Forest wants to cut big firs to help aspen

February 15, 2006 11:00 pm
The Pine District wants to cut large fir trees to reduce competition with aspen for sun and water at about 122 acres of the 2.3 million acre Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. The project is small, but involves big trees — larger than the 21-inch diameter ban in place since 1994. (Courtesy Charlie Johnson).
The Pine District wants to cut large fir trees to reduce competition with aspen for sun and water at about 122 acres of the 2.3 million acre Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. The project is small, but involves big trees — larger than the 21-inch diameter ban in place since 1994. (Courtesy Charlie Johnson).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Wallowa-Whitman National Forest officials want to sidestep a 12-year-old ban on logging big, live trees, although their plan involves veritable pinpricks on the face of the forest — 122 acres of the Wallowa-Whitman's 2.3 million.

But an employee from an Oregon environmental group contends forest officials ought to preserve every one of those acres.

The slivers of forest in question are part of the Pine Ranger District, which stretches across the southern slopes of the Wallowa Mountains east of Baker City.

The big trees slated to be sawed on the Pine District are not pines, however, but firs.

And to further the floral confusion, the Pine District's logging project is designed to protect still another tree: the aspen.

The concept behind the proposed logging is comparatively simple, said Joe Sciarrino, who works at the Pine District office in Halfway.

Aspens, the white-barked deciduous trees that festoon the forest with their shimmering gold leaves every autumn and provide habitat for birds and a variety of animals, are faring poorly in parts of the district.

Among the aspens' problems, Sciarrino said, is that conifer trees —primarily grand firs and Douglas-firs — tower above many aspen groves and cast shade over the sun-loving aspens.

Robbed of the warm rays, the roots of adult aspens cease birthing baby trees — called "suckers" — and so aspen groves are shrinking, he said.

The tall conifers also suck up water and soil nutrients, further weakening the sun-starved aspens.

The Pine District's solution is to cut conifers that stand near aspen groves — within 100 feet on the south and west sides and 50 feet on the north and east, Sciarrino said (wider on the south and west because those sides receive the strongest sunlight).

Removing conifers allows sunshine to stream in, and reduces competition for the finite supplies of water and nutrients, Sciarrino said.

The conifer-cutting tactic has rejuvenated dozens of aspen groves on the Pine District over the past several years, he said.

"Typically we get an explosion of root sprouts" — numbering in the thousands of new aspens per grove — within a few years after the sun-blocking conifers are gone, Sciarrino said.

In those previous projects, though, the shade-casting conifers were of modest size — less than 21 inches in diameter.

The 21-inch figure is crucial because in 1994, Forest Service officials, reacting to criticism from environmental groups, agreed to stop cutting live conifers larger than 21 inches in national forests east of the Cascades.

Those critics contended that the Forest Service, by selling several billion board-feet of mature conifers in Eastern Oregon from the 1950s through the early 1990s, had harmed animals that depend on the big trees for habitat.

Until now the ban on logging 21-inch-plus trees hasn't affected the Pine District's campaign to revive aspen groves because district workers focused on places where they could supply sunlight to aspens without cutting big conifers, Sciarrino said.

But throughout that campaign, he said, workers have also been "stockpiling" aspen groves that are surrounded by conifers that exceed the 21-inch limit.

And now the district has amassed enough of those groves to constitute a project. It's called the Tremble Aspen Restoration project — "tremble" in this case referring to the Latin name for aspen, "populus tremuloides."

The tree got its Latin name because aspen leaves move — tremble, if you prefer a more eloquent verb — in even the gentlest breeze. The tree also is known as the "quaking" aspen for the same reason.

The Tremble Aspen project includes 28 aspen groves totaling 122 acres, Sciarrino said. The largest grove, near Schneider Meadow north of Halfway, covers 20 acres. Of the 28 groves, though, 24 are five acres or smaller.

Sciarrino estimates that loggers would fall "several hundred" conifers, the vast majority larger than 21 inches around.

The district is not, however, proposing to cut any ponderosa pines thicker than 21 inches, he said.

