Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West

Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West

by Nancy Langston, William Cronon

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Across the inland West, forests that once seemed like paradise have turned into an ecological nightmare. Fires, insect epidemics, and disease now threaten millions of acres of once-bountiful forests. Yet no one can agree what went wrong. Was it too much management or not enough that forced the forests of the inland West to the verge of collapse? Is the solution more logging, or no logging at all? In this gripping work of scientific and historical detection, Nancy Langston unravels the disturbing history of what went wrong with the western forests, despite the best intentions of those involved.

Focusing on the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington, she explores how the complex landscapes that so impressed settlers in the nineteenth century became an ecological disaster in the late twentieth. Federal foresters, intent on using their scientific training to stop exploitation and waste, suppressed light fires in the ponderosa pinelands. Hoping to save the forests, they could not foresee that their policies would instead destroy what they loved. When light fires were kept out, a series of ecological changes began. Firs grew thickly in forests once dominated by ponderosa pines, and when droughts hit, those firs succumbed to insects, diseases, and eventually catastrophic fires.

Nancy Langston combines remarkable skills as both scientist and writer of history to tell this story. Her ability to understand and bring to life the complex biological processes of the forest is matched by her grasp of the human forces at work from Indians, white settlers, missionaries, fur trappers, cattle ranchers, sheep herders, and railroad builders to timber industry and federal forestry managers.

The book will be of interest to a wide audience of environmentalists, historians, ecologists, foresters, ranchers, and loggers and all people who want to understand the changing lands of the West.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780295989686
Publisher: University of Washington Press
Publication date: 11/23/2009
Series: Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
File size: 4 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

Read an Excerpt


Place and Ecology

In the winter of 1811, an exhausted group of thirty-two white men, three Indian men, one Indian woman, and two children, all led by an American named Wilson Price Hunt, crossed through a land of canyons and mountains east of the Snake River. They were racing and British to the Pacific, hoping to establish and American fur empire that would rival the British Hudson's Bay Company. Instead, they go thoroughly lost. Ignoring the advice of Shoshones who told them to turn back, Hunt's party spent a month struggling through snowdrifts into bewildering Hells Canyon, the deepest canyon in North America. They expected the river to lead to the Pacific, but it took them into a nightmarish maze where nothing was what they expected. Canyons led to cliff walls, not to the gentle valleys they hoped for. The snows got deeper and they got desperate. One man fell off a cliff to his death. Marie Dorion, the Indian wife of the interpreter, bore a child along the Powder River and nine days later the infant died. Finally, close to starvation, Hunt's party stumbled on a lovely snow-free valley filled with beaver and friendly Shoshone Indians, who obligingly saved their lives. This valley they named the Grande Ronde, and then they started over the hazy, snow-covered mountains just beyond: the Blue Mountains.

Two years later, Marie Dorion and their children spent an even worse winter in the Blues, after all the other members of her party were killed by hostile Indians when they were out checking beaver traps. Marie took refuge in a canyon near the headwaters of the Walla Walla River, keeping herself and her childrenalive for the winter on the smoked flesh of two horses. When she finally emerged with the story, the American fur traders began to get discouraged. They were no closer to their dreams of great wealth; all they had to show for their efforts were lost explorers and dead trappers. After a series of similar mishaps, the American attempt to establish a base for the fur trade ended in failure, and the British won control of the trade.

People now tend to read misadventures as purely political stories, but they are also stories written upon the land. What effects did extracting resources have on the local ecology, and what effects did the local ecology have on the people who tried to extract resources? Different groups came to the Blues with differing ideas about what their relationship to the land should be, and these cultural ideas shaped how they saw the land and how they acted in the land. Some people fell off a cliff because they were convinced that all normal valleys ought to lead to outlets, not to cliff edges; others starved to death because they were convinced that a passable route had to exist to the Pacific. The history of outsiders in the Blues has been a history of people getting lost—lost in geographical space, lost in their attempts to quickly extract fortunes, and lost in their hopes of reshaping the landscape to fit an American ideal.

