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Volunteers endure heat, rough conditions to protect Gifford Pinchot’s ponderosa pines

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
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9 Photos
Cascade Forest Conservancy science and stewardship manager Amanda Keasberry demonstrates tagging smaller trees that sit beneath the canopies of old-growth ponderosa pines. Professional crews with the U.S. Forest Service will look for these tags when they come through later, thinning out smaller trees that can spur destructive wildfires.
Cascade Forest Conservancy science and stewardship manager Amanda Keasberry demonstrates tagging smaller trees that sit beneath the canopies of old-growth ponderosa pines. Professional crews with the U.S. Forest Service will look for these tags when they come through later, thinning out smaller trees that can spur destructive wildfires. (Joshau Hart/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

GIFFORD PINCHOT NATIONAL FOREST — To find the tallest trees, you’ve got to look up.

Eyeballs are the only way to identify rare, towering ponderosa pines amid the profusion of neighboring trees in these crowded woods. In mid-July, a group of hardy volunteers kept peering up at the skyline and then down at their boots while plunging off trails and into the thickest depths of the forest.

On everyone’s mind were the fiercely destructive wildfires now raging across the Pacific Northwest.

“The fires in the past few years on the West Coast are affecting everybody,” said Delaney Gaughan of Seattle. “Everyone has to do their little part, because it’s all caused by humans.”

Hauling shovels, picks, rakes and enough water to keep them hydrated on a long, hot day, the group spent hours bushwhacking across an obstacle-course landscape near Trout Lake, just south of Mount Adams, and then setting to work at the base of every giant ponderosa they could find.

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.”

Did You Know?

Trout Lake’s “Big Tree”: Five miles north of the town of Trout Lake stands a natural monument to the size and grandeur of ponderosa pines. The so-called Trout Lake Big Tree, or simply “The Big Tree,” was one of the largest ponderosa pines ever discovered. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the tree was 202 feet tall with a diameter of 7 feet, and was likely 400 years old or older. Although it was stressed by mountain pine beetles and died in 2015, the tree still stands on Forest Road 8020, marked “Big Tree.”

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.

Thickening

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.”

Western Wildfires

After June's record-breaking heat wave, local trees and greenery are looking dry and scorched. But don't despair, said Vancouver urban forester Charles Ray. "Give it a season of good tree care and deep watering," he said.
Proper care can help stressed trees in Clark County weather dry times
As wildfires burn across the West, many are casting a wary eye toward sun-scorched trees right here.

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.”

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