By Ian Vorster
Early one midsummer morning in 2018, the tinkling, occasionally emphatic lilt of a dark-eyed junco heralds the start of another working day in the woods. Creeks prattle their way down steep gradients, providing sustenance to a host of fish and wildlife. Reaching as much as 300 feet into the air, Douglas firs stand as sentinels to centuries of storms, fires and other disturbances continuously unfolding. It’s another sublime day at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Cascades east of Eugene.
Oregon State University graduate students emerge from a room at the research headquarters. They hustle to their cars, collect an item or two of gear from a long checklist of requirements and then disappear quickly in businesslike fashion. A young man works his way through a checklist of climbing apparatus: carabiners, harnesses and ropes. He is studying the climate of the upper canopy — a microregion of the landscape more than 200 feet aloft.
Rob Pabst, a senior faculty research assistant in Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, spreads a map — hand drawn in the late 1970s and looking like something that should hang in the Smithsonian — on a picnic table for a team of researchers. Pabst is the project coordinator for the Permanent Sample Plot Program, a long-term initiative of the Pacific Northwest Research Station, which operates in partnership with OSU.
Gathered around him is an interdisciplinary team that includes David Shaw, OSU lead scientist for the program and professor in the College of Forestry, and David Bell, the U.S. Forest Service PNW Research Station lead scientist. Bell has a courtesy faculty appointment in the College of Forestry, something that exemplifies the thoroughly collaborative nature of the work, across institutions and disciplines.
The aim of the Permanent Sample Plot Program is to establish long-term records that enable better understanding of how plant communities change in composition and structure over time and of what influences these changes. Forest and stream ecosystems experience slow change, for example, by soil development and plant growth. More abrupt changes are triggered by fire, flood or logging among others.
Shaw, who follows a series of leaders since the program began in the early 1970s, says, “It requires successional leadership and intergenerational cooperation to facilitate the data collection and research over such long periods of time. Slow, successional change in ecosystems will outlast all of us.” The PSP network also includes regional plots, with some on the Willamette National Forest measured for over 100 years.
The mettle of such leadership has been tested for more than half a century. The evolution of research from lumber production to a focus on ecosystem health required it.
That transition has been covered extensively by the news media, but what is less well-known is what made it possible for researchers to weather the conflict that arose since the Andrews Forest was established in 1948. Speak to anyone, from any institution, and you hear the same refrain: Long-term collaboration between scientists in diverse disciplines, and from a broad range of organizations, with conflicting views, enabled cooperation in unique ways at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest.
Salmon on the Run
In 1982, an episode on the public television science show NOVA, called Salmon on the Run documented the great decline in salmon. On a bright sunny day in southern Oregon, it showed a chain saw buzzing in the lower Klamath River basin. Nearby, 16-pound axes were hefted and swung to bite deeply into logs a grown man couldn’t wrap his arms around. Sandy Schwenk, a member of the Yurok Indian Tribe tossed smaller, more manageable pieces of wood from a stream, while a U.S. Forest Service crew member wrestled a table-size slab of timber through knee- deep water.
These men and women were working elbow to elbow to clear their way through logjams at stream mouths to allow salmon to return to their spawning beds. Here, in a small tributary of the lower Klamath, the Yurok Tribe was working with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, local citizen groups and the U.S. Forest Service to clear stream mouths of logs and “logging slash.” Also known as “snap wood,” the latter constitutes much of the mishmash left by loggers who, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, weren’t required to clean up when they finished a job.
At the time, OSU Distinguished Professor of History Bill Robbins was teaching a History of the American Indian class, for which he screened the episode. The film told the story of the decline of the great salmon runs in rivers of the Pacific Northwest.
The commonplace practice of clearing waterways for navigation included removing dead trees or “snags” that had fallen into big rivers like the Willamette mainstem. In smaller rivers, big trees and big boulders were also cleared to make way to run logs downriver to sawmills. After World War II, this channel clearing was thought to promote the migration of anadromous fishes from the sea to spawn in freshwater nursery areas. The drill increased until it became a large part of “salmon enhancement programs” through the mid-1980s.
