Managing our 89 acres of timberland out in the Coast Range is one thing, but taking care of the forestland that we live on raises different concerns. Fire, for instance, takes on a new meaning when your home is on the property.
About three years ago we moved from Forest Grove out to a 5.5-acre lot in the woods on the edge of town.
In the area immediately around the house, we cleared out overgrown berry vines, a couple wooden structures and some smaller trees. We also removed any low, dead branches from the bigger trees.
The idea is to remove excess fuel to create a “defensible space” around your home – so if there’s a fire, you reduce the chance that flames reach the building.
We also need to keep trees growing on the lot if we’re to maintain the land’s “forest deferral,” which sets a reduced property tax rate for forestland. The previous owner had logged most of the larger trees, so we’ve planted 200 Douglas-fir seedlings.
That previous owner also had planted western redcedar, which we’re having trouble with. The deer just love them.
Did I mention the deer? They’ve been a challenge, too. There are about 15 of them on the property, and they seem to eat even the “deer-resistant” plants.
But we’ve been having some luck spraying a mixture based on porcupine and bovine blood onto trees and plants. It has to be reapplied every month or two – and it stinks when you’re spraying it – but it does seem to help. Apparently the deer associate the smell with predators being nearby, so they go find someplace else to eat.
Nevertheless, we built a 7-foot deer fence around a 1.5-acre area right near the house, to keep the deer from eating plants in the yard. It also helps keep the dog from going off and getting into another fight with a porcupine…
It’s been an adventure.
No doubt, in the aftermath of Arizona’s Yarnell Hill Fire that tragically killed 19 hotshot-crew firefighters, the media and others will look to assign blame.
To me the answer is obvious: We all are.
It’s the same answer that Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly penned in 1970 when he created a poster commemorating the first Earth Day: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Past policy decisions haunt us, from the U.S. Forest Service’s 1935 “10 o’clock rule” to put out every fire by 10 a.m. the next morning, to the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, subsequent east-side screens and other regional efforts to limit timber harvest in order to spare larger and older trees. Another haunting reality is that many of us have moved closer to our cherished forests because we love them – but when fire threatens, it is our homes, our property and our very lives we want protected.
It may be a part of our biologic makeup: We fear fire and the wanton destruction it can cause. We’re also in love with our forests and big trees.
But the answer isn’t less forest management. There has to be more, and it has to be smarter.
Less than a month before the Yarnell blow-up, a possible middle-ground solution emerged – interestingly, also from an Arizona source. Diane Vosick, director of policy and partnerships for Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute, testified before Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. She stated that the costs of active forest management can be repaid many times over in reduced severity and losses from wildfires.
“The question becomes, can we afford not to treat?” she asked.
I met Diane several years ago, when she worked for The Nature Conservancy here in Oregon as TNC’s east-side restoration coordinator. She was very helpful as OFRI wrote and published its special report Federal Forestland in Oregon: Coming to terms with active forest management of federal forestland.
Diane told Sen. Wyden and his committee that the best way to save money is to invest a little now in forest management. She presented a recent study by her institute, “The Efficacy of Hazardous Fuel Treatments.” While the research is specific to Arizona, its implications reach to Oregon.
Her conclusions are the same reached last year here in Oregon in a blue-ribbon study sponsored by a diverse group of statewide stakeholders, including conservationists, businesses, state agencies and counties: National Forest Health Restoration: An Economic Assessment of Forest Restoration on Oregon’s Eastside National Forest. Doubling the investment in forest restoration activities such as thinning and selective timber harvest can reinvigorate rural communities, reduce poverty and restore forest health and fire resiliency, the report concluded. In the process, restoration can protect wildlife habitat as well as clean air and water.
As the nation mourns the death of the 19 brave firefighters in Arizona, my hope is that we will realize that extreme positions – whether it’s no fire, no management or no timber harvest – all have unintended consequences. Let’s find the middle ground and invest in smart forest management to make sure a tragedy like this never happens again.
One of my favorite animals is the pileated woodpecker. What’s not to like about the noisy bird with the zebra-striped head and neck, long bill and distinctive red crest?
