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Last Updated:
Feb 12th, 2006 - 10:45:29 


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Sadler's Sense: Of Forests and The River

Daniel Donato and team's Forest Regeneration Study and a Farewell to Capt. Murray

By Russell Sadler

Posted on Feb 7, 2006

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It isn’t often an academic dean gets up in public and apologizes for participating in an effort to suppress the work of a graduate student because it conflicts directly with a study done by other faculty members. But that’s exactly what Oregon State University College of Forestry Dean Hal Salwasser did.

"I profoundly regret the negative debate that recent events have generated," he wrote in a letter to the college. Salwasser went further and said he should have congratulated the graduate student, Daniel Donato, for having his research published in the journal Science.

Donato and five OSU and U.S. Forest Service scientists concluded that logging in the Biscuit Burn in Southern Oregon damaged seedlings growing back on their own and littered the forest floor with tinder the could fuel future forest fires. They argued that “can be counterproductive to goals of forest regeneration and fuel reduction.”

The Donato study conflicts directly with an earlier study conducted by OSU academic heavyweights John Sessions and Mike Newton that concluded salvage logging and reforestation after the Biscuit Burn, could regenerate the forest faster than more natural methods.

The Donato study was politically inconvenient because the Bush administration and Congressman Greg Walden (R-Oregon) are using the Sessions-Newton study as the basis for Walden’s latest amendments to the “Healthy Forests Act” of 2003.

Salwasser joined other OSU faculty members in pressuring Science not to publish the Donato findings. The editors at Science sent the Donato paper though their peer review process and said they had no reason not to publish the article. It appeared in the January 20, 2006 issue.

Political inconveniences aside, we laymen have walked into the cafeteria of ideas in the middle of an academic food fight of major importance. Over the years as OSU’s College of Forestry has grown in size it has added more than traditional foresters to its faculty. OSU added engineers and ecologists. Forest engineers, like most civil engineers, like to tinker with the established order. Ecologists are trained as observers of whole natural systems and are more inclined to watch nature take its course.

Foresters trained in Oregon particularly, get their orthodoxy from the history of the Tillamook Burn. This legendary forest fire erupted in August 1933 in the Coast Range between Tillamook and Forest Grove and burned about 240,000 acres.

More seriously the Burn caught fire again and again, every six years until 1951 -- it was called the six-year jinx -- despite the best efforts of foresters to fireproof the original burn. The problem was finally solved, after many missteps, by aggressively logging all standing burned timber, toppling snags, sweeping the forest floor of all fuels and aggressively hand planting seedlings.

This practice became the only way to treat burned-over forests. You hear the echoes in the Sessions-Newton report.

Ecologists and younger foresters have a different experience. They study the Warner Creek Fire in 1991 in the Willamette National Forest where aggressive salvage logging was specifically limited because of the steep slopes. Studies show a more diverse forest regenerating without salvage logging and aggressive hand planting of commercial tree species.

So who’s right?

It’s fair to say the jury isn’t in yet. The Donato study alone doesn’t prove the thesis that salvage logging is worse for forest regeneration than a decision to leave the area unlogged.

Indeed supporters of the Sessions-Newton study say they will write a critique for Science magazine and try to discredit Donato’s work. Donato deserves more respect than that.

Donato’s work is reminiscent of another scientist who systematically debunked the prevailing orthodoxy of forest management -- Dr. Jerry Franklin.

Franklin, who is now finishing a distinguished career at the University of Washington College of Natural Resources, spent more than 40 years studying old growth forests, primarily in the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Willamette National Forest east of Eugene.

When Franklin began his research, it was an article of faith with foresters -- old growth forests had ceased to grow. Old growth was “dead, dying and decadent,” biological deserts that had to be logged to make room for “vigorous young forests,” just brimming with biological diversity.

Franklin and his many colleagues learned reality was just the opposite. It was newly sterilized and replanted clearcuts that were the biological deserts, while the old growth forest was the most biologically diverse part of the forest. Franklin has never been forgiven by some of his colleague for disproving the prevailing orthodoxy. Franklin’s findings are the foundation of today’s forest ecosystem management.

Daniel Donato and his colleagues just may be in the process of doing to salvage logging what Jerry Franklin did to clearcutting. Donato will get his chance as long as OSU’s College of Forestry is administered by people like Hal Salwasser who are willing to let science go where science will go and are not afraid to get up in public and admit they are wrong from time to time.

