Originally published on terrain.org
A stroll among the giant trees of the Pacific Northwest’s old-growth forest will put almost anyone in a reflective mood, and as I park my car by the gate that blocks Forest Service Road No. 305 in western Oregon’s H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest, I crane my neck to take in the magnificence surrounding me. Douglas-firs rise to dizzying heights on either side of the road, drawing the eye upward. I came here to inspect an old clearcut at the end of the road, but down here the big trees have been left standing, and as I start out walking the forest presents a vision of changeless eternity. Ten minutes later I round a corner and encounter an immense fallen tree blocking the road, a reminder that these woods, like us, are subject to the pull of age and gravity. This one fell directly down the centerline of the road, leading to the amused thought that nature, too, wanted to close this former logging spur.
I climb up on the tree and pace out its length, working around the upright branches. At a little more than 200 feet, it wasn’t the tallest tree in the woods, but it’s still breathtaking in its prone position. Rarely do we get a chance to examine a mature Douglas-fir, branches and all, from head to foot. Deep furrows run along its gradually tapering trunk. An evocative fragrance rises from the crushed fibers. All this tree lacks is the snaggle top and massive, shelf-like branches of the very old fir, which form an airy ecosystem complete with mosses, shelf fungi and nesting voles. Those attributes require another century or so to develop.
Still, I’m glad that no tree of this size lies on the main road between my car and my temporary home at the Andrews Forest headquarters, three miles away at the lower end of the Lookout Creek drainage. I’ve already had to squeeze my little Honda around several partially cleared deadfalls. I should be carrying a chainsaw, but I nstead I’ve been issued a two-way radio with which to call for help should I be stranded up here.
So much is vertical in this forest that it’s easy to overlook a fallen tree unless it blocks one’s path. The firs, hemlock, and cedars stretch out in multiple dimensions: toward the heavens, along the mossy forest floor, and (as is evident in this ancient forest) across great swaths of time. Many trees in the Andrews Forest approach 500 years in age; some Douglas-firs in favored locations in the Cascade Range exceed 800. It takes some mental stretching to perceive the long past out of which these giants grew. Growing up in Eugene, 40 miles down the McKenzie River from here, I marveled at trucks carrying a single log to a sawmill—a rare sight even then. Slices from such specimens would sometimes wind up in museums and visitor centers, marked with dates reaching back to the Magna Carta. We comprehend the age of such trees only in relation to written history, for our culture lacks an oral tradition extending more than a generation or two.
The Andrews research site was established in 1948, when most foresters’ attention was on how rapidly trees could be made to grow. More recent research in this 16,000-acre tract has focused on what happens when trees fall over and decay—a process that has important ramifications for soils, watershed conditions, and carbon cycling, as well as for the myriad creatures that live in this temperate rainforest. A hallmark of this research is its long time scale; studies are underway at the Andrews Forest that will not conclude for 170 years. This stands in distinction to the rapid results expected in most academic research and, indeed, the rest of our society. Institutions and businesses need to show results within a year or two at most; foresters and ecologists face a difficult task in getting us to think about outcomes that may extend beyond our lifetimes.
It is to understand this difference between nature’s long timescale—what I call “old time”—and our need for quick results that I have come here. For several days I’ve had the luxury of contemplating the deep woods along Lookout Creek, courtesy of the Andrews Forest’s visiting writers program, which is sponsored by the Forest Service and Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project. During the course of a week’s stay, writers are asked to visit four of the ongoing study plots and, if they wish, dip their toes in the stream of research findings that flow out of this unusual area. It’s an intriguing challenge for a nonscientist like me, and I’m conscious that a week’s visit can hardly scratch the surface of the work being done here, let alone fathom the mysteries these woods seem to hide. Having been away from Oregon for many years, I want to conduct a personal and highly unscientific stand examination, to borrow a forester’s term. During my sequestered stay I’ll take a few steps back into an older world and see how the woods that impressed me so much as a youth have fared.
Most of the logging in the Andrews Forest dates to when I was a child; a half century has certainly aged me, but changes in the ancient forest are harder to see—unless treefall, insect outbreaks, wildfire, floods, or landslides suddenly alter the scene. Modern logging operations, in contrast, impose more familiar time scales of years and decades on the forest with the goal of making it produce the maximum of wood fiber. Managed plantations, of which there are plenty in the surrounding Willamette National Forest, were typically allowed to reach an age of no more than a century before harvesting—a deliberate attempt to accelerate nature’s leisurely timetable. But what are the results of imposing our hurried schedule on the older timeframe? I want to escape, if only for a few days, the constraints imposed by our hurry-up culture and experience the slower form of time that anchors itself in these woods.
