Tracking clearcuts provides a rough gauge for how extensively humans have altered the forests of the Northwest—and for how effectively northwesterners are safeguarding their distinctive natural heritage.

Clearcut logging alters natural ecosystems, constricting the habitat for old-forest species, which cannot survive in immature second-growth stands. And all forms of logging emit greenhouse gases, which are responsible for global warming, and require road building, which causes erosion and degrades streams. Clearcuts of old-growth forests have been particularly harmful, causing long-lasting simplifications of natural communities. But even the many clearcuts that occur in second- or third-growth stands are signs of disrupted ecosystems and a general indicator of wood-products consumption.

Sightline chose three study areas in Western Washington and Oregon—the Olympic Peninsula, the Central Cascades, and Southern Oregon—to highlight forest practices in a sample of locations. Each location is unique, but they are all similar in that they contain mix of land ownership and management objectives: both public and and private; both federal and state ownership; and both forests that are open to logging and those where logging is prohibited or restricted.

In British Columbia, we chose two adjoining scenes—the Inland Rainforest and the Lake Williams region—to highlight an area in the interior that has been mostly overlooked, in part because of all the attention to British Columbia’s coastal rainforest. Each study area is defined by a series of satellite images.

Within the limited areas that Sightline analyzed, forest clearcutting slowed dramatically in the 1990s—but it may have sped up again in recent years. In good news, though, the number of acres of forests managed in compliance with the demanding standards of the Forest Stewardship Council is increasing. On the Olympic Peninsula, the state has clearcut a greater percentage of its land than the US Forest Service. The reverse is true, however, in the Central Cascades and Southern Oregon study areas. The highest rates of clearcutting occur on private and tribal land—particularly the Quinault Indian Reservation—in some cases clearcutting more than 40 percent of the forests in the past three decades.

In all three study areas in the United States—Olympic Peninsula, Central Cascades, and Southern Oregon—Forest Service cutting occurred almost exclusively before the Northwest Forest Plan was implemented in 1994. This contributed to an overall reduction in clearcutting since the late 1990s.

Sightline’s analysis highlights the need for better conservation measures across landscapes and across land ownerships. In some cases, FSC certification of timber would improve conditions, in other cases, additional preservation, perhaps in wilderness areas, would help protect our remnant native forests.

June 18, 2004