Ancient Tree Rings Spill Secrets

“If you want a fire-resilient forest … we’re beginning to see what that looks like.”

Dr. Kerry Metlen
Conservancy forest ecologist

by Stephen Anderson

Shattering the forest stillness, Dr. Kerry Metlen’s chain saw neatly slices a horizontal slab from the stump of a long-fallen pine. He’s not making rustic furniture. He’s time-traveling.

A quiet revolution is underway in forest management across the Northwest. Legal battles are giving way to a broad consensus that ecological restoration — especially in the dry forests east and south of the Cascades — is an urgent priority.

Which places Metlen’s science in high demand. In the hills above Ashland, he’s analyzing traces of fire in the rings of fallen giants to help build a portrait of how this forest was once structured and how often it burned.

“The fire scars tell us these ancient trees survived dozens of wildfires,” said Metlen, a Conservancy ecologist. “Generally, ground-hugging fires didn’t kill the bigger trees.”

Around Ashland, a community nestled in national forest, divergent interests have come together around a vision of healthy forests. They’ve won millions in federal forest restoration funds to put people to work thinning overcrowded trees and reintroducing low-intensity burns.

“Our goal is not to recreate a replica of the past,” said Metlen. “But if you want a fire-resilient forest that produces clean water, and fish and wildlife, and keeps the community safer from unnatural wildfire, we’re beginning to see what that looks like."


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