The head of Oregon State University’s College of Forestry has ordered a temporary halt to the cutting of older trees on the college’s research forests after questions were raised about a logging operation near Corvallis that took down multiple trees more than 200 years old, including one Douglas fir that may date back to 1599.

Interim Dean Anthony Davis announced the moratorium in a memo to students, faculty and staff on July 12, about a month after a logging operation called the No Vacancy harvest was conducted near Sulphur Springs in the McDonald-Dunn Research Forest just north of Corvallis.

The 15.6-acre clear-cut was in a stand of predominantly Douglas fir forest with mature trees estimated to be 80 to 200 years old. But after it was logged, people recreating in the area started counting tree rings on some of the stumps and came up with much higher age estimates.

After hearing from concerned citizens, Davis looked into the matter and decided they were right — and that some of those trees should never have been cut.

“While operating with the best of intentions … we made a mistake in carrying out this recent harvest,” he wrote in his memo. “The harvest included trees with ages close to the origin of the stand (estimated to date back to 1759) and one that has been determined to be approximately 420 years old. Although harvest revenue supports critical College of Forestry operations, the future research and ecological benefit of these older trees should have been considered before the harvest was scheduled.”

The memo goes on to state that no trees more than 160 years old will be cut down until work is finished on a new comprehensive management plan for the college research forests and that staff have been directed to develop strategies to retain individual older trees in the McDonald-Dunn Forest.

Logging is nothing new on OSU land. The College of Forestry maintains 10 research forests around the state totaling 15,000 acres, including the sprawling McDonald-Dunn, which covers 11,250 acres.

The forests are managed primarily for teaching, research and demonstration purposes. But they also represent a significant revenue source, with logging operations providing a steady stream of income to supplement the college’s budget.

For people in the Corvallis area, Mac-Dunn has also become an important source of recreational opportunities, with more than 150,000 visits a year from hikers, runners, mountain bikers, dog walkers and hunters — and some of those recreational users have begun to question the College of Forestry’s management priorities.

The squeaky wheel

The first person to raise the alarm about the No Vacancy harvest was Doug Pollock, who lives near the forest and frequently runs, hikes and bikes its roads and trails. When he heard about a logging operation that had taken down some big trees, he went to have a look for himself.

“I couldn’t believe it happened,” Pollock said. “Once I got up there and saw the damage and counted the rings, I said, ‘Those bastards!’”

Even though the No Vacancy clear-cut retained about six large trees per acre to provide wildlife habitat, Pollock said the Oregon State University College of Forestry should not be cutting old growth trees, period. Regardless of the college’s traditional ties to the timber industry, he believes it’s out of step with the sensibilities of most Oregonians today.

“They’re not making any more old growth — once it’s gone, it’s gone,” he said.

“We had the Northwest Forest Plan 25 years ago, and OSU is still cutting old growth? It just seems socially and environmentally irresponsible.”

Pollock started researching how the McDonald-Dunn Forest is managed and learned some interesting facts.

For one thing, only 350 acres of the Mac-Dunn is set aside in “mature forest reserves,” with no specific logging protections for individual old trees scattered throughout the forest.

What’s more, he found that not only had the forest plan not been updated since 2005, it was actually suspended in 2009 — which means Mac-Dunn has been operating without an official management plan for the last 10 years.

Pollock contacted Brent Klumph, manager of the College of Forestry’s research forests, to express his concerns and learned something that alarmed him even more: In an email, Klumph told him that another stand adjacent to the No Vacancy clear-cut was designated as part of a “future harvest program.”

Walking a small part of that stand with a tape measure, Pollock found a dozen Douglas firs that were between 5 and 6 feet in diameter at breast height and a handful that were even bigger. One giant near the edge of the No Vacancy harvest measured 21 feet in circumference, or nearly 7 feet in diameter.

“That’s an old growth tree any way you look at it,” Pollock said. “That’s not second growth.”

Pollock began peppering Davis and OSU President Ed Ray with emails, urging them to put a halt to the logging of old growth trees on the college forests. And he teamed up with friends and neighbors to form an advocacy group called Friends of OSU Old Growth. A “save the trees” petition on the group’s website, www.friendsofosuoldgrowth.org, has garnered more than 140 signatures so far.

