3 Apr 2010, 5:59pm
Restoring cultural landscapes Saving Forests
by admin

Restoring the Sawtooth Huckleberry Fields

The Gifford Pinchot National Forest has instituted a program to restore a portion of the Sawtooth Huckleberry Fields.

The Sawtooth Huckleberry Fields are on the west side of Mt. Adams between 3,900 and 4,700 feet. In 1900 the fields covered 6,000 to 8,000 acres but probably covered 15,000 acres a hundred years earlier. At present the Sawtooth Huckleberry Fields are estimated to cover approximately 1,500 acres. Only 200 acres of those are open berry fields.

From the Sawtooth Huckleberry Restoration Environmental Assessment (EA):

The Sawtooth Huckleberry Fields have served as a destination point for Indian people for thousands of years. Today huckleberries continue to be honored by Yakama Indians as a sacred food, with a ceremony that marks the beginning of the summer gathering season. In recognition of its importance to Yakama Indians, a portion of the Sawtooth Huckleberry Fields was set aside for exclusive Indian berrypicking use in 1932. In the Treaty of 1855, the Yakama Nation reserved the right to gather berries on ceded lands.

Strong historical evidence suggests (really there is no doubt) that anthropogenic fire (Indian burning) maintained the huckleberry fields for millennia. In the absence of deliberate burning, trees have invaded the open berry fields. Douglas-fir, true firs, mountain hemlock, and other tree species shade the berry plants, reduce flowering and fruiting, and eventually eliminate the huckleberries (primarily big huckleberry, Vaccinium membranaceum).

Research by Dr. Don Minore and others (see Minore, Don; Smart, Alan W.; Dubrasich, Michael E. 1979. Huckleberry and ecology management research in the Pacific Northwest.Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-093 [here]) found that killing the invasive trees enhances huckleberry growth and fruit production.

Experiments testing a variety of tree removal methods were undertaken. Girdling the trees had the best and most immediate effect on the huckleberry plants. Other methods, including prescribed burning, proved to be as tough on the huckleberries as on the invading trees. After 20 to 25 years, however, the burned huckleberry plants had recovered (sprouting from underground rhizomes) and were producing abundant fruit. The long recovery period may be expected given the short growing season at the high elevations of the Sawtooth Huckleberry Fields.

The GPNF proposes to use a variety of treatment methods to remove trees, including hand lopping, girdling, mechanical mulching, commercial timber harvest, and prescribed burning on 1,212 acres. A total of 19 units will be treated. About 400 acres will be underburned; the rest will be piled and burned or else the slash will be lopped and scattered.

Selected excerpts of the Decision Notice follow, with links to the EA.

Sawtooth Huckleberry Restoration
USDA Forest Service
Mt. Adams Ranger District and Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
Gifford Pinchot National Forest
Skamania County, Washington

Decision Notice & Finding of No Significant Impact, April 3, 2009 [here]


The Gifford Pinchot National Forest prepared an environmental assessment (EA) [here, 4.8 MB] for the Sawtooth Huckleberry Restoration. The proposed action in the EA is to thin approximately 1,200 acres within the area historically known as the Sawtooth Huckleberry fields for the purpose of improving the production of native huckleberries. …

The Sawtooth Huckleberry Fields are among the most historically productive berryfields in the Pacific Northwest, but fire exclusion and ecological succession have led to a dramatic loss of productive huckleberry habitat over the last hundred years. Huckleberries are an important treaty resource for the Yakama Indian Nation, and in recognition of this importance the Forest Service granted them exclusive berrypicking rights to a portion of the Sawtooth Huckleberry fields east of Forest Road 2400 in 1932.

The objective for this project is to increase huckleberry productivity within the Sawtooth Huckleberry Fields by controlling the encroachment of conifers in areas where huckleberries constitute the predominant shrub species. Removal of conifers would be accomplished through a variety of treatment methods, including hand lopping, girdling, mechanical mulching, commercial timber harvest and prescribed burning. Slash treatments will also occur.