What intrigued Robbins was that the film showed local citizen groups and agency crews clearing both large logs and logging slash from streams and creeks around the same time that research at the Andrews was revealing the value of retaining naturally downed wood in a wide range of sizes. With a chuckle, Robbins notes, “I was hearing from loggers at the time, who were asking, ‘What the hell should we do, leave wood in the streams or take it out?’” At the time Robbins didn’t know anything about the benefits of leaving “natural” wood in streams.
Scientists working at the Andrews found, quite ironically, that one of the most important factors related to keeping large logs in streams was that they create “rearing pools” for young fish. These pools are deeper and allow young fish to escape predators. And without having to fight strong currents, the fry don’t have to expend as much energy and can, therefore, put on weight more easily.
From a tiny pool in Lookout Creek to watershed-sized swaths of old-growth forest, research like this at the Andrews has influenced state, national and international forest plans. The findings have functioned as a lamp to the path of resource managers committed to sustaining healthy environments and productive economies.
It has not come without confrontation.
Old-growth forest is a value-laden term. Often defined as forest that has reached enormous age and stature, it includes standing and fallen dead wood as critical parts of the ecosystem. Old growth contrasts with even-aged stands such as plantations and second-growth forests following clearcuts by containing more tree species of widely varying heights and sizes with gaps in the canopy. Together these provide a diverse habitat for a multi-faceted understory plant community and a remarkable variety of creatures.
For environmentalists, old growth might speak of a towering legacy left standing as everything else is transformed by the hand of humanity. For economists or those focused on sustaining livelihoods, it might be seen as a looming monument to the towns that closed their shutters as the last mill went quiet. That is a recipe for conflict. And that conflict erupted with the timber wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s — when old growth could no longer be logged on public lands.
Michael Paul Nelson, OSU lead scientist at the Andrews, says that as a philosopher he is trained to tackle natural resources arguments. Also serving as principal investigator for the Long-Term Ecological Research program, he tries to answer hard questions about science and conservation ethics and asks, “What if you see a forest in this way or another way? What value are you ascribing to the landscape — is it for lumber, drinking water, recreation, animal habitat or all four?” How you answer these questions, Nelson points out, really matters because it impacts how we view our relationship with the land and what we believe we are justified in doing, or not doing to the land.
Nelson is one of only two non-biophysical scientists ever appointed to this leadership position in the history of all 28 long-term ecological research sites. He, like those who held the post before him, continues to build a legacy of diplomacy.
Collaboration Buffers Controversy
“The Andrews,” as it is affectionately known by all who visit and do research within its watersheds, was first established as the Blue River Experimental Forest in 1948. It is a federal property managed by the Pacific Northwest Research Station, which encompasses a 15,800-acre drainage basin of Lookout Creek, a tributary of the Blue River, that flows into the McKenzie River. It had a singular focus: research the methods of extraction, reforestation and protection of water resources in the vast swaths of old-growth timber on national forest lands.
To meet the demand for wood, Oregon timber production hit an all-time high in 1955, with 9.1 billion board feet harvested. Reflecting “forestry research” objectives until the early ʻ70s, watersheds were logged, roads were graded and flumes were built in the Andrews. A flume is a concrete structure designed with a V-shaped channel to gage streamflow for monitoring and experimental purposes.
Robbins notes in an article published in the winter 2018 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly that Horace J. Andrews, then forester in charge of U.S. Forest Service Region 6, wanted to better understand the effects of logging on water quality and fisheries habitat. He was also concerned about the influence of the Cascade Mountain Range on flooding in the Willamette Valley. Andrews foresaw the potential impacts of industrial-scale harvesting on streams and rivers in Oregon and Washington. He died in 1951, and the experimental forest was renamed in his honor in 1953.
