Dark, dense and mysterious, the Northwest’s forests once were feared by early settlers, who saw the shadowy woods as something to avoid. That was before they realized the economic value of the forests, whose trees could be felled and sold as timber to build houses, furniture and other commodities. Conservationists wanting to preserve the trees’ quiet beauty worried over unchecked cutting and the difficulty of replanting on the region’s rocky slopes; their battles to preserve their revered retreats planted the seeds from which grew the first policies governing forest management.
While forward-thinkers have always contemplated the beauty and balance of our planet, it wasn’t until about three decades ago that people started truly understanding the ecological complexities of forests, both the trees and the creatures who dwell among them. Consider the spotted owl controversies that followed in the 1980s. Today the interrelationship between the ecology of healthy forests and the policies that manage them is the subject of numerous scientific studies, controversial planning decisions and vigorous debate — as well as a course at Willamette University, situated in the heart of some of the most recognized forestland in the country.
“We take the students out to the forest to help them see how different disturbances play out on the landscape. Then we spend the rest of the course wrestling with these ecological and policy issues.”
—Karen Arabas, associate professor of environmental science
Karen Arabas, associate professor of environmental science, is an expert in forest fire history and ecology, having spent countless hours researching the ecological history of trees in central Oregon. Joe Bowersox, associate professor of politics, worked as a congressional fellow in the U.S. Senate as the Healthy Forest Initiative was developed and knows the intricacies of forest management policies. The two joined forces eight years ago to teach the interdisciplinary Forest Ecology and Policy course. Offered every other year, the class is now required for all environmental science majors, and many politics students also enroll.
“One of the fun things about this course is we can show how a lot of different forces work to push the ecological research and the policy of forests,” Arabas says.
A week’s worth of field trips are fun as well, though students must return to campus weeks before the semester begins. They trek across the state to visit the forest-related sites that will be at the center of their lessons — touring a lumber mill in Roseburg, exploring the site of the Biscuit Fire in the Siskiyou National Forest, stopping at Crater Lake and traveling on to the Metolius Preserve in Central Oregon, among other sites.
Different agencies manage land in different ways as they try to strike a balance between forest health and socioeconomic needs — and the students should see that firsthand, Bowersox and Arabas say. So as part of their excursions, students meet the professionals who put the policies into practice, including foresters from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon Department of Forestry.
“When the Oregon Department of Forestry first started coming up with a management plan, they brought in scientists because they wanted to know ‘How can we keep this forest healthy while still meeting our harvest objectives?’” Arabas says. “A lot more research money is now put into studying ecology, and we have many class discussions about the feedback between that research and the actual policy. We take the students out to the forest to help them see how different disturbances play out on the landscape. Then we spend the rest of the course wrestling with these ecological and policy issues.”
It’s a sunny day in August, and the class trails Walt Kastner, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) forester, on a hike down through the Nestucca River watershed area until they reach 10 acres of old growth on BLM land. “What I really want you to do here is look around,” he says when he finally stops.
There is a hallowedness to the place. Students note large trees, numerous species, high canopy cover, forest floor strewn with dead wood, and profound silence. “The thing to keep in mind here is how complex and irregular this looks,” Kastner says. “Some of these trees are about 450 years old. We can try to groom other areas to have these characteristics, but we’ll never be able to recreate this old growth.” He speaks with a respect bordering on reverence.
Certain bird species, including spotted owls and marbled murrelets, find sanctuary in these venerable forests, whose qualities make them the ideal habitat. By examining old growth areas, scientists can discover much about general forest health, Bowersox says, such as what makes an ecosystem sustainable, or what happens when a fire destroys canopy cover. Even in Oregon, few old growth areas still stand, and in the area the students visit this day, old growth has nearly vanished due to harvesting in the coast range.
After hiking back to the road, students pile into vans and travel to another site nearby, a 50-acre area of managed forest that was part of the Phoenix Project timber sale. The bulk of these trees were about 70 years old when the area was logged in 1998; enough wood was removed to build 73 single-family homes. Here Kastner notes the steps BLM took to mimic old growth and preserve the area’s health — leaving four of the largest cut trees on the ground as food to prevent bark beetles from attacking those trees still standing, then planting new trees next to downed wood so the saplings won’t get uprooted during logging.
“This area is a good example of a federal agency trying new techniques to maintain a viable economic product yet still address ecosystem issues,” Bowersox says. “It’s about learning to balance.”
Negotiating that balance is a conversation that has only taken place in the last 15 to 20 years, Bowersox says, and the debate has had a significant impact on the number of trees felled each year. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, between 4 billion and 6 billion board feet were removed from federal lands in Oregon and Washington each year (a board foot is 1' x 1' x 1"). Today that number is between 500 million and 900 million.
Oregon’s land management practices now include more rules about economic viability and sustained yield, so that local schools and counties can continue receiving financial benefits from logging. Consequently, commercial cutting occurs much more on state lands than federal lands.
On a visit to Crater Lake, the students observe how the National Park Service monitors a fire that has been burning there all summer. Discussing fires’ impact on forests, Arabas says disturbances such as insects or fires were once seen only as attacks on an economic commodity, an attitude that prompted agencies to extinguish the blazes immediately. In the 1970s, scientists started recognizing that these disturbances could be critical to forest health. Some species, such as lodgepole pines, actually depend on fires to spread their seeds and create new growth. Differing priorities translate into differing policies about how to approach fires, whether natural fires or controlled burns — a debate that continues to rage at the state and federal level.
Two months after their summer excursions, as the autumn rains begin in earnest, the students gather in a Collins Science Center classroom, each group poring over ideas for their final research papers. Audrey Squires ’07 looks for correlations between large woody debris and the presence of cutthroat trout in creeks. Cari Schruth ’07 wants to know if there are connections between the types of land use in Oregon’s forests and areas that experience landslides. Michelle Gregoire ’07 examines the Elliott State Forest near Coos Bay and whether public comments and scientific reviews have influenced the management plan for the area. “I think this is a really interesting study because it takes into account everything we’ve talked about in class — the economic, scientific and social interests,” says Jeff Hancock ’07. “Those are all influential in how people assess the area.”
Accounting for all interests and finding a balance — that is the ultimate lesson Arabas and Bowersox hope students will remember as they continue their studies or embark on careers in forest management. It’s a mission far beyond that of early conservationists trying to save their beloved retreats, one that requires the next generation to see both the forest and the trees.
Karen Arabas and Joe Bowersox co-edited Forest Futures: Science, Politics, and Policy for the Next Century, a collection of essays by scientists, policy analysts and public lands managers that address issues surrounding the future of the nation’s forests. To purchase the book, visit the Willamette Store.