Whites who first arrived in the Blues found a land completely unlike the humid forests of home. Most of the forest communities across the inland West were semi-arid and fire-adapted, and whites rarely knew what to make of these fires. What seemed familiar at first glance proved not to be, and this was unsettling. People expected forests to be moist and fertile, but these forests seemed too dry, too open, and not very fertile. Fires burned much more often than people thought normal or desirable, and no one understood how forests could arrive constant fires. Sagebrush typically indicated poor soil, but the soil under this sagebrush seemed better than much of the forest soil. Rivers normally drained to the sea, but many of these rivers drained into the Great Basin—a salty, barren, frightening place—and never flowed out. The canyons were far too steep; people could not believe what they saw. Trees grew on top of these steep canyons but not down by the water, where trees were supposed to grow. It seemed like someone had turned the world upside down.

Outsiders came to the Blues to mine, to trap, to across the mountains in search of land for farming, but these men and women never thought of the area as a single region defined by a specific resource. They saw simply several mountain ranges (the Elkhorns, the Blue Mountains, the Strawberries, the Wallowas) with forests in the upper elevations, grasslands in the mid elevations, and sagebrush in the canyons. Nobody thought of the area as a region until the Bureau of Forestry reserve inspectors came from the East in 1900 to classify and protect forests under the new federal forest reserve system. The government inspectors had the task of defining the area as a place worthy of government preservation, a place they could securely set within political and economic boundaries. Their definition on the region depended not on the mountains but on the commodity they believed to be most valuable there: trees.

The Blues are still largely defined as a region by their trees. The term basically includes the range of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington. The Blue Mountains are a forested place marooned in the seemingly endless, barren, inhospitable lands of the arid interior Northwest. Trees are not all that is special about the Blues, but they are one of the region's critical resources, and this is a place with a history—like that of all the West—shaped by disputes over whose vision will determine how natural resources are used. The relationship between people and a place is never simple; people shape the land and the land shapes the people, and sometimes both are shaped by forces largely outside their control—forces that originate in another place entirely.

To outsiders, the Blues are a hinterland far from any place where political decisions are made. Yet when whites first came, the Blues were the nexus of a thriving trade between Plateau, Great Plains, and Pacific Coast Indian nations. For the next half century, they became the focus of international struggles over control of the beaver-trapping empire. After the beaver trade dwindle, the Blues became a critical foreground for American expansion west, as tens of thousands of Americans struggled through a formidable crossing of the mountains on the Oregon Trail. But now the Blues have receded to the margins of our culture's perceptions. Most Americans have never heard of them; even some lifelong residents of the Pacific Northwest stare in bewilderment when you mention them. "Are they in Virginia?" is what most people ask thinking of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The region does not meld with popular conceptions of a wet and mild Northwest, nor does it fit into the slightly more accurate perception of a barren interior, a dry desert wasteland.

This obscurity is part of what is so interesting about the Blues. For many whites, the Blues were just a place to extract commodities: the "industrial forests" was their nickname in the 1980s when logging was at its peak. But for other people, both whites and Indians, the region's deceptive mazes and high, dry plateaus offered a particular kind of freedom. They were a place to get lost in, a place to be left alone in, and that was exactly what many people wanted. Some Nez Perce, for example, spent winters between the knife-edge cliffs of the Imnaha River and the Snake River, and unless people knew the canyons well, they were not going to mess around in Nez Perce territory. The deepest canyon in North America—Hells Canyon—was hidden in here. On one ridge, there would be snow and ice and Engelmann spruce, just like any other high forest in the West; but if you stepped too quickly, you would plunge six thousand feet to a desert gorge of cactus and temperatures well over 100 degrees. Intruders into Nez Perce lands found themselves lost in blind canyons, vulnerable and dependent on the good will of the people who knew the land's secrets. Many whites also took off for the canyons and the high plateaus, where they hoped to be left alone to wander without the constraints of the dominant American culture. Instead, they had to reckon with the land's constraints, and many people gave up trying after a few hard winters.

Eventually, however, white Americans thought they'd gotten the Blues under control. They'd driven the Indians out of the canyons and settled them on tiny reservations; they'd put the forests under efficient management; they'd uprooted the sagebrush by using chains; they'd reclaimed the marshy valleys, ditched them and drained them and planted them with alfalfa. There were schools in the towns and soon even sidewalks. By 1908 matters seemed tame enough for nostalgia to set in, and the myth of the wild west blossomed in the Pendleton Roundup—an elaborate tourist ritual complete with painted Wild Indians pretending to kill white people.

