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Harvesting: From Tree to Plank

Walking down the aisles of the local lumber yard, you can easily be forgiven if you forgot that what you are actually looking at was once living in a vast forest that critters of all types once used for shelter, food or just a perch.

Tree Selection

The first step towards the assembly line would be the growth of the forest to begin with, without going through billions of years of evolution, let’s just take it for granted that a healthy tree stand now sits on what use to be bare, sterile rock. Most forests are second or third generation in North America where we cut down virgin old growth forests centuries ago and are mostly located on government crowd land. After several applications to various government agencies along with environmental assessments along with business plans, an area of trees is agreed to be felled.

Cut them down!

Second step, once the areas to be cut are decided upon, the process of cutting them down begins. There are various methods of accomplishing this, some more environmentally sound then others and they include:

Single-Tree Selection

The biggest (usually oldest), most profitable trees are cut and taken away for processing. This gives smaller trees an opportunity to grow as the canopy is opened up and although slow, gives the forest the biggest opportunity to recover as this mimics the natural process of larger trees dying off.

Group Selection

This method is similar to that of single-tree selection except a profile of trees of various sizes (ages) and profitability are taken out. This also helps minimize impact as the variety in the forest is maintained, thus improving recovery after harvesting has ceased.

Shelterwood Method

This method is simply a clear-cutting of the forest while leaving 15-20 trees per acre to help re-populate the forest. This has as devastating an impact as clear cutting but at leaves a little, though not much, to allow a forest to recover. The recovery period is dramatically longer if it’s followed by a fire, as most clear cuts are but this can be helped by a healthy replanting program. The forest’s wildlife are heavily impacted as well as every aspect of the ecosystem is changed.

Seed-Tree Method

This method is similar to the shelterwood method except that the trees, after they have spread their seeds to “repopulate the forest” are then cut down as well. This is more economically expensive then the shelterwood as the lumbermen need to re-enter the “forest” to finish their initial tree harvesting.

Clear-cutting Method

Essentially the wholesale cutting of a forest, the environmental impact is detrimental as this harvesting method promotes soil erosion and the loss of the original forest biodiversity that once inhabited the forest. I have been told through various representations at how this actually is beneficial for the forest as it mimics a forest fire but I don’t believe it. A forest leaves the biomass intact, this removes the biomass THEN burns, big difference. Unless swiftly followed by an aggressive soil erosion mitigation and replanting program, the forest will take a long time to recover.

Cutting a tree into planks

Once a tree is harvested, no matter the method, it usually goes one of three ways. The first is being cut at saw mills into 2×4, 4×4 and other forestry products such as particle board and chip-wood. The second is pulp and paper mills which turn the wood fibers into paper products. The third ranges from firewood to log home construction and everything in between.

The Bottom Line

Forests are important to all of us both economically and physically, they should be properly managed with the respect they deserve.

North Carolina Forestry Association