While forestry research continued, ecosystem research started in 1974, with the two continuing in tandem to this day. From 1968 to 1974, the Andrews also participated in the National Science Foundation-funded International Biological Program during a period that coincided with the growing environmental movement. In 1980, the Andrews was designated a Long-Term Ecological Research site by the NSF.
Over the decades, the relationship between both forestry and ecosystem researchers and society is reflected in the dynamic that prevailed at the Andrews during the timber wars. This period, which lasted from the early 1980s through the 1990s, saw loggers and environmentalists squared off on opposite sides as conflict erupted across the Pacific Northwest over efforts to save the northern spotted owl from extinction. In the early 1980s, an Oregon State graduate student, Eric Forsman, had just completed a seminal study of the bird at the Andrews for his Ph.D. thesis. He started the project in 1972. Forsman’s research revealed that the northern spotted owl was in dramatic decline because it nested in old-growth forest, which was falling to the ax.
The listing of the bird as threatened with extinction in 1990 added provocation. To the logging industry, the protection of the owl presented an absurd obstruction to economic development. To most environmentalists, the owl still exists as a symbol of the struggle to preserve Earth’s fast-dwindling natural resources, in particular, old-growth forests.
Referencing downed wood and woody debris in streams, Fred Swanson, a courtesy professor in OSUʼs College of Forestry who was the lead scientist at the Andrews during the timber wars, says of the period, “There could easily have been serious conflict between the science community — the people saying ‘aquatic ecosystems benefit from wood in streams’ — and the land managers.” In other parts of the national forest system, for example in Alaska, there was conflict within the science community — between some academics, forest service scientists and land managers. “But in our case, we were totally in it together,” continues Swanson. “We ran hundreds of field trips, which included members of Congress, their staff and reporters from The New York Times and other major media outlets. These field trips encouraged open conversations about the future of the forest – in the forest – led by OSU scientists and Forest Service land managers and researchers.”
The evolution from researching the clear cutting of old-growth forests to long- term ecosystem health relied on such cooperation. The collaboration certainly influenced the management policies of the U.S. Forest Service and increased society’s understanding of healthy forest ecosystems around the globe.
Another contributing factor is the non-hierarchical leadership style at the Andrews. Essentially a coalition of the willing, leadership is distributed among many researchers. The subsequent relationships have the strength to undergird some of the more difficult conversations that occur.
Swanson says, “We’ve had monthly meetings that include people from the Willamette National Forest for many decades. I view those as a sort of family that sits together at dinner. There may be some teenage kids, and occasionally conversation isn’t that great, but if you’re family tending to all kinds of business when stuff gets gnarly, you’re in a lot better position to have the tough conversations.”
Swanson notes that it was these family-like bonds that carried the Andrews through the timber wars. The district ranger, the research liaison — a dedicated position that connected the research and land management communities — the forest director who was an OSU employee, OSU professors and the lead forest service scientist would be conversing with elected officials, industry groups, environmentalists and the general public. “We’d all be talking together and reacting to diverse points of view,” Swanson says. “And we did that on hundreds of occasions.”
The intersection of science, management and policy associated with the Andrews in this way did not happen overnight. It is the product of decades of collaboration that began in the 1950s with traditional, applied forestry research on how to log old-growth forests and manage plantations in mountainous terrain. It was joined by pioneering, basic inquiry into the workings of forest and stream ecosystems.
At the very least, this shared, two-way street has given rise to new practices and policies for forest management. These practices facilitate the return of salmon to feed the Yurok and provide lumber to build new homes. And the policies protect old-growth forests, biodiversity and the ecosystem services they nurture.
The next question is arguably more challenging: How do we evaluate the vulnerability of forest ecosystems to climate change and their ability to bounce back from short- and long-term disturbances? A broad suite of collaborative scientists is working at the Andrews to deliver the results. Led by Michael Nelson, they will continue their role at this seam of research, policy and ethics — for the sake of the forests of the Northwest and for society.