Managing our little scrap of ecosystem is a ton of work.
This blog is a chronicle of our ongoing projects to adjust conditions here to favor, as much as possible, native plants and wildlife that were here when the Willamette Valley was a big, open, Indian-managed habitat.
If you are curious about the rationale for our work here, and why in the world we are cutting so many trees, I will intersperse some previous posts for a little background. Also there are some pages in the sidebar with more info; see especially my post on Tending the Wild.
For this final project, to get things going in the direction of oak woodland and savanna and away from congested dougfir and poison oak, we are logging about 2 acres of mostly scraggly second growth trees. (For the story up till now, In the Beginning.)
After getting funding and advice from the Conservation District, Tom and I measured and personally marked almost 300 trees FOR DEATH! Mind you, this is not an old growth temperate rainforest. It used to be much more open here at the edge of the Willamette Valley in an ecosystem that has suffered – yes, SUFFERED – the effects of over 160 years of abuse and neglect at the hands of people grazing, homesteading, logging, farming, and developing:
“… As the Kalapuya were displaced by EuroAmerican settlers, the amount of burning decreased, and as early as 1852, young firs and “oakgrubs” were reported growing up on the prairies. Present-day conditions show that, without fire disturbance, succession leads to invasion by trees and shrubs, often non-native, and the unique communities that evolved under the fire regime of presettlement times are lost.
In the 1850s, diverse conifer forests were found at higher elevations and on steeper slopes. Periodic fires maintained the tree communities on the hilltops and edges of the valley as either savannas with herbaceous understories or woodlands with open canopies and brushy undergrowth.
Cessation of burning changed the structure of these open woodlands by allowing repopulation of the openings with tree seedlings. Rapidly growing Douglasfir began to proliferate in many places, shading out the oaks. Settlers introduced exotic plants and grazing by cattle, sheep, and horses which significantly reduced the native herb layer.
Approximately 12% of the lower elevation 1851 woodland and savanna/prairie communities remain.” [emphasis added – actually some estimates of surviving habitat are much lower – jt]*
Here is what the current project site looked like before thinning – very crowded, skinny trees competing for light, water and nutrients.
Restoration is often more like horticulture and gardening than anything else. Just think of it as thinning carrots – with a chainsaw.
Intensive management is not a new thing – before Europeans began the process of timber harvest, agriculture, and development, the landscape was not without human intervention. The thing is, it worked well for people, plants and animals, many of which are now extinct or endangered:
“The native people of the region, called ‘Kalapuya’ by the settlers after the native term for “long grass,” had periodically burned the valley in order to maximize their food and fiber resources. Tree-ring studies reveal that frequent fires occurred in the valley from at least 1647 to 1848. … The valley floor was thus kept in an early successional ecological stage that was essential for the persistence of the camas and tarweed, another dietary staple.”
*(© PNW Ecosystems Research Consortium. S. Gregory, L. Ashkenas, D. Oetter, P. Minear, K. Wildman, J. Christy, S. Kolar, E. Alverson.)
To get a perspective on just how prevalent Indian land management was, it is instructive to read M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources (University of Ca Press, paperback ed 2006).
Here are some excerpts that challenged my notions of America before Europeans:
“John Muir, celebrated environmentalist and founder of the Sierra Club, was an early proponent of the view that the California landscape was a pristine wilderness before the arrival of Europeans. Staring in awe at the lengthy vistas of his beloved Yosemite Valley, or the extensive beds of golden and purple flowers in the Central Valley, Muir was eyeing what were really the fertile seed, bulb, and greens gathering grounds of the Miwok and Yokuts Indians, kept open and productive by centuries of carefully planned indigenous burning, harvesting, and seed scattering.”
“California Indians did not distinguish between managed land and wild land as we do today… Interestingly, contemporary Indians often use the word wilderness as a negative label for land that has not been taken care of by humans for a long time…’The white man sure ruined this country,’ said James Rust, a Southern Sierra Miwok elder. ‘It’s turned back to wilderness’ (pers.comm. 1989). California Indians believe that when humans are gone from an area long enough, they lose the practical knowledge about correct interaction, and the plants and animals retreat spiritually from the earth or hide from humans. When intimate interaction ceases, the continuity of knowledge, passed down through generations, is broken, and the land becomes ‘wilderness’.”
“Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning, and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities.”
Anderson documents that this level of detail extended to location, soil and microclimate, and timing of harvest based on when a plant was most suitable for a particular purpose. She cites others who have found this to be true:
“…[anthropologist A.L.] Kroeber’s 1939 field notes…record that the Yurok of northwestern California practiced burning at a frequency that was appropriate for each cultural purpose: burning of hazelnut for basketry occurred every two years; burning under the tan oaks to keep the brush down took place every three years; burning for elk feed occurred every fourth or fifth year; burning in the redwoods for brush and downed fuel control occurred every three to five years.”
She notes that all this management had the effect of increasing biodiversity and abundance. The absence of management has impoverished biological communities.
“Edible butterflies and moths, which were harvested in the larval and pupal stages, included the whitelined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata)…, and the pandora moth (Colorado pandora)…According to Western Mono elders, the pandora moth…used to be common on the west side of the Sierra Madre but now it is rare…Many Indians recalled that the tortoise-shell butterfly was common in chaparral (Ceanothus cuneatus) areas…and would come every year. It is now seen once every decade or so, and in some areas I has not been sighted for forty years.”
The savanna and woodland landscape was maintained from California north, through the inland valleys of Oregon and southwestern Washington, the Puget Basin, to the tip of Vancouver Island (see range map of Oregon white oak in the sidebar information on the “about oaks” page of this site).
So that’s the backstory on our efforts. Here’s what we’ve been up to this summer so far:
I. Thinning oaks, removing firs
Shearing the smaller diameter trees with the skid-steer shear. We can’t just start burning – there is too much fuel, and then there are the neighbors to think about. First the trees have to be thinned. Once there are fewer trees per acre, and some native grass established, it is very beneficial to burn. If we can’t burn, regular mowing is the less successful alternative.
The first pass was done by R-J Consulting Natural Restoration. First, the smaller trees, up to 12 inches or so in diameter, were cut at the base and stacked by the skid-steer shear. This amazing rubber tracked vehicle has multiple attachments for cutting, grappling, mowing and grinding. It’s very light and handy – minimizing soil disturbance and working with almost surgical precision.
You can see it in action HERE
II. Trees to Logs
Second step: cutting the trees too big for the shear. Our logger, Randy is a careful and judicious tree cutter. Also impressively accurate, making it look terribly easy – which it’s not. Since the trees needed to come down, please join me in enjoying the show without guilt – it is so impressive to see the big ones come down just in the spot they were aimed.
See Videos of all stages at http://www.youtube.com/user/GopherValleyJournal#g/c/F6ABAC5113E864BB
It’s a mess. Logging is a messy business, no way around it. Slash and tree parts end up everywhere, gets pushed together, scattered around, etc. Logs get dragged around over the soil, and the dry clay loam becomes a layer of fluffy dust inches thick.
However, during the driest season, the least harm will be done to the soil. We waited until nesting season was over, and the birds and small animals should be mostly out of the way. It’s also quite a small (2 acre) area we are working in, so there will be ways for animals to disperse away, and for others to recolonize from adjacent habitat.
Logs to lumber and pulp:
See the self-loader working HERE.
So that’s how we went from this:
To this, in a few weeks:
Stay tuned for:
III The clean up – mowing and chipping
IV Replanting and monitoring the results – starting to push the ecosystem in a new direction.
V What can you do with some skinny oak logs?
VI Burning??? We hope, someday.