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Goal: Sustain Our Nation’s Forests and Grasslands Long-term study points to the benefits of partial-cutting over clearcutting in the southern Appalachian mountains

Horse logging Southern Appalachians
Horse logging Southern Appalachians. (Forest Service photo)


Results from a research study initiated in 1942 are now available. The study assessed the long-term impact of harvesting practices that were common prior to the 1950s. The study shows that historic partial harvesting practices did not affect tree species composition and diversity, whereas clearcut harvesting reduced diversity and altered species composition.


Prior to the 1950s, partial harvesting operations were common in the southern Appalachians and involved the removal of logs by ground-skidding and construction of steep access roads and skid trails. Because little was known about how these historic practices affected long-term vegetation changes, researchers at the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory partially harvested a small watershed from 1942–1952 using these exploitive practices. The scientists compared the partial-cut watershed to a clearcut watershed and an untreated, reference watershed.

SRS scientists and cooperators analyzed patterns in aboveground biomass accumulation, species composition, and diversity among partial-cut, clearcut, and the untreated, reference watershed. Contrary to expectations, the partial-cut watershed recovered to reference levels of aboveground biomass and similar species composition.

The clearcut watershed had greater abundance of tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) than the other two watersheds. Diversity in the partial-cut watershed increased over time but remained less diverse than the reference watershed. In contrast, the clearcut watershed had lower diversity than the other two watersheds, and its diversity did not change over time.

Despite the extreme soil disturbance, long-term species composition and diversity did not change as dramatically in the partial-cut watershed as it did in the clearcut watershed. These results will inform forest managers, conservationists, and hydrologists about long-term effects of partial-cutting versus clearcutting.

Principal Investigator
Katherine J. Elliott, Research Ecologist
4353 - Center for Forest Watershed Research
Strategic Program Area
Resource Management and Use
Fire and Fuels
Water, Air, and Soil
The long-term case for partial-cutting over clear-cutting in the southern Appalachians USA
Research Partner
North Carolina State University