“Zombie” trees are not the Halloween treat states deserve

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The idea of zombie trees might seem too good to be true given that it’s Halloween, but the situation is all too true in Washington and Oregon. Analysis in both states show there is an alarming number of dead “zombie” trees, especially on federal forestland.

The Oregon Forest Resources Institute sponsored research that showed 350 million trees are standing dead in the 14 million acres of Oregon’s national forests.

“It’s a tale of two forests,” says Mike Cloughesy, OFRI’s director of forestry. “About 17 percent of the trees on National Forest System lands in Oregon are dead, compared to 11 percent for other public lands, and 8 percent for private and Indian lands.

“While it may not seem scary, it’s a potential nightmare because there’s a lot more NFS land.”

In Washington, the situation is similar. About 22 percent of the trees in the state’s national forests are dead, compared to 15 percent on state and local government forestland and 10 percent on privately owned forestland. That means the percentage of dead trees on federal land is more than twice that of the trees on private land.

That’s no coincidence, forestry leaders say. Federal forests suffer from a severe lack of active management, meaning the forests are overcrowded, leading to trees dying from insects and drought.

“Dead trees fuel wildfires,” Cloughesy says. “Overcrowded forests burn uncharacteristically hot, killing most trees and putting other resources such as watersheds and wildlife at risk.”

One solution, Cloughesy says, is to increase harvest on federal lands.

It’s not that all dead trees are bad. But the sheer number of “zombie” trees on federal land is a problem in need of a solution.

Cloughesy states that from an ecological perspective, standing-dead and fallen timber provide a number of benefits, including fish and wildlife habitat, carbon storage and, as the trees decompose, soil nutrients. But the alarmingly high number of dead trees create a fire risk that could outweigh these benefits.

“Preventing a zombie apocalypse will require a much stronger commitment to active forest management on federal lands,” he says. “It may not be comfortable, but the alternative could be much worse.”