Fall is Tree Thinning Time for Forest Landowners

Ponderosa pine stand thinned and pruned
Ponderosa pine stand thinned and pruned to prevent spread of low-intensity ground-level fires into the crowns. Photo: US Forest Service.

Fall is just around the corner and for those who own forested land, if you have not already done so, you may want to consider thinning some trees out. People who own forested property are often hesitant to remove trees for various reasons. Why should you thin? What are the advantages?

Forest health

Many people think of a forest as a stand of trees existing together in harmony. In reality, a forest, particularly a young forest, contains trees competing with one another for their life-sustaining resources: sunlight, water, and nutrients.

There’s even a priority list of sorts within individual trees. It varies depending on the species but, in general, the order in which resources are allocated is, from highest priority to lowest priority:

  1. Maintenance of respiration
  2. Production of fine roots
  3. Reproduction
  4. Height growth
  5. Diameter growth
  6. Insect and disease resistance mechanisms, and
  7. Storage

A dense stand of tall, thin lodgepole pine, is a good example of a stand where there are enough available resources to allocate up to priority number 4, height growth, but not enough resources to allocate much to priority number 5, diameter growth, or beyond. This lack of resources will affect overall forest health, as the trees will not be able to allocate resources to insect and disease resistance mechanisms.

What sort of insect and disease resistance mechanisms do trees have? Let’s use bark beetles as an example, since certain species of bark beetles can cause extensive tree mortality.

In most coniferous species a resin duct system produces oleoresin when the tree is wounded, such as a broken branch. Oleoresin is basically a mixture of essential oil (turpentine) and nonvolatile solids (rosin). Oleoresin is considered the primary defense of conifers against bark beetle attack. Beetles that attempt to attack a conifer that is in good health and capable of producing adequate, pressurized oleoresin are typically immobilized in the resin or killed by drowning in it. The chemical makeup of the oleoresin is important as well, as some of the volatiles released from the oleoresin are toxic to bark beetles.

Dense stands, which tend to grow slowly, are consistently associated with bark beetle infestations. The susceptibility of a stand to bark beetle infestations may be changed by reducing competition between trees; in other words, thinning. In western North America, thinning has long been advocated as a preventative measure to reduce or alleviate the amount of bark beetle caused tree mortality. Thinning improves tree vigor and growth. It also decreases the likelihood of bark beetle attacks on individual trees by allowing the site’s available resources to be concentrated on fewer stems, which means trees will have enough resources to allocate to priority number 6 (insect and disease resistance mechanisms).

Wildfire risk reduction

Successful fire exclusion over the past 60 to 70 years has resulted in greater stand densities and a change in species composition. In that span of time, many forests in dry ecosystems, such as eastern Washington, have transitioned from fire-adapted, open ponderosa pine stands to dense pine and Douglas-fir stands. In moist forests, the change has been from open stands of western white pine and western larch to relatively short, closed stands of grand fir, western hemlock and western redcedar. These changes have led to an increase in the occurrence of crown fires (fire that spreads from treetop to treetop), the most intense type of wildfire, and often the most difficult to contain.

Thin from below
Example of thin from below. Photo A: Before thinning. Photo B: After thinning. Photos: Michelle Ensminger.

 

Ponderosa pine, western white pine and western larch all tend to be tall and self-prune (the natural removal of lower limbs that don’t receive enough sunlight to survive). Western white pine and western larch have lower volume crowns and carry their crowns well above surface fuels compared to true firs, Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and western redcedar. Because of these attributes, western white pine and western larch do not carry crown fires well and tend not to create ladder fuels (fuels in the lower canopy that carry fire up into the crowns of trees). In contrast, stands dominated by true firs, Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and/ or western redcedar do not self-prune well. They tend to carry large branches low in the canopy and have relatively voluminous crowns. Stands dominated by these species usually support crown fires.

Thinning cannot alter all variables that influence fire behavior, but it can influence factors such as species composition, available fuel, fuel arrangement, fuel moisture and surface winds. The objective of thinning in wildfire risk reduction is usually to prevent or slow the spread of crown fire by reducing surface and ladder fuels. Thinning also raises the height of overstory crowns and breaks up the connectedness of crowns, which reduces tree-to-tree spread of crown fires.

Wildlife management

Species associated with fairly open canopies and an open forest floor may benefit from thinning treatments. Thinning a stand of trees increases the amount of sunlight reaching the understory, which stimulates the growth of grasses, wildflowers and native shrubs. Elk, deer, and moose will likely benefit from the increase in forage quantity and quality. Small mammals such as chipmunks and deer mice may increase in number, particularly after thinning in Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine forests. This may be advantageous to species of hawks, owls and eagles that prey on small mammals in open forests and small clearings. Although not often considered as part of the wildlife community, pollinators such as moths and butterflies may also benefit from changes in structural diversity as a result of fuel reduction treatments that increase the amount of light reaching foliage and the forest floor.

