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Without clear-cutting, it is not certain that we would have 63% of Chatham County covered in trees today

By Al Cooke
Posted Thursday, November 14, 2013

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Pittsboro, NC - Nearly all of the marketable timber in Chatham County was taken approximately between 1875 and 1925 when the wood products industry moved into and across the southeast U.S. Any tree older than that time frame was left because it was too small, of inferior quality, inaccessible, or otherwise not marketable. (I would be glad for any local historian to fill in or correct details.)

Today, nearly two-thirds of Chatham County is covered in trees

Today, nearly two-thirds of Chatham is covered in trees (63%, 262,000 acres). Largely that is because private landowners who own about 90% of those trees manage them as a crop. The balance in is public land such as that surrounding Jordan Lake. In 2012, timber was worth $8.3 million to Chatham landowners and more than that in jobs for those who move the trees from stump to finished wood products. If that economic incentive was not there, it is legitimate to ask if the landowners would have kept that land in timber and what it might look like otherwise. "Our forests" are mostly private property, and we can thank the landowners for any benefit we derive from them.

Trees are harvested on about a thirty to forty year cycle locally. As those trees grow older, the economic value begins to decrease. For the landowner, that harvest represents an investment that may be applied to putting kids through college, retirement income, or many other options. Meanwhile, the landowners pay property taxes on that land. How much they invest may depend on the potential productivity of the site. Many landowners have a management plan in place that may or may not include recreation and/or wildlife enhancement.

Clear-cutting is ugly and disruptive. Often the landowner (who may live nearby) is as frustrated as anyone else over what they see. But the clear-cut is the most efficient and economically productive means of harvesting the timber. And we have to remember that the timber is there as an investment for the owner.

In an ideal situation professional foresters usually suggest the clear-cut take no more than 50 acres (or less) at one time. In that situation various stands of trees would be harvested at intervals so that the land is maintained in what they call mixed aged stands. The mix of ages means that there are different stages of ecosystems providing habitat for a greater variety of wildlife than if it were all mature forest.

What is usually not obvious is the recovery process between clear-cutting and reestablishment. Going back to the potential productivity of the site, it may or may not be cost effective to replant. If replanting is not expected, then seed trees are left for natural seeding and regeneration leading to the next timber crop. Even if year old seedlings are hand planted, it may not be obvious to the casual observer. And herbaceous plants such as ragweed and dogfennel may be the most obvious plants for a few years. This type of growth provides good habitat for songbirds, rabbit, fox, and even deer. In fact it is the kind of place you're likely to see a hunter place a deer stand.

As I suggested, clear-cutting is ugly and disruptive from a human perspective. But without it, I am not certain that we would have 63% of the county covered in trees today. If we appreciate that aspect of the county, perhaps we should find a landowner who manages timber and express our appreciation.

Al Cooke is an Extension Agent in Horticulture for the Chatham County Center, N.C. Cooperative Extension

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Without clear-cutting, it is not certain that we would have 63% of Chatham County covered in trees today

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