Cutting Trees to Save the Forest

By Katherine Sather

Magnificent old-growth forests once flourished along much of Washington’s Salmon Coast. Today, very little remains; decades of logging have reduced this rich and diverse habitat to homogenous tree farms where most trees are the same size, species and age.

Scientists at The Nature Conservancy are working to bring back the diversity to these forests.  At our Ellsworth Creek Preserve at Willapa Bay, we recently began restoration logging for the first time.

We’re thinning dense stands here to promote bigger, stronger trees that will eventually become old growth — all with the goal of turning a tree farm back into a forest.

“So rather than wait hundreds of years for it to happen passively, we want to speed up the process so maybe it only takes us 80 to 100 years to start getting the functions of old growth forest,” said Bill Lecture, forester for the Conservancy at Willapa Bay.

The Conservancy's Ellsworth preserve — 8,000 acres of coastal rainforest —  was formerly an industrial forest. Our active management here is crucial to develop future habitat for animals like endangered marbled murrelets, northern spotted owls and other species that face serious threats.

They stand a better chance in more diverse forests, which also provide healthier water systems.

A Major Milestone for Ellsworth

Our work at Ellsworth recently passed a major milestone: It was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit established to promote responsible forest management. 

The project received an additional boost last fall when the Conservancy received $560,000 in stimulus funds, which we used  to thin young stands of trees. The trees that are cut are too small to be sold and are left on the ground to be reabsorbed back into the earth.  To date we’ve thinned 1,800 acres in young stands.

Restoration logging, on the other hand, pays for itself after the timber is harvested and put on the market. The project is getting started in a dense stand that was thinned 30 years ago and scheduled to be clear-cut — a process that left it comprised of mostly hemlock, with some cedar and spruce.

“The trees in these stands are growing too closely together. To achieve old-growth conditions, we have to control the amount of trees and types of trees that are in the stand,” said Tom Kollasch, program director at Ellsworth. “In restoration logging, we adapt commercial forestry tools to log dense stands and put them on a pathway to old growth.”

Finding the Right Prescription for Restoration

Restoration logging is highly selective. A forester cruises each stand of trees, evaluating characteristics like height and spacing and considering the slope of the terrain and the risk from wind, to then develop a “prescription” for how the stand should be thinned. A tree faller selects trees according the prescription criteria and cuts them toward the cable corridor to reduce damage to the surrounding forest as they are hauled away.

This is the first time The Nature Conservancy has done restoration logging at Ellsworth Creek, but it’s a technique we’ll be using for decades.  It’s also creating jobs.

We brought on B&M Logging of Chehalis to start restoration logging. Crew members say they like how natural the tree stands look once they’re thinned.

Their work is just the first step in bringing these forests back to healthy, natural conditions. “It takes a long time to turn a tree farm into a forest,” Kollasch said.


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