Mount St. Helens guides federal timber projects


A series of pilot projects on federal timberland, led by retired professors from University of Washington and Oregon State University, is now taking some lessons from Mount St. Helens. The projects, which we wrote about last year, could be an important step toward bridging the gap between the concerns of timber companies and environmental groups.

The latest U.S. Bureau of Land Management project involves a stand of 110-year-old Douglas firs near Myrtle Creek in Roseburg, Ore. About 60 percent of the trees would be sold for harvest, with the other 40 percent left untouched.

Steven Lydick, a field manager with the BLM’s Roseburg district, says the project is an attempt to strike a balance.

“You know, realistically what we’re doing is trying to find, sort of that sweet spot between maximizing timber and maximizing habitat value,” he says.

The balance between harvest and keeping the original trees is inspired by Mount St. Helens. according to Jerry Franklin from University of Washington and Norm Johnson from Oregon State University.

Research on recovery of ecosystems after the Mt. St. Helens eruption has led biologists to appreciate the importance of the brush and shrub habitat that exists only after a disaster and before conifer trees begin to block out the light. It’s called early-seral, or early-successional habitat. And species ranging from ground squirrels to butterflies to elk love it.

Johnson says that for years, foresters have destroyed early-seral habitat by suppressing fire and aggressively replanting Douglas fir trees. In fact, healthy early-seral habitat may now be rarer than old growth forest.

“We think that it is the scarcest successional stage in the Cascades,” says Johnson.

Initially, he and Franklin suggested not replanting any trees at the Roseburg site, to allow this early-seral habitat the best chance to develop and mature.

It’s good to see federal officials take innovative approaches to their timberland, which has been hands-off for far too long. The harvest numbers are very small right now, but if the pilot projects are successful, they could serve as a guide for an increased harvest in the future.