Their mission was clearing away dessicated twigs, needles and leaves that could provide kindling in the event of a truly destructive blaze here. Volunteers also hauled away large, fallen limbs and even tagged smaller grand firs growing alongside or beneath the ponderosas for later removal by professional U.S. Forest Service crews.
In one July weekend, the group visited and protected 105 trees across 64 acres.
That’s a lot of artificial intervention in a supposedly natural place — but today’s forest is anything but natural, according to Amanda Keasberry.
“After 100 years of fire suppression, this whole area is covered with a ton of fuel,” said Keasberry, the outing’s organizer as science and stewardship manager for the Portland-based nonprofit Cascade Forest Conservancy.
By clearing 3-foot-wide buffer zones, the volunteers were helping protect the hugest ponderosa pines in the area from any high-intensity fires that may sweep through here in the future.
Ponderosa pines are widespread across the West, Keasberry said, but old-growth ponderosas are quite rare in this corner of the Gifford Pinchot, a crossover zone between wetter western and drier eastern climates.
During an orientation session at a gravel crossroads near the Mount Adams Ranger Station, Keasberry explained to 13 volunteers that ponderosa pines are actually cleverly adapted to withstand naturally occurring, low-intensity fires.
Their distinctive, jigsaw-puzzle bark is thick, corky and fire-resistant, Keasberry pointed out. They tend to self-prune and drop their largest limbs, depriving fire of “fuel ladders” to climb.
But active fire suppression over the past 150 years has transformed the Cascade zone where ponderosa pines flourish into a danger zone, according to the U.S. Forest Service, which is now trying to restore what it calls “natural balance” through thinning and controlled burns.
“Elimination of fire has profoundly changed the structure of the original ponderosa pine forests, and not for the better,” wrote forestry professor Stephen Fitzgerald of Oregon State University in a 2005 paper for the U.S. Forest Service. “Today, ponderosa pine forests contain an overabundance of fuel, high stand densities across large landscapes and few old-growth trees. These conditions have contributed to declining tree health and have helped sustain increases in large, uncharacteristic wildfires across the West.
“The ponderosa pine ecosystems are in trouble, and the problem will not go away or take care of itself. … Doing nothing will result in forests that continue to deteriorate over time because wildfire today no longer operates in its historical fashion, that of frequent low-intensity surface fires.”
Ponderosa pine communities used to sustain low-impact fires naturally and cyclically, every five to 25 years, according to a June 2020 National Park Service article. “This frequent fire burned the grasses, shrubs, and small trees, and maintained an open stand of larger ponderosa pine trees.”
The canopy was relatively open, with light reaching the forest floor where grasses and flowering plants thrived below ponderosa that grew huge.
Now, the forest has grown far thicker — more prone to bigger, more destructive fires.
“After more than 100 years of fire suppression, ponderosa pine forests have changed,” according to the Park Service. “There are now many seedlings and midstory trees. Large diameter ponderosa pines are now competing for resources, such as nutrients, light and water. The forests no longer have an open canopy structure.
“Surface fuels are building to high levels. … Fires now burn larger areas at a higher temperature and intensity instead of with low intensity on the ground.”
What’s feared, Keasberry said, isn’t the kind of cyclical, low-impact fire that might have happened a couple of centuries ago, clearing away some underbrush while letting the ponderosa continue to thrive. It’s more of the massively destructive, all-consuming wildfires that we’ve grown too accustomed to watching march across the American West in recent summers.
Over the past 12 years, three big blazes tore through the Gifford Pinchot and devastated some stands of those old-growth ponderosa pines, Keasberry said.
“They burned really intensely and there was almost nothing left, all the biodiversity was gone,” she said. “All the trees just look like standing, burnt matchsticks.”
Another Cascade Forest Conservancy volunteer project has been reseeding those denuded areas.
Keasberry said she’s worried about what might happen this summer.
“Anything could start a fire. It could happen at any moment,” she said.
That’s why many of these volunteers decided to take a whole weekend away from home, camping overnight, laboring all day, and enduring scrapes and bruises.
“Am I worried about … everything? Yes,” said Seattle volunteer Delaney Gaughan. She’s a software implementer who works with West Coast wineries and often hears about how wildfires ruin wine grapes and hurt business.
“You can get hopeless, but I don’t,” said Christian Villanueva, an intern with the Cascade Forest Conservancy. “There are great ways to participate. They’re people who love doing this.”
Volunteer Skip Scollan of Portland also finds hope in this woodsy work.
“I spent 20 years in the defense industry, building weapons of mass destruction,” Scollan said. “I spent all that time thinking about death rather than thinking about the planet we’re on. Now I just want to give back to the Earth before it’s gone.”