Land of the giants: The Nature Conservancy leads restoration of old-growth stands in Washington state

By David Plechl   EO Media Group  |  The Daily Astorian
Published August 23, 2016  |  Original source article

WILLAPA BAY, Wash. — All along Ellsworth Creek, soldiers were slaying giants. The year was 1918, and the enlisted men were part of the U.S. Army’s Spruce Production Division. Their quarry — the thousand-year-old behemoth trees that once towered in our coastal forests.

Cedar and Douglas fir were all knocked down; their enormous timbers would form the backbones and bows of allied ships.

But the most prized carcass of all was that of the great Sitka spruce. Beasts that spent eons rooted in rock and earth, in a strange twist of fate, were split, shaped and formed into lightweight frames for World War I fighter planes.

An account from just after the war describes the urgency of the massive timber-felling effort in the Pacific Northwest:

“No one realized, no one even dreamed that before this single item (aircraft-quality spruce wood) could be produced, an army must be sent to make war in the virgin forests, a vast industrial machine must be built up, and a great story of pluck and grit, of daring and patient resourcefulness must be carved out.”

Watershed renovation

Just around the bend from the Willapa Bay Wildlife Refuge, where Ellsworth Slough yawns into the Naselle River, a few dozen weather-worn pilings are all that’s left of a Spruce Division’s local camp, railroad and processing hub. As successful as the regiment was at waging war on the giants, it was equally hard on the creek, and its heavy footprint remains stamped across the ecological integrity of the entire watershed.

But for the last 15 years or so, The Nature Conservancy has patiently been scooping up parcels in Ellsworth Creek and is actively restoring more than 8,000 acres of contiguous former industrial forestland, some of which contains old-growth stands of cedar, spruce and the occasional Douglas fir.

Dave Ryan is The Nature Conservancy’s boots-on-the ground forester. As a commercial forester, Ryan had managed clearcuts, replantings, thinnings and cases of blight. He’s seen harvest cycles shrink from 80 to 30 years. He’s seen plenty of change in forest management over the years, most for the better, he says, such as stream buffers that help protect salmon runs.

“Back in the day, the stream was your skid trail,” Ryan said, pointing toward a meandering stretch of creek he’s dubbed “Ellsworth Beach.”

“They would just run machinery in the stream,” he said. “They’d run logs through and down it.”

Hydraulic fluid would end up in the water, stream beds would be gashed, and the scouring of log jams and wood from the creek eliminated much of the prime salmon habitat. But the land is resilient as it is productive.

Gardens in the sky

“There’s nothing wrong with a clearcut in and of itself,” Ryan said. “A clearcut is a tool in a land manager’s toolbox, but for some owners it’s the only tool. So if the one hammer they’ve got isn’t working, the answer is to get a bigger hammer.”

If the goal of clearcut logging is to get as much wood out of the forest as possible, Ryan is in some ways now working in reverse. He hopes most of the trees he manages in Ellsworth will outlast him by at least a few lifetimes. Dozens of the giants somehow eluded the soldiers’ saws, and Ryan estimates the age of some at more than 800 years. Those trees are integral for endangered species like marbled murrelets, and Ellsworth is now the epicenter of those recovery efforts.

Bounding from log to log like some kind of tac-booted Spiderman, Ryan casually describes a clearcut as having been “slicked off.” But then he’s just as likely to throw out a term like “vertical heterogeneity” when describing The Nature Conservancy’s aspirations to return diversity to the forest; from the mycelium in the soil, all the way up though the towering canopy, a world scientists are still exploring.

Ryan says just a few years ago, an entirely new species of earthworm was discovered crawling in the arboreal soils on ancient limbs of Ellsworth old growth. “It was living in these gardens in the sky,” he said.

Restoration is not just about keeping the chainsaws out and leaving things as they are. The patchwork of forests that make up the preserve are all at different stages of growth, and most reflect the unnaturally dense monoculture plantings of the industrial timber model.

“We sort of took the watershed out of its natural trajectory in terms of historic succession,” Ryan said. As a result, species like Sitka spruce, that were once plentiful in the Ellsworth Creek watershed are now mere “remnants.”

Overabundant trees will be thinned out, and new plantings will add species diversity.

“I’m optimistic,” Ryan said. He credits The Nature Conservancy’s director of forest conservation and management, Dave Rolph, with dreaming up the ambitious Ellsworth restoration project.

“I’m sure he cringes when I say this, but in many ways I consider Dave the godfather of Ellsworth,” Ryan said. “He’s kind of the reason this thing came together.”

Godfather of Ellsworth

In the late 1990s, Rolph initiated a relatively modest purchase of land at Teal Slough near the Naselle River Bridge after the Paul Allen Foundation gave money specifically for the purpose of old-growth restoration.

