news and events » smokejumper magazine

Smokejumper Magazine Header

Smokejumper Magazine Article

return to Smokejumper Magazine

Have Smokejumper Magazine delivered to you with an NSA Membership

The Beauty Of Clearcutting

by Karl Brauneis (Missoula '77) |

I enjoyed great success in clearcutting. This silvicultural system will optimize production, reduce conflicts with timber purchasers and prepare the site for ease in the burning of slash.

I first learned the art and science of timber management and clearcutting in North Idaho on the Kaniksu National Forest at Bonners Ferry. In response to a variety of forest conditions from insect and disease to fire and ice storms, we often secured approval to exceed the 40-acre size limitation.

Many of our clearcuts were more than 100 acres in size. I was never disappointed in the results.

The first grizzly bear I ever saw was in the middle of a recently harvested clearcut. The first hibernating black bear I ever saw was sleeping the winter away under a root rod next to an active skid trail. To log a clearcut was like ringing the dinner bell for the surrounding wildlife.

I ended my career on the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming where we utilized large clearcuts to, in essence, save and regenerate old aspen stands that were dying due to conifer takeover. We achieved amazing results through clearcutting. I am proud to say that my last day in the Forest Service was spent laying out a clearcut.


A district ranger north of us at Dubois, Wyo., told me years ago that an old forester came in to visit and see some of the 1,000-acre clearcuts they had planned and harvested in the 1960s.

The forester felt remorse at the size and scope of the cuttings. It bothered him throughout his career. Now he was back to see the effects.

Upon returning from the field, he told the ranger, “Forget about what I said. Those clearcuts are beautiful.”

Right he was—not only for the openings and trees that had now been pre-commercially thinned, but the clearcuts had made for some of the best grizzly bear habitat in the United States. So many grizzly bears, in fact, that I told one U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee that you wouldn’t go in there without a .45-70 rifle and a case of bear spray.

After the ranger relayed the story I got to thinking about the clearcutting controversy and where it began. I called the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. In short, some very influential politicians were upset that the Forest Service had clearcut their turkey hunting area.

In response, congress passed the National Forest Management Act, saddling the Forest Service with the proverbial “900-pound gorilla.”

I made a statement to Monongahela. “I bet those clearcuts that started the entire controversy are unnoticeable today. I bet the clearcuts are totally recovered and are beautiful stands of timber today.” Monongahela replied, “Well, yes, they are.”

I replied, “So, why don’t you publicize the cutting units with photographs and stories about the beauty of clearcutting?”

There was a pause. Monongahela replied, “Well, that would be too controversial.” Okey dokey—how do you respond to that? Too controversial to end a controversy? The science of forestry loses—politicians win?

Sale preparation

First and foremost you need to know how to get the logs out. A forester must know the transportation and logging systems to prescribe. Next comes unit layout and the proper stand prescription and follow up treatments. It takes years to learn this art and science.

For example, I had laid out a timber sale with dozer piling planned for a specific unit. I later changed the plan to broadcast burn the slash after observing soil compaction on adjacent units that were dozer piled.

When the fire management officer looked at the unit to burn, he came over to me and asked, “Browneyes, just what in the hell are you thinking?”

I told him about the soil-compaction issue. He said okay—you are now the holding crew boss on the dogleg you put in for me to burn.

I ate a lot of smoke and humble pie that day. Unfortunately, my crew had to suffer along with me.

Silvicultural Treatments

A forester can prescribe a variety of silvicultural treatments. To regenerate a stand, I have often used the Seed Tree (example—1 seed tree left every 75 feet), Shelterwood (example—1 seed tree left every 40 feet to both seed and shelter the site) and Clearcut systems. In both the seed tree and shelterwood systems, the reserve trees must be protected during logging and have a thick bark resistant to fire during the followup slash treatments. Good examples of leave trees are Western Larch, Douglas-fir and Ponderosa Pine.

