Canopy crane falls victim to budget cuts

Equipment on Gifford-Pinchot has yielded wealth of research on trees

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Research at the Wind River Canopy Crane has shed light on a number of scientific mysteries involving old-growth forests, including:

How the architecture of an older forest differs from that of a young forest.

The complexity of the forest canopy, which allows the older forest, with branches and foliage from top to bottom, to take up carbon dioxide more efficiently.

How younger forests might be managed for more complexity.

How old growth Douglas firs can thrive for centuries after they stop growing taller and their crowns stop getting fuller. Work at the crane was the first to definitively show that old trees in stands once considered to be in a state of decay generate new growth from dormant buds on their lower branches.

For 16 years, a gondola s

Research at the Wind River Canopy Crane has shed light on a number of scientific mysteries involving old-growth forests, including:

How the architecture of an older forest differs from that of a young forest.

The complexity of the forest canopy, which allows the older forest, with branches and foliage from top to bottom, to take up carbon dioxide more efficiently.

How younger forests might be managed for more complexity.

How old growth Douglas firs can thrive for centuries after they stop growing taller and their crowns stop getting fuller. Work at the crane was the first to definitively show that old trees in stands once considered to be in a state of decay generate new growth from dormant buds on their lower branches.

uspended from the arm of a repurposed construction crane has carried scientists from around the world into the canopy of a lush old-growth forest stand north of Carson to study how 500-year-old trees store carbon, circulate water and resist pests and disease.

The crane also has enabled biologists to study canopy-dwelling species like bats and flying squirrels that inhabit the lofty treetops, an exotic ecosystem far removed from the world of the forest floor.

But budget cuts and a shortage of crane parts have forced the Forest Service and its partner, the University of Washington, to stop operating the gondola at the 25-story Wind River Canopy Crane on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

The crane, which has the largest reach of any of the nine forest canopy research cranes operating in the world, carried scientists and their instruments in a two-minute trip from the forest floor to the tops of conifers 220 feet high. Its arm allowed them to maneuver within a 560-foot circle above the forest canopy.

It’s been operated cooperatively since 1995 by the University of Washington, the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station and the Gifford Pinchot, with most of the funding coming from the research station’s budget.

The jib — the arm of the crane — will be removed when money is available, possibly this summer, said UW spokeswoman Sandra Hines.

“The overall (research) station budget has been reduced over several years,” said research station program manager Bea Van Horne. “This year we had to look very carefully at where we are putting our funding. We very much wanted to keep certain functions of the canopy crane, particularly our ability to collect real-time information” on such things as the movement of carbon within trees, she said.

“But much as the gondola was very useful in teaching people about the forest, in terms of our mission as forest researchers, we just couldn’t justify the expense of keeping it going,” Van Horne said. Maintenance and the cost of employing a crane operator were the main expenses, she said.

The 230-foot tower, equipped with sensors that collect data about how carbon dioxide is absorbed and released by the forest, will remain. Research under way since 1999 at the crane has allowed the university and the Forest Service to gather the world’s longest continuously collected set of data on carbon flow from a forest.

That’s important as policy-makers and citizens consider how to manage forests to maximize the amount of carbon they store, said Jerry Franklin, UW professor of forest resources. Franklin was the prime mover in the 1990s for landing the $1 million project.

Work at the crane site produced some of the first data to substantiate what Franklin and other scientists suspected in the 1980s: that old-growth Douglas fir forests weren’t emitting more carbon than they were absorbing and thus were an important tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Data collected at the crane site revealed that old growth forests are a sink for carbon,” Franklin said.

Newer partners, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatories, use data collected at the Wind River facility. Recently, the site was chosen as the Pacific Northwest core site for the National Ecological Observatory Network, known as NEON, a major new initiative of the National Science Foundation.

Thanks to the crane, scientists have made important new discoveries on the structure of forest canopies, the physiology of northwestern tree species, carbon and water cycles in forests, forest productivity and health, and the contributions of forest canopies to biodiversity. Researchers even invented a new word — “gappiness” — to describe the uneven treetop topography.

Researchers and students using the crane have generated more than 250 scientific publications.

Forest Service research ecologist Rick Meinzer studied how very tall trees get the water they need to survive centuries of environmental extremes. He discovered that during annual cycles of summer drought, trees rely on internal water storage to stabilize the supply of water to foliage high in the canopy, and depend on their deep roots to bring water close to the surface to feed shallow roots that might otherwise die every summer.

“Research using the crane has provided important insights about the factors that limit maximum tree height and why height growth slows drastically as a tree becomes taller,” Meinzer said in a statement.

The tower will continue to be part of a nationwide network of sites that use remote cameras to record the timing of events like the emergence and the dying of leaves, both of which are being affected by climate change, Meinzer said. Camera images are updated continuously and are available both to scientists and to the public through Forest Service websites.

The tower site and the Wind River Experimental Forest also will continue to provide educational opportunities for high school and college students. The crane has provided such opportunities for thousands of college students, teachers and natural resource professionals and was featured in a television broadcast that reached 7 million students in North America.