Wood products industry professionals tour experimental healthy forestPosted: November 2, 2011
LUBRECHT EXPERIMENTAL FOREST – Somewhere between the clearcut practices of 30 years ago and today’s debate over the proper size of wood chips, forest sustainability and management has absorbed some majorchanges.
“We’ve had to work on regaining trust,” Montana State University extension forestry professor Peter Kolb said of modern forestry science. “We used to have a pretty simplistic model of forest management, based on what we called a ‘2-by-4 mentality.’ But just because you have drunk drivers on the road, doesn’t mean you outlaw driving.”
Kolb spoke during a tour of the University of Montana’s Lubrecht Experimental Forest, which is part of a regional Forest Products Industry Week launched by the 2011 Legislature. Tuesday’s participants also visited Seeley Lake’s Pyramid Mountain Lumber mill and the nearby Girard Grove of old-growth larch trees.
The 28,000-acre forest preserve just half an hour away from Missoula provides lots of lab space to test forest treatment ideas. Because of its geographic location, Lubrecht has about 70 percent of Montana’s different ecosystems – from moist old growth to prairie grassland. And it’s big enough to contain dozens of experiments in logging, burning, wildlife and replanting techniques.
“Forests in this region are very dynamic,” Kolb said. “What happens on this 10 acres is different than that 10 acres. You can’t manage forests based on what’s going on somewhere else.”
That’s a challenge for Montana forests. Unlike the rainy, homogenous tree stands of Washington and Oregon, Montana’s hillsides are governed by fire and a lack of moisture. The natural result is a mosaic of different species and growth levels carefully adapted to the limitations of a specific site.
So one spot might be perfect for open stands of ponderosa pine, while a dense block of Douglas fir and larch could dominate the next pocket. In places where all the old growth was logged, uniform stands of lodgepole pine often take over, throwing the original system out of whack.
Much of Lubrecht was logged off around the turn of the 20th century by the Anaconda Mining Co.
“Parts of it looked more like antelope country than forest when we inherited it,” forest manager Frank Maus said. That gave researchers lots of opportunities to test how trees and forbs, or flowering plants, grow back, and how new and old growth influence one another.
Lately, there’ve been lots of experiments in defending against mountain pine beetle infestations. Maus said some plots have been attacked so fast, longer-running projects have been derailed by loss of trees to beetles.
The loss of Montana’s paper-pulp industry with the closure of Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.’s mill presented a problem with disposing the leftover branches and tops of logged trees. Kolb showed one plot where ancient trees had toppled naturally and decomposed. Those rotten trees return nutrients to the soil and hold moisture necessary for other plants to grow.
Researchers have been trying to duplicate the process with relatively young slash and other logging refuse. They’ve found that chipping the material and piling it in certain-sized mounds shortened an 80-year process to a 10-year one. But make the piles too big, and they risk spontaneous combustion. Too small, and the wood chips dry out and don’t decompose.
“The closer you can simulate what naturally happens, the more natural organisms can take advantage of it,” Kolb said. That has an impact on how loggers clean up a work site. Chipping and mounding the refuse costs money, but it also reduces the future fire danger and improves the habitat.
“A lot of people think forests are natural and you can just leave them alone,” said Chris Town, a Natural Resource Conservation Service forester along for the tour. “But when you make a decision to buy a house in the forest, you just made a management decision.”
Whether that means defending a home against forest fire or deciding how to log it for profit or beetle protection, forestry science has developed lots of new options. Kolb estimated the field has 10 times the understanding of forest ecosystems it had a decade ago, and 100 times what it knew two decades ago.
“Forest owners are show-me people,” Kolb said. “Lubrecht is great because I can show them places where management has been done that leaves a beautiful forest behind.”