The Art and Science of Harvesting Trees

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What is a clearcut?

Harvesting trees, whether on a small scale (e.g. for firewood) or on a large scale (i.e. working with a logger), is one tool to mold your forest into what you want it to be.  The use of this tool is meant to improve the value of your woods to you, whether it be the wildlife, scenic, health or dollar value. 

Some landowners will take a hands-off approach to their forest and prefer to let nature take its course.  They may or may not end up with the forest they are hoping for with this approach.  Those landowners that take an active role in the management of their forest (especially through the use of timber harvests), are more likely to get the results they are hoping for and tend to have a higher satisfaction with the condition of their forest.

One of the great characteristics of forests is that they can provide many products indefinitely if they are harvested in a sustainable way. Working with a forester can ensure that any harvesting you are doing will meet your needs now and in the future. Foresters achieve these sustainable harvests by utilizing science based techniques and systems.

Forest Harvesting Systems

There are a number of forest harvesting systems (also called silvicultural systems) in practice in the state and the four most common are the clearcut, seed-tree, shelterwood, and selection harvest. The goals of these systems are to create stands of trees of the same age (even-aged) or different age classes of trees (uneven-aged) and consisting of a certain mixture of species. These systems are effective because they mimic natural processes. For example, a clearcut creates conditions on a landscape similar to the effects of a large wind storm or ice storm. Also, the removal of individual trees in a selection system harvest mimics the conditions created when a tree dies, falls over and creates a gap that smaller trees will grow into.

Clearcut system: Clearcutting is the harvesting of every tree regardless of species or size. It creates the best site conditions for favoring a stand of sun-loving trees like aspen, white birch or jack pine. Clearcuts can vary in size and shape, accommodating habitat goals and aesthetic values. Although clearcuts may visually appear to be damaging to the landscape, there are sound biological reasons for using this practice under certain conditions.

Seed-tree system: Considered an alternative to clearcuts, this method leaves trees scattered throughout a harvested area in order to provide seeds for the future forest. Once the new forest is established, the seed trees can be harvested or left to grow. The seed-tree system is used to favor red pine, white pine and white birch.

Shelterwood System:The shelterwood system is similar to the seed tree system, but the difference is that more trees are left, two to three harvests are made over the process, and the new forest is established under the partial canopy of older trees. The shelterwood system is commonly used to favor white pine, red oak, yellow birch, white birch and hemlock.

Selection System: Individual or small groups of trees are harvested in the selection system. Trees of all sizes are harvested every five to ten years or so, with the goal of improving the growing conditions for the remaining trees. The selection system, when properly utilized, produces a stand of trees with variable ages and sizes. The selection system is commonly used to favor sugar maple, beech, hemlock and yellow birch.

Learn more about these different systems in Harvesting and Forest Management 
In To Cut or Not To Cut? see how these different systems to meeting wildlife needs 
Learn about the harvesting equipment associated with these systems in Logging Methods for Wisconsin Woodlands 

Related Blog Posts

 Ode To A Clearcut

Related Publications

Species specific management on the publications page

Related Websites

USDA Forest Service Silvics site

Hear from a Woodland Owner

Hockermans discussing previous owners management


Zdanovecs discussing silviculture and ruffed grouse


Thompsons discussing regeneration techniques for pine 

Looking for More Information?  Try:

How Trees Grow page