Sciarrino estimates the volume of the proposed timber sale at 400,000 board-feet — relatively small even by the standards of the 21-inch-limit era.

He said Pine District officials hope to sell the timber before the current federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Logging could take place in 2007, he said.

Larry McLaud would prefer the loggers left those big firs alone.

McLaud is the ecosystem conservation coordinator for the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, based in La Grande.

He said that although he supports Forest Service efforts to preserve aspen groves, he doesn't think the agency should, or even needs to, log 21-inch-plus conifers to achieve its goals.

"That is a concern to us," McLaud said. "Trading old-growth trees for aspen — I don't think we're going to be in favor of that. I don't want to see any of those big trees cut. There are so few of them left."

His concerns notwithstanding, McLaud said he does not know whether the Hells Canyon Preservation Council will appeal the Tremble Aspen project.

"We'll certainly take a hard look at it," he said.

Logging 21-inch-plus trees is precisely what the Forest Service's critics stopped 12 years ago, and there's still "a darn good reason to have that limit," said one of those critics, Tim Lillebo, who works for the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC), the state's largest environmental group.

"Since we've done so much overcutting in the past, we are way, way below what used to be out there in terms of old trees," Lillebo said. "We need to try to protect what larger trees are left until we can grow back enough old-growth to get back to the historical range."

Nonetheless, Lillebo, like McLaud, said he supports the Pine District's effort to restore aspen groves.

But unlike McLaud, Lillebo said he concurs with district officials that in certain cases it might be necessary to cut 21-inch-plus conifers to save aspen.

Which is not to say that Lillebo endorses the Tremble Aspen project with nary a reservation.

"I'm not totally against taking some trees out, but I think there's some other options rather than logging," he said.

For instance, Lillebo suggests Pine District officials consider girdling (killing) some 21-inch-plus conifers instead of cutting them down.

Once its needles drop, a standing dead tree would no longer block the sun, nor would the tree compete with aspens for water or soil nutrients, Lillebo said.

Standing dead trees do, however, serve as habitat for birds, he said — a role a tree stops playing after it's sawed into logs and trucked to a mill.

Sciarrino said Pine District officials have girdled conifers around some aspen groves during previous projects.

But around the groves included in the Tremble Aspen project, "there's just too many" of the 21-inch-plus trees, Sciarrino said.

"Plus, there's a commercial product there," he said — the trees themselves, for which Sciarrino expects the Pine District will easily find a buyer.

Although he takes issue with the Pine District's preference for logging rather than girdling big trees, Lillebo said he has been impressed with the Forest Service's effort to preserve aspen groves elsewhere in Central and Eastern Oregon.

He said the ONRC has even proposed a 61-acre aspen-restoration project near Black Butte in Central Oregon. The project is similar to the Pine District's Tremble Aspen plan, except the ONRC proposal doesn't include cutting conifers larger than 21 inches, Lillebo said.

Fire helps rather than hurts

A surplus of shade is not the only reason local aspen groves are ailing, Sciarrino said.

The Forest Service's ability to quickly extinguish most wildfires over the past 80 years or so — this is the agency that invented Smokey Bear, after all — has harmed aspen groves in two ways.

First, the absence of flames has allowed fire-prone conifers to crowd aspen stands.

Second, past fires, in addition to killing encroaching conifers, spurred mature aspens to unleash a flood of suckers.

According to a publication written by Forest Service researchers Elizabeth Crowe and Rodrick Clausnitzer, "heaviest sucker growth occurs after moderate intensity fires or clearcutting of all trees."

Sciarrino said Pine District officials have discussed setting fires in aspen groves to spur sucker production, but so far simply cutting down sunlight-stealing conifers has been sufficient.

In a few groves, workers also fell some mature aspens, a method that, like lighting fires and cutting conifers, prompts aspen roots to produce suckers.

Sciarrino said the Pine District might erect temporary fences around some aspen groves, as well, to prevent cattle, elk and deer from munching on aspen suckers.