High graded

logged clearing

It’s funny how the logging of a slope can so alter one’s sense of space as to make an area one had previously thought of as steep seem almost flat. I am just fifty feet from our property line here, on the site of a trail I’ve followed many, many times along Sapsucker Ridge, but I feel lost — literally, as in “Where the hell is this?” The old trail is blocked by piles of slash — forester-speak for the discarded tops of felled trees — as is the new haul road. Saplings lie prostrate; it was evidently too much trouble to drive the skidder around them.

The diameter-limit cutting, also referred to as high grading, does leave at least some cover for the many understory plants and creatures that need it, but it ignores the need for trees with a mix of genetics to supply seeds for regeneration. Often the smaller trees left when a logger takes everything over ten inches in diameter at breast height aren’t any younger than the big trees, they just aren’t as healthy. Planning for the future is obviously not part of the picture here. These are logging practices straight out of the 19th century.

porcupine oak

The porcupine tree has just lost its nearest neighbors for — I’m guessing — the second time in its life; forest trees don’t get that wide a crown if they’ve spent their whole life in a crowd. Maybe I’ll start calling it the Job tree, instead — “I alone am left to tell thee.” Like Job, it’s been sorely afflicted, but the constant pruning of its twigs by porcupines living in its hollow heart has yet to kill it, and who knows — all this new light may help it survive another century. These ridgetop chestnut oaks are damn tough trees.

blade marks

The chainsaws leave marks as regular as the grooves of a harrow on a fresh-tilled field. To a forester, for whom every logging operation is a timber harvest, this must be a beautiful sight. And if the deer don’t become too ravenous at any point in the next four to five years (a big if), each of these chestnut oak stumps may acquire a ring of saplings. Quercus prinus excels at stump-sprouting.

So like the old man thrown into a cart for dead bodies in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, despite appearances this tree is not dead yet! Though forestry convention has us age trees by the oldest above-ground trunk, the root system here could be several centuries old.

autumnal pool

The physical and ecological effects of logging extend hundreds of feet into the adjacent forest. But of course neighboring landowners like us would have a very difficult time getting a judge to issue an injunction on that basis — we know this from bitter experience. The ridgetop was the only place level enough to put a logging road, but it was also the property line, so the ephemeral ponds at the top of the Plummer’s Hollow watershed, less than 50 feet on our side of the line, will be affected by runoff as well as increased levels of light and wind and exposure to invasive plants, among many other effects.

This had been the sole remaining section of woods surrounding ours not to have been logged in the last 40 years; a couple of neighboring properties have been logged twice in that period. Plummer’s Hollow has become an island of older forest habitat, simply because we have done our best to leave it alone. But we realize that’s a luxury some people can’t afford, and we can only speculate what kind of pressures must drive someone to have their cherished hunting ground lumbered right when the hardwood market is at its lowest point in decades.

They say a depressed economy is good for the environment, but here in Pennsylvania, with virtually unregulated hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the Marcellus shale formation about to kick into high gear, I don’t think that will turn out to be true. Bad as this little logging job looks, our forest got off lucky.

For more on high grading, see also my earlier post on the subject from 2006.

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Don’t forget to post something about trees this month and send me the link so you can be included in the next edition of the Festival of the Trees. See my call for submissions on the coordinating blog for details.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

24 Comments


  1. Oh this kind of devastation always saddens me greatly. It’s not just above the ground but also below ground that the ecology changes. And the mining into shale on top of all this, so very close to home for you…

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    1. Yes, especially if you include the humus layer in “below-ground” — the effects of a temporary opening can be severe. Salamanders, for example, will burrow down in search of more moisture as they do during a drought, rather than go wandering in search of new habitat. Within a year after a canopy-clearing disturbance, most of them will be dead. This is one example of why a high-grading is still better than a large clearcut, in my opinion.

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  2. Very sad. And memorably beautiful, eerie photographs. This is, for me, the perfect blend of factual and creative writing/photography. The haunting images will ensure that the sad facts stay with me.

