What Method of Logging Hurts Forest Ecosystems the Most?

Timber is an incredibly valuable resource for the human population. Cutting down trees for economic and cultural purposes has been a practice employed by humans since the beginning of civilization, but as our need for timber grows, the methods we use to get it are becoming increasingly harmful to forests and the earth. 

There are different ways to go about logging, and cutting down trees can be done either for economic or management purposes. Here are the logging methods we will cover in this article

This article will detail what each of these logging methods looks like as well as their impact on forest ecosystems. Finally, we will discuss which logging method is most harmful to forest ecosystems.


Clearcutting is a logging practice in which all trees and brush in a given area are removed.

This logging practice is used for a few reasons:

  • To harvest all trees in an area for sale
  • To clear an area to be used for farmland
  • To clear an area for urban or residential use
  • To promote the growth of understory plants by mimicking a wildfire

Of these reasons, the most common reason the method is employed is to clear an area to be used for farmland, specifically cattle grazing. Clearcutting is also seldom used to restore a forest where large trees have taken over and that understory trees and plants need room to catch up.

Impact of Clearcutting

Clearcutting is known to be incredibly harmful not only for the forest ecosystem itself but also for the planet’s health. We can look at this impact on three different scales:

  • Locally, clearcutting decreases biodiversity in the forest ecosystem. Every organism in a forest directly or indirectly relies on trees. If a forest is clearcut, almost every organism living in it will either die or attempt to relocate.
  • Regionally, surrounding forests will also have a sudden drop in diversity because of how much different forest ecosystems rely on each other for nutrient and energy exchanges.
  • Globally, forests are our most important source of carbon uptake and oxygen creation. Each time a forest is clearcut, less of the carbon we produce can be turned into oxygen by trees.


Of the three methods discussed in this article, shelterwood may be the most complicated. Shelterwood logging involves these three rounds of cutting: 

  1. Undesirable tree species are removed (i.e. invasive trees or overly dominant trees)
  2. Some trees shading the canopy are removed so the understory can grow
  3. Mature trees are removed to allow the new generation of trees can take over

This method is employed by smaller farmers who wish to control which species they want to grow in that particular area. They control which species can grow based on the amount of light let into the understory during step two. 

Impact of Shelterwood Logging

This method of tree harvesting is a much slower process than clearcutting but may be better for the environment as it allows the ecosystem to adjust to the changes over time. The shelterwood process may mimic certain natural processes that forests go through such as an invasive species killing all trees of one species, or flooding. 

However, shelterwood logging can still be harmful as it requires the use of heavy machinery that can damage understory plants and soil health. The process is also risky and may not yield the best results if the new trees are harmed by a flood or fire. 

Selective Cutting

Selective cutting is a method of logging where only certain species of trees are cut down and the rest are left intact. In forest management practices, this may mean that trees that contain invasive species or are too dominant in the forest may be removed. In commercial logging, valuable tree species are cut down and the others are left behind.

Impact of Selective Cutting

Selective cutting was initially touted as a more sustainable way to harvest wood from forests compared to clear-cutting. However, studies out of the Amazon rainforest show that this practice can be very harmful to forest ecosystems when unregulated. 

Loggers in South America must build dirt roads to travel to the logging site, and bring in large machinery that damages the understory. Then, when valuable trees like Mahogany are cut down, they often end up pulling other trees down with them, causing much more damage than simply pulling out a single tree.

The practice of selective cutting may be less harmful than clearcutting, but the growing areas of selective cutting make forests increasingly susceptible to fires by leaving behind debris and empty spots of land.

Which Type of Logging is Most Harmful to Forest Ecosystems?

Of the three logging methods we covered in this article,

  • Clearcutting
  • Shelterwood Logging
  • Selective Cutting

clearcutting is the most harmful logging method for forest ecosystems and the planet. Clearcutting removes all of the most ecologically valuable part of the forest: trees. Without trees, most organisms in that forest will die. Clearcutting leads to a huge drop in biodiversity of the region and can cause extinctions of endangered species. 

Clearcutting also harms neighboring forests as it fragments forested areas. For example, the Amazon rainforest is densely forested and each area of forest relies on another for nutrient and energy exchanges, if a large swath of forest is completely removed, all species from the surrounding areas are now separated from each other by a large plot of empty land.

Globally, forests are our most important defense against climate change, and clearcutting moves us in the opposite direction of conserving our forests by removing our main source of greenhouse gas uptake.

In Conclusion…

  • Three main types of logging are used for economic or management purposes: clearcutting, shelterwood logging, and selective cutting
  • Clearcutting involves cutting down every tree in a given area
  • Shelterwood logging is a harvesting process requiring three steps that allow farmers to grow a certain tree species without clearcutting forest
  • Selective cutting is a practice in which loggers remove only valuable trees from a forest

Of the three methods discussed, clearcutting is the most harmful logging method for forest ecosystems and the planet