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Measuring plots in the woods

TreeTopics - Tue, 12/05/2017 - 12:05pm

Brad Withrow-Robinson, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension agent for Benton, Linn and Polk Counties

In this series about young stand thinning , I’ve worked on the assumption that people know the density of trees in their woods. I realize that in many cases, people don’t really know that, so cannot easily apply that information to deciding if they have enough room for healthy growth or if trees need to be thinned.

If you know what distance the trees were said to have been planted, you may have a fair idea of the density (a 10’ x 10’ spacing is about 440 trees per acre, a 12’ x 12’ is about 300 tpa). This is a good start, but not necessarily very accurate.   Actual planting spacing can vary quite a bit according to the conditions in the field and experience of the planters.  And of course some seedlings die during establishment, or some other trees may seed in from outside.  So it is probably a good idea to go out and get a better idea of what you’ve got.  The basic way to do this is to measure some plots.

We commonly use circular plots for this since they are easy to install and measure accurately. We choose a radius for the size of the plot we want, (typically 1/100, 1/50, 1/20 or 1/10 of an acre). We use larger plots for larger trees, smaller plots (and typically more of them) for smaller trees. See the table at right.  It is never too early to get an idea of this.  Checking the work of a planting crew often involves checking planting density with a lot of small plots.

So how is this done? Let’s walk through the process together.

First, if you have not measured a plot before, make it easy for yourself. Choose some easy ground with trees that have been pruned up and are not overrun with blackberries.   Something like this, to the left.

I realize this may not describe the young stand you are actually interested in measuring, but since this is a training practice, that is fine. If you don’t have anything that fits this description, maybe ask a neighbor, or someone in your OSWA chapter to practice in theirs.

For this exercise you’ll want a few stakes, some flagging, paper and pencil, and a tape measure (a loggers tape is best). Oh, and maybe bring a friend along to help.

Go into the woods and toss several stakes out around the stand (each with a piece of flagging). Those will be the centers of your practice plots.  Working together, figure out which trees fall within the radius of your plot (for example, 16’ 7” feet for a 1/50 acre plot).  Some will be easy to tell, others will have to be measured from the plot center.  If on the line, count it as “in” only if the center of the tree is within the radius at breast height (which is why it is good to have a helper).  Let’s say you count 6 trees within your 1/50 acre plot.  What’s that mean? That represents a plot density of 300 tpa.  To find that, you multiply your plot count by the denominator of your plot size to get density (or 6 trees x 50 =300tpa).  Repeat on the other practice plots, or until you get the hang of it.


For bonus points, go back and measure the diameter of each of the “in” trees in the plot and record their diameter at breast height (dbh). If you figure the average and compare that to the illustration and description from the earlier post  you can learn how much competition those trees are contending with now, and how much room they have to grow in the future.

So that is the idea. Not that difficult, really.  Getting an accurate measure of a whole stand requires some rigor we will not go into here, but you’ll have to read more about that elsewhere.  But even a few plots can give you some important insight, so I’d encourage you to put in some plots, and start getting an eye for what you have.  It is easy to do when trees are small, before crown closure.  Yes, it can be hard work if your stand is brushy and full of blackberries.  You may want to do a little pruning and clearing in your plots to make it easier. But winter is a great time to do that sort of work.  Good luck.


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Categories: TreeTopics

Living with Wood Sickness

TreeTopics - Thu, 11/30/2017 - 3:55pm

Brad Withrow-Robinson, Forestry & Natural Resources Extension Agent for Benton, Linn and Polk Counties.

The wood sickness is an all-too-common condition that afflicts many in the family forest landowner community.  As described earlier, it is characterized by large accumulations of wood in a person’s yard, shed, garage or barn, excessive buildup of chain saws and other logging tools, portable mills, and all sorts of secondary wood working tools. You know it when you see it.

People with this affliction treat wood with the same passion as collectors of fine wine treat their vintages. Each likes to hide things away and store them cool dark places, often for years at a time.  Yet each is able to recite the source and a story of how they came to own each piece or bottle.  They are determined and very patient waiting for each to find its destiny.

Orson Wells made a series of wine commercials late in his career that captured that spirit when he would declare “We sell no wine before its time.” The parallel sentiment among wood hoarders might be “we use no board before it’s stored.”

An afflicted friend of mine (who will remain unnamed) is remodeling a house and recently put in a hardwood floor. He patiently converted stacks of stickered wood into milled floorboards.  Then, he gradually and laboriously laid them out one by one to create a gorgeous floor of Oregon white oak, bordered with black walnut.  As discussed before, there is no cure for the wood sickness, but it can be helped by therapy.  The therapy is difficult and sometimes painful.  His therapy reduced the amount of wood in his stockpile while producing pain in his knees and back, but was otherwise effective and productive.