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    1. I’m glad the combination works for you. When I processed the photos that way, I was hoping they’d spark haiku or something, but obviously that’s not what happened.

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  3. Thank you, Dave. “High grade, skidder, slash.” These are words I know. When we hand-planted Longleaf seedlings in a random (commercially non-viable) pattern here, the foresters looked at us like we were crazy. We have the luxury of keeping this land like some beautiful pet, understanding that the next generation to own it may find straight rows of houses or a shopping center more in line with what they think will meet their needs.

    Thanks, too, for your compassion in considering the likely desperate situation of the landowner.

    I agree with Jean — “haunting images.”

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    1. Thanks. Yes, I do think random is best, and it is of course hard to approximate that. I think the best kind of forestry (very generally speaking; many forest types require regular ground fires, too) is randomized, single-tree selection. I know some ecologically minded foresters say that small clearcuts can mimic the beneficial effects of natural disturbances, and depending on the local disturbance regime, there may be some element of truth in that, but I think we’re deluding ourselves if we think we can really mimic nature — and we don’t have to, because those disturbances will happen anyway, if we let them. But you can take a tree here and a tree there in a low-impact manner in such a way that the forest will barely notice. That’s how the Menominee manage their land.

      Anyway, sorry for the unsolicited lecture. Have you considered selling a conservation easement on your property to a local or national land trust? Given the global importance of the longleaf pine ecosystem, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nature Conservancy itself would be interested.

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  4. Your images are so haunting — and beautiful, as Jean has already observed. At first, I was bothered by the beauty of them, because the devastation is so difficult, so ugly, so final. Then, there was something in the way of the pictures and words that those ghostly limbs, the skeletons, turned into the bones, or the potential skeleton of the new forest that can emerge there, given a chance.

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    1. Glad you thought so. I was kind of going for a Matthew Brady effect, especially in the first two.

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  5. You say that saving the forest is a luxury that some people cannot afford, but I’ve noticed that those same people have no qualms about spending money on such “necessities” as ATVs, 72″ plasma TVs, frequent trips to restaurants, season tickets for the Bryce Jordan Center, Carribean cruises, 4,000 square-foot homes, etc.

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    1. I’m not sure that’s true of the folks in this instance, Stan, but I’m sure there are many, many cases in which your cynicism would be fully warranted. Habitat bats last — and for those with qualms, most foresters and loggers are happy to cite out-dated studies suggesting that wildlife benefits from lumbering, without mentioning that these are short-term benefits at best, and that lumbering disadvantages way more native species than it benefits.

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  6. Maybe it’s just because today is veterans’ day, but it does feel like looking at a battlefield.

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  7. Haunting photos, dave. Somehow all of human life depends on the lie that we can kill most other things in order to sustain ourselves, and that it won’t have a deleterious impact.

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    1. A big part of our vaunted intelligence seems to consist of erected elaborate superstructures of lies to protect us from painful realities.

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    1. Yes, although the German guy who coined the word “ecology” (or the German equivalent thereof) was consciously going for the parallel, as I recall. Naive sap!

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  8. My sympathies!

    IIRC, the claim that depressed economy is good for the ecology depends on the idea that people stop doing this sort of “improvements” as projects stall for lack of money — but not this time, as the “development at any cost” mindset has snagged public funding for projects that wouldn’t otherwise be practical. And the economy means that the landowners are far less able to resist — they’re struggling to support themselves and/or pay property taxes, and less able to afford lawsuits defending their territory and adjacent preserves. Not to mention when foreclosures displace caretakers in favor of cold-blooded banks and the like.

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  9. It’s always a shock to see cleared woodland where you’re used to seeing trees – the land looks so bald and naked without them. I’m sure the local wildlife, too, are puzzled about where their woods have gone to. More often than not, especially where councils and governments are doing the decision making, it is money-making that comes before conserving the environment. I’m sure though, that your neighbours decision to log their woodland wasn’t a easy one to take.

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    1. I would like to think so too, but to be honest, they don’t really seem to spend much time on it apart from hunting season.

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