Timber production

If you are managing your forested land for future timber production, thinning will be an important part of your management plan. Thinning releases resources to the residual trees allowing them to allocate to their fifth priority, diameter growth, which leads to an increase in tree volume. This increase in diameter growth results in an increase in overall stand value.

Thinning techniques

The tools and methods by which thinning is implemented are quite varied, and can result in significantly different stand structures. The type of thinning you select may depend on your objectives and on individual stand characteristics, such as species composition.

When managing for forest health and fuel reduction, private landowners typically use the “thin from below” method. Thinning from below consists of removing trees from the lower canopy, leaving larger trees to occupy the site. This method mimics mortality caused by competition or surface fires and concentrates available resources on larger, healthier, fire-adapted trees, while removing the stagnant, unhealthy trees.

Thinning is best accomplished in the late summer and early fall if possible. At this time trees will be least susceptible to damage from the thinning operation and the populations of insects that may be attracted to the slash created will be low. Winter also is an acceptable time to thin, but can lead to soil compaction and erosion if done at the wrong time. Thinning in spring and summer is not recommended as it can attract insects such as bark beetles and can affect wildlife, particularly nestlings.

For more information about thinning your property, please visit the Forest Stewardship Program and the Landowner Assistance Center pages on the Washington State Department of Natural Resources website.

By Melissa Fischer, Forest Health Specialist, DNR Northeast Region, Washington State Department of Natural Resources

 

Resources to  learn more:

Fettig, C.J., Klepzig, K.D., Billings, R.F., Munson, A.S., Nebeker, T.E., Negron, J.F., and Nowak, J.T. 2007. The effectiveness of vegetation management practices for prevention and control of bark beetle infestations in coniferous forests of the western and southern United States. Forest Ecology and Management. 238: 24-53.

Graham, R.T., Harvey, A.E., Jain, T.B. and Tonn, J.R. 1999. The effects of thinning and similar stand treatments on fire behavior in western forests. U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. PNW-GTR-463.

Pilliod, D.S., Bull, E.L., Hayes, J.L. and Wales, B.C. 2006. Wildlife and invertebrate response to fuel reduction treatments in dry coniferous forests of the western United States: A synthesis. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. RMRS-GTR-173.

How to Make a Wildlife Tree

PoemsAh, trees. Those leafy icons of life and nature, inspiring writers through the ages…

Douglas squirrel.
Wildlife tree dweller: Douglas squirrel. Photo: Ken Bevis.

In the forest, trees exist in many life phases simultaneously, from seedlings to giants, and then as standing dead trees (snags) and down logs. Natural forces constantly work on trees, causing them to grow, then die, crack, and rot. The individual fate of a tree can vary tremendously depending on many factors including; species, wounds, rot, soil moisture, wind, branch breakage, lightning and more. Dead trees are an essential part of forest ecology.

Wildlife Species that Benefit from Woody Habitat Structures

Excellent-natural-wildlife-tree-crop
This excellent natural wildlife tree features numerous cavities wildlife. Photo: Ken Bevis.

Well over 100 species of wildlife in Pacific Northwest forests depend on dead wood for crucial habitat. Animals such as woodpeckers, songbirds, squirrels, salamanders and owls use these woody structures as places to feed, and as cover for resting and reproduction. The solid woody cylinder of a dead tree can be a boon for these animals, particularly if in a configuration that encourages wood rot while providing woody structure.

“Wildlife tree” refers to those trees, living, dead or some of both, with dead wood features (holes, cracks, loose bark, etc.) providing habitats for cavity dwelling species. In fact, nearly one-third of our forest wildlife species must have some form of “wildlife trees” on their home range for survival.

The best type of natural wildlife tree may be a broken off snag, with adequate height and diameter to provide for multiple wildlife habitat needs. These trees will stand the longest, as the weight of the tree top is gone, softening rot proceeds down the stem from the top, and these woody structures can persist for many years. Look for these venerable habitats in the deep forest.

Human Activities can Mimic Habitat Creation Processes

People actively cut trees across the landscape for many reasons, including harvest, landscaping and site preparation. But rather than always removing whole trees, arborists and loggers can easily create long-lived, high quality wildlife trees by simply shortening (or “topping”) the tree to an acceptable height, and then leaving the cut stem for weather and woodpeckers to do their work creating valuable habitat.