There are many people like Jay who are coping and trying to come to grips with their obsession. You see them around town from time to time.  No more so than this time of year, when they commonly emerge from garages and workshops coated in therapeutic sawdust, to display and maybe sell the products of their therapy at art shops, Christmas Bazars and the Local Goods from the Woods fair.  They may be friends, family or even complete strangers, but please show them some holiday spirit.  Meet them half way.

I bet that turned fruit bowl would look terrific in your sister’s dining room.

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Exploring your property’s past: a trip back in time

TreeTopics - Wed, 11/08/2017 - 5:51pm

By Amy Grotta,  OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension – Columbia, Washington & Yamhill Counties

Old basins found at the Matteson Forest probably belonged to a dairy farmer in the mid-20th century.

Ah, November. The wet and the darkness set in and we feel like turning on the teapot and bundling up. For woodland owners, winter lends an opportunity to catch up on indoor projects: accounting, taxes, and maybe updating or writing a management plan.

Another indoor activity that I guarantee will be more interesting than any of the above is researching and putting together a history of your woodland. It may mean digging through old family files or recording the memories of an elder relative, if your property has been in the family for a while. For those with a newer relationship to their land, it may mean a lot of online research. Either way, it can be a revealing and rewarding process; and by documenting what you learn you will gain a richer connection to  your woodland and ensure this history is not lost to future generations.

Not all woodland owners are history buffs, but fortunately Pat Wheeler, a Benton County Master Woodland Manager, is one of them. After painstakingly researching the history of her own property, she not only shared many of the online resources she used with her Extension agent, but also volunteered (or was arm-twisted?) to write up a history of the Cameron Tract (an OSU Research Forest in Benton County).

Once I learned about Pat’s efforts, I became very intrigued and immediately saw an opportunity to put together a similar document for the Matteson Forest. The donor, Marion Matteson, bequeathed the property to OSU in the his will, and we never had an opportunity to meet him or learn much about his relationship to the property (he had no children). We obtained some information about recent management activity from a distant cousin, and we knew from old aerial photographs and some remnants of foundations and machinery that there had once been a couple of homesteads on the property. But that was about it.

So, armed with Pat’s resource list, I set to work. And soon I was in far deeper than I anticipated. It turns out that the Matteson ancestors came over on the Oregon Trail, and were among the first white settlers in the Gaston area, so there was a lot of history to discover. I found myself examining census records from the 1860’s, cemetery inventories, and land patent records, all available online.  I checked out a book about the history of Gaston from my library, and even made a trip to the Pacific University historical archives to look at the proceedings of a 1973 symposium related to the construction of Scoggins Dam.

Eventually I was able to piece together as much as I could into a cohesive, semi-complete story, which I then sent to the distant cousin for fact checking. I learned that what is now the Matteson Forest had been parts of three separate land claims dating to the 1870’s. Over the next century these ownerships changed hands many times, from homesteaders and land speculators, to bank foreclosure during the Depression, to loggers and small farmers.

1909 ownership map of the Matteson Forest vicinity. Source:

Meanwhile the Mattesons who had come on the Oregon Trail staked claims elsewhere in the area, including where the town of Gaston is now situated. Eventually one branch of the family, Marion Matteson’s grandparents, operated a dairy farm on the Scoggins Valley flats. When the Scoggins Dam was built and farmers were bought out to make way for the reservoir, Marion Matteson and his brother started buying property upslope (including the current Matteson Forest) and transitioned from dairy to timber.

The history of the Matteson Tract will be included in the management plan for the property, which is currently in development. Having knowledge of the property’s past gives me and others involved with managing the Matteson Tract a new lens with which to view the land and frame our management decisions. We can deduce, for example, that the oldest timber stands on the property are second-growth, having regenerated naturally after early owners cleared the merchantable timber. These areas may have subsequently seen light use by the early homesteaders, perhaps for livestock ranging and firewood. On the other hand, the areas now occupied by medium-aged Douglas-fir plantations had been in pasture for decades. A rambling apple tree in a small clearing dates back to the earliest known homestead on the property, and may be 100 years old.