This high, dry sweep of open land promised a great deal to the early white settlers and government managers—timber, minerals, grazing, space, privacy, a home, a new life, a new world. But something went wrong with those dreams. The harder that people tried to manage, the worse things got. The more that foresters tried to keep out fires, the fiercer they burned; the more they sprayed insects, the worse the next round of epidemics turned out to be. When foresters finally banished light fires from the ponderosa forests, those forests changed, and nobody liked the changes.

To understand what went wrong in the Blues, we need to consider the complexity of the dry forests, particularly how they differed from humid eastern forests. Water and fire—and the changes that water and fire brought—were at the heart of these differences. Much of what went wrong was a failure to pay attention to the land's signs. Trees made the Blues appear to be a fertile, promising, easy place, but those perceptions proved illusory. The forests' fertility was based on ash soils that were quite different from the eastern soils, and when managers tried to apply eastern forestry techniques, the ash soils were decimated. The constraints that aridity imposed were unfamiliar to people who knew only forests that grew in moister places.

The critical resource in the Blues was not trees or grass, or even soil, but water. Water—the lack of water, the distribution of water, the storage of water—affected every aspect of forest and grassland ecology. Because most precipitation was in the form of winter snows, the water that trees needed to grow came not from rains that fell during that period of growth, but from stored water. Anything that decreased the ability of the forest soils to hold snowfall had magnified effects on the forests.

Annual precipitation varied across the Blues, with some areas receiving less than 10 inches a year, and others up to 62 inches. More snow fell the higher one went; likewise, the north and east slopes tended to be much moister and cooler and hold snow longer, partly explaining why they supported denser forests. Nothing was mild or temperate or easy about this climate: temperatures on the Umatilla ranged from -30[degrees]F to 100[degrees]F. On the Malheur National Forest, farther south, it was even hotter and colder and drier: in the winter the temperature could drop to -56[degrees]F, and in the summer it sometimes reached 100 degrees in the shade.

Warm winds in the early spring were common. They often brought rain that melted the snow more quickly than the soils could handle, leading to floods in the spring and dried-up creeks in the summer. Floods were normal, not solely an effect of overgrazing or overlogging. But patterns of vegetation cover and some tree harvesting practices certainly affected the way water moved across the soil and into the soil. People easily caused changes that they neither expected nor wanted. Graze too many cattle in an area and the creek would dry up; cut too many trees in a watershed and the spring floods would get even worse.

Nothing was ever stable about the climate in the Blues Droughts, disturbances, and wide fluctuations in temperature, rainfall, and snow a accumulation were normal—not rare natural disasters that people could engineer away. The forests and grasslands that did well here were those that had adapted to this variability. Tree-ring studies show that droughts have occurred about every thirty-seven years during the last three centuries. But managers have had trouble taking this account, because from 1952 to 1980 the Blues had unusually high precipitation and unusually low variation, and the government based its expectations of normal rainfall on this period. Trying to manage the forests as if droughts were a rare condition meant that too many trees were cut, because foresters often greatly overestimated the rate at which trees could grow in the Blues.

The Forests of the Blues

Geological history explains much of what seemed so unusual about the Blue Mountains to the early foresters: the steep canyons, the trees where no one expected trees, the fragility of the soils. About 65 million years ago, repeated layers of lava flows and volcanic ash spread over the Blues; some 40 million years later, during the Miocene epoch, fluid basalts flowed up through holes in the lava. Layers of hard basalt on top of lava and soft volcanic ash created a landscape entirely different from the rolling hill and valley terrain of the East. Because less dense flows eroded much more rapidly than denser layers on top, rivers carved these lava layer cakes into knife-edge canyons running nearly straight up and down. These layers have made for a land that is slippery, prone to landslides, and often spectacular: a place of "great rivers coursing through deep, perpendicular, basaltic walled canyons below the undulating surface of a vast treeless plain," in the geographer Donald Meinig's words.

