What Is High-Grading?

This essay was posted to the Northeastern Forestry Reformation List Server August 3, 1999.

What Is High-Grading?

Also known as "cutting the best and leaving the rest," high-grading is the type of "forestry" that happens on about 85% of the cutting operations in southern New England and just about everywhere else throughout the country.  Technically, high-grading is a type of selective cutting (as distinguished from clearcutting), where some or all of the biggest and best trees are cut.  Because it doesn't remove ALL the trees, it's sometimes referred to as "the hidden disaster" in our forests.

High-grading is a destructive practice that occurs with the full approval of our state forestry agencies.  It isn't regulated because those who practice high-grading are politically powerful and because in many cases, our state forestry agencies share more common interests with high-graders than they do with the landowners, consulting foresters and environmentalists who would seek to curtail this practice. 

Details

In some parts of the country high-grading means cutting everything down to about 6" DBH.  This leaves young trees and very suppressed older trees.  This type of high-grading is also known as commercial clearcutting because it removes everything of any commercial value.  Those trees under 6" just won't pay their way out of the woods, so they get left.

In other parts of the country which don't have markets for small trees (such as southern New England), high-grading may mean cutting down to 12" or 14" DBH.  Although this type of cutting leaves many trees behind, it also amounts to commercial clearcutting because those smaller trees are not marketable.  This type of high-grading is common in areas which don't have pulp markets.

Fancy Names

High-grading is a pejorative term.  You probably won't hear it used by the loggers and foresters who practice it.  From these people, you're more likely to hear terms like "selective cutting," "selection harvesting" and, most often, "diameter limit cutting." 

In most mixed hardwood stands, a diameter limit cut is a de facto high-grading operation because the more valuable species and individual trees are likely to grow faster and get above that diameter limit sooner.  So they'll get cut.  Conversely, the less valuable species and individual trees which grow more slowly will be below that diameter limit.  So they'll get left.

What usually happens in reality though is that the more valuable species are cut to lower diameter limits while the less valuable species are cut to higher diameter limits.  This is precisely the opposite of what should happen for good long-term management of the forest, and what will happen if cutting operations are not planned by conscientious consulting foresters.

What's called selective cutting usually consists of just removing the largest trees of those species which happen have the best market prices at the moment.  This type of cutting will have less visual impact and may leave some good quality trees for future growth.  But it's still  high-grading.

Effects

Repeated high-grade cuts will, over time, greatly reduce genetic quality and diversity.  You'll get stands of some low vigor and defective individuals of high-grade species, plus many individuals of low-grade species.  Such stands will look impoverished, will require drastic treatment to restore to productivity, and will offer less food and shelter to wildlife, particularly those species that depend on the mast produced by high-grade oaks, cherries and ashes.  

While landowners may get higher short-term returns from their forests, the long-term productivity (and net present value) will be about half of what it would be with good management by a consulting forester.  And there's no assurance that landowners will get the full value of what high-graders cut anyway.  Studies have shown that consultants get at least 20% more when they handle timber sales.

High-grading operations are often accompanied by sloppy logging practices such as driving skidders through streams and wetlands, rutting of forest soils, damaging of residual trees and leaving tree tops unlopped.  But many high-grading operations have none of these problems, and will in fact look rather neat.  Appearances can be very deceiving in these cases. 

Solving the Problem

Well, we could create massive state forestry bureaucracies to regulate cutting practices.  That would make the bureaucrats happy, but it would drive loggers crazy.  You'd probably end up with some maimed bureaucrats.  You'd also end up with a book of regulations a foot thick that would make the practice of forestry a nightmare.

Alternatively, we could require that all cutting operations be planned by licensed foresters.  Of course some licensed foresters would still sign off on high-grading operations, but if their licenses could be revoked for this practice, there would be a huge disincentive for their putting their stamp of approval on plans for such operations.

As a consulting forester, I'm biased towards the latter solution.  I think it would work.  Of course it would take some doing.  There would be loud squawking by high-graders claiming attacks on property rights (THEIR rights to landowners' property), and there would be muted squawking from forestry bureaucrats who would see threats to career advancement.  These obstacles would just have to be overcome.