I admit I spent far too many hours developing this property history – once you’ve gone down the rabbit trail, it’s hard to pull yourself back out. But I consider it time well spent. On a personal note, I have been facing some serious health issues and this was the perfect project to distract me from reality for a while.  Perhaps you or another member of your woodland family are also in need of a distraction this winter. If so, I encourage you to dig into your own property history and record it for others in the future. You can find our resource list for getting started, along with the Cameron and Matteson Tract examples, on the Oregon Forest Management Planning website.

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Swedish visitors come to learn about our forest history

TreeTopics - Tue, 10/03/2017 - 3:24pm
Swedish Historical Society members outside a small Swedish church in Mist, OR

When I was on the Forest Tour to Sweden and Norway in June 2016,  I learned that the Scandinavians are serious about their history as well as their forests.

So it should really come as no surprise that a group from the Swedish Forest History Society would visit Oregon to learn about our Forest History.

Touring from Seattle to San Francisco, the group spent several days in Oregon moving down the lower Columbia to the Coast, then going through the Tillamook State Forest on the way to the Valley.

Looking at a steam donkey and other old equipment at Camp 18

Along the way they heard about the significant role Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish immigrants played in the development of the region in general and the timber industry in particular.  The Scandinavian immigrants were experienced and hardy woods workers and also pioneering business entrepreneurs who left an enduring mark on the region.  At Camp 18, railroad and forest historian Ed Kamholz talked about the evolution of logging methods in the US, and they saw some of the equipment involved in hauling very large logs out of the woods. At the Tillamook Forest Center, they learned about the Tillamook Burn, its effect on the environment, communities and forest policy that led to the creation of the State Forest there.  They went on to visit the Hanschu’s, family forest landowners in Washington County, the Holiday Christmas Tree farm and a logging operation on Starker Forest land in Benton County to see how things are done today.  They also spent a morning at the Hull-Oakes Lumber Co., a unique piece of living history outside Monroe.

An important part of their trip was connecting with local members of the American Forest History Society (FHS).  Doug Decker, past director of the Oregon Department of Forestry (the State Forester) and incoming chair of the FHS may have been preaching to a visiting choir when he talked about the importance of history in understanding the present and informing and future.  His point was that to understand current policy and management directions, we really need to understand how we got here.  History is very interesting in itself, but it also has an important role to play in understanding our current situation and future options.  Even while driving forward, it is helpful to keep an eye every once in a while on the rear-view mirror.

Doug Decker describes the fire map at the Tillamook Forest Center

This was an important observation to make on their visit to the Tillamook State Forest while large fires burned through the Columbia Gorge and elsewhere across the state.  To manage our forests and other natural resources, the public needs some understanding  of how we got to where we are (history) as well as the current constraints and limitations as we move forward.  The Swedish visitors knew that.  It showed in the nature of their questions.

How well do most Oregonians understand that?  I’d encourage you not to take our history, or its impact for granted.  Why not visit the Tillamook Forest Center  this year?  It is a great facility and an excellent opportunity to learn about a key event that shaped the forest, our attitudes and policies for generations.

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This Forest’s Diversity is for the Birds

TreeTopics - Fri, 09/08/2017 - 11:40am

Brad Withrow-Robinson, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension agent, Benton, Linn and Polk Counties

Earlier in this series (click here), we talked about some of the reasons people are interested in growing a diverse forest, some of the key components of diversity, and also some of the many ways to enhance your woods’ diversity.  The idea was to show that a landowner often has a very wide range of future options, but often needs to make choices and take actions to achieve their goals.  I know this may have seemed academic to some readers, so we will share some examples of how this looks in practice.

A meadow creates open areas where sun loving plants such as oak thrive and also forest edges that are attractive to certain wildlife.

A good example of managing for diversity to meet some specific wildlife and timber objectives is Cedar Spring tree farm near Airlie, owned by Dave Hibbs, Sarah Karr and their family.

Sarah is an avid birder, determined that any property they own provide benefits for wildlife as well as for her family. Dave is a retired OSU forestry professor interested in producing future high quality timber along with other benefits from their woods.  So, Dave and Sarah are typical of many families, with co-owners having some different objectives and priorities.  But they  have a willingness and ability to manage for multiple objectives that can be met by growing a diverse forest. So let’s take a look at some of the ways they do this.

It began by thinking about and writing down what they are trying to accomplish. They have a management plan that lists their goals. Developing this plan together forced them to be clear about their individual priorities and then to decide how to combine them in a way that works for both of them.

They then considered places on their property that are most critical to, or perhaps best suited to meeting each of those objectives. Different parts of a property naturally lend themselves to some objectives better than others.  An important step towards limiting conflicts between sometimes-competing objectives is not expecting to accomplish everything on every acre.

