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Washington State Attempts to Restore Balance to Forest

Fire-suppression policies changed the mix in the woods, with firs replacing big fire- resistant pines. Officials hope to shift it back.

September 07, 2003|Rebecca Cook | Associated Press Writer

YAKIMA, Wash. — Heat shimmered up from the bare earth as George Shelton walked across it, crunching charred bits of wood under his cowboy boots.

Fire has reduced what was once a dense forest to a barren landscape, with just the slightest hints of green poking through the dust.

Shelton stooped to inspect a baby ponderosa pine, planted after the fire two years ago. He gently touched the seedling's terminal bud, a green nub at the tip of the plant smaller than his pinkie. The terminal bud holds the future for each tree, Shelton explained: how many branches it will sprout next spring, and how many needles on each branch.

In the buds, he sees the future of this forest -- and a different future for forestry.

"The focus has to be on what you're leaving, not what you're taking," said Shelton, assistant regional manager for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. "In 40 or 50 years, this will look really neat."

After the 2001 Spruce Dome fire, foresters hoped to restore this forest west of Yakima to more the way it was before white settlers arrived, an effort being repeated across the state.

"Fire is part of the natural cycle," said Bill Boyum, regional manager for the department. "This should give us the opportunity to use fire as a tool -- to make it your friend, not your enemy."

Dry summers bring forest fires, and this summer has been drier than most. But not all trees burn alike.

Big, widely spaced ponderosa pines ruled eastern Washington forests a century ago. Ground fires swept through regularly, clearing out underbrush and dead trees. But the tough, scaly bark of mature ponderosa pines gives them a unique talent for resisting fire.

Now most Western forests look very different. A century of logging removed the big, fire-resistant pines and left the little ones. Foresters replanted with Douglas fir, because that was the most valuable type of wood. The U.S. Forest Service and other agencies started fire-suppression policies at the turn of the 20th century, ending the natural cycle of regular ground fires.

Ponderosa pines lost ground to Douglas and grand firs.

The fire-suppression policy actually increased fire danger. Without regular fires, forests grew more crowded and underbrush got thicker. Fuel, in the form of dead trees, piled up. In a traditional ponderosa-pine forest, fire meanders along the ground. In a crowded forest, fire jumps to the tops of trees and spreads with the wind, faster than firefighters can control it.

Now, in the aftermath of one fire, state foresters are trying to prepare the land for future fires by restoring a more natural balance. That's why they are harvesting and replanting the 2,445 acres of burned forest with ponderosa pine and western larch, with the goal of having no more than 30% Douglas fir in the end.

Shelton relishes showing off the growing pines. He remembers how his children's teachers used to look at him when he said he was a forester -- "like I was a loan shark."

He learned to call himself a "natural resources manager" instead.

"I think foresters have a bad name," Shelton said. "People think we're cutting trees, but we're really growing trees."

Growing trees means leaving some big ones behind, even though loggers might like to take them. It means leaving dead trees, called "snags," to provide shelter and food for wildlife.

Of course, Washington state foresters' mission is not just to restore forest health. They need to make money for school trust funds.

In a system set up at statehood, the state sells timber from its trust lands and uses the money to pay for school construction. Last year, the state sold timber on 25,500 acres of land, raising nearly $150 million.

Trees that have been burned black on the outside often have valuable wood inside. After a fire, foresters race against time, bugs and disease.

"Timing is everything," Boyum said. "You need to get it logged quickly. ... A dead or dying tree is heaven for certain types of insects."

Usually state timber sales take about 3 1/2 years. But the Spruce Dome timber was logged and the money was in the school trust fund within 15 months.

Environmentalists who closely watch state trust lands say they support returning forests to a more natural balance, but they want to make sure the state doesn't hurt wildlife when it allows timber harvests such as the Spruce Dome fire sale.

"People are waking up and realizing that decades of logging practices have created sort of an unnatural environment," said Becky Kelley with the Washington Environmental Council. "Restoring eastern Washington forests to a more natural condition is a good idea, as long as it's done carefully."

Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland has focused on forest health since winning election in 2000. A Republican, Sutherland was backed by timber companies, unlike his predecessor, Jennifer Belcher, a Democrat who enjoyed more environmentalists' support. Shelton said the change between the two administrations has been more managerial than political.

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