ROSEBURG, Ore. — High on a ridgeline, Abe Wheeler respectfully sizes up a cluster of a dozen thick Douglas firs. They look 400 years old.
“Man, these trees have the coolest branches on them,” Wheeler says. “They didn’t teach us how to grow these in silviculture school.”
Nearby, a banana slug shuffles along the forest floor.
Wheeler is a forester with the Bureau of Land Management. Most of the trees on this ridgeline in the South Myrtle creek watershed are about 110 years old. The BLM is considering cutting many of them down as part of a pilot project to create timber sales that incorporate ecological principles.
Wheeler and a team of biologist have been asked to identify unique elements of the forest stand to set aside for preservation.
A protected zone marked by green flags has been established on the side of the ridge where the old-growth firs are found. Nearby, an upwelling of water on the ridgeline has created a small fen where reeds and grasses thrive. Wheeler says the areas bordering the fen have also been set aside. In total, the BLM says about 40 percent of the stand on this ridgeline will be left untouched. And if all goes according to plan, about 60 percent will be offered as a timber sale.
Foresters found a few very old trees in this mostly 110 year old stand near Myrtle Creek.
Steven Lydick, a field manager with the BLM’s Roseburg district, says the project is an attempt to strike a balance.
“You know, realistically what we’re doing is trying to find, sort of that sweet spot between maximizing timber and maximizing habitat value,” he says.
This proposed sale is part of a larger series of forestry pilot projects developed by the BLM, professor Norm Johnson of Oregon State University, and Professor Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington.
Johnson says the goal of the pilot projects is to harvest and re-generate timber while more closely mimicking the impact of a natural event that might destroy a forest — like a fire, windstorm, or even volcanic eruption. Johnson estimates the total timber yield from land managed in this way to be about half of what you’d get from logging according to rules laid out in the Northwest Forest Plan.
Natural disturbances behave irregularly, leaving patches of living vegetation, dead snags and downed logs. Surviving plants help re-seed the landscape, and snags provide good habitat for species like woodpeckers and bluebirds.
Johnson says the Roseburg pilot project mimics this effect by setting aside patches of trees that will remain untouched.
Research on recovery of ecosystems after the Mt. St. Helens eruption has led biologists to appreciate the importance of the brush and shrub habitat that exists only after a disaster and before conifer trees begin to block out the light. It’s called early-seral, or early-successional habitat. And species ranging from ground squirrels to butterflies to elk love it.
Johnson says that for years, foresters have destroyed early-seral habitat by suppressing fire and aggressively replanting Douglas fir trees. In fact, healthy early-seral habitat may now be rarer than old growth forest.
“We think that it is the scarcest successional stage in the Cascades,” says Johnson.
Initially, he and Franklin suggested not replanting any trees the Roseburg site, to allow this early-seral habitat the best chance to develop and mature.
“That got people kind of worked up, so we’re suggesting a low level of planting done irregularly, to make sure we do get the next forest there,” Johnson says.
Lydick, the field manager at the BLM in Roseburg, says there’s another advantage to doing very little replanting at the Roseburg pilot site. He hopes it will lead to a more natural mixed-age, mixed density stand as a young forest takes root.
But the proposed “ecological” timber sales are facing skepticism from some in the environmental community. Doug Hieken, with the group Oregon Wild, suggests there are better ways to encourage early-seral habitat than logging in an old stand.
“Mature forests are still a rare and beautiful thing, so it’s hard to see the ecological value in that,” Heiken says.
Heiken says he appreciates that Franklin and Johnson are trying something new. But he’s concerned about the precedent the timber sales could set.
“If it’s just a tiny pilot, people would probably be willing to let this experiment go. We could just watch what happens and we might have results in 10 or 12 years But instead what we’re likely to see is the pilot goes through and then BLM thinks, oh here’s a great idea, let’s do it 50 times, all across the landscape.”
And new habitat guidelines for protecting the spotted owl, expected to be released by the this month, could raise further questions about the proposed pilot timber sales.