Considering a timber harvest? Do your homework first

Conservation organizations, federal and state agencies, land trusts, and private landowners use timber harvests to generate income and create or refresh young forest for wildlife. Carefully sited and properly carried out, a timber harvest can improve a forest's overall health by adding a different-aged component to a woodland that has trees of only one age.

Logging can also lead to the presence of different species of trees and shrubs, including light-loving, short-lived ones. A woodland that includes diverse kinds of trees will be more resilient to diseases and other stressors than a forest with only a few kinds of trees.

image of female eastern towhee
Bill Byrne
Birds like this female eastern towhee find abundant food in areas of young forest and shrubland. They also site nests in the thick habitat.

Timber Harvests Large and Small

Landowners can use tree felling or timber harvesting to create forest openings (2 acres or less), patch cuts (at least 5 acres), or extensive clearcuts (10 acres and larger).

Different percentages of trees can be removed from a forest stand. To make young forest, biologists and habitat managers may recommend clearcutting, or "even-aged" harvesting, in which most or all of the trees are taken. Or they may suggest cutting a few trees here and there. Or something in between.

The percentage of forest canopy that should be thinned to encourage young trees to grow back and provide thick young forest habitat depends on the kind of wildlife that landowners or land managers want to encourage. Other factors to consider are slope, soil moisture and fertility, and the presence or absence of invasive plants or abundant deer whose feeding may slow or prevent the growth of young trees and shrubs. It's very important to consult with a forester or a state or federal biologist experienced in tailoring a timber harvest to help wildlife.

illustration of forest regrowth cycle - a fresh cut, in 2-3 years, after 10 years, after 20 years
Following an even-age timber harvest, it doesn't take long for trees to grow back as wildlife-friendly young forest.

Mimicking Natural Disturbance Events

A timber harvest can act like a natural disturbance, such as a flood, storm, or wildfire, by removing some, many, or most of the trees on a site. Seed-tree cuts and shelterwood cuts take some trees, while a clearcut essentially wipes the slate clean: It temporarily sets the age of the forest back to zero, spawning a new young forest that provides habitat to wildlife that requires dense cover for breeding and raising young.

At first, a timber harvest looks messy, like a bad haircut. But in just one growing season, the stumps, root systems, nuts, and seeds of harvested trees send up thousands of new little trees. Light reaching the ground spurs the growth of low plants such as pokeweed, blueberries, wild strawberries, blackberries, grasses, sedges, and wildflowers that pollinating insects avidly visit.

Soon the regrowing young forest provides abundant food (fruits, seeds, insects, and small mammals) and thick hiding cover for a tremendous range of wildlife, including turtles, birds, and larger mammals – both common species that use a broad range of habitats, and rare kinds that don't live anywhere other than young forest and shrubland. Northeastern states consider more than 60 kinds of young forest wildlife to be “species of greatest conservation need” because their numbers have been falling for decades as the vast majority of the region’s forests have gradually become middle-aged and older.

The Future Forest

After around 20 years, those young trees will have grown tall and spread wide, shading out lower plants and offering habitat to a different suite of wildlife. By then, a landowner or land manager may have found another place on their property to create some new young forest.


“We hope to spark a lifelong interest in forests so that kids go on to hunt, hike, and otherwise enjoy the woods. Some may eventually become stewards of their own working forests.” Steve Eustis, Eustis Family Forest, Vermont


Educate Yourself Before Cutting

  • Don’t just sell your trees to a logger who may come knocking at your door. Engage a certified forester to develop a forest management plan (often referred to as an FMP). Natural resource agencies in most states have private lands foresters or biologists who can provide excellent advice. In many cases, a consultation will be free.
  • Consider the possible presence of invasive shrubs or trees that could take over a site following a timber harvest, or overabundant white-tailed deer that could browse down young trees and inhibit forest regeneration.
  • To prevent erosion, avoid harvesting timber on steep slopes. Don’t cut trees that cast protecting shade on vernal pools. Protect habitats of rare or endangered animals and plants. If your neighborhood already has ample young forest, consider simply letting your trees grow old. 
  • The state of Vermont offers a series of Landowner Guides to a Successful Timber Harvest that have application throughout the Northeast. The five publications, downloadable from the website of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, cover these subjects: Overview, Wildlife, Water, Economics, and Working with Foresters and Loggers.
  • Concerned about carbon storage and sequestration? Wood products store carbon for many years. This webpage offers more information.
  • If you conduct a heavy cut to create young forest, expect to see a diverse and changing cast of wildlife in the years following a timber harvest. Wildlife in Your Young Forest is a mini-field guide listing animals that may show up.

Young Forest Doesn't Last Forever

Remember, young forest is an ephemeral habitat. You can’t just make it and have it remain in place forever. Forests regrow rapidly in the well-watered Northeast. That’s why conservationists continue to work to create young forest and shrubland for the wildlife that needs this rare habitat.