Too Little of A Good Thing? Early Seral in the Pacific Northwest

Sitkum Valley, on the East Fork Coquille River; Bob Zybach took about this photo around this time in 2011

Bob Zybach is bringing this draft review article to our attention.

The article is by Mark Swanson, a professor at Washington State University.
Here is the abstract

Early seral forest is attracting increasing attention from scientists and managers. This literature review, produced under contract to the United States Forest Service, addresses basic questions about this important seral stage in the forests of the Pacific Northwest (west and east of the Cascades Range). Generative processes, historic landscape abundance, ecological value, associated species (and their ecological adaptations and conservation status), landscape-scale considerations (including patch size), and issues relatied to forest management are central topics. In general, naturally structured early seral forest in the Pacific Northwest is important for many ecosystem services and species (including obligates and near-obligates), but has declined from historic landscape proportions.

And the Conclusions:

While the public is not necessarily predisposed against early seral forest (and in some cases may favor certain types), there is still greater public concern over late-successional types (Enck and Odato 2008), likely due to widespread policy and media emphasis on old-growth forests and their relationship to management. However, specific values associated with early seral habitats, from big game production to huckleberry harvesting, are attracting increasing attention from the public. Managers concerned about maintaining rare species are increasingly acknowledging the value of early seral habitats for a substantial portion of the biodiversity of the Pacific Northwest. Potential management responses may include:
 Deferring salvage and dense replanting across all or parts of major disturbed areas (Lindenmayer and Noss 2006, Lindemayer et al. 2008))
 When salvaging, practice variable retention to retain significant structural elements such as large-diameter live trees, snags, and down woody debris (Franklin et al. 1997, Eklund et al. 2009).
 Avoiding reseeding with exotic plant species such as perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne) following fire or volcanic eruption (see Dale et al. 2005b).
 Attempt to incorporate elements of natural disturbance regimes into landcape-scale management (Lindenmayer and Franklin 2002)
 Deliberate creation of large, early seral areas via silviculture (Swanson 2010).
Researchers have an important role to play in facilitating changing attitudes. Much of the excellent research done on seral dynamics in Northwestern forests (e.g., Ruggiero et al. 1991) was focused on biota associated with young, dense forests, mature forests, and late-seral forests. The pre-canopy closure stage component of succession was either not measured (as in Ruggiero et al.), or clumped together with stem exclusion (sensu Oliver and Larson) stands in analysis. While there is an increasing amount of research on true early seral forest, and management responses to these advances (King et al. 2011), much remains to be done in most temperate forest regions both in terms of research and management (Swanson et al. 2011b). It is hoped that the diversity and value of early seral conditions, from clearcuts to structurally and compositionally complex early seral habitat, will come to be recognized and widely incorporated into contemporary land management.


  1. This paper was circulated among a few email strings for feedback on June 4. I responded by telephone directly with USFS forest scientist Cheryl Friesen — who originally requested this study — after only skimming the bibliography and not even looking at the table of contents or abstract. We actually had a good conversation, and agreed on several points. Still, she asked me look at the body of the text, too, and to put my concerns into writing so they could be considered during a group USFS meeting scheduled the following day (June 5) specifically to discuss this “synthesis.” I tried to do some follow-up on the meeting’s outcome earlier today (June 7), but got an automated message that Friesen will be out of the office and unavailable by email until September 27. No indication or explanation why.

    Here is (slightly annotated for context) what I sent to Friesen:

    Well, I looked at the paper after looking at the bibliography and then calling you first. You might recall that my prediction, based only on only reading the title and skimming the bibliography, was that the conclusion would be something about not salvage logging and to use “natural” seeding for reforestation. If you took notes, you will see that I was clear about what I thought the author’s agenda might be. Bingo! I read the conclusions and they were both predictable and predicted — again, based solely on the title and the one-sided lit review (and past experience with this stuff.)

    A ton of Franklin and Agee with a little Donato and DellaSala to keep things light — and NO Mike Newton or Dick Hermann? Unproven theorists vs. actual observations and measurements? This is more propaganda than cherry picking.

    Beschta, but no Charles Kay (Geist was a good touch, though)? Check out Charles’ work with elk in Yellowstone, or his thousands of repeat photography photos through the Rockies in both the US and Canada. Ask Geist about the relative merits of each researcher [Friesen and I had discussed her work with elk research under Ed Starkey].

    Teensma 1991, but nothing by me — if you read his text, you will see his maps were based almost entirely on my own, made while I was still an undergraduate; if you read Appendix E of my dissertation, you will see where I demonstrate that Teensma’s data is faulty in several regards and probably not based on GLO survey data as claimed:

    [Friesen specifically asked for links to research regarding the use of General Land Office Survey information to document past landscape consitions.]

    Actual use of GLO survey data, with full transparency:
    In a peer reviewed publication:

    No Hugh Raup or Ben Stout? The idea of “fire return intervals” has never been shown to be true in nature (unless regulated by people). Same with “natural communities.” And, even though FEMAT discusses “seral stages,” all definitions are in “age classes,” — which are NOT “seral stages.” Conifer reforestation begins with seeds and seedlings, NOT grass-shrub-hardwood-conifer (at least NOT in the PNW, or where Raup and Stout did their studies in the midwest and east).

    “Assemblages” (as per Raup and Stout) are what I consistently observe and document throughout the PNW – NOT “seral stages.” I only encounter those in classrooms and government reports — not in the woods.

    Bottom Line #1: People create and maintain meadows, prairies, berry patches, and oak savannah — NOT “natural disturbances.”

    Bottom Line #2: This paper promotes an agenda based on “ecological restoration” and “early seral stages” based almost entirely on theory as espoused by a group of like-minded academics, with no real documentation of claims. Scientists with differing perspectives (typically, those of us that actually go into the field and document our findings) are not even considered!

    Check back here in about two months to see what I think the best solution for this type of stuff is:

    Moghissi’s work on “Best Available Science” and “Independent Peer Review” could be used to good advantage to deal with these types of reports.

    Hope this helps!


    And yes, I was very sincere in my hope! Friesen seems like an intelligent and open-minded person, based on my single phone call with her, and truly interested in developing and using the best scientific information available.

  2. Bob,

    I would again point you in the direction of some of the research/studies conducted by the Starkey Project over in your neck of the woods…even though it’s Agency owned and funded (and therefore “dubious” in your world) I believe you’ll find their conclusions quite complementary to the concepts (I believe) you are trying to forward here.

    “Elk and other ungulates typically thrive in early-seral forests, owing to the high biomass of palatable forage produced under these open-canopy sites (see review by Wisdom and Cook 2000). Consequently, the increased forage produced by timber harvest could be perceived as a positive event to ungulates….”

    In all fairness, they do go on to discuss the other associated “tradeoffs” associated with harvest (such as roads, logging activity, etc) that can temporarily offset the benefits, but all-in-all they are advocating for the need for more early successional habitat.

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