Poor Forest Science Leads to Forest Policy Failures

It is a truism that reliance on defective forest science leads to defective forest policies which then fail miserably. The prime ignominious example in Oregon is the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP).

The NWFP was based on outmoded and outdated forest ecology theories that were originally proposed by Frederic Edward Clements (1874-1945) in the early 1900’s. From the Wiki [here]:

Clements suggested that the development of vegetation can be understood as a sequence of stages resembling the development of an individual organism. After a complete or partial disturbance, vegetation grows back (under ideal conditions) towards a mature “climax state,” which describes the vegetation best suited to the local conditions. Though any actual instance of vegetation might follow the ideal sequence towards climax, it can be interpreted in relation to that sequence, as a deviation from it due to non-ideal conditions.

Clements’ climax theory of vegetation dominated plant ecology during the first decades of the twentieth century, though it was criticized significantly by ecologists Henry Gleason and Arthur Tansley early on, and by Robert Whittaker mid-century, and largely fell out of favor. However, significant Clementsian trends in ecology re-emerged towards the end of the twentieth century.

Modern day Clementsians ascribe to “natural succession” that leads to “climax” forests, aka “old-growth.” The modern Clementsian theories have been promulgated by numerous individuals, but championed especially by Dr. Jerry Franklin of the UW School of Forest Resources.

In a recent Guest Opinion [here] in the Eugene Register Guard (co-authored by Dr. Norm Johnson of OSU), Dr. Franklin opined the following:

… Most BLM forests are growing on “moist forest” sites, outside of the interior Rogue River and Umpqua River valleys. These moist forests — typified by Douglas fir and Western hemlock — evolved with infrequent but relatively severe disturbance events, such as intense wildfires and windstorms. These disturbances allowed new generations of trees to become established.

Generally, it is unnecessary to do silvicultural treatments such as thinning to maintain existing old-growth forests on moist forest sites — in fact, such activities generally degrade these forests ecologically. Left alone, these old-growth forests can perpetuate themselves for centuries, barring one of those severe natural disturbances. …

There are many scientific errors in that statement. First, forests do not evolve, species do. Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection applies to species, not aggregations of species. The forests of today are not mutualistic associations of interdependent plant species co-evolved over millions of years; rather they are chance combinations of competitive species filling temporary niches during a temporary break in the Ice Ages [here].

The plant mixes in this interglacial are not the same mixes that occurred in prior interglacials, nor (in most respects) anything like the plant communities of the Miocene, the last time it was as warm (continuously) as today.

From Late Cretaceous and Cenozoic History of North American Vegetation, 1999, Oxford Univ. Press by Dr. Alan Graham, Paleontologist Emeritus of Kent State:

[T]he last decade has produced results that are both revolutionary and fundamental to our understanding of biotic history. … Realization of the temporal nature of communities has implications for such time-honored concepts as succession, climax, and geofloras. … [D]esignating the vegetation type characteristic of a given region loses much of its meaning, especially for the times of turbulent glacial-interglacial transitions.

It also reduces the value of a concept that envisions the movements of vegetation as large blocks. … The actual association of elements in a community, especially when they represent novel combinations based on a mixture of wind-blown pollen types, usually can only be assumed.

Second, Drs. Franklin and Johnson assume that Oregon forests arose following “severe natural disturbances” such as intense wildfires and windstorms. However, empirical evidence based on tree age distributions, historical accounts (of indigenous residents and pioneers), early forest surveys, and modern meteorology suggests that human influences have been paramount during the entire Holocene.

Human beings set the vast majority of historical fires in “moist forest” zones. Lightning is a rare occurrence in the Oregon Coast Range, yet the evidence strongly indicates that fire-type prairies and savannas have dominated the landscape for thousands of years. Rather than naturally succeeding to “climax” states, the vegetation has been doing something else entirely.

The old-growth forests in the Coast Range are less than 350 years old, and they are dominated by Douglas-fir, not climax species such as western hemlock and western red cedar. There are very few trees older than that, although DF and WRC trees can grow to 1,000 years old or more. Either a monumental fire swept the entire Coast Range 350 years ago, or there were few trees in Coast Range at that time.

The newest, best science leans towards the latter. It is not because the climate changed so radically that prior to 350 years ago trees wouldn’t grow there. It is because the human residents kept the Coast Range in prairies and savannas with frequent (annual) anthropogenic fire for thousands of years.

For examples of the newest, best science of today, see The Alseya Valley Prairie Complex, ca. 1850: Native Landscapes in Western GLO Surveys by Dr. Bob Zybach [here] and The Vegetation of the Willamette Valley by Drs. Carl L. Johannessen, William A. Davenport, Artimus Millet, Steven McWilliams [here].

Something happened 350 years ago that put a stop to widespread anthropogenic fire. Most likely it was a series of disease epidemics that decimated the indigenous population. Around 1650 and thereafter in roughly 20-year intervals for the next 200 years, smallpox, measles, malaria, influenza, and other Old World diseases reduced the human population by 95% or more. See The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence: Introduced Infectious Diseases and Population Decline among Northwest Coast Indians, 1774-1874 by Dr. Robert Boyd [here].

