Monday, September 21, 2015

Wanderings: Adventures in Forest Ecology

 These forests each have their own ecological stories.

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to attend an Adventures in Forest Ecology program at the Cedar River Watershed with my older sister. Led by forest ecologists Rolf Gersonde and Bill Richards, the program allowed us a rare opportunity to see up close the work being done under the Watershed's Habitat Conservation Plan to restore healthy forests, water, and wildlife habitat to this landscape historically altered and degraded by logging.

Although I was already familiar with many of the forest ecology concepts discussed during the program, it was a marvelous experience to get out in the field and see it firsthand, standing in the cool damp shade of the trees, smelling the fresh air, going off the trail to climb through the forest and getting an uncomfortable amount of conifer needles in my pants... but more about that later.

After checking in at the welcome center and making a brief visit to the rain drum installation, my sister and I loaded up with our fellow "students" into one of two large passenger vans, then set out for a half-hour long drive to the Rex River drainage along the Watershed's bumpy graveled roads.

Stop #1 - Second-Growth Forest (natural succession)

The vans drew to a stop in the middle of the road, and we hopped out and followed our instructors down a steep and squishy slope into a dim forest. This was a second growth forest, which had grown back on its own after being logged 60 years ago. The trees were mostly hemlock, all the same size and same age, closely crowded and competing for light and space. Their trunks were bare of branches, and the only green to be found here was a sparse carpeting of moss on the forest floor and the canopy of green needles high overhead - a canopy which, we learned, only allows 5% of the sunlight to actually make it to the forest floor below. Hence the lack of sunlight-thirsty vegetation here. This forest is not what you would call diverse or healthy, and does not make for good wildlife habitat, but much of the historically-logged watershed is covered in forest just like this. Rolf and Bill show us this forest as an example of what they're trying to avoid with their restoration efforts.

As we listened to the instructors speak, I briefly let my mind wander to soak in the forest around me. The air was clean and pleasantly scented with the fragrance of conifer needles. It was silent and still. There were no birds singing, no breezes whispering through the canopy. Aside from our murmuring human voices, the only discernible sound was that of the Rex River off in the distance, the soft sound of its rushing water traveling unimpeded through the forest of bare poles, bare tree trunks.

We clambered back up the bank, piled into the vans, and after a pit stop at the roadside porta-potty, we continued on to our next stop.

Stop #2 - Old Growth Forest

The graveled logging roads wound gently uphill, and my excitement heightened as increasingly large trees flashed past the windows of the van. We parked next to a large pile of decomposing cedar logs, and Bill informed us that we'd be walking into the old growth forest from here. I was glad to hear that. In my mind, old growth forests are as venerable and sacred as an old church, and it seemed more respectful and in keeping with the enormity of our surroundings to approach quietly on foot rather than with crunching tires, rumbling engine, and piercing beep-beeping backup alarm.

We followed a gravel road that was slowly being reclaimed by nature, and after a hundred yards or so,  stopped at the forest edge. Our instructors pointed us at the seemingly impenetrable tangle of greenery at the forest edge, and said this is where we're going in. There was no trail. This was going to be fun. We carefully picked our way through, and paused in a relatively open space to listen to Rolf and Bill discuss the ecology of this seven hundred year old (!) forest, one of the remnants of old growth in the Cedar River Watershed that thankfully managed to escape destruction by logging and fire for the past seven centuries.

This healthy old growth forest is the ultimate goal of restoration efforts in the Watershed, and its defining characteristics were easy to spot. First of all, there were the trees so massive it would take half a dozen people to encircle their large trunks. Then you notice that the forest is green everywhere you look; from floor to canopy, there's nothing but green. There were a variety of plants comprising a healthy understory. Trees of all sizes and ages grew here: conifers like Doug fir, hemlock and cedar as well as deciduous trees like maple and alder. There were patches of shade and sunlight. Busy birds chatted in the branches overhead, feeding on seeds and insects, and I was able to pick out the chattering of a chickadee from among the voices. We had to watch our step to avoid large mountain beaver tunnel holes dug into the thick layer of soft, wet humus underfoot. And the smells! I've never smelled such smells in any forest before, and could have happily sat there all day to suss out and attempt to identify each individual fragrance perfuming the air. This forest was alive, robust and diverse; the complete opposite of the forest we encountered on our first stop.

