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A clearcut conducted by The Lyme Timber Company in the southern Adirondacks near Speculator (Photo used by permission)
A clearcut conducted by The Lyme Timber Company in the southern Adirondacks near Speculator (Photo used by permission)

Clear-cut logging debate looms in Adirondacks

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Next week the Adirondack Park Agency will vote on a controversial new policy that would change the way clear-cut logging is regulated.

State officials hope to offer a more streamlined general permit to landowners in the Park who want to clear-cut forest stands larger than 25 acres.

Only private timber lands covered by a sustainable forestry plan would qualify for the new permit.

Supporters of the change say it will help the region's logging industry harvest trees more efficiently, while also encouraging smarter long-term management of the Park's forests.

Critics in the environmental community say the APA is giving up too much of its regulatory clout and giving loggers too much leeway.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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First a little history

Before we dig into the details of how this new proposal would affect logging in the Adirondacks, it’s important to talk for just a second about the practice of clear-cutting. 

In the 1800s and early 1900s, loggers wiped out forests across the Adirondacks, leaving widespread

An Adirondack clearcut in the 1920s (Source:  New York State Archives)
An Adirondack clearcut in the 1920s (Source: New York State Archives)
devastation. 

John Sheehan with the Adirondack Council says that for a lot of people clearcuts still sound like a terrible idea. 

“Clearcutting had such a huge and devastinging impact on the Adirondack Park a hundred years ago, the public is still very sensitive to that," Sheehan notes.

But even environmentalists these days say that properly used clearcuts can be a healthy way to manage forests. 

Mike Burger, director of conservation and science with Audubon New York, points out that some types of birds in the Adirondacks actually thrive best in areas where older stands of trees have been removed or heavily thinned.

“Young forests can be provided by clear-cuts which are legitimate silviculture treatments," Burger says.

"Five to ten percent of that kind of young forest integrated into a very heavily forested landscape is what these birds need.”

Foresters and scientists acknowledge that clear cuts look ugly. 

But as a harvesting practice, they can help control tree diseases and allow foresters to promote the growth of more valuable younger trees, like maple and white pine.

The question is how to regulate clear cuts so that they’re used in the right places and in the right way. 

A Regulatory Agency Partners With NGOs

The Adirondack Park Agency thinks it’s come up with an innovative new approach that would give loggers and landowners more flexibility while also encouraging more rigorous forestry standards.

“The [new general permit] will encourage landowners to obtain certification through the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative programs, which are considered the highest forestry standards in the world," says APA spokesman Keith McKeever.

Here’s what that means. 

The APA wants to create a new general permit.  It would be a much quicker, more streamlined process for loggers who want to clearcut stands of timber larger than 25 acres.

To qualify, landowners will first have to create a sustainable forestry management plan certified by one of those non-profit groups:  either the Forest Stewardship Council or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

“Certifications will result in healthier forests and longer term investments in the region’s forest products industry.  That’s a win-win for the Adirondack Park," McKeever argues.

If this policy is approved, the APA would still be issuing general permits for clearcuts.  It’s not a rubber stamp, according to McKeever. 

But the process would rely heavily on those third-party groups to monitor logging practices in the field.

Sean Ross is director of forestry operations for Lyme Timber Company, which manages a quarter million acres of timberlands in the Adirondacks.  He loves this idea.

Forestry experts say clearcut logging can be an important tool for managing private timber stands.  On this Lyme Timber Company property near Speculator, a few white pines have been left as seed stock.  (Photo used by permission)
Forestry experts say clearcut logging can be an important tool for managing private timber stands. On this Lyme Timber Company property near Speculator, a few white pines have been left as seed stock. (Photo used by permission)
“For us it’s not necessarily about getting bigger clearcuts.  It’s about having more flexibility within a land management area.”

Ross points out that the APA’s clearcut rules haven’t been changed since the 1970s.

For us it's not necessarily about getting bigger clearcuts. It's about having more flexibility within a land management area.

The certification guidelines that would be folded into the regulatory system under this policy would include more modern forestry concepts.

Ross says the third-party harvesting rules would still prevent the kind of massive clearcuts that some people fear.

