At 11 a.m. Friday it is already 85 degrees, hot and stifling, on a day in which the temperatures will surpass 100 in Corvallis. The sky is hazy. A mixture of clouds and contrails streaks the across the field of view as we look down the ridge to the east.
We are gathered for a tour at a trailhead at the end of Northwest Lester Avenue where hikers normally enter the Chip Ross Natural Area.
Not today. A gate prevents access as a Corvallis Parks and Recreation Department project unfolds that is transforming 100 acres of forestland in an effort to preserve the Willamette Valley’s declining stock of oak savanna.
To the right of the kiosk with its maps, rules of the road and poison oak advisories sits a caterpillar. When you look up the trail you see piles of Douglas fir logs at a staging area awaiting the logging trucks that will begin extracting them in the next week or so.
But this is not just a logging project. You also notice space … much more space between the trees that used to battle with each other in dense clumps and clusters.
Space … more space between the oak trees so they can thrive. More space so that views of the Cascades, Marys Peak and the McDonald Forest peaks — views that previously did not exist — will be part of the recreational experience when the area reopens in September.
“We’re removing the Douglas firs to preserve the oaks,” said Matt Fehrenbacher of Trout Mountain Forestry. “We’re also thinning big-leaf maples. We want to keep the best trees and give them space to make them better. The maples are competing with the oaks. Some maples and Douglas firs will remain, but we’re transitioning this from a hardwood/conifer forest to an oak woodland.”
“Which is what it was a hundred years ago,” chimed in Jonathan Pywell, urban forester for the Parks & Recreation Department. “We’re turning back the clock.”
Fehrenbacher and Pywell are classic tree guys, eager to talk about their work. They even finish each other’s sentences (see above).
The city and Trout Mountain Forestry, which also manages the Rock Creek watershed near Marys Peak that produces one-third of the city’s drinking water, are teaming up on the unique $300,000 project.
The work is being paid for by a $120,000 Oregon Water Enhancement Board grant and by the revenues from the logging that is being done to restore the oak woodland.
The Douglas firs that are crowding the oaks have value … so they are being logged to create space … and pay for the project.
“We want to leave some Douglas firs on site because they do have habitat value,” said Fehrenbacher, an Oregon State University forest management graduate, “but we want it to primarily be an oak forest.
“We have opened up the canopy and we’re getting more sun on the forest floor. We’re giving the oaks more resources so they can thrive and generate more acorns, which is good for wildlife. We’re perpetuating the system.”
Pywell: “It’s going to give us a bigger diversity of wildlife, plants, views … and everything.”
The logging and thinning work began July 26, although Trout Mountain and Parks & Recs crews were on site earlier, inventorying the trees, marking ones for cutting and using herbicides — a process called "hack and squirt" — to beat back the invasive species.
The project is 50 percent completed and throughout the site you can see piles of Douglas fir, oak and maple logs ready to be shipped out. The Douglas fir will be milled into lumber, but the gnarly, twisted trunks and branches of oak and maple will go to a chip mill.
“We don’t have the quality of logs to harvest to make furniture or flooring," Fehrenbacher said. "The Douglas firs will be used as dimensional lumber.”
The meadow where we are standing is awash in piles of logs and slash, with caterpillar treads laying a pattern into the mulch. A log loader sits silently because no logging work can be done when the humidity falls below 30 percent, which occurred before 11:30 a.m. on this day.
“We’ll come back for the slash,” Fehrenbacher said, “and native seeds and forbs will be spread. There will be clean up and maintenance over time as we work to establish grass and forbs.”
Once the area, which includes parts of the Chip Ross and Timberhill natural areas as well as a slice of the OSU forest property, is reopened to public use folks will notice a couple of dozen topped Douglas fir trees. These are “habitat snags.”
“We created 20 snags (last week),” Fehrenbacher said. “They will be providing perches for raptors and habitat and nests for birds. Some of these trees have rot and have no value for logging. But they do have value for habitat. This will give park users the opportunity to see wildlife. They will be able to see raptors perched up there and see woodpeckers working.”
Pywell: “You’ll see more wildlife and you’ll see more forest.”
Fehrenbacher: “Acorns are a huge food source.”
Pywell: “You’ll see lots of squirrels and deer. And not just more deer, healthier deer. They won’t have to eat everybody’s roses.”
Whereupon Fehrenbacher and Pywell embark on a back and forth on whether deer prefer denser forests. Upshot? Apparently not because new growth after tree cutting is a better food source.”