Together these two steps help them refine and focus their efforts. For example, among the species Sarah is particularly keen on is the band tailed pigeon, a migratory bird that is abundant on their property each summer.  The main attraction for the band tailed pigeon is the natural mineral spring in a small meadow. With this as the habitat cornerstone,  Sarah is interested in providing other important habitat needs. Besides maintaining the open meadows around the springs, this includes providing tall roosting/perching sites and also many berry producing trees and shrubs.  That is, they have identified specific parts of species diversity (berry producing trees and shrubs) and structural diversity (open meadow near the springs and tall perch trees) that are important to manage for.

This takes us to some of the specific management practices discussed in earlier posts.

In an area salvaged and planted after blow down, some small snags and down wood are left along with a blue elderberry.

They spent their first decade of ownership controlling invasive weeds, mostly blackberry and scotch broom that were taking over. These weeds were closing in the meadow, making the springs less accessible for the pigeons and, elsewhere on the property, out-competing many other plants, including the young conifer trees. They replanted large areas where trees had been lost to weed competition, mixing in clumps of some different species such as cedar and pine where suited.  Aggressive weed control served both of their key objectives.  But the execution was different for Dave and Sarah than it might be for other landowners focused only on timber production, where any non-conifer tree or shrub may be considered a weed.  Native fruiting trees and shrubs such as madrone, blue elderberry and dogwood were favored, tolerated or treated as a weed, depending on their size, location, and competitiveness.  That is, they controlled competition while keeping a lot of natural diversity.

They have spent the following decades tending the woods with a similar approach, depending primarily on thinning and perpetual weed control by mowing or spraying, as appropriate to enhance or maintain diversity.

Selective thinning has help maintain a mixed canopy of hardwoods and softwoods.

Not long after finishing replanting some areas, Dave began thinning the young stands. The objective there was to adjust densities to meet key timber growing objectives and also, to maintain the species diversity of the stand.  Without thinning, and particularly without including “maintaining diversity” as one of the thinning objectives, much of the diversity in some stands would likely have been lost, with little but the fastest growing species surviving the first intense crush of competition.

Dave decided in some cases and locations to remove competing hardwoods, and in others to promote them by removing a competing conifer. This choice clearly benefited the wildlife objective at the expense of future timber production.  But it was a calculated tradeoff, applied in some places, and not in others.  Some of those trees killed or left to die are turned into snags, providing another important part of structural diversity.

Dave and Sarah now have a property with a diverse mix of stands and a robust population of band tailed pigeons visiting each summer. Many other birds and animals live there seasonally or year-round too.

So there you have a short example of how someone is growing a diverse forest to meet multiple objectives. It has taken some thought, purpose, and understanding of how trees grow and compete, along with a significant amount of work.  It sometimes has an opportunity cost in less efficient timber production.  But then, efficient timber production often has an opportunity cost of less diversity or less effective habitat production.  That is something each landowner can and should decide for themselves.  In this case, these two objectives are met largely by managing different parcels for different primary objectives.  The meadow and springs are for the pigeons, as are some very diverse stands nearby.  Other stands are clearly dedicated to long term timber production.


Sara and Dave share stories and strategies with fellow landowners. Cull trees are sometimes girdled to leave standing dead trees. Wrens and other birds love small brush piles made from pruning slash



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Categories: TreeTopics

Preparing for thinning

TreeTopics - Thu, 08/17/2017 - 4:33pm

By Amy Grotta, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension, Columbia, Washington & Yamhill Counties

This month we have been spending some time at the Matteson Demonstration Forest getting ready for a commercial thinning project. The actual logging will happen next summer, but we are taking care of road improvements, surveying property lines, laying out the harvest boundaries and marking the stand now, so that we are ready to go when the contractor is available.  OSU forestry students who are summer interns with the OSU Research Forests gained hands-on experience by doing a lot of this work.

OSU Research Forests staff Brent Klumph and Steve Fitzgerald, and interns Becca and Zane discussing harvest layout

This will be a cut-to-length project. A processor will travel corridors through the stand, reaching in and cutting selected trees, limbing and bucking them all in one process. There are many advantages to this type of harvest system. For example, the machinery travels over the bed of slash it produces, minimizing soil disturbance.  Also, cut-to-length is efficient in terms of time, labor and precision cutting of the logs to maximize scaling. Some of the disadvantages are that it requires advance planning, there are relatively few operators often booked out far in advance, and the fixed costs are relatively high.

Here’s a video of one type of cut-to-length machine working.

