Tagging along with foresters!

The Roseburg BLM office is unique in the amount of timber land it manages. Public timber land is certainly not something I (a Wisconsin native) am used to, but I’ve come to love the coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest. And I am slowly coming to understand the very complicated and ever-changing Resource Management Plan the BLM uses to try to meet its multi-faceted objectives of supplying timber, providing recreation areas, and preserving biodiversity.

Over the past month, I have had a number of exciting opportunities to tag along with a number of foresters with different amounts of formal education and experience (ranging from a few classes to a phd). Through these experiences, I have absorbed some very big picture ideas of forest management paradigms and practices, as well as many hands-on, practical, and specific management techniques.

The first foresters I tagged along with were actually conducting a PCT (Pre-Commercial Thinning) which involved thinning out land units that were designated for timber harvest (check out the specifics here!) Much of my botany internship here focused on grasses and forbs, and I actually spent a lot of time hiking through the forest in order to find open meadows. Trees were not necessarily a destination, merely something to get through. With these foresters however, I learned to make educated guesses about fertilization treatments, thinning treatments, stand age, and land allocation types just by walking through the understory and being observant towards the average distance between trees, the straightness of the trunks, the distance at which foliage starts, the diameters, the crown development, the amount of sunlight that permeates through the canopy, etc.While flagging the boundary of the thinning unit, I learned the art of controlled slides down cliffs, bushwhacking through literally anything, and tying knots in less than a second. This was certainly a fun day and a great introduction to the hands-on, day-to-day of forest management.

In fact, it is a higher up position within the BLM that decides when PCTs need to take place. The District Silviculturist is in charge of identifying when, where, and how much to thin out a unit. The Roseburg Swiftwater Silviculturist occupies the cubicle next to ours, and was kind enough to take us out on a field trip the next week to show  us how she actually collects data on different units.

First, she creates a random set of sites within a unit. Then, she visits each site and estimates the basal area, canopy cover, and takes the DBH and age of a subset of the trees.   After enough random sites, a statistically robust representation of the entire unit can be made.

Different units have different abiotic conditions, such as the amount of sunlight, water, and soil nutrients that are available to them. This can make a drastic difference in the growth rate of the trees and the overall density of trees that can be maintained. Using growth charts that are specific to these different forest subregions, the silviculturist will then make a determination of whether a PCT is advisable, the ideal tree spacing to thin to, and when a thinning or regeneration harvest (more colloquially known as a clearcut harvest) should take place.

Lastly, some bigger picture concepts I’ve picked up on. The BLM occupies an interesting position in that we are tasked with two seemingly contradictory goals; on the one hand we are given a target in terms of millions of board feet we need to produce each year, and at the same time on the same land we manage habitats for botanical diversity, endangered species, and recreation. The BLM is often sued both by private timber companies for not supplying sufficient timber, and by environmental groups for destroying the habitats we are required by law to protect. It’s often said a good compromise leaves both sides unhappy, and this often seems to be the case with the BLM. There is perhaps no right answer, other than ultimately this is a organization meant to represent the will and interests of the public, and balance opposing interests in the most fair and transparent way possible.

But it is also important to keep in mind that the science of land management is still being improved! Researchers and public land managers are always innovating on ways to maximize the biodiversity and timber production that we can have from public land. The BLM for instance, does not do 100% total clearcuts like private timber companies will. The benefits of leaving around 10 trees per acre can result in large improvements in the ecological health by allowing legacy effects to affect future succession, while not severely cutting into the amount of board feet the unit ultimately produces. Another increasingly popular practice is Variable Retention Harvests, which essentially is removing timber from a unit unevenly, to create structural complexity instead of a monoculture of the same age and type of trees. Additionally, there are many important species that only thrive in the early successional stages of forests. While old growth forest is certainly important and needs protection, forest succession through wildfires and management by Native Americans has been taking place for thousands of years. I was very lucky to hear about the many new practices that are being adapted by public land managers tagging along with a group of graduate students from the University of Washington on their field trip to Douglas County.

I have certainly had an amazing time these past four months learning all about grasses, forbs, fires, and forests. And I am looking forward to the next month and what it will entail!

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