For the week of January 30, 2006

Capt. Kevin Murray’s colleagues and friends officially said goodbye this last week at a memorial service overlooking the Columbia River. It was a sailor’s send off with flowered wreaths cast upon the water and and eight bells rung for the symbolic end of a watch.

Capt. Murray was the Columbia River Bar Pilot who was lost January 9 when he failed to make the transfer from the cargo ship Dry Beam to the pilot boat Chinook at night, in 18 foot seas and 40 knot winds. Murray’s body was found two days later when it washed up on Copalis Beach, north of Gray’s Harbor on the Washington Coast.

The first Columbia bar pilot history records is a Chinook chief named Comcomly, who paddled out in a canoe to guide sailing ships through the shallows as early as 1795. Astoria ship captain George Flavel got the first pilot’s license from the Territorial Legislature in 1851. Capt. Murray was one of a small group of elite mariners -- there are 20 Columbia River bar pilots -- licensed to guide large ships over one of the most treacherous bars in the world.

The Columbia is called the Graveyard of the Pacific for good reason. It has claimed more than 2,000 ships and 700 lives since people started keeping track. This toll raises the question, “Why do people take this risk?” The answer is the commerce they help facilitate is important.

Inbound ships bring automobiles from Japan and Korea and containerized freight from all over the world. Inbound tankers bring petroleum products from refineries in Northern Washington and Southern California to the Willbridge terminal in Portland where they are distributed by pipeline, barge and truck throughout Oregon and southern Washington and as far east as Lewiston, Idaho.

Outbound ships carry Northwest agricultural products to the world. Soft white wheat grown in Eastern Oregon and Washington comes down to the Columbia River ports of Portland, Vancouver and Kalama by barge and railcar. From there, cargo ships take the wheat to Japan and Korea where it is made into ramen noodles, a dietary staple in Asia. Still other ships take the soft white wheat to Middle East countries, like Lebanon, where it is baked into pita bread.

In more recent years, hard red wheat grown in America’s midwest arrives at Columbia River ports by train for export in outbound ships. The volume of midwest wheat has increased sharply since Hurricane Katrina crippled the Port of New Orleans where that wheat was once delivered by barge.

The Columbia Gorge cuts a water level route through two mountain ranges to the sea. Easy access from the east and Portland’s location at the junction of three interstate highways and connections with two transcontinental railroads, continues to allow Portland to be a competitive ocean port although it is 70 miles from the sea.

But it is the Columbia River bar that determines the utility of this important artery of world commerce. Just 20 captains are in charge of shepherding oceangoing vessels over that bar. And getting off and on the ships from the pilot boat remains the most dangerous part of the job. It is work for young, agile people. But by the time captains have the experience and accumulated wisdom to guide other ships over the Columbia bar, they are no longer young.

Capt. Murray held an ocean masters license. He was qualified to handle any ship. He was invited to become a Columbia River pilot in November 2004. He was 50 when he died. Many professional athletes are considered past their prime at 35. The bar pilots are still transferring from ships to pilot boats, climbing rope ladders up and down 50-80 foot steel cliffs, day and night, in nearly any kind of weather, into their 60s.

The pilots are not hidebound traditionalists. They consider new technology that may reduce their risk. The pilots’ bought a helicopter and practiced transfers dangling from cables swaddled in dry suits and winched to and from the decks of ships. They came to the conclusion that the helicopter was at least as risky as the old-fashioned rope ladder transfer from pilot boat to ship.

Pilots wear inflatable floatation equipment. They carry radio beacons, reflectors and lights when transferring. But equipment can only minimize the risk, not eliminate it.

The Columbia River Bar can be as calm as a teacup. Then the tide changes. Millions of gallons of river water trying to get out, suddenly meet millions of gallons of ocean trying to get in over a shallow bar. A wind comes up from the west or southwest and the teacup becomes a wind-whipped, swirling white maelstrom in a matter of minutes. Suddenly it’s one of the most dangerous places on earth.

Unless you live along the river, all this ocean commerce is out-of-sight, out-of-mind. It takes a tragic loss, like the death of Capt. Murray, to give a glimpse of visibility to the remarkable way some of your neighbors earn their living.

Tom Bennett of the Daily Astorian contributed background reporting for this column.

Copyright ©2006 by Russell Sadler

Russell Sadler is a journalist and a lecturer at Southern Oregon University. You may write him c/o publisher at Visit Sadler's Sense column's at West By

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