Timber Harvest Types

There are many reasons to harvest timber. Income is one. Stand improvement and wildlife management are others. No matter your reason, harvesting will impact the structure and composition of your woodland for years to come, so make sure you select the right type to fit with your long-term management goals.

Harvest Types

Clearcut Harvest

In the clearcut method, all (or almost all) trees are harvested from the sale area. Generally utilized for the final harvest of mature timber, clearcutting is the most cost-effective harvest method and will generate the greatest income.

For some, a downside of clearcutting is the visual impact. Leaving visual buffers along roadsides, extending stream buffers to include side drains, and strategically leaving clusters of trees can lessen the field of view and help improve the post-harvest aesthetics. These additional steps will only minimally impact timber income.

Cabarrus County North Carolina clearcut area.
Clearcut area immediately after the harvest and 4 months later.

Seed-Tree Harvest

A seed-tree harvest leaves 6 to 12 mature, well-formed trees per acre to serve as a seed source for the next stand of trees. The seed trees can be harvested once the new stand is established. The advantage of this method is that there are no regeneration costs and to most the aesthetics are more desirable than a clearcut. The downside is that, in many cases, too many seedlings per acre regenerate. To reduce the stand density to a healthy level, precommercial thinning is required, which is a cost.

Carolina seed tree harvest
Top: Seed tree harvest; Middle: Post-seed tree removal; Bottom: after precommercial thinning for density control.

Thinning Harvest

A thinning harvest is performed in dense stands, usually pine, to free up growing space for the best quality “crop trees,” and is repeated every five to ten years until the final harvest. The goal is to remove the undesirable growing stock (diseased, crooked, overtopped trees). Thinning should be planned and overseen by a forester to ensure proper harvest tree selection and post-harvest density. When conditions allow, stands should be marked to ensure proper tree selection. A logging crew with thinning experience should be selected to perform the harvest. Failure to thin correctly will impact your stand’s future health and value. If done right, there is no downside to thinning. Thinning will improve crop tree growth, enhance wildlife habitat, and reduce the likelihood of insect infestation, all while capturing income that would otherwise be lost to natural mortality.

Rowan County North Carolina first pine thinning
1st Thinning – Before & Immediately After

Shelterwood Harvest

The shelterwood harvest method involves removing the entire forest gradually over time through a series of partial cuttings. The first cutting opens the upper canopy, allowing light to reach the forest floor, stimulating the growth of new trees. Once the new trees develop in the understory, another cut is performed to remove more of the overstory to free up growing space for the new trees. After two or three harvests the entire overstory is removed, and the newly regenerated trees are allowed to grow unencumbered. Preferred species composition, wildlife habitat, economic feasibility, and aesthetics determine the number and intensity of the harvests in this system. The advantage of the shelterwood method is that the forest is removed over time, reducing visual impact and leaving some trees that provide fruit and nuts for wildlife. Potential negatives are higher logging costs, leave tree damage, epicormic sprouting that will affect log grade, and proliferation of unwanted non-commercial shade-tolerant species. Of all the harvest methods, the shelterwood method has the most potential for problems and is the least profitable.

Gaston County North Carolina Mixed Hardwood Shelterwood Harvest
Mixed Hardwood Shelterwood Harvest
Lincoln County North Carolina Shortleaf Pine Shelterwood Harvest
Shortleaf Pine Shelterwood Harvest

Group Selection Harvest

The group selection harvest system involves a series of small clearcuts (1 to 5 acres in size) scattered within a tract and performed over the management rotation length to create a patchwork of stands of varying ages.

Example: a family owns 250 acres of mixed hardwood woodland that, with proper management, takes 75 years (the rotation length) to reach maturity. The family uses the property for recreation, doesn’t want the look of a large clearcut, and wants periodic income and improved wildlife habitat and diversity. For the first harvest, a series of small clearcuts are harvested, totaling approximately 50 acres. Every 15 years an additional ±50 acres is cut–think of a jigsaw puzzle that you remove a set number of pieces from at designated time intervals. At year 75 the trees in the first cutting areas will be mature once again, and the cycle will begin anew. 

This method creates a diversity of stand ages that will benefit wildlife species ranging from those that thrive in early successional habitats to those that need an older growth forest. Also, this system will create a perpetual yield of income from forest products. Disadvantages are that the logging and sale layout costs can be higher than with larger clearcuts. This type of management takes careful long-range planning to be successful.

Group Selection Harvest
Aerial view of a group selection harvest. Harvest areas range from roughly 1.5 to 2.5 acres in size.

I will be glad to discuss your management goals and help you determine which method will be most suitable for your property.

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Tim is a forester, real estate agent, and avid outdoorsman. When he is not managing clients’ woodland, you will find him hiking, trail running, reading, or woodworking. Motto: “Never get too comfortable–there is always room for improvement.”