NASA’s Mt. St. Helens timelapse shows progression of clearcuts

The other day a friend sent me a link to a series of satellite images of the Mt. St. Helens areas. The images – from between 1979 and 2011 – were part of the Landsat satellite program operated by NASA and the USGS.   The time-lapse video shows the May 18, 1980 explosion and subsequent recovery of life on the volcano.  However, the time-lapse video also shows something else: The steady progression of clearcuts in the forested landscape around Mt. St. Helens.

These time-lapse images of the clearcuts surrounding Mt. St. Helens reminded me of this passage from William Dietrich’s book, The Final Forest: Big Trees, Forks, and the Pacific Northwest:

There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about President Jimmy Carter’s flight across the foothills of southwest Washington to view the devastation caused by the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Peering down at the shaven hills, the president expressed horror at the destruction below him. The state officials who were his guides had to gently explain that the helicopter had not reached the volcano blast area yet, that was Carter was seeing was clearcut logging.

6 thoughts on “NASA’s Mt. St. Helens timelapse shows progression of clearcuts”

  1. The version of this story I heard back in the day, circa mid 1980s, was told by a Weyerhaeuser biologist on an industry-sponsored bus tour into the volcano blast zone. He recounted how the previous week’s group of school teachers doing the same tour were astonished at the devastated landscape and vigorous regrowth of young trees following the blast. But, he explained, the teachers were still on WeyCo land, having not yet entered the blast zone. His point was that Nature heals herself quickly. I wondered aloud whether WeyCo’s forest practices were volcanic in their destructive effect. The field trip went downhill from there.

  2. There are a number of points that you missed that can be illustrated with this video. First, all the clearcuts that are present at the beginning of the video have “greened up” (aka. been regenerated) and are hard to see where they once occurred. Second, the sizes of the clearcuts have dropped significantly. Lastly, the shape of the clearcuts has gone from square blocks to more ecological friendly contour style cuts with a number of protected rivers and streams visible (from space none-the-less).

  3. Are you saying that ecologically-speaking “greened up” clearcuts (perhaps regenerated by planting a mono-culture of Doug fir) are the same as the diverse, native forests?

    • Matthew:

      Here’s some “science” that seems to support your perspective. Apparently, some kind of frogs have had different genetic mixes since re-occupying the Mt. St. Helens blast zone:

      The concluding sentence to the abstract provides a good reason to either keep reading, or not to go any further: “In sum, we show surprising resilience of an amphibian species to a catastrophic disturbance, and we suggest that, at least for this species, naturally regenerating habitat may better maintain long-term genetic diversity of populations than actively managed habitat.”

      So, if you are intent on managing the “long-term” (“less than five years”) DNA of a common local frog species, you should NOT salvage the snags, dammit! (Or, at least not the snags resulting from an eruption within the range of THIS frog — that’s for sure!)

      A conclusion based on the data, or on the predispositions of the “investigators?” Their so-called “field methodology” doesn’t provide many clues; but the conclusions sure smell like a lot of dead frogs.

      (This is exactly why we need independent peer review of this kind of over-reaching “science” — to keep it scrubbed as much as possible from the types of politics blatantly driving it. Time for the $490/hr. lawyers to step in? Sure looks like it.)

  4. Matt, I doubt anyone would say that. However, here’s a few tidbits with regards to Weyerhauser’s planting/forestry:

    “Weyerhaeuser’s orchards in Washington and Oregon produce seeds for 30 million Douglas fir trees annually. We also grow noble fir, western red cedar, grand fir, hemlock and red alder trees”

    “[Weyerhaeuser] Choose(s) species wisely—use Douglas fir and red alder in lowlands, noble fir at elevations above 2,800 feet, and western red cedar, grand fir and hemlock in selected locations.

    (interesting site really)

    While the may not be as ecologically diverse as “native” (?) forests, they do have their place and provide habitat, as well as wood and wood products, which is what they are in the business of.

    Also found it interesting that the St. Helen’s eruption affected more Weyerhaeuser lands than any other ownership.

  5. Matt: The “diverse native forests” in the Douglas-fir Region are often even-aged stands of Douglas-fir, whether hand-planted or “naturally” seeded. Even among old-growth stands from California to Canada there is an amazing coincidence of age groups, so this isn’t anything new. Douglas-fir is an aggressive, invasive conifer that quickly (in tree time) dominates an area by shading out its slower growing competitors (grasses, shrubs, hardwoods, and most other conifers — including younger Douglas-fir). It is almost impossible to tell a planted stand from a seeded stand once a contiguous canopy has formed in 10-50 years without knowing the stand’s history; especially if any thinning has taken place.

    My ancestors were among the founders of the Mt. St. Helens’ town of Cougar, where my Mom grew up and where I spent many holidays and large parts of most summers while I was growing up. My grandfather was a logger his whole life there; one of his brothers was a timber cruiser for the USFS, but quit when they were going to make him buy a knickerbockers-type uniform with his own money and wear it in public in the early 1930s — he then married into another local family and began accumulating tree farms; mostly even-aged stands of Douglas-fir. Elk were first noted in the Lewis River basin by these men (who were expert and avid hunters and fishermen their entire lives) in 1917, following the 1902 Yacolt Burn. My family was among those saved from this event (38 neighbors died) by escaping to an old Indian prairie, called Speelyai (“coyote”) when my grandfather was 2-years old. Much of that prairie subsequently seeded into even-aged stands of Douglas-fir, was logged, and has since been planted or fenced and pastured.

    In the 1950s I can remember seeing herds of around a hundred elk at a time when it snowed. If we wanted to see bears, we only had to go visit their “preferred habitat” at the local open-air dump about 1/2 mile away. Etc. The river, dams, and fish plantings are a whole different story. Review: even-aged stands of Douglas-fir burned up in 1902 to be replaced mostly by even-aged stands of Douglas-fir, which were then logged, drowned, or blown up and replaced by even-aged stands of Douglas-fir. Elk have been there less than 100 years. Bears have had their favored habitat taken away. The main loss of diversity in regards to native plants is in the prairies and reservoirs, not the forested areas.

    PS – I watched the sun set on Mt. St. Helens the night it blew, and drove through the restricted areas (I had crews working in the neighborhood at the time) with my family a short time later. A very strange landscape compared to the one I had known, yet here and there small pockets of plants had survived and were beginning to show signs of spring growth. Elk rebounded immediately and begin browsing on plants as soon as they were becoming reestablished in the blast zone. Weyco planted its lands with even-aged stands of Douglas-fir, and the USFS did not. It has created a nice stage for comparative analysis of passive management vs. active tree farm establishment. After a volcanic eruption. With elk.

    I was part of an OSU-sponsored tour of the USFS and Weyco lands about 10 years later, where one of my duties was to give a detailed land history of the mountain, beginning with its earliest historical eruptions and wildfires in the 1840s. There was a striking difference in the two habitats and in local opinions. Cougar residents were generally pissed at the USFS for “bowing to the environmentalists” and letting the land go to seed rather than be actively managed in some way, as Weyco was doing.

    The story of Washington State employees “gently” informing a “horrified” Jimmy Carter that he couldn’t tell the difference between a clearcut and a volcanic eruption is total Bachelor of Science, of course. The president was a peanut farmer, not an idiot. You could see the blast zone from Portland, Oregon. In a helicopter it was even more obvious and from a much further distant. People will believe (and repeat!) just about anything, won’t they? And the public seems to buy it — even some of the ones in Portland!

    Now I’ll watch the video.

    PPS Thanks for the post, Matt. Always nice to go home now and again.


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