Thinning project aims at pre-logging landscape

This article from Missoulian reporter Rob Cheney offers a real-world look at a thinning/restoration project.

James Stoker compared his log landing piles to sorting change in his pocket.

“That’s the nickels, that’s the dimes, that’s the quarters,” he said, pointing at stacks of de-limbed trees destined to become tipi poles, fence posts, firewood and lumber. “The pennies go to Bonner.”

Those “pennies” — trunks too spindly to make a single 2×4 — used to remain on the hillsides above Gold Creek when Plum Creek Timber Co. and its predecessors were cutting massive pine trees for the plywood mills in Bonner. Today, the mill yard is covered in pennies, and Stoker and his brother Mike make a living cutting, sorting and selling the logs they once left behind.

Instead, what they leave behind are slopes with mature western larch, Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees spaced 30 to 50 feet apart at random intervals. The spacing mimics the stumps of the old-growth trees cut in the industrial logging days.

“This is not a timber sale,” BLM Forester Kyle Johnson said. “It’s a stewardship project. It’s based on the relationship we have built with the Stokers, and the relationships they have with small mills.”

Without those relationships, BLM would need to spend between $700 and $1,500 an acre to thin the forest. Finding markets for the little trees, and loggers to cut them, brings the taxpayer cost down to $60 an acre, Johnson said.

28 thoughts on “Thinning project aims at pre-logging landscape”

  1. Hopefully, ecological silviculture methods can be employed to mimic natural disturbance processes so that a variety of habitats can be preserved/fostered. “Pre-Euro-American settlement
    forest reconstructions indicate that frequent-fire regimes developed forests with complex mosaics of individual trees, tree clumps of varying sizes, and openings (Tinkham, et al, 2017).” Heterogeneous distributions of landscape patterns that include stand connectivity and a variety of young and old tree ages should be included as an important aspect of forest restoration for diverse habitats and species accommodation.

    • Hi Michael: Your description of “Pre-Euro-American settlement forest reconstructions” by Tinkham, et al., is certainly accurate for some forested areas in the US. Three-needle pine and Douglas fir both extend from Mexico to Canada, and are typically the principal (or even only) species within a stand, and usually do not occur together. Both trees grew in significantly different patterns from each other during precontact times, and neither generally grew in the pattern that you describe.

      I am not sure whether “stand connectivity” took place with these species during those times, but I do know that Douglas fir generally persists in even-aged stands for most of their existence — and by “variety of young and old tree ages” I am assuming you mean multiple ages (okay for pine) rather than multiple species of multiple ages (???).

      I really like what they are trying to achieve with this thinning project, assuming that current “leave” species are in locations and densities similar to the old-growth stumps. Much of my research through the years has focused on precontact forest conditions (mostly in the PNW, with a focus on the Douglas Fir Region), and I have found original land surveys, written eyewitness accounts, and historical photos (including aerials and Osbornes) to be most helpful in that regard. Stumps follow.

  2. For those not familiar with this particular Gold Creek in Montana (it’s in the Blackfoot River watershed north of Missoula) here’s an image from above. The entire area was hammered relentlessly by Champion International and then Plum Creek Timber Company, and the U.S. Forest Service also heavily logged much of the national forest land in the Gold Creek area. Plum Creek ironically had a big, fancy sign at the bottom of the drainage until around 2010 that proudly proclaimed “Plum Creek: Leaders in Environmental Forestry.”

    • Howdy Matthew,

      So what scientific criticism of the story and facts do you have to supply? I see you did not take the hint from other poster’s critiques of your posts and comments, to supply facts and evidence statements, instead of opinions, agendas, and emotion.

      Much appreciated. Since you like to attack anyone who dares to say something critical of yourself, while you remain silent on your buddy Deane’s blatantly personal ad hominem attacks (weren’t you the one who said Larry should be sued for slander for pointing out facts about Chad Hanson?), it would be great if you infused some science, facts, and emotionless statements to the Smokey Wire.

      Thanks from everyone else.

      • Thanks OfTheWoods:

        I agree with your comments, but appreciate Matthew’s continued presence and persistence. Why do you use a pseudonym?

      • Thanks for the anonymous advice. My comment provides some important context about past management of this exact area talked about the article. I also provided an image. I also don’t believe I have ever met Deane or communicated with them. Finally, what are you offering to this discussion besides an anonymous attack on me? I have been a moderator and contributor on this blog for over a decade. If you think anonymous attacks like yours have any impact on me, you are mistaken. Thanks.

  3. Matthew,

    I (and some others) DO appreciate your environmentally-conscious counterpoints to the prevailing timber-centric viewpoints expressed by a handful of “old-time” loggers who seem to dominate the viewpoints here on TSW. Thank you for your valuable contributions to TSW; you are a major reason why I continue to monitor TSW. Personally, I believe forest management science needs to develop a less extractive mindset and adopt a new ecologically-minded paradigm; one that has the explicit goal of preserving and enhancing our remaining forests before they’re completely exhausted by relentless, profit-seeking anthropogenic forces.