At Matteson, we will be treating about 29 acres of Douglas-fir plantation about 30 years old. Because of our education and demonstration mission, we will implement several different prescriptions in different treatment areas across the acreage, for comparison.

Getting some numbers

The first thing we needed to develop our thinning plan was some stand data. We have installed a network of 0.1-acre permanent inventory plots across the property, and eleven of those plots fall in the area to be thinned.

The plot data showed that on average, the stand density is about 250 trees/acre and most trees are between 9 and 14 inches DBH.  Putting each plot on a density table, we see that most of the stand is in the “Danger Zone” meaning that it is too dense. Ideally, thinning should have been done a few years ago.

This diagram shows how stand density, tree size, and competition interact. For an explanation of the different competition zones, see a previous post. Each blue diamond represents one of the inventory plots in the stand to be thinned. Diagram credit: B. Withrow-Robinson

Aside from the numbers, visual cues tell us that the stand is in the Danger Zone. There is very little vegetation on the ground, the trees’ live crowns are receding to around 1/3 of the total tree height, and there is scattered competition-induced mortality.

Developing prescriptions

Our objectives with the thinning are to produce income, improve stand health, and set the stand up to produce high quality timber in the future. We also want to show how thinning can be implemented in different ways, to achieve different objectives.

Over most of the unit, we chose a “future pole” thinning prescription.  Poles have high value, but trees must meet exacting specifications. In essence, this treatment involves cutting trees that will never make a pole because of defects such as spike knots, double tops, or too much sway in the trunk. Any tree that has pole potential (straight, few knots, etc.) will be left, regardless of crown class. If this prescription results in areas that are still too dense, then those areas will be thinned from below; if it would leave areas too sparse, then in those areas some non-pole trees will be left.

In this sample marked area, the painted trees are to be cut.

We set aside a few demonstration areas for other prescriptions.  We’re still working out the specifics of these alternatives, but we have a few ideas we are working with. One is a standard thin from below, removing the smallest/most defective and leaving the remaining trees as evenly distributed as possible. For example, out of each group of four trees two would be cut. This would remove half of the trees (but only about a third of the volume) and leave the remaining trees with plenty of room to grow. I estimate that most of the stand would move to the “Lower Goldilocks” zone under this scenario (not too dense, not too open, “just right”: see above table). However, one of the concerns about thinning an overly dense stand is that the trees left behind are unstable when too many of their neighbors are cut. So if we wanted to be more conservative and do a lighter thin, we could cut two of every five in the same way. But, this would be less profitable and also mean that the stand would close up again very soon.

Either of these prescriptions would be easy for us to mark and for the operator to follow. However, they perpetuate a uniform, plantation-style stand with low structural diversity. What if we wanted to mix it up? One idea is to thin from below with a diameter limit: cut anything 11” DBH and smaller, and leave anything 12” DBH and larger. Exceptions to the rule could be made, for example if a 12” tree has a defect and an 11” tree next to it has good form, the 12” tree would be cut and the 11” tree would be kept. Because this prescription is based on tree size rather than spacing, we’re expecting it would result in a patchier arrangement of leave trees that would still have plenty of room to grow.

Going further, we could do a “structural diversity makeover” thin, to demonstrate a way to actively move a uniform plantation to a more diverse forest. We could thin from below across most of this area, but then cut all the trees in a few gaps, to encourage understory vegetation or even tree regeneration. We could even strategically place these gaps in places where there is already a hardwood shrub or two. Because the processor needs to cut 12-foot corridors to travel through, and can reach in 30 feet on either side, we could also place our gaps along the corridors. Finally, we can create snags, by marking trees for the processor to cut up high – like 15 to 20 feet up. Trees with a defect in the lower bole would make good candidates for created snags.

Finally, a couple small areas won’t be thinned at all, just to demonstrate how that plays out. One of these surrounds an old piece of farm machinery left from one of the homesteads that were on the property. Because this is considered a cultural resource, we want to avoid disturbing the site, so putting our unthinned area around it makes sense.

Blending science and art

It’s often said that silviculture is a blend of science and art. We can look at data and design prescriptions on paper, but ultimately conditions in the stand will also influence what we do. And that is where marking the stand comes in. It’s very time consuming to mark an entire large stand, so the Research Forests crew marked some sample areas of the “future pole” prescription. The contractor will work in these areas first to get a feel for the prescription, then move to unmarked areas. For more complex prescriptions, such as the “structural diversity makeover”, we will probably mark the whole demonstration area (each one less than an acre).

What do you think of these thinning scenarios? Is there something else you would like to see?

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