Tim Brown, wildlife tree creation pioneer.
Tim Brown, wildlife tree creation pioneer. Photo: Kelsey Ketcheson.

Tim Brown is a pioneer in wildlife tree creation. He started making wildlife trees in the 1970s when working first as a logger, arborist, and then as a forest firefighter. He has a lifelong love for wildlife, and noticed many animals fleeing from fallen snags while he was falling timber. “I started thinking about it and would come home and make wildlife trees. I started in gardens and with landscape trees.” he said.

His business, Frontier Tree Service, near Lake Sammamish, was well-known for creating many wildlife trees, which still stand in National Parks (including Sequoia), as well as National Refuges, National Forests and greenbelts throughout the Northwest and across the country. He worked as a consultant to assist scientists and land managers with wildlife habitat projects around the world as well. Today, Tim works to share his expertise whenever possible with interested landowners, arborists and wildlife biologists. We went out to a private land near Snoqualmie to demonstrate some of his techniques for this article.

Selecting the ‘Right’ Tree

Farrell-McWorter Park
A wildlife tree in Farrell McWorter Park in Redmond, Washington, created over 30 years ago and now used by many types of wildlife. Photo: Ken Bevis.

Trees to be made into wildlife trees should be solid enough to be worked, preferably by a qualified tree climber or someone working from a bucket truck. They also should be a long-lived species and in a location where future safety issues, such as dwellings, roads, etc., won’t demand that the tree come down. Tim recommends conifers, particularly Douglas fir, cedar or ponderosa pine, as preferred wildlife trees, as they tend to last longer. He points out, however, that all species can function, and broadleaf trees can be worked too.

We identified a clump of root-rot killed Douglas fir for our demonstration, well away from the road. Tim determined that a recently dead tree approximately 24” in diameter was sound enough to climb. After ascended the tree with climbing gear, he cut off the top about 45 feet up, and used a chainsaw to create a jagged top. A smaller, softer unclimbable, dead tree stood close by and he cut the top out of that one while leaning over from the first tree. Both were shortened enough that they have a higher likelihood of snag longevity after treatment.

Identifying “strike distance” to high traffic “targets” is a part of this selection. The overall height of the created wildlife tree should usually be less than the distance to the target, unless there is very little traffic. Remember that the shortened tree will have little “sail” or weight on the top, so is unlikely to simply topple over. In general, wildlife tree stubs fall apart in place over many years rather than falling over.

Removing the Crown

“Topping” trees is considered bad form for arborists working on valuable ornamental trees. However, this same technique can create high quality wildlife trees that will stand for many decades and provide habitat for many, many species.

(Side note: In logging units, a “hot saw” or mechanical tree harvester, can easily make short snags by cutting off stems at between 8 and 20 feet.)

 

Lofty Decisions

How much to cut off?

How much of the trunk to remove when creating a wildlife tree?

“We want the tree to stay up as long as possible,” says Tim, who recommends assessing potential wildlife trees for lean, overall stability and sway. In wind sheltered areas, more of the tree can be left. In general, the larger the diameter, the better. Tim suggests that the top diameter of cut trees should be at least 6” in order to provide enough wood for smaller cavity excavator species. Trees are generally cut 1/3 to 2/3 of the way up, resulting in a wildlife tree between 25 and 60 feet tall, though it can be higher if conditions allow it. Most branches are removed, with some stubs or short branches retained when possible.

“Sometimes I’ll leave some green branches so the tree dies slowly and remains stable longer,” notes Tim, adding that causing the tree to die slowly allows its still-living roots to hold it up longer.

jagged-top
LEFT: Tim Brown uses a chainsaw to make a jagged top in topped tree. RIGHT: Example of jagged top created with chainsaw cuts and hammer blows. Photos: Ken Bevis.

The top of the wildlife tree should be “roughed up” with a chainsaw. This is accomplished by administering a series of v-shaped cuts across the top, then crisscrossing those with the saw from multiple horizontal angles.

“The top is jagged to better collect moisture and organic matter. Make it slightly concave in the middle to collect water,” Tim recommends. He also makes a few deep vertical cuts down into the stem at the top to help introduce water and rot into the stem more quickly.

Finally, banging on the cut top with the back of an ax will break off the flat surfaces and leave it looking entirely natural. This jagged top will provide more surface area to introduce rot into the stem.

Putting Cut Material to Good Use

The fallen top of the tree can be harvested as a saw log, used as firewood, or left on the ground to provide down-log habitat. Down wood has important value as habitat too, notes Tim, and offers other habitat features to work on, which we will describe in a future article.

