Decades of experimentation in a 270,000-acre Olympic Peninsula “laboratory” has changed the way state timberlands are managed.
Last week, the state Department of Natural Resources released its management plan for the Olympic Experimental State Forest, a collection of state-owned timberlands scattered across 50 miles on peninsula’s west side.
In the making since the OESF was founded in 1992, the 171-page plan aims for a balance between timber harvest goals and ecological health. DNR is required to manage millions of acres as revenue generators for schools, universities and other beneficiaries.
The primary lesson of the OESF is that DNR doesn’t necessarily need to segregate lands for different uses, said Kyle Blum, DNR’s deputy supervisor of state uplands.
“In other forests, we’ve used the ‘zoned approach,’ with some zones just for revenue generation and others just for environmental conservation,” he said. “With the Olympic Experimental State Forest, we used an integrated approach.”
With a vast forested lab at their disposal, forest scientists have experimented with various harvest methods over the last 24 years. They’ve thinned forest stands at variable densities and then monitored the ecosystem impacts. They’ve tested how well a forest recovers when various concentrations of branches, snags, fallen trees and healthy trees remain at a harvest site. In 50 stream basins, scientists have studied how wooded buffers protect salmon and other sensitive aquatic species.
Scientists are currently researching how site-specific wind dynamics affect buffers.
On a broader scale, OESF scientists have proved the value of managing a “shifting mosaic” made up of harvest areas, lightly managed lands and unmanaged old-growth stands.
The OESF is part of a U.S. Forest Service-led system of 80 experimental forests around the country. Washington’s two other experimental forests are in the Cascades. One is near Entiat, and the other is in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, just north of the Columbia River.
The Forest Service credits the OESF with pioneering regionwide conservation strategies for the northern spotted owl, which was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act just before the OESF was formed.
Recent research has been focused on the marbled murrelet, a tiny seabird that nests in old-growth forests. When the murrelet arose as a species of concern in the late 1990s, not enough was known about its biology or behavior to develop a conservation strategy. As an interim measure, DNR set aside areas to protect the bird and is using the OESF to craft a long-term protection plan.
Many of the timber management lessons learned in the OESF are now common practice on state and other public lands, including Kitsap County’s Newberry Hill Heritage Park in Central Kitsap and North Kitsap Heritage Park near Kingston. Logging operations in the parks used variable density thinning and wide buffers around sensitive areas.
Blum stressed that the OESF plan doesn’t change any land preservation policies or endangered species protections.
He hopes it will guide foresters inside and outside DNR and serve as a “road map” for additional experimentation and research.
“When people think of timber harvests, they think of what was done 40 or 50 years ago,” he said. “They think harvesting is synonymous with environmental damage. What we’re practicing now is a different species of forestry.”