Nicole Strong on the West Bend Project
If you spend a lot of time in the forest, you develop an emotional attachment to your landscape, to your forest, and the trees and wildlife that live there. When you then see that landscape getting altered, it can be unsettling. The thing about forests is, they are always changing and they always have been. Either by human manipulation or natural processes and disturbance, forests are dynamic evolving systems.
So in the case of the changes happening in our forest around Bend, I am really excited and here’s why you should be too!
A lot of our low elevation ponderosa pine forests are in bad shape. They are relatively young, extremely dense, and awfully homogenous (too much of the same thing) when compared to how these forests looked historically. That’s because back in the 1910’s – 1920’s these forests were logged quite intensively. At the same time we became really good at suppressing the natural, low-intensity wildfires that had maintained healthy ponderosa forests for thousands of years.
The thing about forests is, they are always changing and they always have been.
The combination of these two practices has left us with the landscape we’re familiar with today: dense, even-aged forests that are unhealthy and vulnerable to the extreme wildfires that were historically so uncommon. I don’t want to spend a lot of time pointing fingers at practices from the past, but instead look forward to see what we have now and what we can do about it.
Most of the young, black-barked ponderosa pine trees you see are really young (60-90 years old) especially when you consider ponderosa pine can live to be 500-700 years old! The other thing to consider when we think about these forests relates to our soil and the relatively small amount of precipitation we get in Central Oregon each year compared to the west side of the Cascades. We have pretty poor soil that doesn’t hold water well (that’s why we have dust when the west side has tack). This also means that we cannot sustain as many healthy trees on any given acre compared to say, Oakridge or Hood River.
What I don’t see when I ride through Phil’s trails are the following:
- Big, old trees and a diversity of tree ages
- Big, old snags (standing dead trees, aka wildlife condos) and down logs
- Enough openings with native shrubs and grasses
In short: I don’t see a diverse forest!
What I do see when I ride through Phil’s trails:
- Too many young trees that are all the same age competing with each other for water
- A sea of dense vegetation that could rapidly spread a wildfire
- Pretty poor bird and deer habitat
The restoration work happening (thinning, mowing, prescribed burning) around Phil’s right now aims to put the forest on a trajectory to grow healthy old trees, improve wildlife habitat, and reduce the risk of high severity wildfire. And this is not the old-school logging that got us into the predicament in the first place. This is science-based forest restoration focused on removing the small and medium sized trees to leave the biggest and healthiest to become the forest of the future. I know it’s an inconvenience. I’m tired of riding Ben’s trail as well. So think of it as an opportunity to get out and explore other areas, go for a road ride, or finally start that strength or flexibility workout you’ve been promising yourself you would incorporate into your riding….
I like to think that this is a short-term inconvenience that is going to create amazing long-term benefits.
I’ll take one season of weekdays away from a few of our trails in exchange for increased community safety, and healthy, resilient and more diverse forests for decades to come.
This is always best discussed in the forest. If there is interest, I am happy to organize a group walk-through to discuss all of this further.
Also, I encourage you to learn more: http://deschutescollaborativeforest.org/
This article was contributed by Nicole Strong. Nicole is a Bend resident, mountain biker, and an Assistant Professor at Oregon State University, with degrees in Wildlife Science and Forest Resources.