None of this by itself would explain why huge trees grow in the middle of a barren steppe: water alone is not sufficient for the growth of ponderosa pines five feet across. Beginning about 6,500 years ago, Mount Mazama in southern Oregon exploded repeatedly, creating Crater Lake and blowing a layer of volcanic ash three to four feet deep across the Blues. These thick ash soils were the foundation for much of the area's forest productivity. This fertility, however, proved fragile: step too hard on ash soils and they compact into hardpan that will not grow a thing; cut too many trees on steep slopes and the soils wash away.

Not all the Blues were forested when whites arrived. The steep south and west slopes were often barren or sparsely timbered, whereas the north slopes supported thick stands of trees. This pattern emerged because it was much hotter and dryer on the slope facing the sun. Fewer trees, herbs, and shrubs could stand the heat, and that in turn meant fewer roots to hold the soils in place each year when the spring thaw came. This created a self-perpetuating cycle: fewer roots allowed more soil to erode, so less vegetation could grow, which meant next year even more soil ran down to the rivers.

Nearly half the area of the Blues did not support trees at all, either because the soil had eroded too much for trees to grow or the site was too dry and hot. Repeated fires may also have converted some forest to grassland or sagebrush steppe. The shifting balance between forest, sagebrush, and grassland depended in large part on the site's climate regime, which varied dramatically across the Blues. In the northern end of the region, cool marine air swept up the Columbia Gorge from the Pacific Ocean, rising only 1,500 feet before it reached the Blues. These cool winds brought a fairly mild climate to the northern mountains, with minimum temperature variation, maximum humidity, wet snow, and high rainfall. In sharp contrast, dry winds from the Great Basin parched the southern end of the Blues, leading to a continental climate with extreme temperature variations, little rain, and fairly low snowfall. Between the two extremes were areas with mixed climate, which favored diverse vegetation patterns. Cold air draining down hills in these mixed climate areas would create cooler pockets where lodgepole pine flourished in the midst of other trees. Frost heaving along the backbones of ridges led to shallow-soiled scablands where little could grow. In the cooler areas, sagebrush gave way to grasslands, since sagebrush competed poorly in areas with winter cloud cover.

Part of what seemed strange to easterners, especially to those used to the vast stretches of climax forests in Maine and the Midwest, was the diversity of vegetation types within the Blues (Map 2). When the government forest inspectors came to classify the Blues forests at the turn of the century, the variety of trees, habitats, and forest types astonished them. The inspectors walked through steep treeless grasslands covered with sagebrush and bunchgrass, and then crossed into juniper woodlands. These gave way to ponderosa forests with stately trees five feet wide, spaced in as open and pleasing a pattern as any that the inspectors knew from the landscaped parks in eastern cities. Along the creeks, strips of lush cottonwood forests shadowed the waters, and these cool riparian zones offered shelter from the brutal summer sun. When the inspectors crossed from the south face of a canyon to the north face, they moved out of the ponderosa forests into much denser forests dominated by Douglas-fir, grand fir, and larch—communities they called the north-slope type or fir-larch forests. At first glance, these north-slope forests appeared uniform, but when the foresters looked more closely, they realized that there were many small patches of larch, fir, spruce, and pine jostled together. The inspectors climbed higher into the hills, finding themselves in thickets of lodgepole pine. Their way became nearly impassable, as piles of dead wood and tangles of wind-thrown lodgepole blocked the route. If the men kept climbing, they would enter high, eerie forests filled with the stumps of subalpine fir and contorted, wind-twisted whitebark pines. Where fires had burned in small, hot patches, lush meadows interrupted the high forests, and finally the forests gave way to mats of wind-cropped fir and then rock and snow.

Out of all these forests, it was the ponderosa pines that caught men's eyes. These were trees to warm a lumberman's heart: the largest ponderosa recorded on the Wallowa forest was 74 inches across at breast height, a granddaddy of a tree. Even the averages were impressive. Back in 1912, the average size ponderosa pine on the Wallowa was 33 inches across; eighty years later the average had shrunk to 19 inches—not because ponderosa had stopped growing, but because loggers had cut most of the oldest trees.