The burning did not stop all at once, as evidenced by Coast Range Douglas-fir cohorts between 175 and 350 years old. And in dryer regions, away from the coast, anthropogenic fire continued into the late 1800’s. The Coast Range is wet and not so easy to burn, even on purpose. Trees invade quickly, given the opportunity. In dryer regions like Southwest Oregon, the interior valleys of Oregon, California, and east of the Cascades, trees do not invade so quickly.

Moreover, it is hypothesized that coastal regions were the first to experience Old World disease epidemics, brought by ship by Spanish and other explorers. Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed at least as far north as Monterey, CA, in 1543. Others followed. In 1579 Sir Francis Drake sailed as far north as Vancouver Island, making frequent landfalls along the way, and possibly introducing the first Old World plagues to Oregon.

The anthropogenic fire - disease epidemic hypotheses fit the empirical evidence of old-growth tree ages in the “moist forests” of Oregon far better than Clementsian natural climax theories. If the glove doesn’t fit, then we must find a better theory. The Clementsian glove does not fit.

And we cannot rely on out-dated, ill-fitting ecological theories to design forest policies. The NWFP sets aside what amounts to 85% of the forest acres in Western Oregon in “Late Successional Reserves” (LSR’s). The LSR’s are based on bad theory and they have resulted in failed policy.

As we have noted innumerable times, [here, for instance]:

The Northwest Forest Plan has been a catastrophic failure. The NWFP had (has) four fundamental goals. It has failed spectacularly to meet any.

1. The NWFP has failed to protect northern spotted owls

By most estimations, the northern spotted owl population has fallen 40 to 60 percent since inception of the NWFP. Millions of acres of spotted owl habitat have been catastrophically incinerated.

2. The NWFP has failed to protect spotted owl habitat

Since inception, millions of acres of spotted owl habitat have been wiped off the face of the earth by holocaust, and replaced by tick brush.

3. The NWFP has failed to preserve habitat continuity throughout the range of the northern spotted owl

The dozens of huge and catastrophic forest fires have left giant gaps in the range. The Biscuit Burn alone is 50 miles long and 20 miles wide.

4. The NWFP has failed to protect the regional economy

Since inception of the NWFP, Oregon has experienced 15 long years of the worst economy in the U.S., with the highest rates of unemployment, bankruptcy, home foreclosure, and hunger of any state. These are not just statistics, but indicators of real human suffering. Over 40,000 workers lost their jobs, and the rural economy has been crippled ever since.

The architects of the NWFP? Jerry Franklin and Norm Johnson. They are the chief proponents of Clementsian ecology that purports “virgin” forests dating back millions of years. We now know those theories are bunk, thoroughly disproved by the empirical evidence. The LSR’s are not climax forests. The first Euro-American pioneers did not encounter climax forests. Such forests are mythical. They don’t exist today and there is no evidence they ever existed.

Clements dreamed up his theories in the early 1900’s before we knew much about the Ice Ages, and a good 50 years before plate tectonics. The vast majority of what we know today about paleobotany, paleoclimatology, historical landscape geography, anthropology, archaeology, palynology, forest ecology, evolutionary biology, and every other science that pertains to natural history was completely unknown to Clements.

We should not saddle ourselves today with Victorian science. We have advanced, forest science has advanced, and it is high time forest policies advanced, too. The old myths need to be put to rest, along with failed policies based on those old myths.

I and others have been waiting, waiting, waiting for 30 years or more for our forest science institutions to crawl up the learning curve. There is today still no restoration forestry program at OSU. There are no historical landscape geographers, no anthropologists, no ethno-ecologists, no one on the faculty of the College of Forestry that has a clue about where, when, how, and why our forests developed.

That is why SOS Forests and the Western Institute for Study of the Environment were created. Operating on peanuts and air for the last four and half years, we have been the sole source of comprehensive, modern, new paradigm forest science and restoration forestry in the Pacific Northwest. We have collected and presented the research of the handful of visionary, cutting-edge, forest science and forest stewardship thinkers, the pioneers of the new paradigm, most of whom have been shunned and disregarded by our universities and research institutions.

Peanuts and air, while $billions have gone to waste or up in smoke, while our public institutions have faltered and decayed, while our forests have been incinerated, while our economy has been crippled, while our forest policies have slammed into the wall of failure again and again and again.

But this essay is not about us. It is about informing forest policy makers about the open door they must walk through. It is about the best science, not the moldy Victorian kind. It is about a renaissance, a new awakening, a new paradigm, and why our forest policies must advance beyond abject failure and come into the light.

We have the good science, and we’re giving it away. Come take a bite. You might like it. And maybe if the Boards and Committees and Institutional Leaders would catch a clue, we might be able to help them design new forest policies that will succeed where the existing ones have proved they cannot.