    • And some people are desperate to ‘preserve’ the controversy, above all. For most intelligent people, ‘preservationism’ is a flawed concept of the past, these days. Sure, it is fine to not log particular pieces of land, for excellent reasons, but the idea of preserving unbalanced and unnatural ecosystems in favor of ‘whatever happens’ is not supported by science. You assume bad intentions of many good people in Federal Agencies. When I worked for the USFS, “profit-seeking” was never on my radar. (Yes, I perceive that as an undeserved insult.)

  4. “The spacing mimics the stumps of the old-growth trees cut in the industrial logging days.”

    I couldn’t help but note that Bob Z (who has expressed views supporting making a profit from logging) seemed to agree with this idea, and Matthew did not directly criticize this project. But is this an unusual “Goldilocks” case where the need to find the “quarters” (lumber) does not conflict with the desired ecological condition?

    Another note: this is also management to achieve historic conditions (which there has been some objection to here).

    • Hi Jon: I don’t think anyone here has objected to reforestation strategies that mimic actual historical conditions — the problem is the assumptions anonymously built into the models that government scientists and university professors have used to simulate the past. There are — and have been — so many errors built into these models that the so-called “past conditions” they describe are grossly misrepresented and can’t be maintained or even obtained for that reason. Even if they were reasonable. That’s where the objections come in.

      And yep, I strongly believe in making a profit from logging. I also believe in the safer, more aesthetically pleasing and productive environments that can result from this process. Such as described in this post.

      • “the problem is the assumptions anonymously built into the models that government scientists and university professors have used to simulate the past.”

        I must have left this to come back to later, and this is a lot later, but this is a rather blunt, significant and unsubstantiated statement. If it were true, it might completely invalidate national forest and project planning. Care to elaborate (maybe in a separate post)?

        • Hi Jon: This was short-hand for saying that the computerized models that have been used to simulate future forest conditions typically integrate assumptions about the past to develop their trajectories into the future. Mostly they fail to document actual past conditions involving people — “the non-declining, even-flow naturally function ecosystem” assumption that sets a false direction for desired or predicted futures. I’ve rarely seen such assumptions clearly stated, much less cited. Another example would be growth-and-yield models that fail to account for a Mt. St. Helens eruption or a Columbus Day Storm — highly accurate until that point, and 100% wrong within hours, with the assumption being no future trauma. I would look at all of the modeling done on western Oregon USFS and BLM lands prior to the Labor Day Fires. What were the modelers assuming? And who made those assumptions?

          • Absolutely! We shouldn’t plan at all for what our forests will look like in the future without including unknown and unpredictable elements that may completely wipe out those forests. The Yellowstone volcano might blow up – so we probably should clear-cut all our forests because they (and we) are going to be wiped out in the blast anyways. That will show those computer nerds and their meticulously documented methodologies.

            • Hi PatrickF: I’m assuming you are trying to be sarcastic. There is a reason I try to not engage in public discussions with people who hide behind pseudonyms, and mostly because they are usually trolls. The fact is that lightning strikes, wildfires, windstorms, and even volcanic eruptions are all predictable to some degree — same with the actions of people. Whatever that might have to do with “clearcut everything,” I have no idea. Just one more anonymous assumption among many. There’s a reason you don’t use your real name.

          • I don’t think I’ve seen anything about a “non-declining, even-flow naturally function(ing) ecosystem” as a desired condition. NDEF is a timber volume management concept for lands suitable for timber production, and I don’t understand it in the context of “naturally functioning ecosystem.” Models of future changes in vegetation (on all lands) should be based on the best available scientific information, including past observations and climate projections (but the FS may not be very transparent about that).

            I do agree with your last point that future assumptions can be proven wrong, which to me means the models should be recalibrated, and plan changes made if needed. I was involved with the Lolo National Forest efforts to lower its ASQ based on this kind of analysis, and it was not popular at higher levels of the agency.

            • Hi Jon: Thanks for correcting my typo. This phrase was encouraged to be memorized during an OSU forestry class led by guest speaker, Tom Spies, about 30 years ago. I told the story in greater detail in an earlier Comment. This concept had been developed by Tom in his work with Jerry Franklin and others, and was promoted as an “ideal” — and previously far more common — forested condition. I’ve personally never witnessed such a condition.

              And yes, I’ve always believed that models should first be used to demonstrate they can reliably predict the documented past before pointing them into the future. My experience has always been that models that can’t predict the past, also can’t predict the future. Depends on scale, of course. Visible landscapes (“subbasins”) over years and decades for forested environments should be pretty standard.

