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SCIENCE : Rising to the Top for a New Look at an Ancient Forest : For the first time in North America, researchers will be able to study trees from above with the help of a mechanical crane.

November 14, 1994|LEE DYE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WIND RIVER EXPERIMENTAL FOREST, Wash. — The silence of an ancient forest has given way to the sounds of workers erecting a giant steel crane that will give scientists an extraordinary opportunity to study the great old cedars and Douglas firs that tower over this pristine land.

When completed late this year, the 240-foot-tall crane will lift scientists above the forest canopy to carry out long-term research on a part of the forest they rarely get to study--the top.

The crane is a dream come true for some scientists, who were beginning to wonder if it would take longer to get a permit to erect the crane than it did to grow the forest they want to study.

For years scientists tried to acquire a permit to build the crane in Washington's Olympic National Forest, but residents of that area feared that the research might lead to the discovery of another spotted owl or some other creature that would further curtail logging.

Faced with threats from some opponents, officials finally killed the project for the Olympic Peninsula, one of the most lush forest canopies in North America.

But the crane has finally found a home here on the northern shores of the Columbia River, in a community long accustomed to scientific research.

"Down here, reaction has been very positive," said David Shaw, a forest pathologist with the University of Washington and manager of the crane project. The crane is being erected in the Wind River Experimental Forest, which is part of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest just north of the Columbia River Gorge.

"This land has been designated an experimental forest since the early 1900s," Shaw said. "Research is not that foreign to these people."

The crane is on the cutting edge of a new technology, and it will be the first such facility in North America. Its only rival is a crane in the Panamanian forest, although others are under study for Europe and South America. The crane can take us to places we can't get to any other way," Shaw said. "And it can do it repeatedly, very safely."

The $1-million crane is enjoying a rebirth. It was used to construct the new downtown library in San Francisco, and soon it will be used to carry scientists to the treetops to study everything from pollination to plant disease.

Now that it is becoming a fact, the use of a crane to study forest canopies seems an obvious solution to a difficult problem, and Shaw said he expects to see cranes proliferate around the world.

In the past, the best way for scientists to study the top of the forest was to climb the trees and carry out short-term research, but that frequently led to inconsistent and interrupted studies. And some of them fell out of the trees.

"Climbers do get killed," Shaw said.

So little is known about the upper forest canopy that some of the research will be quite basic. Shaw, for example, plans to study the dwarf mistletoe found in the huge Western hemlock.

"It's considered one of the most important pests in the West," he said, and it is blamed for the death of many trees.

"It's been a very difficult species to study," because it is found in the tops of the 200-foot-tall trees. "We don't even know how it is pollinated, whether by insects or wind. That's extremely basic, but it's not understood."

The crane, funded by Congress through the U.S. Forest Service, will be operational for at least five years, and scientists hope to keep it up for 10 to 20 years. Any scientist with a need to study the forest canopy is eligible to use it, Shaw said.

Among those already lining up are entomologists, who have had a difficult time studying insects that inhabit the upper canopy. The crane will allow them to return to precisely the same spot, season after season, to determine the impact of various insects on the forest.

Tree physiologists and geneticists also are expected to use the crane extensively. In the past, much of their research has been carried out on smaller specimens in greenhouses, and it has been very difficult to study the tops of old-growth trees.

Planners have taken special precautions in the process of building the crane to keep from destroying the forest they want to study. A 2,000-foot-long road has been built through the forest, and it is so narrow that heavy equipment practically grazes the 450-year-old trees as it is moved to the site.

Erecting the crane is a bit tricky.

"It's kind of hard," said construction supervisor Jim Brandner. "The problem is, it's not self-erecting."

A 360-ton portable crane had to be trucked to the site to lift the heavy steel components into place. Brandner's crew recently completed pouring more than 1,000 tons of concrete into a 12-foot-deep hole to provide a footing for the crane.

When the 240-foot tower is completed, possibly by early December, a horizontal boom will be added, and it will sweep 360 degrees over 5.6 acres of forest. A gondola below the boom will carry scientists to any part of that area they want to study.

That will give them access to the tops of about 1,000 trees, mostly Douglas fir, Western hemlock and cedar. Some of the trees are nearly 500 years old, making it truly an old-growth forest.

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