The silence of the limbs

My name is Norm, I love trees, and I’m a forester.

This is a picture of a stand on Mountain Home State Forest after it was logged

Foresters love all the types of forests that exist, young, old, and in between. Trees are awesome. We love all the stuff they provide, such as shade, habitat, cleaner air, clean water, and yes, wood.

We are not Romantics. We don’t confer pastoral scenery with transcendental qualities. Though we passionately love trees, we don’t wax poetic about them in the way Thoreau does. To you perhaps, we have an odd way to show our love for the forest: we cut trees down. That detail may remind you of Hannibal Lecter saying he likes people with “fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

A group of us non-Romantic types got together at the California Licensed Foresters Association (CLFA) convention, March 4-6 in Sacramento. The Arden Hilton’s parking lot held more pickup trucks than a Hollywood gala has Prius sedans.

It’s easy to spot the working forester’s pickup. And, don’t let the patina of dirt and mud-caked splashes around the wheel wells fool you, you’ll see that on the trucks of people who merely ‘play’ in the mud for fun. Foresters don’t play in the mud; they work in the mud during winter. And they work in ankle-deep dust in the summer. The giveaway to the pickup is found in the back. Along with bits of tree bark, leaves, and more dirt, you’re apt to see the tools of the trade: chainsaws, handsaws, double-bit axes, loppers, shovels, tow straps, plastic flagging, and some odd looking stuff with even odder names like hoedad, dibble, McLeod, and Pulaski.

Inside the Hilton, it was just as easy to recognize the foresters. We wouldn’t know couture from a coat rack and so we stand out like bib overalls at a black tie affair. Carhartt jeans and plaid-flannel shirts are common. We didn’t don our normal footwear, our caulked (pronounced “corked”) boots, which was fortunate for the floors since caulked boots have spiked soles. By the way, do you know how to recognize an extroverted forester? He (or she, yes, there are women in the woods) is the one looking at the other person’s boots.

We were at the Hilton to recognize our achievements, share knowledge, and celebrate surviving what had been the worst season in anyone’s memory. Foresters work in the only net carbon-positive industry. Yet, we’re in an industry struggling to stay alive. Due to lawsuits, additional fees, and regulations, the costs of producing a Timber Harvesting Plan have risen 1200 percent over the past 30 years. It’s a formula squeezing some of the greenest jobs out of the state.

Forestry’s survival has been through adaptation in the face of a public disinclined to what we do. We cut trees. Yet, we’re not your grandfather’s clearcutter. No more “Cut it flat, burn it black, plant it back,” said Jim Ostrowski. New awareness and new science leads to new goals and practices. Now, “We cut trees to grow trees,” says Steve Butler, a forester from Santa Cruz, “because what is left is the important part.” You cut bad trees, leave good trees.

Industrial forest management has changed with the times. Still, harvesting can look awful. Stumps, logging slash of bark and branches, and skidding trails can look like devastation. It takes time, training, and a willingness to learn. My training has ingrained in me the need to monitor progress and see what has and hasn’t worked. Not everyone sees harvesting as I do. Remember, trees are grown. And if it’s not grown, it’s mined.

Foresters use silvicultural treatments to maintain, protect, and manage biodiversity. Forests have evolved over millennia with fire, flood, insects, and wind. ‘Protecting’ forests from disturbances they count on for rejuvenation can be detrimental to their long-term health. Harvesting can mimic natural disturbance by creating openings for new plants and wildlife. So, if you look decades beyond the present, you’ll see a biologically healthy forest, teeming with life.

You may not like logging but I bet you love trees—and wood. Why, even people living in San Francisco have to admit that they use wood. You and I have tree-hugging in common. If you hug trees, perhaps it’s to tactilely become one with the tree and totally grok its nature. I hug trees to throw a D-tape around them to measure diameters for volume calculations. That’s my nature.

I love trees, sometimes with pine nuts and a nice Chianti, admit it, you do too.


 


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A Regulated Forest

This circa 1967 picture* is of Cliff Fago scaling (measuring logs to determine their net volume) old growth Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) logs.

Log scaling - calculating the net volume in a log. Note the large knots on the log.

Log scaling - calculating the net volume in a log

Cliff became the first permanent forest manager of Boggs Mountain State Forest (BMSF) in 1965. In 1967, he conducted the BMSF’s first timber sale to begin removal of the remaining old growth. Three million board-feet of old growth timber was taken to mill; by 1976, the state had removed all the residual old growth from BMSF.

You may be asking yourself, “Why was the removal of old-growth trees a goal at all?”

So let me hurry on and say the goal was not really the removal of large trees as it was establishing a regulated forest; i.e., a forest continuously producing a consistent product.

Trees follow a very familiar pattern: the Sigmoid Curve in which a characteristic such as height, diameter, volume, etc., is plotted over time.

Figure from Wikipedia

Sigmoid Curve Figure from Wikipedia

What the state’s foresters wanted to achieve was a mix of sizes on the forest that would each year provide the same amount, same quality, and same log sizes each harvest—forever. Old trees actually lose volume as they age, their tops break off, and rots attack them. Young trees grow fast, have fewer problems, and lower mortality. By removing the senescent trees and making room for fast growing young trees, foresters planned to optimize forest growth.

By taking a long view and putting the big logs on trucks, foresters and timber companies gave the impression of liquidating stock for short-term gain. Small trees don’t have the volume of large trees and removing large trees meant a dip in the overall volume per acre. The future had been planted but it didn’t have the magnificence of the big trees.


*A word about the picture:  I think the machine pictured may be a Caterpillar 977. It’s being used both for skidding logs and for loading them. It wouldn’t be very good on steep ground since the tracks need to be shallow to keep the treads from tearing up the log landing so much a truck couldn’t get around. The logs, while large, would not yield much premium wood; those huge knots necessitate major volume deductions.


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