Once ponderosas reached maturity, their bark changed from black to a warm yellow color, and they took on the smell of butter-scotch. Early foresters and loggers called these big trees "yellow pines," and when loggers were in a good mood, they nicknamed them "yellow bellies." Ponderosas were study, sun loving trees that seemed as if they could take anything. They had very long taproots, giving them the edge over Douglas-fir on the hot, dry south slopes; they could reach water deep in the soil and thrive where Douglas-fir could barely survive. Because their taproots solidly anchored them during high winds, often the only tree standing out on a bare south like some lonely sentinel would be a ponderosa pine. They could do without the protection of close companions. Thick furrowed bark made the older trees extremely fire resistant. Even the young trees were quite resistant to fire, because when they got to be about ten years old and two inches across, they put on a layer of dead bark that protected them from damage. In sum, they were long-lived trees; they resisted drought, fire, winds, storms, and most insect attacks. All they needed were sun and space and time to grow.

Walking today in one of the few remaining forests of big ponderosa pines gives you a strong sense of deja vu. "Where have I seen this before?" you wonder. You saw it in a thousand Westerns, where the cowboys rode their ponies between the trees, and a glimpse of granite peaks broke the upper right-hand corner of the frame. These forests feel like the real West, or at least like the real Western. Charming is a good word for them. The grass lies green and lush and lovely in the spaces between the trees, which are huge and many. People call these forests parklands: a perfect name for the open, easy feeling they evoke. There is just enough shade to keep the sun off your forehead, just enough breeze filtering through the trees to keep the files away. The parklands appeal even to people who do not much like forests. They are forests on the edge of forestedness, forests that claim grandeur and awe among their forestlike attributes, without being claustrophobic. This is not a tangled, terrifying wilderness of nasty beasts and wicked wood-cutters; this is the land of butterscotch and ponies and Westerns.

From the time that whites first came to these forests in 1811, they were struck by nostalgia. Journals of explorers and travelers repeatedly tell of how the pinelands gave rise to sweet memories of an imagined childhood home. As Narcissa Whitman wrote in 1836 when she was making her way across the Blues to help establish a mission among the Cayuse Indians: "The scenery reminded me of the hills in my native county.... Here I frequently met old acquaintances, in the trees & flowers & was not a little delighted. Indeed I do not know as I was ever so much affected with any scenery in my life. The singing of the birds, the echo of the voices of my fellow travelers, as they were scattered through the woods, all had a strong resemblance to bygone days." Whites loved the ponderosa forests because they seemed like wilderness tamed and made easy—not by a gardener wielding a hoe and trowel, but by nature. Ironically, the pinelands were a managed landscape. But Indian burning, not just natural processes, had shaped these forests. Whites saw the frequent Indian-set fires as a threat to what they loved, rather than an essential part of what they loved, so they did their best to protect the forests from fire—a decision that led to changes nobody quite expected.

For all their charm and promise, the ponderosa forests deeply confused the foresters who came to protect them. By the turn of the century, after only a decade of intense industrial logging, the pinelands were inexplicably changing to much less desirable forests. As the forester H.D. Foster wrote in 1906: "Old cuttings have modified the forest.... On burned areas the new growth is apt to be either white fit or lodgepole pine.... The yellow pine type may change after logging to the mixed conifer type, the mixed conifer type after burning may change to the lodgepole pine type, while after clear-cutting the lodgepole pine type is prone to deteriorate to the white fir type." This was a forest in motion, a changing forest, and the foresters knew they did not understand these changes. Why was one forest made up of pine, another forest of fir? They had no idea. In trying to save the forests, managers soon realized they needed to learn how those forests developed. To manipulate the forest so that its future proceeded in the directions they preferred, foresters needed to understand something about is history: how pine forests got there, and why there was pine and not fir in a particular place.

Part of what confused foresters was the belated recognition that all pine forests were not the same, and thus did not change in the same ways. Some of the parklike forests dominated by pine had only pine. On the drier sites, on the south slopes and ridges and down along the sides of steep canyons, grassland and brush graded into ponderosa forests that were "climax" to pine—communities of trees that experienced frequent light fires. Even when the disturbances of constant fires were kept out, the forest stayed pine, for it was too hot and dry for firs to grow up in the shade of the pines.

