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Amy Grotta's Tree Topics
Serving small woodland owners and managers in the Willamette Valley and northwest Oregon
Updated: 15 hours 32 min ago
The phone has been ringing off the hook lately with calls from people describing sick and dying Douglas-fir and other conifer trees. The trees are of a wide range of ages and in many environments and settings, although most calls have been coming from within the valley margin and have to do with young trees.
So far, the answer is generally: “It is drought stress”. Huh, in May? Well it has been a dry winter and spring, … but that is not the issue.
My best explanation is that we had a pretty hard end of summer last year. Remember that? NO rain until mid-October then, Boom, it was winter. By then, many trees had started running out of water, killing tops or branches, and leaving leaders and branches susceptible to attack by various opportunistic pests.
We started seeing a few classic signs of drought stress (tops dying and branches “flaring out”) at the very end of the season last year, but late enough that many did not have time to show up before the weather turned. Injuries had occurred, so it was just a matter of time before they expressed themselves, which is happening now. The recent hot weather seems to have made it more sudden and dramatic.
It is important to keep in mind that the Willamette Valley can be a challenging climate for trees. Many of our soils in the valley are poorly drained, which is hard on most of our conifers, and other soils are fairly shallow and cannot hold much water. Also our summers are hotter and drier than in the mountains. Heat and drought stress can kill trees outright, or more often just put the trees under stress, which can then lead to pest problems (as explained in the two publications above). From what I am seeing and hearing, the major cause of the problem now seems to be drought stress. Insect or diseases which able to take advantage of a stressed tree’s condition may sometimes be involved, but they are generally not the cause of the problems.
Finally, weather can be more stressful when trees are overcrowded, so thinning stands to keep trees vigorous with adequate growing space may be helpful in the long term. Right now, we just have to wait it out, and hope we get some serious rain this year, or we will see this problem intensify.
We all better get out there and wash the car…..
In response to last week’s post on the value of dead wood in the forest, I received this e-mail from a landowner:
“We’ve never left much on the ground in the way of dead wood…not during logging, but wind damaged, etc. Our thought has always been that these rotting logs increase the insects in the forest, both good and bad. Is this a valid concern and if so, where is the balance between bugs and wildlife?”
He raises a point worth exploring. While calling an insect “good” or “bad” is a matter of perspective, for the purposes of this discussion let’s assume that “bad” insects are those that cause economic or environmental damage, and “good” insects are those that don’t. The vast majority of insects that inhabit western Oregon forests fall into the “good” category…with a few notable exceptions.
One of these “bad” bugs that the e-mailer might have in mind is the Douglas-fir beetle. This time of year, the adult beetles are flying around in search of Douglas-fir trees where they lay their eggs underneath the bark. Their favorite targets are large diameter, freshly downed logs—or standing trees that are weakened from another cause (root disease, soil compaction, etc.). Through the summer and winter, the eggs hatch and the larvae grow as they tunnel around under the bark (this activity is what kills the tree). The following spring, they have become adult beetles, and they fly away in search of new homes. If they can’t find another weak tree or fresh log, they will go after a healthy tree.
Healthy trees can withstand a low-level Douglas-fir beetle attack, and in normal circumstances there are rarely enough beetles around to cause concern. The problem arises when the beetle population builds up and lots of them infest a healthy tree at once. When does that happen? In situations where there is a lot of freshly downed or damaged wood on the ground for them to target initially – like after a winter windstorm.
Here’s a true story for illustration.
In fall 2009, a landowner in the Coast Range was hit hard by beetle kill to his otherwise healthy, 100+ year old forest. Why? Here’s how we think this may have played out.
- The stand is adjacent to a sawmill.
- The big windstorm of December 2007 created lots of blowdown along the coast, though this particular stand was too far inland to be damaged.
- Some of the coastal blowdown was not salvaged until summer 2008…too late, because Douglas-fir beetles had already found them during the spring.
- The salvaged logs were brought to the mill, along with the beetle larvae living under the bark.