“The bigger harvests don’t fit into our landscape," he acknowledges.  "Those certification systems have a whole host of measures that wouldn’t allow for those larger cuts to occur anyway.”

Forest certification guidelines generally cap larger clearcuts at around 120 acres. 

Former Park Agency chairman Ross Whaley, who now represents the Adirondack Landowners Association, is convinced that this new approach includes enough checks and balances to protect forest habitat.

“The forest certification process, it’s the best standard, the highest standard for quality forest management in the country," Whaley says.  "Anything that can be done to promote that seems to me is good for the forest enterprise.”

The APA "abdicates" on clearcuts?

But many environmentalists are convinced that this concept for regulating larger clear-cuts is a terrible idea. 

“There’s probably a time and a place for clear-cutting," says Peter Bauer with Protect the Adirondacks.

Protect the Adirondacks argues that too much clearcutting is already going on without enough monitoring by state officials.   This image posted by Protect on the group's website was taken from the Bing mapping system.
Protect the Adirondacks argues that too much clearcutting is already going on without enough monitoring by state officials. This image posted by Protect on the group's website was taken from the Bing mapping system.

"This issue is really about the Agency’s role in regulating forest management and not about whether clear-cutting is a good practice or a bad practice.”

Bauer argues that the APA is essentially abdicating its regulatory role, trying to hand off oversight of timber lands to private, third-party groups.

“The agency is a regulatory body and we don’t think these certification programs can take the place of the findings of facts that they’re required to make and...evaluations that they’re required to make.”

If the APA needs better or smarter regulations for managing clearcuts, Bauer says, it should write new rules, not hand off oversight to outside nonprofit groups.

Green activists also worry that this new approach would reduce the amount of public notice that would be given when landowners tell the APA that they want to perform larger clearcuts.

In future, a record of the general permit application would be posted on the APA’s website.

But neighboring landowners, environmental groups and community leaders wouldn’t receive any kind of notice that a clearcut is about to happen.

John Sheehan with the Adirondack Council says because clearcuts can have big impacts on scenery, the public “has a right to participate in the decision making.”

“If the public is upset with the way clearcuts look on the landscape, maybe the Agency ought to be taking that into consideration,” Sheehan argues.

Protecting viewsheds

Jason Metnick is with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, one of the outside groups that would play a big role in this new general permit approach. 

He says the forestry standards that landowners would have to adopt under this new regimen would protect scenic vistas.

“There are specific requirements within the SFI standard that address that address that very issue of view sheds.  Every FSI program participant must have a program to address visual quality management," he says.

According to Metnick, the APA would be the first regulatory body in the country to incorporate third-party non-profit groups like his into a permit application process.

The APA has acknowledged the experimental nature and of the new policy and says it will effectively sunset after three years.

“During this three-year time period, the APA will continue to work with all stakeholders to identify possible regulatory revisions which promote sustainable forestry," McKeever says.

If the new system isn’t working, McKeever says, it won’t be renewed.  Mike Burger with Audubon New York says he thinks the experiment is worth trying.

“You know, it’s probably fair to say the regulations of the Adirondack Park Agency right now, they’re a little outdated," Burger notes.

"And I think it’s time to bring the regulations more in line with forest management in the 21st century.  So I think what the APA is trying to do in general, they’re taking a step in the right direction.”

Smaller clear cuts in the Park will still be unregulated

There is one other controversial issue here. 

Environmental groups point out that the APA currently doesn’t regulate most of the clearcuts in the Park smaller than 25 acres in size. 

That means there’s no clear record of how much clearcutting is happening now.  State officials also can’t say how much additional clearcutting they expect this policy to allow.

Sean Ross with Lyme Timber says he thinks most landowners and most loggers will stick with business as usual, clearcutting smaller plots of land using outdated harvesting practices with almost no scrutiny.

“I think the vast majority of folks will, because certification is very expensive, it’s challenging to be certified.  It’s a very high bar," Ross says.

Still, if approved, this new general permit is expected to be used by the Adirondack Park’s biggest landowners who manage roughly 700,000 acres of private timberland. 

A vote is expected next Thursday when the APA meets in Ray Brook.

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