Most managed landscape settings have a limited number of number of wildlife trees (those with soft dead wood that provide an opportunity for wildlife to create and use cavities). It has, and continues to be, a standard practice by many landowners to remove dead trees because of safety concerns or to use as firewood and other materials.

before-after
Wildlife habitat tree demonstration site before (left) and after (right) treatment of trees.

While the habitat value of wildlife trees becoming more widely understood, there remains a pressing need to create more of them by incorporating the maintenance and creation of these structures into routine management practices.

The time to create wildlife trees is whenever the opportunity exists, but particularly when there is a shortage of these structures in the forest. Ideally, there will be 6-10 of these tree per acre, with half of them in decayed soft condition and the rest hard.

Providing and creating wildlife trees is a simple and effective tactic for small forest landowners to encourage wildlife on their property. There’s lots of life in dead trees!

by Ken Bevis, DNR Stewardship Wildlife Biologist, ken.bevis@dnr.wa.gov, with Tim Browntimothykbrown@msn.com

Property Ownership and Land-use History for your Forest Stewardship Plan

property research

The history of your land’s uses can be an important element of your forest stewardship plan. Plus, it can be an interesting read. Two new publications present detailed instructions on how to research the history of a property all the way back to the original land patent owner. Learn how to make an appointment at the state archives and what to do and ask for when you get there. Find out about land use changes on your property and where you can look at old maps and aerial photos. You will be amazed at how much information there is out there about your property.

Property research is county-specific. These two publications cover the North Puget Sound counties:

Property Ownership and Land-use History for Island/San Juan/Skagit/Snohomish/Whatcom Forestland

Property Ownership and Land-use History for King County Forestland

New Directory of Consulting Foresters and Silvicultural Contractors

One key take-home message from many of our forestry extension classes is the need to hire a qualified professional to manage a timber sale, do a planting, control vegetation, thin, etc.

There are two types of professionals you might need: consulting foresters and silvicultural contractors. A consulting forester provides professional forest management services to landowners. These services may include management plan writing, timber sale administration, permitting, timber marketing, inventory and appraisal, property mapping, management advice, coordination of contractor services, and other tasks. A silvicultural contractor provides the labor and equipment to perform forest management tasks such as site preparation, tree planting, vegetation control, pre-commercial thinning, slash disposal, etc. Some companies provide both forestry consulting and silvicultural contracting services.

A common question has been how to find the professional who is right for you. Up until now we did not have a good directory of these professionals. We had some old and very limited directories of consulting foresters (many of whom have retired), and nothing on silvicultural contractors. A searchable online directory has been in the works for a couple of years and now is finally finished and available online at forestry.wsu.edu/consultingdirectory/.

The directory is statewide in scope, up-to-date, and currently has 85 companies listed. You can search the directory by county served and type of service provided. Information is given on each company’s qualifications, professional affiliations, licenses, insurance, etc. This is not a logger directory (which is something we are considering for a future project). Also, not all consultants and contractors are listed. Getting into the directory is an opt-in process, so companies are not automatically entered. Some companies specifically requested to opt-out; others did not respond to invitations to participate.

When you consult the directory please note this important disclaimer about the publication’s content:

“The firms or individuals listed herein are engaged in forestland related work in Washington State. Consultants and contractors working for a private landowner do not represent or speak for Washington State University. Washington State University is not responsible for nor guarantees the quality, accuracy, or cost of the services provided by any of the consultants listed below. Information presented in this directory was provided by the individual service providers and is published on an “as-is” basis. Washington State University did not verify the validity of the information provided.”

There may be other companies with which we have not yet connected. If a company wishes to be added to the directory, they just need to contact us and we will provide a questionnaire to fill out.

By Kevin Zobrist, WSU Extension Forester, kevin.zobrist@wsu.edu 

Staunching a Wound, Starting a Fire

Tinder conk
Tinder conk (Fomes fomentarius) is found mainly on birch trees in the northern boreal forest. Photo: Alaska Dept of Natural Resources.

Anyone who wanders in the woods has seen bracket fungi, those odd banded shelves that grow in arcs from standing snags and deadfall trunks. Most of them belong to the family of Polypores, whose members are composed of thousands of tiny tubes growing tight together on a vertical plane. The fungi hang on to dead or dying wood through a network of parasitic, thread-like roots called rhizomes that slowly work to decompose their host. Like any mushroom, the brackets emerge as soft, spongy masses. Many are edible, and they shed millions of microscopic spores during their fruiting time. But usually by the time people notice polypores they are tough and woody, often harder than the log they are attached to.

