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Technical Updates

Thursday, 23 July 2020
Gaining Ground: High Grading and FSC Certification

By: Justin Meier

“What do you mean I can’t thin my woods again in my lifetime?” “Yes, I would like to buy the property, but it’s going to take a generation and a lot of financial inputs to restore a productive forest”. “The oak is gone, and red maple is now one of the most prevalent trees in this landscape”. “We don’t hear the birds anymore”. “We do selective harvests. That’s different than high grading.”.

If you’ve ever seen a high graded forest, you’ve probably heard similar sentiments. Contrary to the name’s implication, high graded forests are not of higher quality, and the most egregious examples border on forest conversion. The FSC forest management standard aims to ensure that these types of exploitative tactics don’t occur on FSC-certified lands. The FSC certification framework protects forest from high grading by requiring management of forests to achieve future outcomes – the opposite of high grading, which focuses on short-term financial gain. But, where did high grading come from and what exactly is it? Why is it so bad, and what does the FSC US Forest Management Standard say about it?

High grading is one of many practices that links early American logging to modern forest management. In fact, the selective harvest of large white pine by early European settlers was a form of high grading. US harvesting practices continued to evolve throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s with wholesale clearcutting of white pine and many hardwood forests. Diameter limit cutting (a form of high grading) evolved to remedy negative impacts of wholesale clearcutting, such as soil erosion, water quality, and aesthetic concerns.

Unfortunately, the impacts of diameter limit cutting and other forms of high grading were found to be less obvious but no less damaging. High grading, as we know it today, is actually an exploitative tree harvesting method that removes the highest quality (i.e., highest grade) trees from a timber stand and leaves the lowest grade trees standing. It is an elusive concept known by many terms, including economic clearcut, high grade selective cut, and diameter limit selective cut [Note: Selection cutting is often (sometimes deliberately) confused with "selective" cutting, a term synonymous with the practice of high grading (the removal of the most economically profitable trees in a forest, often with a disregard for the future of the residual stand)].

Known by any name, high grading is a harvesting practice that emphasizes short-term profit over long-term forest quality, value and productivity. It is characterized by a lack of scientific foundation and results in forests left in poor health with limited remaining financial value, low vigor, and reduced species diversity and capacity to provide ecosystem services like habitat and recreation.

In modern forest management, the scientific concept of silviculture forms the grounding for acceptable approaches to management and is defined by the US Forest Service as “generally, the science and art of cultivating (such as with growing and tending) forest crops, based on the knowledge of silvics. More explicitly, the theory and practice of controlling the establishment, composition, constitution, and growth of forests”. Basing forest management decisions on silviculture facilitates consideration of management sustainability, scientific knowledge of how trees grow and senesce, and forest regeneration. High grading does not facilitate this balanced approach, and its employment is a step backwards for US forests.

Because exploitative timber harvesting like high grading comes in many forms, FSC tackles the issue by addressing both its impacts and causes. The basic FSC premise that sustainable forest management is possible through a market-based certification system is intended as a counter to the primary cause of high grading: the focus on short-term profit. FSC’s standards and third-party auditing framework ensure that the focus is on comprehensively planned forest management. When certified organizations are audited and found to be in non-compliance with the FSC US Forest Management Standard, they are required to remedy their actions or risk termination of their certificate.

FSC seeks to prevent the negative consequences of high grading directly through the FSC US Forest Management Standard. For example, when FSC-certified forests are harvested they are designed to be left in a healthy, vigorous, and profitable condition because the Standard requires that “timber harvests lead to achieving desired future conditions and improve or maintain health and quality” (Criterion 6.6.c). FSC forests are designed to be more diverse because forest management practices on them must “enhance plant species composition” (Criterion 6.3.d). Forest management plans for FSC-certified forests tie these concepts together and ground them in science by requiring explanation of how selected silvicultural systems will sustain forest ecosystems for the long-term (Criterion 7.1.l).

When consumers choose FSC, they choose to stand against exploitative practices like high grading, diameter limit cutting, and selective cutting. When organizations choose FSC certification, they are choosing to consider the future as well as the present and are supporting the sustainability of an entire industry, as well as the ecosystems and people that depend on them. We have come a long way since the selective harvests of white pine in the 1800s. Let’s choose to not lose any more ground.


1. Meier, J. (circa 2013-2019). Professional consultations with US forestland owners and managers across the Lake States, Northeast, and Appalachia.
2. Catanzaro, P. and D’Amato, A. (n.d.). High grade harvesting: Understand the impacts, know your options. UMass Extension.
3. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. (n.d.) Silviculture Handbook, 2431.5. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Retrieved July 9, 2020 from […]
4. Selection Cutting. (2020). Retrieved July 12, 2020, from […]
5. Virginia Department of Forestry. (n.d.). “Select” Cutting: Method of harvesting trees. Virginia Department of Forestry. Retrieved July 9, 2020 from […]
6. Stokes, Bryce J.; Ashmore, Colin; Rawlins, Cynthia L.; Sirois, Donald L. (1989). Glossary of Terms Used in Timber Harvesting and Forest Engineering. Gen. Tech. Rep. SO-73. New Orleans, LA: U.S. Dept of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Forest Experiment Station. 33 p.