Andrew Larson works in the Watershed Management Division of Seattle Public Utilities as a forest ecology intern. He is also pursuing graduate studies in Forest Ecosystem Analysis at the University of Washington.

Monday, 27 Oct 2003

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SEATTLE, Wash.

Just a few weeks ago my life wasn’t quite so busy. I was working full-time in the Forest Ecology Group of the Seattle Public Utilities Watershed Management Division. Now, I’m a full-time student and still working part-time for Seattle Public Utilities.

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The City of Seattle owns more than 90,000 contiguous acres in the Cascade Mountains of western Washington. These lands make up the Cedar River Municipal Watershed (CRMW), and supply approximately two-thirds of Seattle’s drinking water. In 2000, the city implemented a habitat conservation plan (HCP) that brought a halt to commercial timber harvest in the CRMW and pledged millions of dollars to habitat restoration efforts.

The HCP focuses primarily on 83 different vertebrate and invertebrate species, of which 14 are identified as species of greatest concern. Conservation strategies vary across the species, but virtually all are associated with late successional or old-growth habitats. Consequently, the Watershed Management Division, and particularly the Forest Ecology Group, are designing and implementing forest restoration treatments in order to accelerate the development of late successional and old-growth forest habitat. There is no shortage of work! When commercial logging stopped within the watershed, approximately 75,000 acres of the 90,000-acre total had been logged at some point in the last century. All of these second-growth forests are candidates for restoration under the HCP; the remaining old-growth forests are not actively managed. Virtually all of the projects I am involved in at the CRMW relate to forest restoration in some way.

Today, however, I’m not at work. I’ve gone back to graduate school at the University of Washington where I study Forest Ecosystem Analysis, and today I have class. Even though I’m not technically working, a good portion of today will be spent on a CRMW-related project. After my forest community ecology class this morning, I’ll spend the rest of the day working on a proposal to conduct research in the watershed.

A huge volume of scientific research has been produced during the last 20 years about the structure and function of old-growth Douglas-fir western hemlock forests, the forests at the center of the old-growth wars that were waged in the Pacific Northwest during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Subsequently, forest ecologists have very good information about how to manipulate young second-growth Douglas-fir forests in the interest of accelerating the development of old-growth structure. However, an astonishingly small amount of published information is available on the structure and dynamics of Pacific silver fir forests — the middle- and upper-elevation forest in the Pacific Northwest.

A significant portion of the second-growth forests in the CRMW are in the silver fir zone. These are also our youngest stands, and because they are situated at relatively high elevations, they grow quite slowly. Thus, there is a great deal of interest in treating these stands, with the goal of moving them toward old-growth structure and function. In part, this translates simply to growing big trees faster and stimulating the development of multiple canopy layers and understory plant communities. We are already quite effective at these aspects of forest restoration. However, some of the finer details of old-growth silver fir forests are not known — for example, the dominant spatial patterns (i.e., how the trees are arranged in space). The research proposal I’m working on today outlines a project to characterize the spatial patterns and population age structures present in old-growth silver fir forests. This research will hopefully provide a reference against which we can calibrate our restoration prescriptions for silver fir stands. The research will have to wait for now, however. I’m late for class!

Tuesday, 28 Oct 2003

NORTH BEND, Wash.

This morning I’m finishing up some loose ends in the office before I head out to the field. I’m particularly excited about one task on my to-do list: I need to contact Dr. Robert Van Pelt, the world expert on big trees.

Last Thursday I went out with Dr. David Chapin, who works in the fish and wildlife group here at the watershed, to measure two huge noble fir trees he discovered growing along the upper Cedar River. Noble fir (Abies procera), which grows only in Oregon and Washington, is the largest true fir species in the world. All of the current record noble firs grow near Mt. St. Helens in southern Washington. David’s descriptions of the trees he found sparked my imagination: Could we have record-sized noble fir growing in the watershed? We decided an expedition to collect detailed measurements of the monster trees was needed.

I met David in the field Thursday afternoon. We parked at the edge of an old-growth stand I had driven past many times. I wondered to myself if David had remembered the right location; the trees in this stand were nice enough, but I knew of dozens of other places in the watershed with larger trees. We jumped out of the vehicles and loaded up our gear. We brought a GPS unit to record the locations of the trees, a laser to measure their exact heights, tape measures to measure the stem diameters and crown widths, and, of course, digital cameras to substantiate our measurements (and bragging rights).

As we descended from the road into the stand I still had my doubts. These trees were really rather small. I’m glad now that I kept these doubts to myself. As we moved downhill toward the river, the trees started to get bigger, and bigger, and bigger! By the time we reached the river floodplain terrace we were in a spectacular old-growth forest of monster Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar. This was easily the most impressive stand of trees I had seen in the watershed.

Big tree hunting: Larson with the larger noble fir.

