Living in the Pacific Northwest, we are surrounded by forests. It should come as no surprise that we put a lot of value into our trees, both financially and sentimentally. As people moved to the area, commercial logging was one of the major industries that brought people to the Northwest. While the average person might have a vague awareness of the logging industry, the details are often fuzzy. Let’s take a moment to break down exactly what is commercial logging.
Simply put, commercial logging is the cutting of trees for sale as timber or other wood products. In the early nineteenth century, the logging industry boomed alongside the gold rush. As more people made the journey to the area, the demand for timber increased. After the gold rush, logging companies began working to export their timber products across the country. The invention and introduction of the combustion engine allowed loggers to work more efficiently, clearing larger areas of forest and shipping lumber to all corners of the world.
The modern logger has more to worry about than how to quickly harvest and move timber, however. First, they must contend with the issue of land ownership. If the forest is publicly owned, the commercial logging companies usually have to obtain a concession from the government in order to harvest. These concessions grant harvesting or managing rights to companies for a certain contract period to the highest bidder. These are more prevalent in the developing world, such as Southeast Asia, the Amazon basin, and Central and West Africa. Generally, the way the contract holder manages the land affects the long-term sustainability of forests in the country in question. The World Bank recommends shorter, but renewable, contracts in order to incentivize commercial logging companies to better manage publicly owned lands.
Privately owned forests are run a little differently. It is a very common practice in the United States, with corporate institutions buying land from the government in order to manage and sell the timber and the land. Usually, a forest will be bought through Timber Investment Management Organizations (TIMOs) or Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). TIMOs deal with just the timber, while REITs will sell land as well. Both types of organizations work on the behalf of investors. The long-term effects of this type of private timber ownership are unclear, as the purpose of the organizations is to maximize the return for investors as opposed to simply taking care of the land.
The practice of logging itself is generally divided into two different categories: selective logging and clear-cutting. Selective logging is the practice of loggers only cutting highly valued trees, while clear-cutting is the practice of cutting down every tree in a specific area. It goes without saying that the commercial logging industry has a significant impact on the natural environment, and so careful logging strategies are incredibly important.
It’s hard to say which practice is better for a forest in the long run. Selective cutting would seem to be the better choice, as it leaves more trees standing and spreads out the burden across the forest. However, often times the equipment used to harvest these trees ends up damaging surrounding trees. This leads to some of the surrounding trees dying, even if they were not intended for harvesting. In addition, cutting only the largest and most valuable trees can significantly reduce the seed source for the surrounding forest. That’s not to say that clear-cutting is the clear-cut answer. NASA has published data indicating that clear-cutting is more damaging for tropical rainforests, as it causes the soil to lose its nutrients and become barren. At the same time, clear-cutting can provide more even light to seedlings, allowing them to grow more evenly and become trees sooner.
Clearly, there is a lot of consideration that has to be put into commercial logging. One of the most successful strategies that has been implemented is called “strip logging.” Strip logging is a variation of clear-cutting, but it seeks to imitate the way a forest naturally regrows. A thin strip of trees is cut parallel to a river, leaving a smaller gallery forest between the river and the cleared section. A few years later, loggers can return and cut another strip farther upslope of the original one. This way, natural erosion washes nutrients down towards the original cleared area, helping the forest regrow.
These strategies may seem overly complicated, but they are necessary. Timber and wood products are always going to be in demand, even if we work to lessen our consumption. Without careful forethought, we risk causing lasting damage to our environment.
Irresponsible logging can lead to a decrease in biodiversity, or even extinctions. Forests are complicated ecosystems, and tampering with them through logging can have wider reaching consequences. Trees provide shelter, food, and the primary habitat for different species in every forest in the world. Without enough trees, we risk displacing or killing those species.
Commercial loggers must also be aware of the physical ramifications on the land. Trees provide natural detritus that helps reintroduce nutrients into the soil. Without those nutrients, the land becomes barren and begins to erode. Trees also help absorb and rainwater and stabilize the soil, preventing flooding and mudslides. Those floods and mudslides can destroy seedlings, other trees, or even nearby buildings. They can even block off streams and rivers, disrupting aquatic ecosystems. Finally, it is important to take the atmosphere into account. Trees store carbon, preventing it from escaping as a gas and heating the planet further. The consequences of improper forest management can have much farther-reaching consequences than one would expect.
Commercial logging is an important industry, and one that has helped shape our corner of the world. From the early nineteenth century on, it has been a driving force in the Pacific Northwest. Whether it is a publicly or privately owned forest, the most important thing commercial loggers have to do is think of the long-term care of the land. If you want to ensure any trees or woodlands you have are properly cared for, don’t hesitate to contact a local tree care specialist. You don’t have to own a large swath of the forest to do your part, you can start in your own backyard!