Many of the forests dominated by pine, however, had a few other conifers scattered throughout. These mixed-conifer forests looked almost exactly the same as the pure pine forests. They were open, and most of the trees were big ponderosa pines of various ages. The overstory in both types of forests mostly consisted of pine, but the mixed-conifer forests had also a seemingly insignificant number of Douglas-fir, grand fir, larch, Engelmann spruce, and lodgepole. The reproduction—the youngest trees that would form the basis of the next forest after the overstory trees died or were cut—was mostly ponderosa, but there was some Douglas-fir along with some grand fir. These mixed forests were still easy and open, as promising as the pure pine forests. Early foresters did not distinguish between the mixed-conifer forests and the pure pine forests; they called them both the yellow-pine type. Although the two forest types looked much the same, the mixed-conifer forests had a very different ecological history from that of the pure pine forests, and this meant they would respond to management in completely different ways. After less than a century of Forest Service management, the pure pine forests stayed pine, while the mixed-conifer forests changed to cluttered stands of firs with few pines.

To add to the early foresters' confusion, another forest greeted them when they arrived, one that clung to the north slopes—a much denser, darker, less profitable forest known as the north-slope or fir-larch type (Map 3). Douglas-fir and grand fir grew thickly here, with a scattering of larch, lodgepole, spruce, and ponderosa. The tree species were the same as in the mixed-conifer forests, but the proportions were entirely different. Early foresters looked at these forests and were discouraged. There was nothing very profitable in sight; the pine was nice but sparse, and mills had little interest in the other trees. Foresters lumped the unprofitable species together under one name: the "interiors." The north-slope forests were good for for protecting watersheds, foresters figured, but not for much else.

Foresters had thought that if they could only get pine in place, it would be enough—they would have a stable forest. But stability clearly was not happening; some yellow-pine forests stayed pine, while other yellow-pine forests turned to the hopeless north-slope type. To understand these changes that so confounded the early foresters, we need to consider the trees that took over the pine forests, the so-called inferiors: Douglas-fir, grand fir, larch, and lodgepole pine.

In the wet forests on the west side of the Cascaded, Douglas-fir gave rise to a lumber country unlike any the world had known. Near the Pacific, Douglas-fir grew furiously: fast enough for Weyerhaeuser to manage it on 45-year rotations and call those 45-year-old stands old growth. On the dry east side of the Cascades, however, a 45-year rotation would be akin to harvesting tooth-picks; Douglas-fir could take 230 years in the Blues to reach the size a coastal tree achieved in 60 years. Slow growth meant that Douglas-fir was not a particularly valuable timber tree in the Blues, but that was how the tree adapted to life in a colder, drier, less productive environment. Douglas-fir traded off size and speed for the ability to survive in a harsh place.

The inland form of Douglas-fir present in the Blues (Pseudotsuga menziesii, var. glauca) was subtly different from the coastal form present in westside forests. THe coastal form was partly fir dependent: it required a mineral seedbed for germination, and because it was not as shade tolerant as other coastal conifers, it tended to occupy fire-cleared sites. Therefore, managers argued that only clearcutting would ensure the regeneration of coastal Douglas-fir. By extension, foresters tended to assume that inland Douglas-fir needed the same silvicultural treatment. But the Douglas-fir present in the Blues was quite different from the westside Douglas-fir: it did not require a mineral seedbed for germination and so it did not depend on intensive fires for establishment. More important, because the young trees were more shade tolerant, Douglas-fir could generate in the moderate shade of mixed-conifer communities. What all this meant was that it could grow up in the shade of pines if fire were kept out; it did not need clearcuts to thrive.

Larch was the third major player in these mixed-conifer forests. Many people thought larch was the perfect tree: insects, and drought did not kill it. Unfortunately, there was never much of a market for its lumber. In its favorite sites, larch could reach massive size: trees five or six feet across used to be common. The average was 30 to 40 inches across, far larger than most of the larches now present in the Blues. Seedlings grew quickly, and that was how larch made its way in the world: it came in after fire in pine stands on moist sites, and its seedlings outgrew associates, especially lodgepole. But it was not a prolific seed producer, so it rarely grew in single species stands. Because it needed more moisture than ponderosa, larch occurred at slightly higher elevations than ponderosa and tended to congregate on the moister, north-facing slopes. Like ponderosa, larch needed sun and space, on stands of larch quickly gave way to grand fir or lodgepole.

