“Select” Cutting: Method of Harvesting Trees

Select cutting removes the largest and highest quality trees of the most desirable species. It leaves trees that are approximately the same age as those taken, but of no particular value. Since these unwanted trees left standing capture most of the available sunlight and growing space, they prevent high quality stems of more desirable species from becoming established.

Select cutting is an economic practice, not a forestry one.

It is often referred to as “select cutting,” but professional foresters call it “high-grading.” This common method of harvesting timber is a very poor choice for sustaining the benefits of Virginia’s forestland.

It is based on the misconceptions that:

  • small diameter trees must be younger than larger diameter trees of similar height, and
  • quality is mainly a function of size.

To make informed decisions, landowners should understand both the benefits and costs of high-grading.

“Benefits” of Select Cutting

“Select cutting” is often the only harvesting choice that landowners accept because they haven't been informed of alternatives.

Select cutting usually

  • maximizes short-term profit,
  • helps meet the current, worldwide need for forest products
  • captures most of the current value at a relatively low cost
  • shifts management expenses from the current landowner to future owners

If done carefully, “select cutting” can leave behind a site that

  • is aesthetically pleasing to most people
  • provides habitat for certain kinds of wildlife
  • protects water supplies
  • affords recreational opportunities

Dangers of Select Cutting

A forest that is harvested by select cutting appreciates very little in value over time and is less suitable for wildlife and recreation than diverse and vigorous stands of high quality trees. A high-graded forest gradually deteriorates from old age, disease and logging damage. Eventually, only complete removal of all the large trees can return these areas to a young, healthy condition. At that point, the cost of removing the trees may not cover the cost of planting new trees after the harvest.

The decision to select cut is often based on misinformation or misunderstanding. It sacrifices long-term quality, value and productivity for short-term profit. Select cutting can minimize long-term forest benefits

  • leaves trees of considerable age,
  • poor quality,
  • lower diversity,
  • slow growth
  • and greatly diminished commercial potential.
  • Disturbance of ground cover
  • damage to remaining trees is usually extensive

Alternatives

Manage forests as they grow to avoid the costs of select cutting.

  • Choose the best trees while they are relatively young, provide them with plenty of growing space by removing the poor quality trees, and protect them from injury. On average or better sites, this will produce a forest of great value from every perspective.

Harvest the forest in stages.

  • Harvest patches that are large enough to be profitable and allow the establishment of a new forest, but small enough to avoid a sudden change in the overall character of the property.

Save some of the best trees and remove the rest.

  • Preserve much of the aesthetic and habitat value while allowing enough light to reach the ground for a new forest of desirable species to grow. Once this new forest is established, the saved trees can be removed at a profit.

When an unmanaged forest is already mature, remove the poor trees along with the valuable ones and regenerating a new, healthy forest.

Caution

Regardless of circumstances, forestland owners should consider these points:

  • Timber sales are often once-in-a-lifetime transactions; they should be accomplished through contracts and sealed bids, with the input of a reputable professional forester.
  • Those who care about improving the land should not select cut their forests.
  • Tree species such as oaks, hickories, yellow-poplar, black cherry, and walnut, which are highly valued for wildlife, aesthetic and commercial benefits, cannot survive and grow well in the shade. When high-grading removes these species they are often replaced by trees of much lower value, such as red maple.
  • Forestland is essential to clean, dependable water supplies; any tree cutting should always be carefully planned, with special consideration for the location and construction of roads and trails.

Background

Most forests in Virginia today originated following abandonment of fields and pastures during and after the Great Depression or following timber harvests, fires and severe storms. In these forests the taller trees are all roughly the same age because they germinated or sprouted about the same time.

Tree height is determined largely by age, soil conditions and species, whereas diameter is more strongly influenced by spacing and competition. Trees of the same age and height can vary greatly in diameter. This is easily observed in pine plantations where the trees are exactly the same age, but of greatly different sizes.

Once in awhile, forests include large trees that really are of significantly different ages. Management of these forests is more complicated and removal of the largest and oldest trees is not the same as high-grading.