Eugene Weekly : News : 7.3.08

The Kindest Cut
Logging to restore native habitats on Mt. Pisgah
by Camilla Mortensen

If you start seeing trees getting logged close to the summit trail on Mount Pisgah in the near future, don’t freak out. It’s a white oak restoration project, and it looks like local enviros are willing to sacrifice a couple of Douglas firs for the greater good of Oregon’s endangered oak savannas.

Chris Orsinger, executive director of Friends of Buford Park (FBP), the conservation group that oversees the 2,300 acre Howard Buford Recreation Area, is excited about the approximately 60 acre restoration project. But Orsinger worries that unprepared hikers on Pisgah might mistake the “thinning” of Douglas firs that is part of what’s called a “habitat
restoration project” designed to benefit native wildlife for nonbeneficial, for-profit logging.

The project, Orsinger says, will remove mainly 10- to 15-year-old Douglas firs that have encroached into the white oak habitat. The oldest trees to be cut are guessed to be about 75 years old. “There are no ‘old-growth’ conifers in this demonstration area,” says Orsinger.

The taller Douglas firs overshadow the oaks, but once they are removed, the oaks are able to develop broader canopies, improve their acorn production and provide habitat for 189 at-risk species including endangered Fender’s blue butterfly, threatened Kincaid’s lupine and endangered Willamette Valley daisies. 

Less than 2 percent of Oregon’s native white oak savannas remains, according to the Nature Conservancy, which calls the Willamette Valley a “crisis ecoregion” and “critically endangered.” Oak savannas are also home to Oregon’s state bird, the western meadowlark, as well as northern pygmy owls and western bluebirds.

Oak savannas were once supported by frequent fires through the valley set by the native peoples who encouraged the oak habitats and prairies that provided acorns and camas to be harvested for food. But with the intrusion of European settlers that drove out the native peoples, these savannas gave way to agricultural fields, and, these days, intense development.

The Oregon White Oak Pilot Project will involve not only removing the Douglas firs but controlling invasive vegetation and using prescribed burns to maintain the habitat.

The Friends of Buford have been criticized in the past for proposing to use herbicides at the park, and Orsinger says there is a possibility glyphosate will be used, though the project will also rely on mechanical and manual methods of removing invasive weeds.

Members of the project are still debating what will be done with the Douglas firs that have been logged. There are three possibilities: The trees can be girdled and turned to snags that will host woodpeckers and other species. The logs might be moved to stream restoration projects at the park. Downed logs in streams provide habitat for salmon and turtles, according to Orsinger. Finally, some of the trees might be chipped, or their fiber could be exchanged in payment for having the work done, which is common in restoration and stewardship projects. There also could be a combination of all three possibilities for the final disposition of the logs.

Doug Heiken of Oregon Wild, one of several environmental groups that have endorsed the project, says while he has concerns he thinks the restoration project is “a very laudable idea.” He is “not so keen on thinning oaks” as the plan calls for possibly removing some small diameter oaks in addition to the firs, but overall, Oregon Wild “strongly supports the concept of oak habitat restoration.” 

Other local groups that have signed on to the project include Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, Cascadia Wildlands Project and Mt. Pisgah Arboretum. It is also supported by the Department of Fish and Wildlife and Lane County Parks, among others. 

Heiken, like Orsinger, expects some controversy once the trees are cut and before the area looks like a savanna again. “You can’t do this kind of restoration,” he says, “without it looking ugly for a little while.”  

If you would like to know more about the project, or about Oregon’s endangered oak savannas, the FBP invites you to a “sunset oak hike” through Mount Pisgah’s summit oak habitats at 7 pm on Wednesday, July 9. The hike will be led by stewardship coordinator Jason Blazar and Bruce Newhouse, a “naturalist extraordinaire” and stewardship technical advisory committee member. Meet at main summit trailhead in the Mt. Pisgah Arboretum parking lot. (Parking permit required.)