Although fallen trees sometimes present an inconvenience for scientists on their way to work at the Andrews Forest, they are also objects of intense study here. Research has disclosed the important role deadfall plays in cycling nutrients and carbon over long time scales, all the while creating microhabitats for plant and animal life. An ongoing research program known as the decomposition study is periodically examining lengths of cut logs to track how they decay over time. The study, which began in 1985, is intended to last 200 years—well beyond the current researchers’ lives. I admire their dedication, but the task of understanding such forest processes only reinforces my feeling that our lives are mere ticks in nature’s slow clock.
I climb down from the tree and try to imagine how it fell. Probably no human heard it crash to the ground, but any nearby squirrel, raven, or newt would surely have taken notice. It may have started with a sharp crack, followed by an accelerating rush of air and a seismic thud as the tree hit the graveled roadbed. Properly speaking this is not a deadfall, since its branches still bear live needles. Some combination of wet soil and wind, possibly assisted by the undercutting road, led to its demise. It’s hard not to regret its passing.
But saying that this tree’s end somehow represents a loss to the forest is just another digression into teleology: nature has no more need for a tree to live than for it to topple and die. Indeed, researchers Chris Maser and James Trappe wrote in 1984 of trees beginning a new “life” once they have fallen over. In their booklet The Seen and Unseen World of the Fallen Tree, they show how deadfall becomes host to countless beetles, fungi, and other organisms which undertake the work of decomposition. They describe the rate at which trees are “recruited” to a horizontal position, a clever use of an ecological term that knocks over our fixation on standing trees. To Andrews Forest researchers such as Mark Harmon, who has made a career of studying dead wood, trees that die and fall over represent not waste but the next stage in a long life-cycle which ends in their return to the soil—a process that turns out to be essential to maintaining the continuity of the forest.
More deadfall covers the 305 road as I head farther uphill. I clamber over splintered trunks and branches and think back to the times I’ve witnessed such events. On two occasions while hiking or skiing on trails in western Oregon, a large spruce fell directly in front of me. Both times it was perfectly calm, without even a warning shot of wood fibers tearing apart. Something registered, though, and I stood frozen while a forest denizen weighing ten tons or more fell across the path in front of me. Its clock had run its allotted measure, a small adjustment of root and soil occurred, and gravity took over. These sudden treefalls, though they amounted only to slight movements of the second hand in the long span of forest time, startled me out of my usual reverie. They helped me comprehend something about transience, not to mention my own mortality.
Maser and Trappe’s forest-floor perspective is best understood by stretching out on the moss-cushioned ground, where in the midst of decrepitude and decay it is easy to think about one’s own demise. The trees which fell on the 305 road will take longer to fulfill their destiny as humus, owing to the better drainage which the graveled roadbed affords, but unless they are bucked and hauled off they will eventually recycle their cellulose and fertilize the sterile gravel.
Not only are these ancient trees the most obvious and magnificent characteristic of the old growth forest, they signify how lifeforms pursue their activities on a schedule utterly unlike our own. “Time has written the complexity of the forest,” observes Frederick J. Swanson, a longtime Andrews Forest researcher who coincidentally bears the same name as I. A geologist who has spent more than four decades working in the forests of the Northwest, he is versed in reading long timescales. On a tour of the Andrews Forest he tells me how he sees the landscape as a cascade of disturbances, overlapping in time and space to create the mosaic we perceive as the everlasting forest. Lacking Fred’s training, I have only a dim sense of what may be going on in these woods, a living landscape that is both fascinating yet alien to everyday experience. Scientists here are tracking how epiphytes fix nitrogen, how soil fungi send out filaments that transfer nutrients to tree roots, and how animals such as the red tree vole assist all of these functions. This is truly a “hidden forest,” as author Jon Luoma called the Andrews research area in his 1999 book of that title.
Finally clear of the blowdown, I continue up the road to the edge of the clearcut I have come to see. It is blanketed with young, well-spaced Douglas-firs, each about 12 to 14 inches in diameter at chest height: a typical, fast-growing, even-age plantation. I am at the northern edge of Watershed 3, one of eight experimental watersheds established on the Andrews Forest in the 1950s to examine the effects of logging and road construction on forest hydrology. Watersheds 1 through 3 lie alongside each other on a steep, northwest-facing slope in the lowermost part of the Lookout Creek drainage. The first was completely logged beginning in 1962, the second was left alone as a control, and the third was given three smaller clearcuts of around 12 to 28 acres each, about one-fourth of the watershed’s total area. An aluminum tag affixed to a post informs me that this unit was harvested in 1963, the year my family moved to Oregon.