All of the twelve proposed treatment units are fire-regenerated stands of varying ages that were considered productive huckleberry areas in the early 1900s. Currently the stands contain varying densities of trees that compete with huckleberry shrubs for light, water and nutrients.

The EA for this project was completed in February 2009 and identified resource needs and management objectives (EA, pages 7-11) for this project that are intended to move the area closer toward the desired future conditions of the landscape, as identified in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP)…


… The Forest will thin forest vegetation on approximately 1,212 acres over a total of 19 units. Low intensity underburning would be incorporated on a portion of the stands, as an additional or primary means to reduce tree cover. This alternative was developed in response to the concern that fire is a more effective tool for restoring huckleberry production than tree removal alone. Objectives for underburning are to kill tree seedlings and sapling and consume slash, while limiting high temperatures of long duration that would kill huckleberry rhizomes. The logistical constraints of underburning were considered in the selection of units. A final factor was the size and species of overstory trees, and their susceptibility to mortality from bark scorch. …

As in Alternative B, over-snow, ground-based logging is prescribed for several stands that are in close proximity to Forest Service Road 30, the principal haul route. To potentially reduce short-term impacts to the huckleberry plants during stand treatment, over-the-snow logging is proposed in the EA for units 2, 6, 7 and 11a. Log skidding should occur over a snow pack of 2-4 feet to provide additional protection to the above and below ground portions of the huckleberry shrub. …

Modifications to Alternative C

As stated above, we have selected Alternative C with modifications. We have decided to drop underburning in units 5, 7, 11B, 11C and 11D. Further analysis indicated that underburning would not be feasible in units 5 and 7. These units will still be treated as described in Alternative B. Further analysis also indicated that units 11B, C and D are not suitable for underburning, primarily due to the need for extensive fuel breaks. These units will also be treated as described in Alternative B.

Rationale for the Decision

Alternative A

Alternative A is the no action alternative and is a baseline for comparison. …

With no action, the overstory stands would not be reduced to permit more light to reach the existing berry bushes, thus berry production would not be increased in the area, nor would competing vegetation be removed to allow bushes to expand and occupy more growing space. The trend toward loss of berry production and loss of an important treaty and recreational resource over time due to conifer encroachment would not be addressed or slowed. The Forest would not be addressing its responsibility to the Yakama Nation to manage this treaty resource to insure its availability over time.

Alternative B — the Proposed Action

This alternative proposes similar treatments to Alternative C, but does not include any underburning. It would thin forest vegetation on approximately 1,212 acres and would include treatment of a total of 19 units. Connected actions include the construction of 1.4 miles of temporary roads. Eight of the 19 units would include piling and burning to reduce activity fuels. In other units where activity slash is expected to be generated, it would be lopped and scattered throughout the unit. No underburning would occur in this alternative.

We did not select this alternative as described in the EA because of comments that we received from the public. The only difference between Alternative B and C is the use of low intensity underburning. Comments we received from the public as well as from the Yakima Nation expressed a desire to see fire used as a tool in stand treatment. There was a concern that harvest without burning may not enhance huckleberry production, and that concern was considered a significant issue. Alternative C with modifications does not underburn all the units originally proposed, but unlike Alternative B, utilizes underburning in four of the 19 units. This will allow the Forest to incorporate prescribed fire where feasible, while also allowing us to determine whether underburning is a more effective way to reduce tree cover. …


District Ranger
Mt. Adams Ranger District

Monument Manager
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

3 Apr 2010, 6:30pm
by Bob Zybach

This is excellent news!

I am concerned with the “underburning” discussion, though, as a method of “removing seedlings and saplings.” The fact that pitchy conifers even exist in the stand is another indication that these cannot be “low intensity” burns because there is too much fuel present to begin with. And what the heck is being burned “under” in the first place?

Mike, your experiences with the long lag-time between burning and recovery suggests that there may have been too much fuel present at that time, as well.