In the forests of Pend Oreille County, by far the best host for bracket fungi are birch trees. Birches grow around the edges of many wetlands, from low to medium elevations, but also sprout in patches on hillsides with an extra hint of moisture. They are a short-lived tree, prone to the diseases that make them easy fodder for the life-sucking rhizomes of the fungus. The curly, peelable birch bark outlasts the sapwood, so that after a tree crashes down bracket fungi often multiply up and down its length.

The species of bracket fungus most commonly seen on our local birches is Fomes fomentarius, better known as horse’s hoof fungus or tinder conk. The brackets emerge as a white foamy mass that hardens and expands from a slender top down to a broad, flat growing margin. From both side and bottom views, they really do mirror the form of a horse’s hoof. Like most brackets, these fungi are perennial, continuing to grow as long as the tree can feed them. Each year they add a new dark-colored line to the bottom of the hoof shape. As long as it is alive, the growing margin of each hoof remains velvety soft, and distinctly cool to the touch.

These birch polypores have a circumpolar distribution–they can be found in any northern forest around the globe, across Asia, Europe, and North America. That range connects them through time and place in a way that reflects the movements of a host of different cultures. The common name conk, applied to many species of bracket fungi, compares their shapes and colors to those of the elegantly curved conch seashells. Originally derived from a Greek word associated with ocean shells, many Inland Northwest school kids today still apply the term conk to all hard fungi growing in the woods.

The same tinder conks that we see attached to birch trees have been used to start fires all around the world for untold generations. The Latin genus name, Fomes, means tinder, as in flammable kindling. Long ago people discovered that if you pound on this polypore the tubes separate into fibers that can catch a spark and keep it going. The early fur men who came to our part of the world carried tinder conk in their tobacco pouches, but that did not surprise the local tribes they met–a Salish word for the fungus has been translated as ‘burning coal’ because of the way an ember from a fire, when placed in the center of the growing margin of a freshly plucked tinder conk, will smolder for hours. In a world before flint and steel, this would have been the most effective way to transport your fire from camp to camp.

In the 1970s Martin Louie, an elder of the Colville-Okanagan tribes, described how the tribes used the heat retention properties of tinder conk as a treatment for arthritis. The fungus was picked, pounded until mushy, then applied as a poultice to the affected area. When hot towels were wrapped around the spot, the pounded fibers would absorb their heat and apply it to the affliction. Louie also confirmed earlier ethnographic reports that the tribes would place a small piece of ignited ‘burning coal’ directly on a moistened, aching joint. As the fungus fragment smoldered down to the skin it would ‘pop,’ and the ache was often soothed. Both these methods call to mind the variety of heating pads and liniments so often used today for similar complaints.

The Latin species name for tinder conk, fomentarius, means ‘dressing for wounds,’ a fact reflected in many standard textbooks of European medicine. Their myriad tubes, pounded and separated, have the absorbent qualities of a handy sponge, and the tannic acids present in the woody fibers provide an antiseptic action. More than two thousand years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates described the use of birch polypores as a means to stop bleeding and cauterize infections. In France, dentists still keep a supply of what they call ‘amadou’ on hand for packing in the socket of a freshly pulled tooth. Amadou is nothing more the horse’s hoof fungus we know pounded into fibers, dipped into a solution of saltpeter, and allowed to dry.

But what is two thousand years? The Ice Man who washed out of a glacier in the Italian Alps a few years ago died five thousand years before the present. Beside his famous brass ax, bow and arrow, and remarkable clothing, he carried with him a small leather pouch. Inside the pouch were the ground-up fibers of tinder conk, at the ready for anything from an everyday fire to emergency medical treatment. The little horse hooves, so common a part of our local scene, have been a part of traveler’s kits across the ages.

by Jack Nisbet

Jack Nisbet is a naturalist and writer who lives in Spokane, Washington. This article first appeared in the 2004 Fall issue of Diggings NewsletterNisbet’s most recent book, Ancient Places, is now available in paperback. For more information visit www.jacknisbet.com

Announcements, Events and Other News

(If you are reading a paper copy of this newsletter, links for these events can be found at the WSU Extension Forestry website: http://forestry.wsu.edu )

Invasive Weed Control Field Practicum

In this hands-on field practicum, you will learn to identify and control some of the most common invasive weeds that plague forest landowners.

  • Arlington (Snohomish County), NEW DATE: October 8, 2016. More information  or call 425-357-6023

 

San Juan Islands Forest Owners Field Day

These out-in-the-woods, family-friendly events allow you to attend five or six different outdoor classes and workshops on topics like tree planting, weed control, thinning, tree diseases, mushroom-growing, and much more. 

