Anatomy of a Timber Sale Appeal

Crater Ridge 2 lat 44.925409 long -107.804412

It’s been years since FSEEE appealed a timber sale. Today we did so.

The story could begin in December, 2012, when the Bighorn National Forest requested public comments on its proposed Crater Ridge sale. FSEEE responded: “How does your proposal assure regeneration of the targeted tree species within five years, as required by the National Forest Management Act?”

But, in fact, the story begins in 1985 when the Forest Service logged about 30 group selection and two shelterwood units at Crater Ridge (click on satellite view — the old units lie east of the red marker to the large meadows).

The Forest Service relied upon natural reforestation to regenerate the old Crater Ridge sale. That didn’t work out too well. In fact, the FS never did treat the slash piles in the group selection units, which show little regeneration 20+ years after logging.

So how did the Forest Service respond to our comments? It didn’t. And, once again, the Bighorn plans to let Nature regenerate the logged units.

Here’s a copy of our appeal and statements by Dr. Richard Waring (long-time Oregon State University School of Forestry tree physiology professor) and Dr. Richard Knight (University of Wyoming vegetation ecology professor).


  1. I planted Bighorn 77, 78, and 82- it do bring back some memories. Ohhh the days of youth although in 77 I was on the outs with the crew and camped all by my lonesome across the creek. But not for long….other miscreants were cast into the darkness and I got to slink back.

    I was up there 2 years ago checking out the units and was surprised how well some did but some of the older cutting cuts were a real misery, we replanted them in 82 and still little recovery which kinda surprised me, I guess clear cutting in those high elevation areas really does not mimic fires. Some were planted three times I think.

    Some ground compaction in the bad old days and later competition from bear grass I suppose.

    I am not sure what was going on with the regen problem there, it sure varied. It was especially bad in the area north of the northern hiway to Medicine Wheel, really bad.

    Any ideas?

  2. Andy and Greg: I was impressed with Waring’s paper as it was based on actual field data and good research that mirrors my own experiences with treeplanting. “Natural” seeding or hand seeding is a failure almost everywhere, often because of rodents or harsh weather conditions. Unless I’m missing something, this reforestation “plan” borders on incompetence.

    I stopped doing USFS reforestation contracts in the early 1970s because of two factors: the crappy seedlings we were often given to plant, and the ridiculous planting specifications (“specs”) that low-bid planting contracts were enforced under. Many of the low-bid jobs were accomplished with illegal alien labor or were “compensated” for by contractors burying seedlings. Typical government planting specs were for crappy “2-0” (2 year old) seedlings planted on exact grids of 8-, 10-, and 12-foot intervals, with measurements of scalps (spaces made for planting seedlings by removing competitive vegetation and duff from around their stems) and spacing between trees often measured to the inch (!) by government “inspectors”, who thereby determined how much a contractor would be paid, or even if they would be paid at all.

    These efforts resulted in 300 (12′ x 12′), 400+ (10′ x 10′), or 600+ (8′ x 8′) spindly seedlings planted on precise grids over entire units. Then often replanted again, following predictable failures. These replants were usually conducted with “2-1” seedlings, that had been grown from seed for two years, then uplifted and replanted again at the nursery, to get rid of the 2-0’s that were too feeble to survive, and making the survivors much sturdier 3-year old seedlings; better capable of surviving rodent attacks, competing vegetation, and harsh weather conditions.

    My crews and I planted a lot more Sitka spruce than Englemann spruce, and far more high elevation stuff in the Cascades rather than the Rockies, but considerations were the same. When I began focusing almost entirely on reforesting industrial lands and private tree farms rather than government low-bid contracts, we were able to do the work a whole lot cheaper and with far better results.

    First, we used plug-1 seedlings that were often less than two years old — they were grown from seed in specially designed containers (think egg cartons, but deeper holes) in a greenhouse for a growing season, and then transplanted to a nursery bed the following year. This produced seedlings about the same height as 2-1’s, but with thicker stems, more needles, more (and often healthier) buds, and a LOT more “moppy” roots — typically 2-4 times more than 2-1’s, and 5-10 times more than 2-0’s. Survival went from 50%+ to 95%+ just by using better stock. Although planting costs were greater per seedling, the cost per acre was usually about the same or less, because we only needed to plant 150-250 seedlings an acre (I was always shooting for even less), rather than the typical 450-650 seedlings per acre. Many, many USFS plantation failures can be blamed on crappy stock and poor specs (I won’t get into shovels vs. hoedads here, but it has to do with much USFS planting being done during those years by illegal aliens and inexperienced inspectors that didn’t know how to use the proper tools, and opted for shovels instead, because everyone knew how to use them, even though results were a lot more costly and generally worse).

