A Selective Cut That Is Worse Than A Clear Cut

Every year, hundreds of landowners throughout New England are having their woodlots harvested this way. Many will believe that because lots of trees were left standing that its better than a clear-cut.

While on its face this might make sense, over the long term its terrible for the health and value of your forest.

The selective cut I am talking about is known in forestry circles as a “high grade” harvest. It involves harvesting only the most valuable species while leaving everything else standing. Practiced over the course of one or two harvests - it will leave a landowner with a woodlot with little to no merchantable timber and a forest that is unhealthy and genetically weak.

Picture A Coin Jar

To illustrate what the effects of this type of harvest imagine this analogy: You have a bucket of coins. In this bucket are quarters, dimes, nickles and pennies. The first time you reach your hands in to pull out money you might grab all of the quarters and handful of dimes. A few weeks go by and you decide to tap the bucket for some change again. This time you reach in and grab all of the dimes and most of the nickels. What are you left with now? A bucket full of pennies and if you’re lucky a few nickels. The bucket still looks full but there is not much of value left in it.

A “high grade” selective harvest involves the same approach. On the first cut all of the large diameter, clean, straight, valuable specie trees get cut along with a few of the medium diameter trees as well ( the quarters and a handful of dimes)

A Selective Cut That Is Worse Than A Clear-cut

The money is good and the woods look no worse for it. Twelve or fifteen years pass. Another harvest is performed. Only this time all of the medium and small diameter trees that are straight, clean and of a valuable specie are harvested ( the dimes and most of the nickles) . Upon completion all that is left is a forest filled small diameter poorly formed, low value species. (the pennies) The woods will have plenty of trees left standing, making it look aesthetically pleasing , but the value of what is left is worth very little. The picture to the right is a good illustration. All the high quality yellow birch and sugar maple were “selectively” removed leaving behind diseased beech and poor quality sugar maple.

A Common Practice

This type of harvest is very common. Its often used as a sales pitch by people looking to buy standing timber from landowners. Knowing that most landowners wouldn’t sell their timber to someone who is going to unabashedly clear -cut their land , timber buyers will instead assuage a landowners fears and worries about a potential harvest by telling them that they will do a selective harvest that entails“ cutting the big trees and leaving the little ones to grow.” Unfortunately in the world of trees the “little ones” tend to be trees that have been suppressed and when left to grow – wont perform very well.

Hierarchy Of Trees

In a forest canopy you have three main categories into which each tree fits. Dominant, Co-dominant and Suppressed. The key to good forest management is to identify, prior to harvest what trees are Dominant and focus on leaving these trees to grow longer. Under good forest management, the focus on the first harvest would be to remove a large percentage of trees that are suppressed, exhibiting poor form and of low value . Included would be removal of a number of the co – dominant stems that are competing for sun and space with the most valuable dominant stems. This “thinning with foresight” approach is really the “high grade” selective harvest in reverse. Practiced consistently over time it will exponentially increase the value of the trees present on a woodlot. As an illustration lets picture an even aged hardwood forest found here in Vermont. In a forested parcel like this you will find Sugar Maple, Yellow Birch, Cherry growing alongside White Birch, Beech and Aspen. Under good forest management a harvest conducted in a stand like this would involve removal of most of the Beech ( outside of a few wildlife trees) , all of the White Birch and Aspen and suppressed Yellow Birch and Maple . The only large diameter high value Maple , Yellow Birch and Cherry that would get cut on this first harvest would be those trees that have less than perfect form ( some crookedness to them) and are competing with the crowns of the most perfect trees of the same species.

Good Management Leads To Strong Financials

This last winter Stillwater Forestry had the pleasure of conducting a timber sale on woodlot, here in Vermont, that we had worked on in 2001. It was an even aged stand of sugar maple and ash. When we had first conducted a harvest on the stand in 2001 we had lightly thinned it. Our objective was to grow all of the sugar maple and ash in the 16-18 diameter class to maturity. At the time of the first harvest the landowner made $21,000. If we had opted for a selective “high grade” harvest versus a “thinning with foresight” approach the landowner would have only made an additional $ 15,000. Fast track to 2015. We conduct another timber harvest for this landowner. By this time the sugar maple and ash that were 16-18 inch in diameter when left to grow in 2001 are now 20 -22 inch in diameter. The money generated from this harvest for the landowner is now $46,000. What is most interesting is that the price paid for the sugar maple ( the highest volume species) was the same as it was in 2001. It wasn’t an increase in price paid for the species that explains this higher value it was the increase in volume due to good forest management. On this parcel there is still a substantial amount of high quality timber growing ensuring our clients heirs will benefit well into the future. Good forest management works !


So the next time you get the letter, phone call or knock on the door with a request to harvest your timber coupled with an assurance that it will be a selective harvest – politely decline and call a forest management professional - who works for you. The end result will be a forest that is an asset delivering dividends throughout the lifetime of your ownership versus one that only gives you a one shot deal of cash while leaving you with nothing for the future.

If you are looking for a forest resource and wildlife management professional then please call 1-800-237-9253 or complete our online request form.