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Clearcutting for a Diverse Wildlife Habitat

July 1, 2009
By Wayne Cooper
Clearcutting is the regeneration practice of cutting all trees in one area at one time with the expectation that a new, even-aged forest will be established either from natural seeding, stump sprouting, or re-planting. People generally form an emotional opinion on the practice without realizing clearcutting duplicates the natural condition of the life cycle of woodlands. The obstacle we frequently run into is when a person first walks onto a piece of clear-cut land and their reaction is that the land has been destroyed. It's actually completely the opposite.

I've been hunting since I was 12, and let's just say I'm a few years older now. If you would have put me on a piece of land that had been clear-cut just three years ago, I would have had the same misconceptions because I was basing my opinion on appearance. A common misconception as you look at big, open woods, is that it is naturally conducive to all creatures. A mature forest is only productive for 2-3 animals. The clearcutting process opens up the environment to allow numerous mammal, bird and horticulture varieties to thrive. Big, tall trees in the forest are gorgeous, but the land is not as productive as it can be with diversity, and clearcutting definitely brings diversity.

Wildlife Wins in Clearcutting

The primary benefactor of clear-cut land is the wildlife, especially whitetail. Many people have an admiration for wildlife, but don't have an understanding for what makes or breaks their survival. For example, in the spring and summer months, the primary diet of the whitetail is herbaceous vegetation, which is very high in protein. Deer need this food 4-5 feet from the ground, so you have to ensure an abundance of understory to allow them to grow bigger antlers and produce better milk. When you create a clear-cut you are simulating a forest fire, insect infestation or blow down and this enables you to further clear the land and install food plots with a variety of vegetation. Bill Peneston, Wildlife Biologist and professor of Wildlife Management at Hocking College, has more than 20 years of experience assisting land owners in successful clear-cuts.

"Dating back to the Native Americans who first occupied these lands, whitetail and other species have always thrived on the land after a fire or devastation," explains Peneston. "When you create a disturbance, succession (the natural regenerative process) begins again. When you cut trees down, many of them will either stump sprout or root sprout. Also, trees that reproduce heavily from seed production, like oak, are not shade tolerant. Most of those small trees will germinate for the first year and then quite often wither and die because the canopy cuts off too much sunshine. But in a clear-cut, you get so much sunshine that you get a quick growth of the woody and herbaceous trees and plants perfect for wildlife, including whitetail."

Income Generator

Another benefit of clearcutting? Income for you. If you have standard land, clearcutting can produce a profit. The timber removed in your clearcutting plan is utilized as a crop and therefore you are harvesting timber. Although clearcutting is not a new practice, it may become an even more common practice, due to the economy. Land owners may depend on the price of wood to generate income. Just like you'd grow and harvest corn, timber is your crop and therefore allows some to pay off their mortgage using their timber cuts.

How to Start

Your first step in the clearcutting process is to contact a consulting forester who will assess the land and provide an unbiased opinion on what needs to be cut and when. A forester can recommend a logging firm for your project, will help you solicit bids, manage the property during the clearcutting process and generally receives 10% off of the yield of the product. They will develop a management plan that reaches your objective as the land owner as well as the needs of the wildlife. In this part of the country, the layout should be designed in a mosaic pattern with a broad, checkerboard pattern, rather than large scale clear-cuts.

"The first year after the clear-cut, be prepared, it looks pretty bad with tree stumps and old woody material," says Peneston. "But given a year, you automatically see the area green up and grow knee to waist high. Two years later, the woody plants start to take off and the area is shoulder to head high. By about five years, it's 10-15 feet tall and you can't get through it. That's really what wildlife wants. When it gets to that stage, people become less likely to reject the idea as they were in the first five years. The wildlife truly flourish under these circumstances."

How Much to Cut?

When deciding how much land should be clear-cut, you'll want to take into account some specific numbers. About 50-60% of land mass for whitetail deer should be in timber that is mast-producing nuts. About 5-8% needs to be in food plots or permanent green space. The remaining land can be set up as pine stands to be clear-cut every 20 years. In Ohio, you do not want more than 30% in a clear-cut rotation. For example, if you have 100 acres, depending on the forests age and other criteria, you may end up clearcutting 20 acres in different sections. Wildlife biologists recommend you have 4-5 separate clear-cuts, totaling 20 acres. Remember to always have a plentiful supply of mature oak and beechnut producing trees in winter as a wildlife survival plan and make sure you have a balance with brushland or young growth habitat in the clear-cut rotation.

In a nutshell, clearcutting will produce two things: an extraordinary food supply and heavier cover for game. It's not a short-term enhancement and there are many factors to consider when approaching a clearcutting endeavor. Doing your research by consulting such resources as the forester association of Ohio's website,, will have you on your way to creating land full of woody growth and prospering wildlife for many generations.

Read the rest of this article in the July/Aug issue of OVO.

Wayne Cooper is the Vice President of Grubb & Ellis|Adena Realty Advisors Outdoors for Cabela's Trophy Properties where he specializes in Outdoor and Recreational Properties. He is a focused and experienced hunter of Whitetail deer, turkey, pheasants, ruffed grouse and other small game. An Ohio native and member of the NRA, QDMA, NWTF and Whitetails Unlimited, Cooper enjoys hunting with his 17-year old son.



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