I try to imagine the scene that summer when this patch of woods echoed to the sound of chainsaws as the crew felled the big trees, then limbed and bucked them to length. After the choker setters fixed cable, the yarder blew a warning before winching them one by one up to the landing. Log trucks roared down the 305 road and on toward the McKenzie Highway. Another crew returned that fall to set fire to the piled slash and the young shrubs left over from the clearcut, followed next spring by workers with canvas bags full of seedlings strapped around their waists. Balancing precariously on the steep slope and swinging their hoedad blades into the mixed soil and ash, they opened narrow holes into which they slipped “2-0” seedlings, each a long sprout with a delicate root bundle that had spent two years in a nursery. Enough survived the summer’s desiccating sun and the foraging deer to help form the nearly continuous forest I now see before me.
This was forest regeneration as called for by Forest Service silviculturalists beginning in the late 1940s, when the agency embarked on an ambitious program designed to replace slow-growing, “overmature” forests with thrifty, fast-growing young stands like this one. Their stated goal was to produce wood fiber for industry, but they also took professional pride in getting land into production. Their creed, laid out in scientific articles and policy manuals, dictated that we speed up nature’s slow timeframe to a rate that complied with our desires. The results are still evident throughout the Willamette National Forest, where old clearcuts are filled with young tree plantations. They form a patchwork on almost every hillside, except for “leave” strips along the highways and a string of wilderness areas along the Cascade crest. Until the rate of logging was suddenly arrested in the 1990s as a result of timber sale appeals and court injunctions, the foresters were meeting their goal.
One often heard back in the 1960s how deadfall represented waste, how setting aside low-elevation forests as wilderness areas or wildlife habitat meant that forests would revert to nature’s unhurried schedule, falling prey to rot, insects, and fire. This, we were told, was an unconscionable failure in a modern industrial society. Foresters sought to impose our culture’s sense of time on these woods, and by and large they succeeded. Something was lost in that accelerated forest, however. We cannot expect nature to reproduce in 50, 100, or even 200 years that which typically takes 400 or 500 years to grow—and those are only individual trees, not the whole complex assemblage that is the old-growth forest.
While the young, rapidly growing forest in front of me is certainly more attractive than a raw clearcut, its carefully spaced trees suggest an order and purpose that is absent in native stands. This plantation carries an entirely different feel than the woods I left behind. It lacks the mystery, the complexity, the hiddenness of the very old forest. This becomes clear as I start back down the 305 road and reenter a world that is multilayered, variegated in form and color, rich in curious smells, filled with fleeting sounds, and productive in ways that a plantation can never be. Something unknowable emanates from this forest, and despite researchers’ surprisingly successful efforts to unlayer its secrets, it will remain so.
Studies conducted at the Andrews Forest have pointed to a number of interesting benefits from leaving big trees to grow old, fall over, and decay. The water flowing from these forests is clear and cold most of the time. The deadfall that comes to rest in streambeds creates habitats for a host of organisms, including fish. Mark Harmon and his colleagues have documented that old-growth forests store more carbon than managed forests, which will be of increasing importance. Certain rare birds and mammals prefer to live here, and some people would prefer that they continue to do so. The old-growth forest is no longer viewed simply as a graveyard of wasted timber, thanks in part to work done here.
A research area such as the Andrews Experimental Forest would appear to be a perfect haven for scientists to remove themselves from the Northwest’s everlasting timber wars, but to their great credit, many of them engaged with the issue. Fred Swanson and his colleague Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington helped draft recommendations for the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, a comprehensive blueprint for forest management intended to resolve the long-standing dispute over owls and old growth. Among other provisions, the plan set up ten so-called adaptive management areas throughout Washington, Oregon, and northern California, comprising roughly 1.5 million acres. Innovative forest practices such as small, irregularly shaped clearcuts and thinnings were to receive tryouts in these areas, with foresters and scientists carefully evaluating the results. Among the program’s objectives are the maintenance of late successional forest conditions to retain what the plan termed “structural complexity and biological diversity.” Some old trees could be harvested, but the rate of cutting would be considerably less than from younger, more intensively managed stands, and the intent was to maintain more of these forests’ ecological values.
The Andrews Forest was embedded within one such adaptive management area in the central Oregon Cascades and featured various experimental cuttings in which representative older trees were left standing as a biological legacy. These units bear little resemblance to the clearcuts of old and, to my brief examination, represent a clear break with the past. Funding the adaptive management program has turned out to be its Achilles heel, however, and ongoing administrative and court battles have limited its application to the wider landscape. Timber harvests from national forests in the Northwest remain at historically low levels, limited mostly to thinning existing plantations that have been growing in earlier clearcuts.