 

Forest Stewardship Coached Planning

If you own wooded property, our flagship course will teach you how to assess your trees, avoid insect and disease problems, and attract wildlife. State experts will help you develop your own Forest Stewardship Plan to keep your woods on track to provide enjoyment and income for years to come.

  • Republic (Ferry County) September 14 – November 2, 2016. More information
  • Deming (Whatcom County) September 15 – November 3, 2016. More information
  • Preston (King County) September 20 – November 15, 2016. More information
  • Tumtum (Stevens County) September 22 – November 10, 2016. More information
  • Newport (Pend Oreille County) January 10, 2016 – February 28, 2017 (also available via computer streaming for snowbirds and absentee landowners) More information

 

Ties to the Land Classes

Your land will outlive you. Who will care for it when you’re gone? Will it be a family legacy or a family squabble? Will it be kept intact and protected, or will it be divided up and sold off in pieces? Will it become a source of conflict between surviving family members? What is the long-term future that you want for your property? These two-part succession planning workshops, held in two locations this fall, explore these questions and others using the award-winning Ties to the Land curriculum.

  • Colville (Stevens County) September 17 and October 15, 2016.  More information

 

Fall Pizza Seminars  Burlington (Skagit County). More information online or call 425-357-6023

  1. Your Trees and Climate Change – Tuesday, September 113, 2016, 6:30-9:30 p.m.

What does climate change mean for your trees? Are the past three years of record heat and drought a trend or an aberration? How do you manage for climate resilience in your forest? Should you be planting different species like redwood or sequoia? What is the actual evidence regarding climate change, how do you separate it from hype? Award-winning US Forest Service scientist, IPCC member, and Skagit County small woodland owner Dave Peterson will explore these questions and explore how forest owners can manage for healthy, resilient forests whatever the future may hold.

  1. Forest Owner Legal Issues – Wednesday, October 12, 2016, 6:30-9:30 p.m.

Forest owners face unique legal issues, especially when it comes to protection from liability. What if someone gets hurt on your property? Does it make a difference if they are an invited guest vs. trespasser? What if one of your trees falls across the property line and causes injury or damage to a neighbor? What sort of liability insurance should a landowner carry? What if there’s a hazard tree on your neighbor’s property that threatens your house—what can you do? Other issues include property boundaries and how they need to be marked to be able to prosecute for trespassing, how to handle disputes, adverse possession, easements and right-of-ways, getting access to your property if you are landlocked, etc. Spend an evening with land use/real estate/environmental law attorney Leslie Clark from Philips Burgess Law exploring these issues and getting your questions answered.

  1. Forest Safety and Security – Wednesday, October 19, 2016, 6:30-9:30 p.m.

Maintaining the safety and security of your forest property is important for protecting and enjoying it. Trespassing, dumping, vandalism, timber theft, off-road vehicles, drugs, etc. can cause huge headaches and expenses, as well as threaten the safety of you and your family. Spend the evening with US Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Colin Mahoney and his K-9 partner for a discussion of strategies to make it more difficult for the bad guys to cause problems on your land.

 

Save these 2017 workshop dates (and check http://forestry.wsu.edu for more information about these and other landowner education opportunities coming this winter)

  • 25th Annual Family Foresters Workshop, January 20, 2017, Spokane
  • 2017 Logger’s Workshop, March 22, 2017, Ag and Trade Center, Colville

Fuels Reduction and Improved Habitat: Try SLLOPPS (Snags, Logs, Legacy, Openings, Patches, Piles and Shrubs)

Overly aggressive thinning near Lake Chelan
This natural-looking setting near Lake Chelan is anything but natural. Overly aggressive thinning has left it without the snags, down logs, open patches and other features that wildlife need for habitat. Photo: Ken Bevis/DNR

Thinning and fuels reduction are necessary treatments in today’s overstocked dry forests. But sometimes, aggressive implementation of prescriptions can degrade habitats beyond what is really needed for fuels treatments. This article will make a few suggestions on ways to balance these objectives.

If you live in a dry-but-forested area, such as eastern Washington, and are planning a thinning or harvest on your forestland, here’s a simple habitat acronym for you and any contractors you hire to keep in mind: SLLOPPS, which stands for snags, logs, legacy, openings, patches, piles and shrubs. Incorporating these seven features into your project will help reduce future risks of wildfire and insect infestation while promoting a healthy natural habitat for beneficial wildlife.

Natural Forests

In its natural state, the dry forest ecosystem experiences frequent low-intensity fires. This cycle of periodic fire results in tree stands dominated by large, old trees and, generally, not over-stocked with smaller trees and other growth as many stands are today.