We were still a couple hundred feet away when the first of the two noble fir came into view. The tree towered above its neighbors. The massive stem looked completely out of place, even in this awesome stand of very respectably sized trees. I quickly pulled a tape around the base of the tree. It measured 6.7 feet in diameter. Right away, I knew this tree was not a new record, but it was impressive nonetheless. We collected the rest of the measurements and set off to find the second noble fir. Within minutes we found it. At 7.0 feet in diameter and 220 feet tall, this one was larger than the first, but still not a new record.

These two noble fir may not be the largest in the world at this particular moment, but they stand an excellent chance of becoming serious contenders in the future. Crown size is often a good index of tree vigor and growth potential. The crowns of these two not only dwarf their neighbors, they are the biggest noble fir crowns I have ever seen! Also, unlike most old-growth trees, these two noble fir show very little damage to their crowns, indicating that they are probably comparatively young, for old-growth, and will continue to grow for centuries. I suspect Bob Van Pelt will want to hear about these new discoveries, and I want to know where they fit into the current ranks of giant noble fir!

Unfortunately, life isn’t all giant trees and old growth. I’ll head out to the field soon to check in with the contractors that we have working on a current forest restoration project. In general, our contractors are excellent, but because our restoration thinning prescriptions are often quite different from the type of work the contractors are used to doing, questions frequently arise. After checking in with the crew, I’ll hike through the thinned areas, putting in sample plots to characterize the post-thinning forest. These plots serve a dual role in our monitoring program. Immediately, we use the results to check that the contractors are in compliance with the prescriptions detailed in the contract. These sample plots also provide a “snapshot” of immediate post-thinning conditions across the treated area, complementing information from other long-term monitoring plots in the stand.

I may not have an excuse to spend today exploring old-growth forests in search of giant trees, but I still can’t complain. For me, spending a good part of the day in any type of forest is a treat.

Wednesday, 29 Oct 2003

SEATTLE, Wash.

It looks like I’m going be a zombie for Halloween this year. By Friday I won’t need a costume; my sleep schedule is doing my makeup.

Today, between three classes and a mountain of homework, I’m meeting with Pete Nelson of Biodiversity Northwest. Like me, Pete has gone back to the University of Washington for a graduate degree, but still maintains ties to the professional world. (I should ask him if he’s going to be a zombie for Halloween, too.) Recently, Pete represented Biodiversity Northwest at a tour of ongoing and proposed forest restoration projects in the Cedar River Municipal Watershed (CRMW). He also received a draft management plan for the proposed project he visited during the tour. Pete and his organization provided excellent input on a previous management plan for another CRMW forest restoration project; I’m excited to hear his thoughts after the site visits and a chance to review this draft plan.

My biggest interest in meeting with Pete today is not his specific comments on the forest restoration projects in the CRMW, however. I want to hear his thoughts on one of the major challenges facing forest restoration efforts everywhere: the challenge of reestablishing trust between the public and land management agencies.

The most recent presentation of the University of Washington Denman Forestry Issues Series explored issues in federal land management policy, and featured lectures by Dr. Jerry Franklin, a widely recognized forest ecology expert, and Mark Rey, the Undersecretary of Natural Resources and Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One of the key challenges Dr. Franklin identified is the need to reestablish trust between the public and federal land management agencies, in order to begin to restore the millions of acres of western forests at risk of catastrophic wildfire. Our restoration work at the Cedar River Watershed focuses on accelerating the development of old-growth characteristics, not fuels reduction, but we still face the challenge of earning public trust.

Recently, one of our ecological thinning projects has been criticized by an environmental advocacy group. Even though our ecologically focused management objectives are clearly defined in the Cedar River Habitat Conservation Plan, doubt lingers in the minds of some critics. The complaints about our current ecological thinning project hinge on one issue: the size of the trees we are cutting.

When I look at this particular project from the perspective of an ecologist trying to create old-growth structure, the prescriptions make perfect sense. All of the largest, most vigorous trees are being left behind in the thinning. These trees already have the best chance of becoming large old-growth someday. Removing some of their competitors by thinning will free up resources (e.g. light, nutrients, and water), allowing the residual large trees to grow faster. In order to give the residual trees the biggest boost, we need to remove their fiercest competitors. This means thinning some of the mid-sized trees in the stand. If you only remove the smallest and weakest trees, the large residual trees will barely notice a change after thinning. Some of the better competitors have to go if we are actually going to accelerate the development of old growth.

When I put myself in the role of a concerned citizen, though, I can see how our restoration prescriptions could appear suspect. If Seattle Public Utilities is trying to grow large old-growth trees, why are they cutting these mid-sized trees? Won’t they become old growth too? How do we know they aren’t cutting those mid-sized trees solely to generate revenue?

I think a big part of addressing these types of concerns lies with finding ways to communicate technical scientific information about forest development to the public. Meaningful dialogue about the best options for forest restoration is not going to take place if we can’t speak the same language. We can’t describe forest restoration in terms of timber volume or log truck loads; those metrics simply do not apply. We need to focus on the ecological processes forest restoration seeks to enhance, and find ways to make the dialogue accessible to all parties.