The pileated is Oregon’s largest woodpecker, but it’s relatively shy and not commonly seen. So any day I’m walking in a stand of oak or in a Douglas-fir forest and I see a pileated woodpecker, it’s a good day.
Recently, I was vacationing on Sanibel Island in Florida. This barrier island has a subtropical climate and white sand beaches. It’s nothing like the Douglas-fir forests of Oregon.
So imagine my surprise when I heard a familiar sound, looked into a palm tree and saw two pileated woodpeckers. What were they doing in a palm tree?
Well, pretty much the same thing they do in a Douglas-fir tree: making powerful strikes with their heavy bills, pulling with their feet to increase the strength of the blow and excavating long oval holes (up to several feet long) in the tree trunk in search of insects, or to make a nest.
It turns out I shouldn’t have been surprised to see them. Looking in a field guide I found that pileated woodpeckers live in mature deciduous or mixed deciduous-coniferous woodlands of nearly every type, from tall western hemlock stands of the Northwest, in a broad swath across Canada, to beech and maple forests in New England and down to the cypress swamps of the Southeast.
I had just assumed this beautiful bird was “ours.”I guess we have to share it.
You can learn more about pileated woodpeckers and how to create habitat to attract them in OFRI’s publication “Wildlife in Managed Forests.” Find it on our Resources page.
Director of K-12 Education Programs
In early June, I attended a community field tour of the nearly year-old Pole Creek Fire in the Deschutes National Forest outside the town of Sisters in central Oregon.
Lightning caused this fire, which erupted Sept. 8, 2012, and burned about 26,000 acres, or about 40 square miles. According to The Bulletin newspaper, “the fire destroyed four cars at the trailhead, a popular gateway to the Three Sisters Wilderness, prompted about 30 hikers and campers to find a different route out of the forest. Later, it walloped Sisters with waves of morning smoke deemed hazardous to health. The fire cost about $18 million to fight.”
Organizers held two five-hour tours, one on a Friday, and the other on a Saturday. About 50 people attended each day, cramming a bright yellow school bus.
Before we boarded, the leaders asked us to choose five words that describe the impact of forest fire on us as individuals. Most of the people were from central Oregon. Most used words like “smoke,” “air quality” and “health issues” to describe the fire’s impact.
During the tour, we learned about fire ecology and how a century of fire suppression has created dense forests that are over-stocked with an understory of small-diameter trees. In the past, periodic, low-intensity fires removed this understory, leaving the larger and more resilient trees – mainly ponderosa pine – to grow even larger. But with fire suppression and little harvest, the understory creates what is called a “fuel ladder” that allows fire to climb into the crowns of the larger trees, killing them.
Not all trees died. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that about 24 percent of the 26,119 fire acres were lightly to moderately burned and will recover. This occurred mainly where forest management thinning had already cleared much of the understory. About 36 percent of the acreage experienced mixed mortality. The remaining 40 percent, however, was destroyed – what foresters call “stand replacing.”
Some salvage is taking place. The Forest Service plans to remove trees that pose a danger to people and traffic along about 40 miles of forest roads. It also is planning to salvage log about 1,000 acres in an area that experienced stand-replacing fire. Per the Forest Service’s protocol, a number of large snags will be left on harvested sites for wildlife habitat.
At the conclusion of the tour, Pete Caligiuri, who works for The Nature Conservancy in Central Oregon, discussed the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project. Pete told the group that the collaborative is a community-based organization that is advising the Forest Service on restoration activity in the Deschutes National Forest. One goal of the project is to identify areas that are the most departed from historic conditions, then treat them before wildfire occurs through thinning, selective harvest and prescribed burning. This will create healthier, more fire-resilient forests
Pete and the collaborative hope that by restoring forest health and fire resiliency, they can prevent intense fires such as the Pole Creek Fire from occurring in the future.
For the Forest,
Photo: With the peaks of the Three Sisters and the Deschutes National Forest burned during the 2012 Pole Creek Fire as a backdrop, Dr. Steve Fitzgerald, OSU professor and area extension forester for the central Oregon region, provided an overview of east Cascades forest ecology, the role of fire and current forest conditions.