    In addition to stock quality were the south slope shade problems and rodents. In the Tillamook Burn they were able to get some aerial seeding to take effect by also poisoning millions of mice, that were then entered into the food chain. We used traps (for boomer), milk cartons on stakes (for rabbits and mice), and vexar tubing, which was expensive to buy and install and was supposed to “biodegrade” in a few years — although I have found vexar tubing constricting tree growth more than 30 years after they were installed. Plug-1 seedlings and animal control devices where needed meant we only had to plant 250 to 300 seedlings per acre, and rarely ever had to replant — the result being a much cheaper and far more successful plantation in less time.

    Harsh weather and high elevations are things we rarely had to deal with because most of our work was done on lower elevation coastal forests by design. However, by using “micro-site” spacing on our seedlings (not allowed by USFS or BLM), we were able to overcome most of these problems. Basically, I taught my crews to plant trees next to stumps to begin with “because if a tree was just growing there, probably another tree could grow there, too.” If we were trying to put in 300 trees per acre (tradition and regulation), then stumps as close as 6 feet from one another were planted, as were stumps up to 18 feet apart: closer, and we picked the best (“most protective”) stump; wider, and we planted one or more trees in addition to the stumps, all the while going for a 300 tree pattern, the same as 12 x 12 planting but on a more natural (“proven”) density pattern. If deer and/or erosion were a problem, we planted on the downhill side of a stump (usually the first choice); if seasonal drought were a problem, then we planted on the north side of the stump or a large rock. If sufficient stumps or rocks weren’t available, then we used “shade blocks”, but hardly ever because of the expense and the general lack of need.

    Why hasn’t the USFS even done a few test plots in these areas, to see what really works? Our success rate with good seedlings and micro-site planting densities was more than 95% for nearly 20 years. Seeding was closer to 0-20%; 2-0’s were typically 10-60%; and 2-1’s varied from 50-90%. We often worked on these units for years: slashing, burning, trapping, planting, staking and tubing, and thinning, so we had lots of records covering over 80,000 acres during that time, and these numbers are pretty close to what we found.

    If it were my property, I’d plant about 150-200 plug-1 seedlings per acre, using micro-site planting spot selection and available shading — and animal protection devices where needed — and see what the results were before doing any clearcutting. Wildfires, of course, are another matter, as are conversions from ag land to forest.

    It is hard to believe that there seems to be zero corporate memory in this particular National Forest, and I’m guessing it’s not the only one. Are these people incompetent, or just inexperienced? Or do they just want their lawyers to do the heavy lifting? These types of reforestation strategies were largely abandoned before WW II and it is hard to rationalize why they’re being used today — particularly in light of all the proven and nearby failures.

  3. Andy,

    Maybe I’m missing something… the EA you linked to was in Sept. the Appeal was in Dec. so how could the Sept EA be evidence that they didn’t respond to your December questions?

    Wouldn’t you need some kind of document like the appeal response document that responds?

    I’m sure the District has a rationale. We could disagree with it, but it seems we haven’t heard it.

  4. As I read it, the FS didn’t respond to FSEEE’s comments submitted back in January. Then the ROD came out in September. So now an appeal is the appropriate next step (this being grandfathered in under the old rules where an appeal was possible). Like Sharon says, the District surely has a rationale, but if they don’t put it out there in response to public comments (what NEPA is all about, bottom line), what else can you do?

  5. Wow, Bob, I had no idea USFS and BLM were still on grids. Today? Y G B S M. I’ve only planted trees once, on some private land as a beer favor on a small harvest, but we did dead shade or water catchment. I have no clue what year the seedlings were, but they were tiny. Two guys, one with the hoedad and seed holster, the other with a piddle pack, water with a little fertilizer swill.
    Five years in, last time I looked, the new stuff looked terrific. At least waist high and lots of shoot each year. In fact, we probably planted too many, the guy who owns it is going to whack it next spring while he still can with hand tools.