I’m interested to hear Pete’s thoughts on these ideas. I wonder if he casts communication in as important a role as I have here. Perhaps he will point out barriers to reestablishing trust that I have not even remotely considered. Hopefully, we will both come away from this casual lunch meeting with some new ideas about ways to achieve better cooperation between the stakeholders in forest restoration efforts.

Thursday, 30 Oct 2003

SEATTLE, Wash.

I’m shaking things up today. I should be working at the Cedar River Municipal Watershed (CRMW). Instead, I’m at school. I have two major assignments that must be finished today. Thankfully, the deadline for the work I planned to do today at the watershed is still a week out. I’ll go into work tomorrow, and perhaps Saturday, so I stay caught up.

I’d really rather not miss work. The Forest Ecology staff meets every other Thursday to review the various projects we are working on, report our progress, set new work priorities, and generally hash out any problems with which we have been struggling. These meetings always result in great discussions; I usually leave our staff meetings feeling like I just finished a university-level ecology class, with an emphasis in problem solving! Not today, though. Instead, I’m sequestered in the computer lab, cranking through a data analysis exercise for my forest community ecology class and some other statistics homework.

I can’t complain too much about the homework, though, especially the data analysis exercise. I’m learning ordination, one of the major analytical tools used by ecologists. Ordination belongs to the family of analytical methods known as multivariate statistics. This sounds horribly complex and intimidating (at least it did to me when I first heard it). Ordination calculations are so tedious that they can only be performed by a computer, unless you have way, way more free time than most people, but the output is elegant and reasonably easy to interpret. Basically, ordination allows you to take a huge dataset made up of more measurements than anyone could ever analyze, and reduce it down to something that can actually be interpreted. Ordination finds the important stuff in the dataset and pulls it out to the front where you can see it.

Ecologists use ordination to tell how similar plant communities are to each other. For example, I might go out and install sample plots in different forests (actually, I do this all the time). At each location I would record all the plant species present, how much of each species there is, the size and density of the trees, and loads of other measurements. Instead of taking all these tedious detailed measurements, I could look at the forest and say, “Well, yes. This plot is different from the last plot. See, the trees are a little bigger. And there are more of these little blue flowers.” But if I want to actually say something about how different (or similar) the different types of forests are, and eventually move on to asking why, I need to sift through dozens and dozens of measurements and come up with some numbers. Ordination is a technique to speed up this sifting process.

The best part is that ordination results can be graphed. I can look at the graph and actually see how the forests I’m studying compare to each other. It’s wild when you think about it. I can spend an entire day measuring the trees and plants in sample plot, and eventually these measurements are reduced to a single dot on a graph.

This winter (after I’m an ordination expert), I will analyze some of the data we have collected from plots in the remaining old-growth forests in the CRMW. Knowing what you have on the landscape is a big part of natural resource management. The wildlife biologists want to know what types of habitat we have in the old growth. The ecologists are curious about the range of old-growth communities and conditions, so we have a better idea about what to be shooting for with our forest restoration projects. I’ll use ordination to characterize the variability in the old-growth left in the watershed, giving us a much clearer idea of what kinds of old growth, and how much of each type, we have left. For now, though, I better get cracking on my homework. I need to learn ordination before I can use it!

Friday, 31 Oct 2003

NORTH BEND, Wash.

Today, I think rather than me simply telling you about what I’m working on, we should try something more engaging. I’d like you to try to put yourself into my shoes, and experience a situation that I have been struggling to understand over the past few weeks.

Recently, an ongoing ecological thinning project in the Cedar River Municipal Watershed (CRMW), which is designed specifically to accelerate the development of old-growth characteristics, has been criticized rather sternly by an environmental group. Now the same organization is attacking a proposed ecological thinning project. I am trying to understand why.

The Habitat Conservation Plan that governs the management of the CRMW prohibits commercial logging. Under the HCP, the watershed is managed specifically for provision of habitat for rare, threatened, and endangered species. Many of these species do best in old-growth habitats. Consequently, the HCP calls for preservation of existing old-growth in the watershed, and active forest management in simplified second-growth stands in order to accelerate the development of old-growth conditions. Seattle Public Utilities has assembled an interdisciplinary staff of natural resource managers and scientists to develop forest restoration treatments in the interest of accelerating the development of old-growth forests. Their plans are built entirely on the scientific understanding of forest development and old-growth conditions. These plans are reviewed by nationally and internationally recognized experts. Maintaining and creating old-growth habitat drives the planning process every step of the way.

Why would an environmental advocacy group with the mission to “… preserve, protect, and enhance the natural environment” challenge forest-restoration efforts designed specifically to enhance the development of old-growth forest conditions? The two sides are working toward the same goal — or, at least, they say they are.

I guess the question I am really struggling with is: How will we reestablish trust between the public and land-management agencies? In the case of the Cedar River Municipal Watershed, a Habitat Conservation Plan, a legal agreement with the federal government, does not appear to go far enough to restore the trust of some groups. The best available scientific research does not seem to help either. What will it take to restore trust, end the debate, and move forward with forest restoration? After you’ve thought about this question, share your answer! We can’t effect change if we don’t communicate with each other.