“I’m kind of a squeaky wheel,” Pollock confessed.

His relentless efforts bore fruit last week, when Davis met with him in the McDonald-Dunn Forest. The two men walked together through the No Vacancy clear-cut and the adjoining tract designated for future harvest. Davis sent the memo announcing a moratorium on old-growth logging the same day.

Looking for balance

Anthony Davis is a relative newcomer to OSU, having come to the university in 2016. He became acting dean of the College of Forestry in January 2018 when Dean Thomas Maness took a leave of absence for health reasons. Davis was named interim dean after Maness died last July.

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Davis said the decision to proceed with the No Vacancy harvest was the right thing to do because regular aerial observations had shown a clear decline in the crown health of the stand over the last few years.

“If you make the choice of letting those trees die, you lose the choice of letting them generate revenue,” he said.

But he also said the college made a mistake by not ensuring that the oldest specimens were among the six trees per acre selected for retention.

“The hindsight version of how to do this is to retain the big trees that got cut,” he said.

Davis took issue with the notion that the college has no plan at all for managing its research forests, saying that the principles of the “suspended” 2005 plan are still being followed.

On the other hand, he acknowledged that the 2005 document does not adequately address the issue of how to manage old growth trees — or even define what the term “old growth” really means. That’s a big reason he declared a moratorium on cutting trees over 160 years old until work is finished on an updated management plan.

“What’s missing in our current plan is a conversation around old trees that don’t show up in our reserves,” he said.

“I feel like right now, in the absence of a clear strategy and objectives, the best course is that we maintain what we have and the set up new goals around that.”

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He also pushed back against the idea that, in the 21st century, the OSU College of Forestry should pivot away from its traditional role of supporting improved methods of timber production and start managing its research forests like parks or forest preserves.

Rather, Davis said, the goal should be to strike a new balance within the framework of the college’s historic mission of education, research and demonstration, one that recognizes the ecological value of mature forest ecosystems as well as the value of wood products that forests can generate.

“The most progressive cities in the world, they’re trying to use wood construction because they know we can grow trees back,” he said. “We need to have preserves and active management and realize that the combination of these leads us to sustainable forest management.”

A promising start

While the Friends of OSU Old Growth would have liked to see more concrete assurances that the biggest and oldest trees in the McDonald-Dunn Forest will be protected in perpetuity, Pollock called the moratorium on old growth logging a promising step in the right direction.

“It’s an amazingly welcome move,” he said. “We’re very pleased and excited.”

But he also noted that Davis is the interim dean of the College of Forestry, and he’s concerned that whoever gets the job on a permanent basis could take the research forests in a different direction.

Ultimately, he believes, Oregon State University needs to take a long, hard look at the way the college research forests are managed in the light of changing public attitudes toward logging and the environment.

“I’m just an amateur — I’m a guy who got passionate about these trees and got involved,” Pollock said.

“(But) they get all kinds of support from the public. So I say in theory their lands are public lands, and they ought to be managed in line with public expectations.”

Norm Johnson, a retired College of Forestry faculty member and one of the architects of the Northwest Forest Plan, and his wife, Debora Johnson, also a retired faculty member, joined the Friends of OSU Old Growth after seeing photographs of the No Vacancy clear-cut.

“We were devastated,” Johnson said. “This was a special place.”

But as heartbroken as they were by the loss of an ancient forest stand they both loved, Johnson said, he and his wife are equally encouraged by the memo Davis wrote in the clear-cut’s aftermath.

Not only did the dean acknowledge the college’s mistake in cutting down one grove of old growth trees, Johnson said, he articulated the importance of maintaining other ancient trees on the research forests, putting their value on a par with timber production for the first time.

“Í did not know this letter was coming, and I was dazzled by it,” Johnson said. “This is the most important step in forest conservation on Mac-Dunn in its history.”

Like Pollock, Johnson worries that the next person to occupy the dean’s office could overturn Davis’ decision and start cutting old growth on the research forests again. But he believes that the changes Davis set in motion create an opening for the OSU College of Forestry to evolve into a better version of itself.

“It’s the responsibility of the college and those of us who care to make sure this happens,” he said. “It’s a new day for all these forests, and it’s a real opportunity for the college to take the lead and regain the trust of the community.”

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.