The last two major species, grand for lodgepole, were trees that confused and frustrated the foresters, who devoted their efforts to eliminating them, but with little success. Grand fir and lodgepole seemed like sneaks: not only did they refuse to produce decent timber, they rushed in and, in one forester's words, "usurped the territory" of far more valuable timber trees. They refused to compete on the normal grounds of size. longevity, strength. Instead they were short-lived trees that grew quickly, stole resources from more stolid trees, and died not long after they showed up.

Grand fir (also known as white fir) was the most persistently annoying tree to lumbermen. Not only was it fairly useless for lumber, but it rotted quickly, fell over in strong winds, died at a young age, and got attacked by seemingly every insect and disease in the vicinity. Juvenile growth was fast; at 100 years, a grand fir might reach 100 feet tall. But after another hundred years, insect damage, root rot, fungal disease, and heart rot slowed the tree down. "It is but a 'weed tree,'" the Blues forester H.D. Foster wrote with contempt in 1908, "and as such should be removed as much as possible in all logging operations in order to give way for better species." Grand fir trees were lazy, decadent, rotten trees: "indeed it is a waste of time to handle the tree," Foster concluded. Grand fir was bad enough as timber, but much worse was its tendency to grow up under the shade of more valuable trees, stealing their water and nutrients and eventually taking over the stand. Grand fir thrived in shade and moisture and coolness, and it found these in two major placed in the Blues: on north slopes and in the understories of older forests, down in the shade and moisture of the forest floor. Once a ponderosa-dominated forest got established on a fairly moist, cool site, then grand fir could come up in pine's shade, if there was nothing else to keep it out.

Across the Blues and throughout the West, foresters would suddenly find themselves in a dense thicket of lodgepole, all the same size and all read to burst into flame at the drop of a match. Lodgepole was a classic fire-adapted tree, a fact that was at first surprising because of its extremely thin bark. Even the lightest of fires killed a lodgepole pine; yet after fire, lodgepole moved in before anything else. As one biologist put it, "lodgepole pines are tricksters on the ecological playing field. They don't seem to compete the same grounds as our other conifers—size, longevity, shade tolerance, and fire resistance. They excel instead at profligate and gimmicky seeding habits, short-distance speed, and tolerance of poor soil." Lodgepole's weedy seed habit allowed it to rush in first after a destructive fire. A high seed year would come every one to three years (instead of five to ten years, as for many conifers), and lodgepoles could release seeds all year round instead of just once a year. Trees as young as five years old—an age when other conifers would be nowhere near sexual maturity—could produce viable seeds. The seeds lasted practically forever, waiting for the perfect combination of chance conditions to sprout and take over the forests: 80-year-old cones had seeds that were still patiently biding their time. Some lodgepole trees were particularly fire-adapted, with serotinous cones that opened only after being exposed to the heat generated by a fire, ensuring that the next stand would consist of lodgepole. Once lodgepole seeds germinated, the saplings and seedlings grew much faster than other conifers, thus swamping the other trees out, leading to the dense thickets of single-aged lodgepole.

Although individual lodgepoles got killed almost instantly by fires, those same fires set the stage for more lodgepole stands, which in turn created the conditions perfect for intense fires, which in turn led to more lodgepole. The current dominance of lodgepole in many areas arises from turn-of-the-century intense fires. Since lodgepole lacks a taproot, it is very susceptible to windthrow, especially after being attacked by mountain pine beetle and Western pine beetle. These thickets of dead trees created the ideal conditions for another round of intense fires, which could establish a fire-lodgepole cycle that persisted for centuries. Early foresters thought that if lodgepole got into a stand, it could take over and become nearly impossible to eradicate, because it would attract vicious fires long before trees could grow up and push out the lodgepole.

What, then determined which tree grew where? Early foresters thought competition for light and space explained succession—the development of a forest on a site. Ponderosa needed strong sun to grow after its first few years, while Douglas—fir could tolerate far more shade in its youth and grand fir thrived in shade. Pine would therefore come in first in a open, sunny site, but it would create enough shade that its own young trees would not do very well. Douglas-fir, being more shade tolerant, would grow up in the pine's shade, but it could not tolerate it own denser shade. Since young grand fir could grow well in the shade beneath its parents, it would eventually become the climax species on sites moist and cool enough to support it.