- Then, in late 2008 the recession hit and the mill curtailed operations. The logs sat in the deck…and the beetles matured.
- In spring 2009, they emerged and flew off to the neighboring stand, where they attacked the healthy, mature trees.
It was a sad situation, especially since the landowner had to cut more trees to avert further beetle damage, and in a poor market.
So, back to the e-mailer’s question: does retaining snags and downed wood for wildlife create a forest health risk? The take-home messages are these:
- Most insects are not forest health risks.
- In western Oregon, the Douglas-fir beetle (the “baddest” dead wood-inhabiting insect) only thrives in FRESHLY dead or downed trees. Once the snag or downed wood has been dead for more than a year, it is no longer a target. Instead, it will become inhabited by the dozens of “good” bugs that feed wildlife.
- There needs a LOT of this fresh down wood to pose a forest health risk – like after a storm. According to Oregon Department of Forestry, a good rule of thumb is that fewer than 3 FRESH down logs/acre does not present a hazard.
After a windstorm or other stand-damaging event, yes, prompt salvage is important in order to prevent a beetle infestation. But, when scattered trees gradually die in a stand from other causes, it is hard to imagine when this would create a risky situation with respect to bark beetles. And during harvest activities, you can be strategic about how much dead wood is left behind, and in what conditions.
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I recently was at a conference on “Wildlife in Managed Forests” sponsored by the Oregon Society of American Foresters and the Oregon chapter of The Wildlife Society. Speakers discussed current research on wildlife damage and wildlife habitat enhancement projects across western Oregon and Washington. There was far too much interesting stuff for this short article, so in this post I will focus on one recurring theme of the meeting. It’s one of the easiest and most effective ways to maintain a wildlife-friendly forest: retaining dead wood as snags (standing dead trees) or downed wood (on the ground). I’ll return to some other topics later.
Nearly 100 species of animals in Oregon (mostly birds) use snags. First, birds such as woodpeckers forage on insects living in these trees and then excavate cavities in them for nesting. Later, these cavities are used by other bird and mammals for nesting and shelter. Raptors such as hawks may also use snags as perches, from which they can prey on voles or other mammals that might damage seedlings.
With snags, the rule of thumb is “bigger is better” – smaller diameter snags will only be used by smaller animals and do not last as long. So if scattered trees die on your property, consider leaving them for wildlife, keeping safety in mind. Snags can also be created artificially during harvest. Mechanical harvesters can top trees up to 20 feet or so, and so can create a snag out of a tree with a defect down low but a merchantable top. The second best option, if you cannot safely cut the tree up high, is to fell the tree and leave the defective portion in the woods where wildlife will use it. Now it has become “downed wood.”
Just a few days after the workshop, I was out visiting with a landowner near Rainier. A small harvest had just been completed, and the logger had left a big, defective log alongside the unit (shown in photo below). The owner wondered, could it have been sold as a pulp log? Should she see if someone wanted it for firewood? I suggested that the log was already providing value, and probably more than what might have ended up in her wallet from these potential uses. Downed wood is used for cover, travel corridors, breeding spaces, and are especially important for amphibians such as newts.
The naturally regenerated alder in the background had come in after a harvest that had left little to no wood on the ground. The foreground will soon be planted back to conifers, which will take decades to reach a size that will provide a new source of snags or downed wood. By carrying over some downed wood like the log in the photo from one forest generation to the next, you can ensure some continuity of these wildlife-friendly habitat elements. Consider not disturbing down logs that are already in your forest – they are playing an important role, and besides, your equipment may take a beating if you try to move them or run them over!
Have you created or left snags or downed wood on your property? Do you have evidence of wildlife using these structures? I would like to create a photo gallery. Send me a photo of dead wood in your forest with a description of how it came to be or who you think is using it. If I get enough responses, I’ll share them all in a future article.
For more information on managing for wildlife, check out “Wildlife in Managed Forests: Oregon Forests as Habitat” published by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute. You can find it and many other publications about forest wildlife at KnowYourForest.org.