The end product of both the seed tree and shelterwood systems are to regenerate the stand. Once the site is regenerated, the reserve trees are removed at around year ten. At year 20, all three systems should look the same. If the clearcut will give you the same result as the seed tree or shelterwood, then I would prescribe the clearcut. It is much easier to mange a clearcut during harvest, site preparation and follow up treatments. One aspect of clearcut layout is to be aware of the distance of the seed wall to the center of unit. The idea is fully stock the unit with natural regeneration. Either system can also be supplemented with planted stock from the nursery. Key to know is that much time and thought is put into the planned harvest of cutting units. It is not a haphazard process.

There are opportunities for selection systems, but those opportunities are few in much of the mid and northwestern national forests. Most often, we went into stands that were selectively harvested and prescribed clearcuts to rehabilitate the sites.

In actuality, these stands were economically high-graded to remove the best trees years ago. Now, we were left with suppressed and damaged hemlock and cedar. Through clear cutting we could restore the site to a beautiful mixed conifer stand. We could also plant a variety of rust-resistant white pine from the tree nursery in Coeur d’Alene.

To watch western white pine grow in a north Idaho clearcut is truly a thing of beauty.

Forest ecology

For convenience and length of article I will describe just one system: western lodgepole pine, from my last duty station on the Shoshone.

Lodgepole pine has a long fire-frequency interval (100 or more years) and a high fire-intensity level that results in a stand replacement fire. Trees grow to the age of about 100 and then send off signals: We are mature and ready to die.

Endemic pine beetle populations pick up the signals and transition to epidemic. They attack, girdle and kill the trees. Wind then blows down the dead trees and sets up the stand for a highintensity stand replacement fire.

Serotinous cones (cones that are covered with a resin that must be melted for the cone to open and release seeds) open with the heat of fire and seed the area. Often, this results in a tightly spaced or crowded regeneration, resulting in “dog hair stands” or “broomsticks” in 120 years. Often a second burn will take place in about 40 years when all of the snags have fallen to set up a reburn. This further sets back the stand back in time.

Lodgepole Pine Management

Let’s look at the steps of the conservation model in the management of lodgepole pine. At age 100, when the trees succumb to beetles, the stand is clearcut. Local jobs are provided in the forest and the local town. We estimated on the Kaniksu, that about nine people or jobs benefit directly and indirectly from each million board feet of timber harvested. We use to carry millions and millions of dollars in funds generated from funds collected through timber sale receipts that pay for planting, thinning and sale area betterment. Brush Disposal crews made up a huge part of the firefighting force. They were paid out of money from timber sale receipts while on district work and then switched to a fire code while on fire.

At Bonners Ferry, Idaho, we could field two 20-man crews on any given day. You can see what happened to our ready-made firefighting force with the loss of the timber programs.

Next, the unit is broadcast burned to prepare the seedbed. Regeneration surveys follow and the stand will be pre-commercial thinned at around year 20 to achieve about an 8-foot-by-8-foot spacing. The dominant and co-dominant trees are left and the suppressed trees cut.

The next cut is a commercial harvest at year 60 for post and pole material. Small sawlogs can be cut at year 80. At all harvest points, diseased or damaged trees are removed. The stand is left healthy with large diameter trees growing. These trees can now continue to grow to age 120 before the cycle is repeated.

Fire Suppression

Fire suppression becomes a key component in the protection of the managed stand. Fire suppression is a non-player in the view of many unless, of course, it affects the individual directly. When homes and property burn, there is an outcry. But, the cry soon fades with the passing fire season and the insurance adjustment payments.

I have witnessed homes destroyed by fire and rebuilt on exactly the same site. One home in Colorado was destroyed first by fire, then by flood and then by fire. It was rebuilt a third time on the same site.

This brief summary is written to get you thinking. How can we use our knowledge and stewardship of the land to benefit our fellow man? What role does fire play? Examine the conservation model of Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot.

Forest Management Forestry is both an art and a science that requires great skill to implement to achieve positive results. On the national forests it requires a professional Civil Service Corps that hires and promotes based solely on merit.

It requires a leadership that is knowledgeable and supportive of the field officers. It also requires a Congress that can actively evaluate and change or rescind the laws they pass. A Congress of absentee landlords is neither helpful nor beneficial to the management of our national forests.

For further discussion, you can reach me at