My own observations have been that whenever old huckleberry fields have been invaded with trees, the huckleberry shrubs themselves have become rank — and likely contain too much fuel just in themselves to rejuvenate (without being damaged) by burning alone.

My suggestion would be (too late for public comment, however) to remove virtually all conifers; thin the huckleberry shrubs to a spacing approximating local historical density patterns; prune the remaining shrubs to about four feet in height; remove (or chip) all thinnings and prunings; wait about 1-3 years (while continuing to measure berry production seasonality and abundance); and THEN burn. In September or October.

My suggestions are based on personal observation (my family has been picking huckleberries on Mt. Adams since the 1890s), personal experience, and historical research.

What do you think, Mike?

3 Apr 2010, 9:04pm
by Mike

On the experimental plots our burns were very thorough. Nothing above ground survived. That was the intention of the experiment. I doubt such a complete burn can be accomplished in a regular broadcast burn situation. At the same time, I doubt a regular broadcast burn in those fuels will kill many trees, either.

I agree that effective restoration of huckleberry fields requires some intensive horticulture techniques such as pruning, raking, piling and burning, etc. After 100+ years without tending, the invading trees are numerous and large, so some logging is also in order.

Huckleberries don’t need frequent burning. Once every few decades is often enough. It takes too long for the bushes to come back. I suspect that the Indians killed invasive trees individually, perhaps by setting them on fire, rather than broadcast burning across large acreages. Removing the trees without damaging the bushes yields good results within a year or two.

This project is a start. Hopefully they’ll learn from it. I also suggest that they ought to restore about ten times that acreage eventually.

3 Apr 2010, 9:49pm
by Bob Zybach

According to the historical record, huckleberry fields were burned whenever they could carry a flame — every seven to 15 or 20 years by many accounts.

Cooking and drying fires were simply left to burn according to several of the same sources, even after people left the area — no attempt to either set or contain fires in such instances.

My best guess is that such fires were spotty, the fields so extensive, and the mosaic so productive that individual trees simply burned when the area became flammable enough, and were then used for fuel if they were big enough to be worthwhile.

Aerial photos from the 1930s and 1940s could tell a lot of the story; so could Tribal elders, if they had been interviewed in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, or 80s. Probably too late for that now, except for more general information. WW II and the Keep Washington Green movements in the 1940s changed everything, as did the 1902 and 1910 fires before then.

The 1490 to 1790 time period is certainly an interesting one to consider!

4 Apr 2010, 12:03am
by Mike

Maybe so, but when a bush takes 25 years from sprouting to get to full production, it doesn’t make sense to burn it every 7 years.

The huckleberry fields are in the sub-alpine zone. The plants grow very slowly. They do not shoot up like hazel at low elevations, for instance.

Also the burning window is very narrow. It can rain, hail, or snow any day of the year in the huckleberry fields. I speak from experience on that. Winter snowpack can exceed 10 feet very easily. Some snowbanks don’t melt until August. The ground is perpetually moist. So it is not country that carries fire well.

Consider that in such landscapes firewood was difficult to come by. There were few trees and the same campgrounds were used every year for centuries. The woody litter was picked clean. In order to create firewood, the simplest and most efficient method was to torch individual green trees or small patches of trees, and use the deadfall and burned branches the following year. Lewis and Clark observed Indians torching individual green trees. I suspect that method was used in the huckleberry fields. I doubt there was much broadcast burning there, oral histories notwithstanding. The empirical and circumstantial evidence doesn’t seem to support that.

There were some monumental landscape-scale fires in the region in the late 1800’s. The Yacolt Fire burned 240,000 acres in Sept. 1902. I don’t know that such fires were the historical norm, however. I suspect they were not, because anthropogenic fire probably kept the fuel loadings low in pre-Contact and pre-Columbian times.

My best estimate is that the huckleberry fields burned no more often than once every 100 years or so. I base that on the rather discontinuous (even-aged) cohorts of trees I have observed there (mostly from counting rings on stumps). But my studies of tree ages in that zone are not exhaustive by any means. Much more work on historical landscape reconstruction is needed.

