A Tale of Two Forests

by Abel Kloster, Director of the Permaculture Design Program at Aprovecho and Co-Director of Resilience Permaculture, LLC.

To restore the land one must live and work in a place.  The place will welcome whomever approaches it with respect and attention.  To work in a place is to bond to a place: people who work together in a place become a community, in time grows a culture.

– Gary Snyder

Sitting in my kitchen this morning, from my window I see ridge after ridge of young forest appearing to my eye in crenellations of dark and light green.  Mostly all douglas fir and all younger than 60 years.  A few large old trees remain on ridge tops, holdouts from an era when the companies left seed trees, sentinels of scale, a reminder of what the forest can achieve in size.   Angled planes cut through the contours of the rolling hills where property boundaries determine harvest edges.  Some patches of forest are bare, recently cut plots, due to be replanted this winter or next, the plantings sandwiched between herbicide treatments (ground crews with backpack on even terrain and helicopters with spray booms on the steeps).  Other patches are 15 years old, marked due for thinning, the douglas fir thick as a brush, the understory devoid of vegetation.  Other units 40 years old or more, marked due for clearcut, even aged douglas fir with 40% crown cover, vegetation in the understory just recently taken hold and reaching for the canopy.

Just up the valley from where I write, Aprovecho’s forest sits amidst this checkerboard mosaic of industrial forestland.  It stands out now from an aerial view like a green island in a brown sea.  Last winter nearly all of the private forest in Aprovecho’s drainage basin was clearcut, leaving Aproveco’s property to stick out into the cleared void like a loose brick.  In some ways Aprovecho’s forest is similar to the rest of the blocks of forest that make up this landscape.  It contains nearly the same plant assemblages, animals, and ecosystem dynamics.  However, its management priorities and techniques and long term trajectory are so different that in the context of the whole, it is a different forest all together.  Fundamentally, the priorities of Aprovecho’s foresty operation is focused on the ecological integrity of the land and its capacity for resilience and long term regeneration.  Subtly standing apart from the term sustainability, “Regenerative” may more closely define a new forestry.  Regenerative implies not only that things are held in a steady state but that they can be rebuilt and ushered toward higher thresholds of health and diversity.  Regenerative forest management does not at best retain a continued yield of douglas fir, it as a consequence of management, increases the vigor and diversity of the ecosystem.  It represents a paradigm of thought that says our actions can be more than zero-sum, they can be beneficial to our environment.

I had the great privilege of studying forestry with Matthew Hall, a British trained forester, who has managed Aprovecho’s woodlot for over 20 years. Matthew has always said that the main goal of Aprovecho’s forestry operation is to demonstrate over the long term the capacity for a managed forest to take on the characteristics of an old growth forest.  In other words, to borrow a holistic management term, we are managing towards a climax conifer ecosystem with human management and extraction as a component of that ecosystem.  Specifically, Aprovecho’s management is leading to a forest that contains the following characteristics.

1. A minimum density (16–50/ha) of large (52–92 cm diameter at

breast height (dbh)) trees.

2. High standard deviation in tree diameters

3. Tree decadence, i.e., broken tree tops, excavated bole cavities,

Rootcollar cavities, and bark resinosis

4. Presence of large dead wood

5. Multilayered tree canopies.

6. High species diversity in all forest canopies.

Although this is a long term experiment, some case studies of success do exist in our region.  Perhaps most notable, is a 136 acre property called Wildwood on the East side of Vancouver Island and under the care of Merve Wilkinson.  A few years ago, I had the opportunity to tour this forest.  Someone said that walking in his forest was as close to reaching Mervana as anyone can come.  Indeed, in the composition and species diversity, even in the characteristic muted sound and springy duff layer, this forest has an ancient character.  The ground is covered with the fallen forest, great nurse logs with huckleberries and hemlock rooted in space above the decomposing wood.  The space from soil surface to canopy is filled by vegetation and the ground is soft underfoot.  Yet, in 1994 Merv Wilkinson completed his tenth thinning at Wildwood.  Over his 50 years of stewardship, Merve has removed 1.74 million board feet of timber from his 136 acres.  Despite this extraction, at the end of the tenth thinning, Wildwood had more standing timber than when he began.  Just one ridge over from Aprovecho, Curtin Mitchel has demonstrated the same results in a forest managed through repeat thinnings over 30 plus years.  Again, the forest that Mitchell stewards, is incredible.  Old growth in every way.  Even the nettle is seven feet tall.

There is a grace in these forests that is analogous to the feel of an intact stream corridor, a 200 year old douglas fir grove, or a mature oak woodland.  It is a sense of stability brought about through webs of relationships.  These examples help us see that when we over manage a forest, and ultimately reduce it to a single species oriented stand of timber, we reduce its complexity and in turn its stability.  With its loss in stability goes its resilience. The likelihood of disease, or other catastrophe taking out the entire stand increases.  Add to this the fact that the harvest comes at 40 plus year intervals and the inherent risk to the investor and manager begins to show.  As the fragility of the forest increase, so too does the time we must invest in maintaining the processes that sustain productivity from controlling weedy species, adding fertilizers, pesticides, and carrying out thinnings with no return on investment.  When we manage a forest for multiple yields both economic and ecological with a continuous slow harvest of products rather than a lump harvest of a single crop, we can avoid the worst of the consequences described above while increasing the net yield over time.