Historic photos of eastern Washington and Oregon show classic stands of old ponderosa pine (and some Douglas-fir) with riders on horses and wagons cruising through the open, grassy understory. These conditions did not occur everywhere, but the prevalence of ground fire at 7- to 15-year intervals ensured that these stands seldom suffered crown fires. Individual tree vigor was strong thanks to reduced competition for resources. Thus, fire disturbance helped maintain these forests.

These stands contained large standing dead trees as well, and some enormous down logs that could survive low intensity fires. Regeneration was often patchy, resulting in numerous openings and areas of dense regeneration that might flash out in the next fire. Many shrub species are fire adapted, and after burning would either re-sprout in clumps, or sprout from seed in the soil, creating a vigorous shrub understory.

Wildlife species, such as white headed woodpeckers and flammulated owls, are adapted to this open forest and its plentiful snag and log habitats and rich understory of shrubs.

Human Actions

Native Americans are believed to have played a significant role in the fire ecology of the inland Northwest. Their activities led to the landscape-shaping fires that produced the stands encountered by the early European settlers to this region. Also during this time, lightning fires often would burn until season-ending weather events such as snowfall.

Logging (until very recently) in these dry forests usually removed the large, excellent quality trees. This was economically advantageous but ecologically unfortunate, as these trees would have been the survivors of the fires. Without recognizing what we were doing, we removed the backbone of the dry forest habitat.

The biology of dry forest tree species involves producing large numbers of seeds to give a chance for a few to survive the inevitable fires. Fire suppression efforts that began in the early 20th century inevitably led to the dense stands that we see on the landscape today.

Now, we are aggressively thinning across the landscape, where funding, motivation and political will let us. Unfortunately for wildlife, caution over “fire safe” and “forest health” can lead us to produce stands that are simply “too clean” and “parked out” to serve as quality wildlife habitats.

In this article, I will discuss seven tools — snags, logs, legacy, openings, patches, piles and shrubs (SLLOPPS) — that can provide some habitat diversity while addressing the issues associated with overstocked stands and tree mortality due to stress and insects.

Prescription for Habitat Diversity

SNAGS: Some of the most important habitat features in any forest are made of dead wood; specifically, standing dead trees (snags) and down logs. Live trees with dead portions of their stems and branches can also fill this role. Insects reside in the dead wood, often feeding on fungi, while woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and other birds feed on these insects. Cavities created by woodpeckers during regular nesting and courtship behavior can provide homes for secondary cavity species such as bluebirds or flying squirrels. Because many of these species are voracious feeders on insects, including some that are forest pests, their presence helps to keep the forest healthy but only if suitable habitat is provided so that they can occupy territories for feeding and nesting.

recently thinned stand with several wildlife features
This recently thinned stand on private land displays the key elements (snags, down wood, piled chipped materials, etc.) that make it useful wildlife habitat. Photo: Ken Bevis/DNR

DNR’s cost share thinning projects target dangerous fuels which are generally woody stems less than 3 inches in diameter. These smaller stems will carry fire quickly and spread flames into crowns. Larger wood, which ignites more slowly and creates less flash hazard, can be left for habitat and soil enrichment.

Snags should be greater than 10 inches in diameter at breast height (dbh) in order to provide opportunities for large excavators, such as the hairy woodpecker or flicker, to create cavities. Natural snag densities vary tremendously, so the best policy for habitat is to maintain all snags greater than 10 inches dbh, and protect them from firewood and timber harvests. Forest practices laws in Washington state require 2 wildlife trees per acre; although this is likely not a biologically optimum number, it can serve as a target for forest management. Following this rule could include creating 2 snags per acre where they do not exist. Optimum snag densities are closer to between 12 and 16 snags per acre but in managed forests this is a hard number to reach.

LEGACY: Big trees are the backbones of dry forest ecology. Keep large trees, including defective ones. They will produce more cones and branch surface area than younger stems, provide perches and nest sites, and will become future dead wood.

LOGS: Logs can be treated the same as trees by emphasizing the protection for all large pieces by preventing them from being piled or burned, and by leaving them in place. Scattering tops and large pieces of unmerchantable wood across treated units are additional desirable actions to improve habitat.

OPENINGS: Wildlife also benefits from openings—areas within the forest where all, or nearly all, of the overstory trees are not present. These openings allow shrubs and grasses to flourish as wildlife forage. Natural meadows are the best candidates for these areas, but openings also can be embedded within stands to allow big game animals to feel secure and to provide habitat for other wildlife associated with edge habitats.