4 Apr 2010, 12:36am
by Bob Zybach


Huckleberry fields tens of thousands of acres in extent likely burned a lot more than once every century, whether broadcast (like the Yacolt Burn), or in contiguous patches.

I don’t think they burned to the ground and started from sprouts each time, either (although some undoubtedly did), but tended to singe and be top-pruned more often than not — and for many of the reasons you state.

Huckleberries grow from sea level to the High Cascades, so fuel loads, fuel availability, aspects, slopes, and weather patterns are extremely variable (although the prized berries were almost always 3,500 feet or higher in elevation). The seven-year measure is from nearby pine tree scars and could be an anomaly — or simply represent a mild singeing or an aborted production cycle.

Lots of questions, scanty evidence, and mostly the work of Turner and a few others to go on so far as anthropological evidence — and your buddy, Don Minore, so far as scientific.

Hopefully this Sawtooth venture will include some well designed experimentation and some meaningful trial-and-error learning opportunities.

4 Apr 2010, 9:33am
by Mike

I was discussing the Sawtooth Huckleberry Fields, not every huckleberry field everywhere, and certainly not coastal evergreen huckleberry. Nancy Turner and others research lower elevation huckleberries, which are a different species in a different environment.

I don’t know of any pine tree fire scar dating that has been done in the Sawtooth Huckleberry Fields. The principal pines there are lodgepole and western white pine, which are not especially long-lived. At that elevation the long-lived species are Douglas-fir and mountain hemlock.

4 Apr 2010, 4:41pm
by bear bait

Commercial blueberry horticulture for eastern low bush blueberries, the little sweet ones from Maine that are harvested exactly like Hudsonian zone huckleberries in the Coast and Cascade ranges (long toothed box raked through the bush collecting berries and leaves, bugs, whathaveyou), are managed on an A/Y (alternating year) basis, where they are harvested one summer, and that fall are broadcast burned, and left to grow new shoots the next summer and another crop of fruit the summer after that on the shoots from the prior summer and even a berry here and there on the shoots of the year.

Tending wild blueberries is a process of modern fertilization and pest controls, with broadcast burning every other year, across the whole of the Maine blueberry agriculture. So you wonder when the pilgrims from the city will vote to end that?

I have not seen a standing snag from the vast Yaquina burns of the late 19th century, where there was NOT a d coastal huckleberry bush growing at the snag’s top, with roots clear to ground. Early in my woods life, some of those were over 100 feet tall, and the huckleberry bush was growing in the top. Now you see them on both springboard stumps and even some of the taller chain saw stumps. Bird shit, I guess, is the seed source.

The Eastern high bush blueberry we grow commercially here in the Willamette Valley does well with sawdust as a soil amendment. In a happen chance one day years ago, I was reading Science, the magazine, and came across an article about electron microscopy and how fungus kill nematodes. The connection of fungus being an organic nematicide and the apparent positive response to sawdust as a mulch in growing blueberries got stuck in my mind. So when I was charged with creating a blueberry farm from scratch, I incorporated sawdust with soil and planted in that medium instead of dirt and later mulching with sawdust. The test was that I did not, as was a recommended practice at the time, use Basimid or some other bad nasty fumigant on the soil to suppress nematodes prior to planting. I have never had a problem with them, and have not added sawdust mulch for over 6 years, as the cessation of sawmilling to save the forests has driven a market process that keeps sawdust priced out of Ag’s price range.

