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Adirondack Clear-Cutting: Don’t Fear the Skidder

Generic photograph from Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement

Dirt foresters and ecosystem scientists often disagree about what constitutes “forest health.” But a room full of them, plus a bunch of environmental advocates, agreed earlier this month that clear-cutting is not much of a threat to the health of the Adirondack forest.

In fact, scientists and foresters say, clear-cutting is rare across the Northeast. And, on isolated Adirondack tracts where almost every tree is cut, the result is not fragmentation (loss of forest). More often the result is a diversity of bird habitat, forest age, and long-term timber-management options.

The very term “clear-cut” is emotionally charged. But as the Adirondack Park Agency updates its clear-cutting regulations, it should be defused in this region.

It is true that large-scale clear-cutting is jarring to behold. It causes erosion, flooding, and loss of habitat—notoriously so in the Amazon and on the shaved mountainsides of the Pacific Northwest and Indonesia. It’s also true that clear-cutting was the original scourge of the Adirondack forest, baring the landscape and clogging streams in the 19th century. But much has changed.

Today the Adirondack forest spans 9,000 square miles with very few breaks in the trees. Half of it is state-owned Forest Preserve and off-limits to logging. The remaining private timberlands, and timberlands stretching from the Adirondacks to the coast of Maine, are relatively lightly cut, according to U.S. Forest Service data presented at a forestry roundtable convened by the Adirondack Research Consortium at Paul Smith’s College on October 15.

“Clearcutting is just extremely rare on a regional basis,” said forest ecologist Charlie Canham, of Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. Lyme Timber, the region’s largest private landowner, clear-cuts less than two percent of its holdings and aims to have five percent in “young forest condition” at all times, according to the company’s director of forest operations, Sean Ross.

Opening the canopy makes a forest drier, warmer and brighter, not just in a clearing but for 300 feet from its edge. Consequently the types of animals and plants that live in and around a clear-cut also change. But temporarily punching a few openings in a large forest is a legitimate forestry practice that does not amount to lasting habitat loss in the way that clearing to build houses or transmission lines does. “Single-age” cuts often mimic natural clearings caused by wind-throw and fire. “Does logging cause forest fragmentation?” asked Mike Burger, conservation and science director for Audubon New York. Probably not, at least not in a forest as vast and intact as the Adirondacks, he concluded.

The Adirondack Research Consortium discussion provided context for an impending decision by the Adirondack Park Agency (APA). Without sacrificing that hard-to-measure thing called forest health, the state land-use regulator wants to lighten the bureaucratic burden on loggers and landowners who want to clear-cut in the Adirondack Park. Agency staffers are meeting today with a Silivcultural Review Group, which includes many of the experts who convened at Paul Smith’s. APA spokesman Keith McKeever says that commissioners will hear an update on the issue at their November 14 board meeting, but they won’t make a decision at that time.

Currently landowners are free to clear-cut up to 25 acres in the Adirondack Park (or up to three acres in wetlands) without even telling the APA. In order to avoid red tape, many foresters advise landowners to raze just under 25 acres. Last year, APA staff proposed a general permit that would expedite clear-cuts larger than 25 acres, as long as specifics of the harvest are reported to the agency and the forest is managed in compliance with a standards-certification program such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Sustainable Forestry Initiatve (SFI).

The agency tabled the proposal earlier this year after some environmental groups demanded more information. Because small clearings are not reported to state officials, the APA was not able to estimate how much clear-cutting takes place in the park. The answer appears to be: not much.

The October 15 discussion was wide-ranging; this is a summary of only two points. But the gathering itself was noteworthy in that it was the first attempt to take a comprehensive look at the state of private Adirondack forestry since 1980. Ross Whaley, former president of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said the reason for the 1980 gathering, which took place at the Rensselaerville Institute of Man and Science, was to establish the Adirondack clear-cutting law that is still in effect today. At that time, Ed Ketchledge, an influential Adirondack forest ecologist who died in 2010, said, “There is nothing defendable or magical about a 25-acre limit.”

That still appears to be true. As for a new number—a limit on the amount of acres that could be clear-cut without a special permit—no specific figure has been proposed, though one private forester estimated that most cuts would be “in the low 100s.”

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