One of many mountain beaver holes we had to avoid stepping in.
We had to duck under this nurse log. It had an entire forest growing on it!
Oh, those old-growth Dougs...

We continued on through the dense understory to explore the forest further, climbing over logs, ducking under logs, scrambling up banks and picking careful footholds on steep slopes, dodging devil's club, fighting through salmonberry thickets and getting whacked in the face, stomach, and back with rebounding branches as the person in front of you passed through them. This is where an astonishing amount of scratchy conifer needles found their way into my pants. We paused at the edge of a wide, rocky stream and learned from Bill and Rolf about their efforts to restore marbled murrelet habitat in the Watershed forests, and were pointed to the large, wide branches found only in old growth forests upon which the murrelets lay their single egg. After rock-hopping across the stream, we passed by a seven-hundred year old cedar tree, then scrambled down a bank and rock-hopped back across the stream, clambered up a steep slope, and shortly thereafter found ourselves at the end of the road we'd walked in on.

I turned around and took a picture of what we'd just walked through. It was tough going in some places!

  My sister admiring a huge old Doug fir, and there's the stream we had to hop across.

Green everywhere. Ecologists often refer to old growth forests as "decadent"... for obvious reasons!

We made our way back to the vans, where my sister and I precariously climbed atop the pile of rotting cedar logs alongside the road to eat our lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Not a bad view from our lunch spot...

Stop #3 - Second-Growth Forest (ecological thinning)

Looking out over the thinned forest

Back in the vans, we continued in a steep ascent along the bumpy logging roads, before emerging at an elevation of 4,000 feet to a sweeping vista that literally took my breath away. We stood on the brow of a steep hill, looking across rolling hills and steep ridges, all covered in small silver fir shaped perfectly enough to be Christmas trees.

Rolf and Bill explained that this area had been logged about thirty years ago, and the silver fir had grown back as thickly as the hemlock in the first forest patch we'd seen, so the ecologists employed a restoration technique known as ecological thinning to remove many of the trees. This ensures that the young forest will have enough space for the trees to grow without having to compete with one another for sunlight, and also to ensure there is room, light and space for other plant and tree species to take root, thus giving the forest the best possible chance to grow into a stand as diverse, healthy, and suitable for wildlife as the old growth we'd just seen. Altogether, a staggering 10,000 acres of forest in the Cedar River Watershed has been ecologically thinned.

It was quiet up here, in this very open forest. I didn't hear any birds singing. The only sound was a cold, lonely wind sweeping across the remote hilltops.

It's easy to see the open spaces created by thinning the trees.

Stop #4 - Second-Growth Forest (ecological clearing)

We wound back down the steep roads and returned to the lowland forest, where we disembarked the vans and stood facing a steep mossy bank that led into another dense second-growth hemlock forest like the one we'd first seen. Our guides said, okay, the spot we're going to is up the bank there... who wants to find a route up? And with all the giddy enthusiasm of an elementary school class being let out for recess, two vanloads of grown adults fanned out and gleefully climbed up the bank, grasping tree roots and kicking toe holds into the soft humus as we went.

Emerging atop the hill, we found a dense sixty year-old second-growth hemlock forest to our right, and a large clearing to our left. In an attempt to introduce some size variation and vertical diversity into this forest, the ecologists had cleared all of the trees from an area that was about half an acre in size, I believe. This restoration technique known as ecological clearing was employed in this section of forest to see if other tree species (especially deciduous trees) would take root. All that was visible, though, was a dense sea of very young hemlock trees, standing between knee and shoulder height. Those darn hemlock are determined.

This patch of forest was fairly still and silent as well, although the croaking of a nearby frog occasionally broke the quiet. After listening to Rolf and Bill explain their work to increase diversity in this part of the forest, we made our way back down the bank and into the vans for the twenty-minute drive back to the Watershed Education Center.

On the way back, my long-held hope of seeing wildlife on this tour was fulfilled when we encountered three enormous bull elk on the quiet, shaded road. One darted in front of the van and turned to look at us from the safety of the forest cover. His clear, inquisitive gaze belied an intelligence behind those shining, beautiful brown eyes. I snapped a photo.

Can you spot the elk bum?

Hmmm. Perhaps the next class I sign up for should be Remedial Wildlife Photography...

Visit the Cedar River Watershed Education Center website for more information on tours, programs, and other activities.

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