    • Hi Dave: It’s been 25 years since I planted my last trees, and much longer than that since I planted any on federal lands. This was what made me shift over to private lands, which were more interested in efficiency and results than counter-productive specifications. To give you an idea, we could typically pack about 500-600 2-0’s at a time; 200-300 2-1’s at a time; and 100-150 plug-1’s — which could easily weigh twice as much as the 2-0’s. I’m not sure the FS has done much planting the past 20 years because of Environmentalist influence, but my memory of spruce seeding after a fire is similar to Greg’s, but mostly limited to Sitka spruce because we didn’t often work in higher elevations. The “natural seeding” approach is a lot earlier than planting 2-0’s on a grid, though, and the results typically much worse — patches of dog-hair and large expanses of grass and brush. One of the odd things that some government contracts/inspectors required was to put in a planting scalp every 8-12 feet on a grid regardless if conifers were already established in the same spot. We only planted lodgepole a few times (near Sharon’s old stomping grounds in Chemult), but they usually seeded in so well that “seed trees” really worked. Especially after a fire (semi-serotinus cones).

    • They call for an average spacing and you can vary it by 50%, and if it is an unplantable spot, you can skip after checking in immediate area for other spots. They may shoot for 400 TPA but in reality we got in usually 300 or less on many rocky or slashy units. So it hardly looks like a grid. When they throw a plot for inspection, they check for unplantable spots. IN some areas versus the 400 they shot for, we got in only 150 in places like the Klamath that were so rocky.

      Of course since we were paid by the acre we had an interest in getting in a few trees as possible and still pass inspection. If you plant tighter, it can make up for funky trees. If you plant mostly good trees, you can space wider and still pass inspection, and that is how we made our money on many units, we planted really good trees.

      All that aside, in many areas of western Oregon, survival was so good that they had way too many trees out there. Instead of 9×9 or 10×10, we should have been planting 15×15.

      • Greg: Most of the federal contracts I worked on were paid by the tree, not the acre, so planting strategies varied accordingly. 10 x 10 spacing resulted in 440 trees per acre, and we were almost always within 5% of that figure on prepared sites. Plus, it depended on the inspector. I only pulled one crew off a contract in 18 years because the inspector was an idiot — if a rotten log was at the 10-foot center (or whatever), he was requiring my crew to scalp at least twelve inches through the rot first, before being allowed to move to an actual plantable location, as close as possible to the original hole. We were also required to plant trees in thick, rooty duff UNDERNEATH hemlock limbs! After three of four hours of me trying to reason with the guy — and after he happily informed us that our percentage had come “up to 85%” (5% dock in pay), I called my crew in and we relocated to another job site about 100 miles away. Fortunately, I was a subcontractor and didn’t have a bond involved. BLM jobs were fine in the early 1970’s, but I finally quit doing them, too, because of the counter-productive requirements and the occasional inept (and costly) inspector. I think we did only about 5 or 6 “replants” of our work during those years, and I called 2 or 3 of them. By contrast, some of the crews I worked on in the 60’s (mostly McCready’s Pacific Reforestation), did 2 or 3 replants a week on some jobs. I stopped doing high elevation stuff because of snow and rock and scary roads and started working year round in the early 1970s by adding precommercial thinning, falling, slashing, boomer trapping, herbicide applications and prescribed burning to our operations. Until the spotted owl touched down.

        • As long as we’re telling old-timer war stories, I have the distinction of being the only Hoedad never to have planted a tree. For that my back is eternally grateful.

          I was recruited to the co-op for my freshly-minted forestry degree that allowed me to sign the bid for the Hoedad’s first Forest Service timber stand exam contract. Unfortunately for our finances, we won the bid. Spent several months in Silver Lake, OR, mature lodgepole measuring worthless trees. Our first challenge was that only one of us had ever cruised timber and that was in OSU’s McDonald forest as part of the lab for Mensuration 101. Our second challenge was that the FS contracting officer knew even less about measuring trees than we did. I asked why the FS was spending tax dollars measuring trees that had no value and for which there were no management options other than watch it burn someday. “Because that’s what the FS Manual requires,” was the answer. Good education for all of us.