26 Jan 2010, 9:53am
by bear bait

The area of the coast that is called the “fog belt” is from the seashore to the first ridgelines and up river valleys. That area is really, really hard to burn, and was primarily a sitka spruce, hemlock and doug fir forest. With no dune forming native beach grasses, the littoral was sometime well into the shoreline spruce forest. Beaches were flat and ran all the way into the shoreline forest. Introduced beach grass to stabilize blowing sand has forever changed the meeting of sea and land on the Oregon Coast.

The one great fire on the coast that has been well documented is the series of 4 fires every six years, starting in 1933, called collectively “the Tillamook Burn”, and that documentation can give an observer a hint of how that particular set of fire events happened.

The beginning of the end came around the turn of the century when hemlock trees were infested with at least two insect pests that killed hemlocks. If memory serves me, it was the hemlock looper and the long aphid. The early timber finders gave no value to hemlock, and that it was dead was merely a notation on early survey and cruise notes. Not easily roaded, and with lots of uplifted sandstone sediments unstable and steeper than a cow’s face, the value of the unclaimed public domain for agriculture was little, so the surveys that opened land for entry came late in the 19th century and early into the 20th. The Northern Pacific RR had built a bridge over the Columbia River, and had quarter section script for all the land they had deeded to the Federal Govt. to create Mt.Ranier Natl Park, and thus they had first “dibs” on NW Oregon land opened for entry, and a willing set of buyers in the timber giants from the Great Lakes states. It is those cruisers who noted the dying hemlocks.

Hemlock comes in the understory, and is a willing user of “nurse” logs on which to grow. A mature hemlock started that way will look like a swamp cypress as it will have root “legs” that support the bole after the nurse log has rotted away. Hemlock is prone to rot from any injury and has very thin bark. Hemlock also is prone to rotting from the heart out and leaving behind, over time, a living and hollow tree. It only takes a windstorm to blow the top off, and you can have a living, vertical culvert, with wind blowing in from the bottom or the down from the top. In summer, that will dry out the interior. Vaux’s swifts found those trees to be valuable roost and nest trees.

But, when you get a good ground fire going in the heat of summer, during a period of drought, those hemlock chimneys become roman candles once afire. A venturi wind effect will blow burning chunks on punk rot out the top and into the crowns, and that punk afire will carry far to spread fire well ahead of the ground fire front. You can call it a “perfect storm” effect or just all the stars lining up. Doug fir, mature, is pretty fire hardy to ground fire. But when you can get the fire to crown, in dense forests with several hundred years of litter on the ground, only winter puts them out.

As a result of years of practical, on the ground observation, Oregon Dept of Forestry developed a set of prescribed rules to keep from having conditions that would evolve to make for another “perfect storm” for fire. Snag cutting in areas of reproduction, an 11 Billion board feet salvage of The Burn, mandatory slash reduction, mostly by broadcast burns, fire trails, and “snagging” the perimeter of the logging unit back at least 200′ beyond the fire trail. The Franklin School has poo-pooed those very practical regulations, and the wildlife folks have demanded snags be left as “habitat” and even now a requirement that an amount of logs be left on the ground for future habitat. Add to that Clean Air rules that effectively have done away with slash burns, and the setting for another fire event would be inevitable. However, logging methods changed, and the second and third growth logging of private and some public lands is being done at age 30 to 50 in the reproduction, with little bucking of logs on the ground, the logs being yarded to the landing tree length to be bucked and limbed by machine, and the slash ends up in a pile around the landing where it will be burned in the wet of winter. Flatter ground is being logged with modified hydraulic tracked log loaders, and they just keeping picking and swinging the logs to the roadside, and pile the slash for later pile ignition in winter by helicopters with drip torches. The whole of the much younger tree ending up along the road, with utilization of the whole bole for either lumber products or pulp material, now leaves little to burn, and the short rotations between harvest cycles, all dictated by tax law and accelerated return on investment, has left little to burn but young reproduction. And little to rot into the ground.

So you have private forestry constantly evolving to meet goals for their capital, and the goals that society puts on them, with the public sector forests sitting there being primed to provide the next series of conflagrations to take out more habitat, and put more species at risk. That the framers of the Northwest Forest Plan do not use, believe in, consider, that anthropogenic fire for 10,000 years or more has been the driver of phenotype forests we are so driven to keep in a laboratory petri dish to worship forever, is not good science, nor is it anything more than an attempt to bolster wounded 401k plans for academic speakers and researchers. Tired dogma drives public forestry today. Tired, worn out, unworkable forest management by propagandists, not foresters, and social engineers intent on changing the face of the managers, with no fealty to forest management other than directing a police force of minders and regulators. 75 years of careful husbandry has been pitched out the window of abandoned ranger stations to be replaced by platitudes of public service and pretty pictures of preservation. Management has been replaced by trained arsonists. We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is an NGO working parallel to government, financed by government, in an attempt to bypass the democracy this country has fought to preserve for well over 200 years.

If you took the time, and read through all the information that is available on this site, W.I.S.E., and read from the bibliography, for a year, and you would have more than enough preparation to test for a Masters in some area of Forestry…It is all here. Avail yourself to it.



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