No such restrictions exist on private timberlands, as becomes evident when I drive out of the Andrews Forest and view a whole mountainside south of the McKenzie River that was recently stripped of its tree cover. It is called, appropriately enough, Deathball Rock. The contrast between private and public forestlands represents a kind of schizophrenia in forest management. We may be deluding ourselves in trying so hard to protect the national forests when other lands are reduced to bare soil and young monocultures. As Aldo Leopold pointed out long ago, it is folly to take pride in conserving one watershed while laying waste to another.
Yet we have to start somewhere. The adaptive management program strikes me as a useful metaphor for the greater issue facing our society: how to fit the demands of a modern industrial economy to the biological and geological limitations of particular landscapes. With its emphasis on research and monitoring, the Andrews Forest is a good place to test new cutting methods that impinge less upon the ecological functions of old trees—including their roles as deadfall.
The key is how these methods will be applied within the larger region. Traditional clearcutting came into wide use on private forestlands in the late 19th century because it was the most efficient way to harvest large volumes of timber from a watershed or a working circle; only later, when the Tree Farm movement emerged and government foresters began to clearcut public forestlands, was this method touted as a means of growing trees quickly. Today, more sensitive methods of cutting timber will necessarily mean smaller harvests. The Northwest’s timber industry has already undergone a painful realignment, but as Swanson tells me, there are many here who wistfully believe that “we’ll get back into the woods some day.” We may indeed, but not with the frenzied abandon that characterized the 1950s and 1960s.
Perhaps the adaptation we most need to make is within our minds. Somehow we must reconcile the divergent timescales of nature and the human enterprise. We may have to accept a slower pace of utilizing the forest if we would retain its many other values. Trees need to be seen as more than vertically arranged cellulose factories. If anything has emerged from ecological research in the Douglas-fir biome, it is the incredible complexity of the forest community, from fungal filaments lacing through the soil to voles scurrying along mossy limbs hundreds of feet overhead. Through it all weaves time in measures we scarcely comprehend.
The problem is that we have no collective memory with which to comprehend biological processes that unfold over many human lifespans. Tracking the decay of logs for two centuries is an exercise in understanding old time; so is Fred Swanson’s attempt to tease apart the complicated history of landslides, floods, and glaciers that have sculpted today’s landforms. Scientists are getting pretty good at taking a long view; the rest of us need to adopt some of this outlook. Charles Goodrich, who oversees the Spring Creek Project, asks how we can “stretch our attention span” in the face of our culture’s overwhelming “tide of haste and short-sightedness.” Conducting long-term ecological studies is one way, but more of us need to think—and see—beyond our immediate horizon.
Deep forests are good places to perceive old time. Even then, for one who is caught in our culture’s frantic pace, it sometimes takes a tree crashing down on the path to remember that these woods operate on a different timetable. As I walk back down the 305 road, I realize I would need to spend months at this one site to begin to understand time as a tree experiences it. The researchers who work here are better attuned to the cycle of forest growth and decay, but real comprehension would require a means of knowing that spans generations.
In the spirit of expanding our personal timescales, I offer my own, admittedly less scientific, proposal. The Forest Service could build a mile-long interpretive trail up the 305 road—a different kind of project from the usual nature trail. Crews would construct stairs over the larger fallen logs, saw openings through the others, and post discreet signs inviting visitors to spend some time contemplating the slow life-cycle of the forest. City dwellers could take a break from their frenetic routine to sit and listen for owls, watch for things crawling on the forest floor, and reflect on the gradual disintegration taking place at their feet. They would see how mosses and forbs reach in from the edge of the road; how leaves and needles shower down from the surrounding canopy; how trees weaken and fall. By situating the trail on the road itself, rather than in a pristine grove, it would serve the function of a Zen garden or the ruins of a Romanesque castle: we would see the impermanence of human life and culture in a progression of time that eventually swallows everything.
As the decades passed, the 305 road would evolve into a convoluted forest path, an avenue for deer and smaller creatures. A member of some later human society might thrash up it some day, perhaps getting as far as the old clearcut I visited, which by then would consist of mature Douglas-firs with younger hemlocks and cedars growing up among them. If that person belonged to a culture that has learned to slow its pace to something closer to the older rhythms, moderating its demands to what the Earth gives in its good time, then she or he will feel entirely at home in this place, and there will be no disjuncture between outside and inside, between the human and the natural, between new time and old time.
Frederick H. Swanson is the author of Where Roads Will Never Reach: Wilderness and Its Visionaries in the Northern Rockies (University of Utah Press, 2015) and The Bitterroot and Mr. Brandborg: Clearcutting and the Struggle for Sustainable Forestry in the Northern Rockies (University of Utah Press, 2011), among others. His books and articles deal with the history, use, and misuse of public lands during the twentieth century, with particular focus on wilderness areas, national parks, and national forests. An editor and publications designer for twenty-five years, he now writes full-time in the foothills of Utah’s Wasatch Range.