The point of al this is I wonder if that huckleberry in the tree is there because it has nematode free substrate in which to grow. I also wonder if frequent burning creates a decomposing log source, which also is favorable to huckleberries and blueberries. In other words, is decomposing wood necessary for their existence, and were huckleberry fields very much like Bonnicksen’s moving forest, in that they migrated up and down mountains and across the country as stand replacement fires like the Yacolt Burn provided vigor to a habitat for huckleberries. How intertwined is the huckleberry with the chemical and biological results of large, Chris Maser kind of wood, and they soil that results. And, like in cultivation of low bush in the cold, severe climate of Maine, on very acid soils barely formed since the last Ice Age on granite geology, with little calcium in the mix, the burning is a calcium conservation measure, and you need to burn to keep the fruit in calcium to create strong cell walls, and to modify somewhat the acidity. Lots of questions that I have, and I think that there is a whole body of horticulture about vaccinium that needs to be looked at when landscape management schemes are written by people who are good at finding answers, but who mostly ask the wrong questions. If huckleberry flats is what you want, you need to look a lot harder at what and how makes good huckleberry habitat. And great habitat is a better goal than good.

4 Apr 2010, 5:39pm
by bear bait

I sort of get ahead of myself. The issue with sawdust is that is a great medium in which to grow any number of fungi, which will happen, and all naturally. I am guessing, that sawdust produced fungi might control nematodes, provide micro nutrients from both fungal and bacterial decomposition of the wood fibers. Since I am not a scientist, only a hack blueberry grower, all I present is pure speculation, and the noticed results from having a heavy presence of doug fir, hemlock, what ever has been available, sawdust. If the cultivated blueberry, not far genetically and climate wise from its former wild self, does better in sawdust than without (and that is a conclusion also not bedded in peer reviewed science), then why wouldn’t a thinking person have an inclination to looking at that type of plant having some advantage in growing in an abundant supply of decomposing conifers? And how would you get that selection for critical habitat being in concert with large, downed, decomposing boles of conifers, if in fact, that is true?

Mike talks about time, which we value much more today than was so in former times and centuries by people no longer here. I will say that maybe it does take a century for a noble fir, piss fir, hemlock, white pine, doug fir, kind of forest to burn, to have a large component of dead large trees, have more fire over the ground, and in decades, the re-emergence of a robust huckleberry flat of thousands of acres or more of suitable growing medium of long rotten wood free from pests, and all that water to nurse during the summer drought. Maybe the answer is not instant as to re-creation of the huckleberry flat. And once created, long term maintenance to keep it productive. I can imagine bear scat with marine isotopes of carbon from salmon being deposited. I can imagine volcanic ash being an important fertilizer. I can imagine huckleberry flat creation, cultivation, maintenance, protection, all being a part of the great circle of life the native religions talk about, and that time is not measured in USFS preferred alternative time scoping, but in a much longer, more convoluted process that demanded a very long term outlook and vision.

I also believe the people here before the Europeans were capable of that kind of long term commitment to having a large berry gathering place used in common by more than one or two groups of people. We do have to remember that these very same people had a way of using the fishing commons outside of having to be in constant conflict about who got what and when. Probably there has been the observation that the Great Bears managed to not kill each other while using the same food sources. There might be a pecking order on use of specific places, but not on the resource as a whole. Maybe this whole deal with huckleberries was a whole lot bigger community project with a whole lot more complexity to the “tending of the wild” than Western scholars are right now willing to embrace.

I am thinking in terms of the “industrial huckleberry flat” not unlike the Haida Rothschilds of the industrial dentalium gathering, or the tribes that fished the different obstacle areas of the Columbia River and its tributaries. I don’t have any idea of how controlled Obsidian Butte, Glass Butte area point raw material distribution was handled. Was it a commons or an area of trade and human discourse? Did you buy what you removed or was it a gift or did you have to watch your back the whole time you were there?

I have a feeling that how other resources were managed, held, distributed, has a lot of bearing on how the huckleberry resource was regarded socially, politically, and commercially. I would hope a USFS white paper on how to get there from here would at the least give us some sense of the history of what was there and how it was used. Somehow, it would seem to be a more complex deal than do we cut trees, cut and burn, burn only, or just prune some brush. If done right, a great resource will have a new life. If done poorly, kiss it goodbye.

8 Apr 2010, 5:13pm
by YPmule

Posted to the YPTimes.



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