          • Andy: I’m pretty sure this is the best treeplanting story I’ve ever heard. The Hoedad who worked for months and never planted a tree, not once. Sounds like your contracting officer was out of the same hatchery as a couple of the inspectors I just ragged about. The other thing is the back mythology — people who knew what they were doing had stronger backs and forearms than any other group of people I’ve been with — constant exercise, and no straining. I only had one back “injury” ever on my crews, and it was a phony comp claim by a guy who lived in a tent with his son and had pulled the same scam on his previous employer. But he did plant some trees first for a few weeks.

            • Oh, and I hate the fact that I am now legitimately documented telling “old-timer” stories. There can only be one explanation. Aging isn’t that entertaining in the first place, and now I’m reminded about all the times I fled the “old-timers” (guys in their 40’s and 50’s) when they started telling stories from their youth, that happened before I was even born. That can get pretty old, pretty fast, and now I’m involved.

              • But in all humility, the life we lived as woods workers in our younger years was truly blessed. I worked in 8 states, I have seen more on the US west than almost anyone I know, and much of it with my head to the ground, or cruising forest stands.

                We all like to think our lives and work were something special but the nomadic life of a contract woods worker was unique. I regret that more young people these days do not have that. So much of their lives is mediated through a computer monitor and few have the bonding experience of doing grueling physical work on a crew and the feeling of being bone tired around the story with your comrades swapping stories.

                We were often an hour or more from the closest phone, all we had was each other and whatever lies and stories we could conjure.

  6. Correct me if I am wrong, but don;t such spruce areas usually regenerate fine after a fire? And if so, what accounts for the huge lack of success on many cutting units?

    Are there any spruce areas that had good regen after cutting?

    Come to think of it, the successful planting units I saw up there were mostly lodgepole. I recall that we planted mostly LP.

    One does wonder what the point is of any logging program in such high elevation sites, I can see no benefit.

    • Greg, Engelmann spruce regeneration after fire is notoriously difficult:

      Recovery of [Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir] after a fire can be difficult and slow. Both are adapted to a cool and shady environment. Seedlings may become established in small burns of 1/10 acre or less. Larger areas may not reestablish because seedlings are intolerant of the intense sunlight at this elevation. New seedlings may establish at the perimeter of a larger fire. The seedlings require the shade the larger trees provide.

      Fire is infrequent in subalpine fir/Engelmann spruce communities with a return interval on the order of several hundred years. The mature spruce trees at Crater Ridge are 300 to 400 years old. Logging these stands is just old-fashioned timber mining.

      • oh heavens, and there I was chortling about how the bad old days of bad FS logging are well past. us,

        And now I hear this? What is the rationale for logging a place like this?

        I thought that the FS had to pretty much assure that logged sites are regenerated within 5 years or they do not make it into the timber base. My impression is that other high elevation sites in the Rockies are almost all out of the commercial timber base and this is at almost 11,000 feet.

        Too much of the time when people hear me bleating about the new FS they can come up with something like this.

        Maybe someone can explain the positive aspects of this project.

    • John, Hold that thought. If there’s anyplace in the West that fire suppression has had little, if any, ecological effects it is in subalpine fir/Engelmann spruce. First of all, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a fire in these forests. Second, one guy and a shovel can almost always put it out. As a young forester, I and my boss had to walk into a Colorado wilderness to confirm that one of Colorado’s first let-burn fires was, in fact, ignited by lightning. We let that spruce snag burn and burn and burn all summer long, by which time the fire had consumed all of 2 acres.

      Every couple of hundred years, along will come a decade of drought followed by a lightning burst followed by low humidity and 50+ mile an hour winds. It’ll burn then — and there won’t be a damn thing God or Man will be able to do about it.

  7. Just wanted to point out that when I worked in the high elevations of central Oregon, planting trees, desirable nursery stock, practices and all that were very different from western Oregon (where OSU is). That knowledge, derived from much government expenditure (we even had an Area Reforestation Specialist!) is probably lost with retirements.

    And there are fires in spruce especially bark beetle killed spruce…here’s an interview with Mike Blakeman of the Rio Grande and nice video footage of dead spruce trees

    And here is a paper on the historical vegetation and disturbances…

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