While surveying that purchase, Rolph learned of another stand of big trees along Ellsworth Creek and decided it was worth a look. “What we essentially discovered was that there was a lot more than just an old-growth stand there,” Rolph said.

The stream already boasted a booming chum salmon run. There was a stable marbled murrelet population, and the highest known diversity of amphibians anywhere in Washington state.

“If you really want to protect those things,” Rolph said, “just protecting that one stand of old growth wouldn’t do it.”

He said that’s when the greater vision for the long-term restoration project started to come together. The Nature Conservancy would patch together multiple parcels, and bring the entire watershed under its management.

Additional parcels were added between 2001 and 2005 as The Nature Conservancy worked primarily with two major land owners — the Campbell Group and John Hancock, both major lumber consortiums. A handful of smaller landowners also sold parcels to the conservancy.

Rolph said for the most part, old-growth ecosystems make up less than 1 percent of forests in southwest Washington. He said the majority of old growth lives in national parks or national forests, and there aren’t a lot of either in this corner of the state.

“You can’t go out and buy it,” Rolph said. “If you really want an old-growth ecosystem, you have to restore it.”

Roads and toads 

But even before biologists and preservationists could get their boots muddy, The Nature Conservancy first had to come up with a plan. They formed a scientific panel of top Northwest scientists.

“We went through all potential alternatives,” Rolph explained, “what science could tell us, and what science couldn’t.”

After much deliberation, The Nature Conservancy settled on a slightly experimental route — the restoration would be managed in three distinct treatment areas with the long-run goal of finding the best mode of restoration and then adapting the overall approach.

Rolph said a series of streams that roll down from Bear River Ridge naturally split the basin into three smaller tributary basins. One basin will be “actively” managed, another “passively” managed, and the third will be a “control.”

The restoration activities are much more intense in the actively managed section, Rolph said, where thinning of smaller trees should encourage the development of old growth. Roads are also removed altogether or rerouted away from slide-prone areas.

In the passively managed section, there is no timber harvest, but roads are removed, then Mother Nature is left to her own devices. The control area is more or less left completely “as is,” and that data will be used to compare the impacts being made in the active and passive areas of restoration.

When managing forest and stream health, a lot of people think about trees and salmon, says Ryan, but the impact of roads on the ecosystem can’t be underestimated. They have huge effects on water quality, wildlife migrations and habitat.

As Ryan, the forester, checks in on some recent road decommissions in Ellsworth, he says there is more to road removal than just letting nature run its course. Building roads is heavy-duty work and removing them is equally intense. Roads that cut across slopes create slide hazards, channel sediment into streams and dam up subsurface water flows.

The watershed is a web of perennial streams, seasonal streams and culverts, and, “there’s a lot of water that comes down,” Ryan said, “and it doesn’t just relegate itself to those channels.”

Roads also create forest edges, where the effects of wind and sun are magnified. Microclimates produced may be counterproductive. Amphibians may be discouraged from crossing a dry rocky road, and the continuous clearings expose hidden murrelet nests to crows that eat the eggs before they hatch.

The Nature Conservancy has removed more than 20 miles of roads in the Ellsworth Creek watershed.

Among titans

The restoration project comes down to three basic components — selective thinning and planting, moving or removing roads, and intensive in-stream restoration.

Most of the land in the conservation area has been logged repeatedly. And after a typical clearcut, Rolph said, “the forest comes back incredibly dense.”

Under the guidance of Ryan’s work on the ground, The Nature Conservancy contract crews harvest some of the more plentiful Douglas fir and hemlock to encourage more space for spruce and cedar to succeed. Rather than a few dominant species, the balance should be struck by complexity.

In the active basin, Ryan said the conservancy is “working the land with restoration in mind.” That means taking out smaller trees that crowd strong trees that aid diversity. The harvested trees are sold to market and the proceeds are cycled back into more restoration efforts.

“We pay for our operating costs with our timber revenue,” Ryan said.

Thinning requires just the right touch to get the most out of recovering forest ecosystems. Trees support each other. Where roots intertwine stands are more resilient to the effects of wind. “If you hit it too hard, it becomes a little more susceptible to wind throw,” Ryan said. “So we’re saying you can thin it, you just have to be more thoughtful with your approach.”

Part of Ryan’s job is to share what The Nature Conservancy is doing with others. Forest managers have come from as far as Chile to study the project. He often leads visitors down a rough-hewn trail that descends from one of the old logging roads into a gully of giant spruce; their gnarled trunks twisting high above anything else in the forest.

“I call those the guardians,” Ryan mused.

He doesn’t know how they escaped the ax, but said a few hundred acres of Ellsworth are spiked with the towering beauties.

“This the template,” Ryan said, gazing upward. “You are among titans out here.”