest ecosystem.
1US Forest Service; US Department of Interior. National Fire Plan. A report to the President in response to the wildfires of 2000, Sept. 8, 2000: managing the impact of wildfires on communities and the environment.
3Harris 2016 USFS
4 cook-patton et al 2020
5Sunita Khanal and Prem B. Parajuli, “Evaluating the Impacts of Forest Clear Cutting on Water and Sediment Yields Using SWAT in Mississippi,”Journal of Water Resource and Protection, 2013, 5, 474-483.