A Tale of Two Forests: Restoring Forests on the North Coast

December, 2015


Hiking along a former logging road, long ago decommissioned and regenerating in young trees and shrubs, I trudge my way up to the ridge dividing Salmon Creek and the Little South Fork Elk River. A young, dense forest surrounds me as I stand on a hot, open road in the late heat of summer. Sweat forms on my brow as I approach the core of the Headwaters old-growth, protected close to sixteen years ago thanks to the many activists who so dearly love this place. I leave the sun-filled and hot second-growth behind and enter an entirely different world – dark and quiet, cool and serene, the old-growth that provides solace to all who enter. The sweat on my brow begins to cool.

The Headwaters Forest Reserve, like many of our North Coast parks and protected areas, is a tale of two forests. Majestic and towering old-growth, decadent and dripping with mosses and lichen, contrasts sharply with surrounding second-growth stands, uniform and very dense. Our management reflects this dichotomy as well: we conserve the habitat-rich old-growth, home to iconic species of the Pacific Northwest, and work to restore the formerly-logged areas in the direction of the old-growth that we love so deeply.

At the time Headwaters was established in 1999, 60% of the area had been logged. In some areas, forests were only beginning to regrow from clear-cut harvests of the 1980s and 1990s. Inheriting unnatural second-growth forests dominated by Douglas-fir, the BLM began restoration thinning in 2004.  The goals of restoration were to accelerate forest development towards old-growth conditions and restore a more natural species mix to these areas (cutting Douglas-fir and leaving behind redwood and other, less common species). From 2004 to 2013, we thinned 1,600 acres or approximately 21 percent of the Headwaters Forest Reserve.

In 2014, we began a second round of thinning with an added goal of introducing more spatial complexity to mimic conditions found in old-growth forests within Headwaters. We created a mosaic of tree density across second-growth stands by building off recent restoration work completed in Redwood National and State Parks, and research completed in partnership with Humboldt State University published in 2013 (“Modeling Young Stand Development towards the Old-growth Reference Condition in Evergreen Mixed-Conifer Stands at Headwaters Forest Reserve, California”). This study helped us understand the conditions in old-growth stands and allowed us to model trajectories towards old-growth under various restoration scenarios. 

Old-growth redwood forests are structurally diverse, with a range of tree sizes, reiterated tree trunks, high tree and stand biomass, and complex canopies. Headwaters old-growth is characterized by a mixture of redwood (50-70 percent of overstory trees) and Douglas-fir trees (30-47 percent) with a density of 70-80 trees per acre. Unthinned second-growth stands, on the other hand, are dominated by Douglas-fir (60-80 percent) with a density over 1,000 trees per acre. 

Forest modeling showed that a single thinning scenario, while significantly reducing the density of trees (from 1,200 to 250 trees per acre) and restoring a more natural mix of redwood and Douglas-fir trees, was not sufficient to restore the old-growth reference condition in a 300-year timeframe. A scenario of two rounds of thinning was needed to further reduce stand density (to fewer than 250 trees per acre), promote and sustain growth among overstory trees, allow for snag recruitment, and to create a multi-layered, uneven-aged, complex forest. The scenario of two rounds of thinning set the second-growth on a more direct trajectory towards the old-growth reference condition, which illustrates the need for multiple rounds of thinning when restoring our north coast forests.

Standing among these ancient trees, a thousand years old perhaps, I am humbled by how long it takes to restore these forests. As I take one last look up into the stratosphere of the canopy before heading back into the glaring light of the second-growth, I wonder at the role of restoration in creating the beauty that I see before me. I think about the long time that it will take for our forest to be what it once was and I think about the surprising results of our study: that if we do nothing, our young second-growth forests will take a very long time to develop the majesty of our old-growth forests, if ever.  I wonder how long species like the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet have to wait for forests to be restored. 

I am struck by a final thought before I descend down the old logging road, “Do we wait and see or do we try, try to help make the world whole again?”

The BLM is now amending its Headwaters Resource Management Plan to allow the agency to continue restoring the Headwaters Forest Reserve. 

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