The following principles, adapted from Alan Drengson and Duncan Taylor‘s Ecoforestry: The Art and Science of Sustainable Forest Use, help us to define specifically what a regenerative forestry looks like. 

  • Retention must be the first consideration in any planned removal of trees.
  • Focus on the whole of the forest in terms potential yield, not just timber.
  • Look to and seek traditional ecological knowledge to inform management decisions.
  • Limit tree removal in the most sensitive areas.  Leave riparian zones intact.
  • Maintain composition and structure to support fully functioning forests.  For example, important forest structures such as large old trees, snags, and large fallen trees may be maintained by letting a minimum of 20 to 30 % of overstory trees (well distributed spatially and by species) grow old and die in any timber extraction area.
  • Use the lowest impact removal methods as possible.  Wheeled arches, horse logging, contour skid roads, and cabling systems are good options.  In the Forest Farmer’s Handbook, Orville Camp layes out a great system for logging roads that use ridges for main roads and contour trails for log skidding. 
  • Maintain and restore topsoil quality by leaving woody debris in the woods and avoiding and restoring skids and roadcuts.
  • Prohibit large clearcuts and utilize selective thinning or patch cutting methods that maintain the canopy structure, age distribution, edge environments, and species mixtures found in a healthy forest ecosystem.
  • Select trees for harvest by considering their structures and functions in relationship to the rest of the forest.  Sub dominant trees that are encroaching on more healthy trees, surplus canopy trees that are not required to maintain a shaded understory, or dominant tree species that are encroaching on species of lesser abundance may be examples of trees for removal.
  • Allow the forest to regenerate through seeds from trees located within the watershed whenever possible.
  • Fire and grazing are acceptable tools in the proper ecosystem and context.  Prohibit slash burning.
  • Disease, insects, and shrub/herb vegetation are essential parts of a fully functioning forest.  Their extremes represent an imbalance in management or other undue environmental stress.  Prohibit pesticide and herbicide use and buffer effects through maintenance of microclimate, soil biology and carbon, and increasing biological diversity.
  • Plan in terms of the needs of the watershed at large.  This includes installing access roads and skid trails on contour and as part of broader water harvesting and materials distribution networks layed out on Keyline, maintaining and increasing woody debris, forest litter, and soil carbon through keeping limbs, tree-tops, and bark on site, limiting burning, increasing fungal and bacterial decay, managing animals in the understory for fertility cycling, managing riparian areas for maximum water retention, and invigorating understory layers. 
  • Maintain beauty and other esthetic qualities.
  • Rely as much as possible upon local people and products.  The work of Tom Ward and Siskiyou Permaculture in articulating “Social Forestry”, a forestry that looks to the myriad yields of the forest and the local culture and economy that springs from a deep relationship with these products is very inspiring.
  • Engage in full-cost accounting.

If you walk from my house to Cottage Grove, following the ridge-tops through the industrial forest lands, you almost never encounter anyone.  You cannot help feeling like there is an immense cultural and economic opportunity lost by devoting so much land to a single crop.  The logging shows on the ground only really employ a handful of people and this only once a generation on any given piece of land.  But if you can let your imagination cut through the monotony of douglas fir seedlings, blackberry, and scotch broom that composes much of the landscape, it is not too hard as you look across the hills to envision another type of forestry here, one where many tree species supply a rich diversity of woods, many shade grown and dense, for products from large timber frames for buildings to fine instruments, furniture, and floors; where medicine is wildcrafted and cultivated in the understory: ginseng (it can grow here too), Oregon grape, aralia, wild ginger, and ceanothus; where basketry materials and other fibres are cultivated throughout the riparian zones and upland meadows: willow, hazel, rushes, cedar root; where edible and medicinal mushrooms are wild-picked and cultivated: shitake and oyster on hardwood logs in the understory, chicken of the woods inoculated into the stumps of fallen fir trees (the spores mixed into the bar oil of the chainsaws?); where animals are hunted and raised for their myriad yields: elk, pigs, turkeys, deer, ducks, cattle, goats, sheep; where the creeks and ponds are an aquaculture: spring Chinook, rainbow trout, crawdads, wild rice, cattail, and wapato, and where the spring brings an incredible flourish of woodland greens: nettle, miners lettuce, water leaf, and lilies of all colors.  And finally, a type of forestry that enriches not just the land but our economy: putting people to work on the land and in trades that are supplied by the land. 

As Chis Maser and many others involved in forestry have pointed out, a forest does not function on economic capitol, it functions on ecological capitol.  The growth and reinvestment of the ecological capitol of the forest is what sets tree farming apart from regenerative forestry.  The health and regenerative vigor of the forest is seen to equate to the long term economic health of those involved in timber production but also in the health of our watersheds, communities, and atmosphere.

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