Focus on oaks
We enter a stretch of the forest that includes a massive oak with a wide crown surrounding by much smaller oaks. The smaller trees have been swabbed with blue paint, a sign that they will be removed.
“We’ll cut smaller oaks around it so larger trees can stay dominant,” Fehrenbacher said. “We hope the young ones can look like this in the future. We’re saving the biggest and best but also saving some smaller ones so they can grow over time. These trees are in recovery right now. They have been suppressed for decades.”
Any surprises along the way?
“Discovering these big legacy of oaks,” Fehrenbacher said. “They are hundreds of years old. People didn’t even know they were here. To walk through this forest and find these trees that have so much value … If we hadn’t done this project they just would have gone away.”
How old are the oaks?
“From 1 to 250,” said Pywell, before rattling of the genus and species (Oregon white oak/quercus garryana). “We’re down to less than 1 percent remaining of oak habitat in the world.”
Fehrenbacher: “Oak savanna is rarer than old growth.”
Pywell: “Because it is such a great place to build a house.”
Fehrenbacher: “Or clear it to start a farm.”
At the next meadow we come across a feller buncher, the key tool in the tree cut (you cut trees, not chop them down, asserts Fehrenbacher).
Fehrenbacher and the city officials gather around the rig, oohing and aahing at the cutting implements of the unit they call the “Ferrari.”
The tableau is reminiscent of a farmer extolling the virtues of a sophisticated harvester or an airman admiring his B-17.
“It looks so open now,” said Jude Geist, Parks & Recreation parks supervisor, who also is on the tour.
That was a mantra that was repeated often. The thinning has led to dramatically enhanced views of the neighboring countryside, surroundings peaks — and even the forest itself.
Geist points down a ridge line. “You could only see about 20 feet in before,” he said.
Fehrenbacher spots a meadow up ahead. “That was previously closed off. It is now open. There is a lot of variability in size and density (of the trees) and that adds value.”
Pywell: “You’ll not see the hand of man here. You’ll think it’s just supposed to look like that.”
Fehrebacher points between the oaks to Vineyard Mountain. At another spot a habitat snag that has lost its top 30 to 40 feet helps reveal Dimple Hill behind it.
“That’s a new view,” Fehrenbacher said. “It didn’t exist last week. Ditto for Marys Peak. People up here will be able to see farther.”
Pywell: “That’s awesome.”
On a meadow that has benches and interpretive markers Pywell points out a 60-degree stretch of the view to the east that used to be blocked by Douglas firs.
“Now, you are going to be able to see snow-capped peaks here in the fall,” he said. “Before, you couldn’t even see Brownsville.”
Fehrenbacher adds that he can see the new … spaces … in the thinned forest while driving up Northwest 29th Street.
Geist said that the trails are tentatively scheduled to reopen Sept. 9 but added that weather conditions — and the resultant fire risk — could push that date back.
No forest roads were built or improved during the restoration work and vehicles used the main trail to navigate the hillside. Geist said that the city might look into closing two “unofficial” paths near the Lester trailhead, but “the main loop trail will be the same.”
And all involved think that once the area is reopened hikers will flock to check out the “new” forest.
“All through the layout and marking work we were seeing a constant stream of people,” said Fehrenbacher of the period just before the closure. “It’s weird being up here with no people.”
Pywell: “People have been respectful (regarding the closure) and we thank them in advance for continuing to do so.”
“The pace will increase as we go forward,” Fehrenbacher said of the next phase of the work. “We’ll be bringing in more crews next week. We’ll start removing logs and loading them into trucks and we’ll continue cutting and logging.”
Fehrenbacher estimated that 60 truck loads of logs will leave the staging areas via Lester Avenue, with another 40 or so using McDonald Forest roads and Jackson Creek Drive.
“Some touch-up work will be necessary,” Fehrenbacher said. “We’ll do some hand lopping as part of the next phase once the logging is done and the heavy equipment is gone. We’ll use a hand crew to fine-tune things.”
A small portion of the site was among the 86 acres burned in the Labor Day weekend fire of 2014.
“That piece won’t be done until later,” Pywell said. “We might do that in-house to save a bit of money so we can follow up with the herbicide.”
So when will the benefits of the project become clear to users?
“Next year you’ll see additional growth and it will look a lot better by spring,” Pywell said. “In two or three seasons it will fill back in and look like it’s supposed to. There will be far more leaves and more water will be available to the oaks because the Douglas firs will be gone. People are going to flock here even more than they did before.”
Fehrenbacher: "It's going to look and feel different. It's a different forest type. To have a woodland dominated by oak is pretty rare."