              Modeling assumptions need to be stated and cited, in my opinion. That provides a lot better working environment for when they will/might need to be recalibrated — rather than just abandoned.

              • I agree with your points about models in general. I have a vague understanding of current forest vegetation models, but it would be interesting to learn about what a specific national forest is doing, and why that is wrong. (Sounds like Tom Spies might have thinking of “ecological integrity.” 🙂 )

  5. The video of the Gold Creek area (?) shows widely- and evenly-spaced, isolated trees. This condition is presumably not reflective of historical stand structures. The lack of clumps and randomly-distributed openings is likely a legacy of past management activities that focused exclusively on maximum timber extraction, with little regard for natural spatial distributions for future ecological objectives; the forest stands depicted in the video appear to be simplified and artificial; almost plantation-like. In the future, our restoration goals should focus more on restoring a semblance of natural spatial structure and multi-aged, multi-species, ecologically-beneficial tree distributions.
    The paper that I cited by Tinkham, et al., (2017) on Heterogeneous Forest Structures Following
    Treatment had this to say:

    “Increased wildfire hazard has prompted a targeted effort to reduce fuels in dry-mixed conifer forests of the western United States. To meet fuel hazard reduction objectives, treatments have traditionally emphasized the removal of smaller trees (i.e., thin from below) within a fixed spacing. Such treatments have been shown to meet objectives targeting reduced fuel loading and stand density and controlling inter-tree competition. HOWEVER, a side effect of these treatments is that resulting forest structure rarely mimics the historical spatial heterogeneity of dry conifer forests of the western United States.

    Dry conifer forests are characterized as a complex matrix of tree clumps interspersed with gaps and isolated individuals that are thought to promote resilience to disturbance. More recently, management efforts have emphasized variable retention harvesting (VRH) prescriptions to promote spatial heterogeneity while meeting ecological and fuel hazard reduction objectives.

    Variable retention harvesting treatments differ from traditional fuel hazard reduction treatments by explicitly incorporating spatial objectives that promote spatial heterogeneity rather than creating simple forest structures consisting of evenly spaced trees. Variable retention harvesting treatments may take the role of a regeneration treatment within a multi-aged silvicultural system, or an intermediate tending treatment in an even-aged silvicultural system depending on the forest management objectives, site conditions, and level of growing space released for new regenerating trees following harvest.

    Several VRH treatment implementation strategies have been developed, including the individuals, clumps, and openings (ICO) method (Churchill et al. 2013b), the ecosystem resiliency framework presented by Reynolds et al. (2013), the goshawk habitat management implementation strategy described by Youtz et al. (2008), or the free selection approach described by Graham et al. (2007).
    Despite a number of VRH implementation strategies, the widespread use of these treatments remains limited due to a legacy of past timber management and the use of non-spatial fuels planning and management tools (Graham and Jain 2005). In addition, the objectives commonly associated with spatially-explicit treatments have met resistance because they are counter to many traditional forest management objectives such as timber production and maximizing growth and yield. These less production-focused objectives run contrary to current contract design approaches like designation by diameter, which has slowed their incorporation. Despite these challenges, VRH treatments provide considerable flexibility in meeting both spatial and non-spatial forest objectives and are likely to increase in use in the coming decades.”
    In other words, we need to move away from a myopic, exclusively profit-driven, wholesale timber extraction mindset toward a more ecological silvicultural mindset that prioritizes habitat restoration, forest health, and climate resilience. Well-planned VRH methods can and should be employed to reproduce more natural forest structures; this will take awareness, expertise, time, and patience (i.e., decades).

    • I have already personally implemented such harvesting ideas in selecting “clumps and gaps” within thinning units. That was in 2012. I’ve seen similar uses within thinned plantations, on the Shasta-Trinity NF. I think that variability is a good thing, as long as it fits the site-specific conditions. Diameter limits also seem to enforce diversity, in my experience.

  6. I lived in Missoula County while operating a Timber Jack cable skidder on the Idaho side of Lolo Pass taking blown down larch for house logs and cedar for shingles just before the mills closed after most of the public land was logged out and the Smurfit pulp plant was shuttered for decimating the Bitterroot River.

    Today, the Bitterroot Valley is populated by Republicans who made their money in Orange County, California then built in the wildland urban interface and complain the Forest Service isn’t logging enough to protect their properties from wildfires. That’s not self-reliance; it’s moral hazard.

  7. No beef here with this project, except minor nit about regimented spacing. We started out doing very consistent spacing on Siuslaw NF back in 1990s before wising up to more variety – clumps and openings. Attaining historic conditions in managed landscapes is frankly impossible because they are MANAGED. Nature is pretty messy locally, but elegant broadly in terms of diversity. This is why I argue for natural-NESS, intended to approximate, but not duplicate, historic conditions. Commercial activity? Sure, but profit should not, cannot be the objective.


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