PATCHES: Denser habitats made up of young conifers and shrubs provide quality habitat for many species, such as feeding or nesting songbirds, and as browse and cover for big game. Retaining small patches of trees in thinning units can provide this habitat, but it requires forethought and follow through. Before thinning, mark areas from 30 to 50 feet in depth, and at least the same distance in length, or preferably longer. These areas should be left unthinned, (or thinned lightly), in order to maintain shrubs, trees and other mid-level vegetation while providing cover for large mammals such as deer, elk and bear. These patches should be configured across forest units so as to break long-sight distances, and staggered at distances of 200-300 feet apart.

PILES: Wood piles can be left as distinct habitat elements and act as surrogates for down wood. They will provide cover for many species of wildlife. The best approach to creating piles for wildlife involve placing at least three to five layers of larger logs that are crisscrossed, or laid lengthwise in triangular arrangements. When covered with a few layers (about 2 to 3 feet deep) of fine branches, the pile will provide habitat with small interior spaces. Habitat piles also can be used as a non-burning solution for managing slash. Place piles constructed for wildlife away from overhanging trees so that if a pile should catch fire it will not act as a ladder fuel to the crowns. It’s best to provide these wildlife piles at a rate of two to three per acre, preferably in clusters away from roads, trees and structures. Because these piles are not intended as sources of firewood they should be marked for retention after the thinning work is done but before other brush or slash piles are burned.

SHRUBS: Many shrub species provide excellent fruit and vegetation for many types of wildlife. Ask your local U.S. Conservation District office which shrubs are the best for your area. Elderberry is always a good choice, as is most anything else with “berry” in the name.

Putting it All Together

A general rule of thumb for 10 to 15 percent of the project area to be made up of one, or all, of these desirable wildlife habitat elements. Providing patches of habitat for cover, or around a feature such as a snag, can provide much in the way of habitat diversity and reduce the potential impact of thinning projects on the diversity of animal and plant species that live in your forest.

If done thoughtfully, thinning projects that maintain snags, logs and shrubs a sufficient distance from overstory trees will provide quality habitat while improving the health and resilience of dry forest stands. Work closely with contractors and be very specific as to where these habitats are to be provided. Thinning will increase resilience to both fire and insects through improved individual tree vigor, which in turn benefits many wildlife species. Risk of catastrophic loss of entire stands can be avoided with good projects too. And that benefits wildlife in the long term.

Case Study: Swauk Pines, Kittitas County

In 2015, Suzanne Wade of the Kittitas County Conservation District (KCCD) partnered with private landowners at Swauk Pines, a new 50-acre development near Cle Elum made up of 3- to 8-acre parcels in a dry pine forest. The Taylor Bridge fire (2012) came very close to this area and created significant motivation for landowners, some of whom had already built residences while others were in the planning stages, to reduce their wildfire risks while maintaining wildlife habitat.

Swauk Pines development before forest-thinning
BEFORE: Swauk Pines development near Cl Elum before forest-thinning treatments. Note the many small (less than 8” diameter) trees, trees with low branches and the heavy woody understory–all prone to spreading fire. Photo: Ken Bevis/DNR.

Most of the development was treated in a cost share project in which the KCCD worked closely with the thinning contractor to incorporate SLLOPPS principles into the forest treatments. These treatments included retaining large snags and logs, and including shrub patches. A bird survey was conducted before the project began to identify where to create open patches attractive to nesting birds.

Results

As a result of the strategic approach to forest thinning, habitat quality was maintained, fire risk was reduced, and forest health improved large. Homeowners were asked to take responsibility for the areas immediately around their houses. This project is an excellent example of successfully implementing multiple objectives.

Swauk Pines after thinning
AFTER: Swauk Pines after thinning to remove brushy overgrowth and most of the trees less than 8 inches in diameter. Note the retention of snags and patches of shrubs for wildlife. Photos: Ken Bevis/DNR

Including these habitat elements in thinning projects is only the beginning. Vegetation always grows back so the job of maintaining the levels of fuels acceptable to individual landowners is an ongoing task that will need to be revisited every few years.

Thinning and fuel reduction projects are crucial to help our forests survive the current rounds of drought and devastating wildfire. Including habitat elements in these projects is not only possible but an additional benefit of meeting our fire and forest health objectives.

For more information or to schedule a site visit to your forest property, please contact the DNR Small Forest Landowner Office. For information or assistance with habitat, contact DNR Landowner Assistance Wildlife Biologist, Ken Bevis at Ken.Bevis@DNR.wa.gov

By Ken Bevis, DNR Landowner Assistance Wildlife Biologist, Ken.Bevis@DNR.wa.gov