Many pine forests followed this pattern—succeeding to forests dominated by Douglas-fir and grand fir—but another pine forests stayed pine. On south-facing sites where the sun shone steadily, most conifer seedlings dried out before they could gain a foothold. Only ponderosa pine seedlings, with their moisture-gleaning tap-roots, could manage the driest sites, and foresters thought that explained why some yellow-pine stands never changed to fir stands. Yet this still did not explain why pine had dominated mixed-conifer forests when whites arrived. Why had not Douglas-fir and its associates taken over the moister pinelands long before? And why did firs begin invading as soon as whites started working in the forests?

Forests had trouble thinking about these questions, because to understand them people needed to give up their faith in the orderly development of stable forests. Their visions of natural order precluded disturbance, making it hard for them to see that frequent fires could have shaped the forests they loved. These plant communities were extraordinary complex in ways the foresters could not recognize; they wanted badly to protect the pine forests, but what they did not realize was that the forests were not a static entity that could be protected. Because they did not know how pine forests developed, they made the obvious and reasonable assumption that to get more pine forests, what they needed were young pine trees.

Two major things seemed to endanger the pine forests: loggers and fire. Fire killed young trees, and since young trees were the future of the forest, fire was clearly the enemy. Loggers threatened pine forests by cutting them down, of course, but this was more complicated than it seemed, since cutting the old trees down was not a problem if more young pine trees grew up afterward. But instead of pine regenerating in the clearcuts, thickets of grand fir or lodgepole pine were growing instead. That was baffling, because ponderosa was a sun lover which should thrive in clearcuts. Foresters reasoned that the culprit might be fires sweeping through the cutover sites. Sparks from the logging railroads set alight piles of slash and dead wood left after cutting, and the resultant fires burned so hot that what grew up afterward were often thickets of lodgepole. The foresters decided that to protect the pine forests, they needed to keep out fire and encourage reproduction. Sensible as these two recommendations sounded, they were precisely the wrong things to do. Together, they would ensure the demise of the open pine forests. To understand why, we need to consider the roles fire played in the history of different forest communities.

Table of Contents

Foreword AcknowledgmentsIntroductionPlace and EcologyBefore the Forest ServiceThe Feds in the ForestsMaking sense of Strangeness: Silvics in the BluesLiquidating the PinesAnimals: Domestic and Wild NatureFireRestoring the Inland WestConclusion: Living with ComplexityNotesSelected BibliographyIndex

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Stephen J. Pyne

The Blue Mountains have become the Blade Runner scenario for the public lands, synechdoche for what might have, and has, gone horribly wrong. This is a book that argues powerfully for the complexity of nature, and demonstrates the need for equally complex explanations. A book of fundamental importance to both western and environmental history.

From the Publisher

"The Blue Mountains have become the Blade Runner scenario for the public lands, synechdoche for what might have, and has, gone horribly wrong. This is a book that argues powerfully for the complexity of nature, and demonstrates the need for equally complex explanations. A book of fundamental importance to both western and environmental history."—Stephen J. Pyne, author of World Fire

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Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
justchris on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is an eloquent case study about the management of the Blue Mountains in eastern Oregon. Langston interweaves ecology and history, practice and theory, management and science to discuss how and why the forests of this region have transformed in the wakeof European settlement. She uses archival materials, such as the journals of Lewis and Clark, government documents, scientific research articles, interviews, and more to describe the area's ecology; land use history, including Native American traditions, fur trapping, logging, grazing, farming, burning and fire suppression; the origins, ideals, and practices of the Forest Service; the cultural assumptions behind all of these practices; and the potential for ecological restoration. An illustrative quotation from the closing chapter: "All attempts to manage are attempts to tell a story about how the land ought to be, and by definition, all these stories are simpler than the world itself." It's an engaging and thought-provoking read. Traditional ecological restorationists may dispute her arguments that it is neither possible nor reasonable to attempt to restore an ecosystem to a specific historical condition and that all visions of the land are products of human desire and intervention. However, they will likely support the proposal to "figure out some way of working with dry lands and dry forests by forming close connections to a place but also being willing to adapt to the character of the place." And one side note: I can't help being amused every time that this is a Weyerhauser Environmental Book.