On January 10, 2022, after what had been over a week of intense storms, three friends took advantage of the deep hard packed snow to take a short tour of the Mount Emily Recreation Area, MERA for short, just outside La Grande in Union County. The winter surge had subsided and the days of clear weather that followed aged that snowfall to a hard-packed crust. Our goal was to check out the trees marked for cutting on the mountain’s slopes. Those trees are part of the Red Apple Forest Improvement Project proposed by Union County meant to improve forest health and address the fire risk concerns of nearby homeowners living along the slopes of Mount Emily. The project has met with pushback from mountain biking and recreation enthusiasts who frequent and love MERA’s single-track trails.
The lower slopes of MERA. which have once again developed over recent decades into a maturing stand of Ponderosa pine, are there for a reason. Years ago, after Boise-Cascade, the prior owner of the MERA lands, had logged the area, the forester given the job of managing re-growth fought off what were then popular attempts to convert forestlands to Douglas fir and true fir (the grand fir and white fir hybrid found in NE Oregon’s forests). He insisted that it be re-planted in the pine that the site had supported, and he held off those attempts. Conversion would have been a catastrophic mistake given what we now understand about those efforts: they were an open invitation for insect and disease problems. He knew where he lived.
I worked from 1980 to 2006 at the Pacific NW Forestry and Range Lab in La Grande as a systems analyst. Over that time, I was involved in a wide range of investigations as part of that Forest Service Research unit including wildlife habitat, insect ecology and dynamics, nutrient cycling in ecosystems, and more. I was joined by GHCC’s Brian Kelly and Kent Coe. Brian, a forester and certified arborist by training, has many years of experience working in Northeast Oregon forests. He has provided endless input into logging projects on federal lands and participated in local forest collaboratives on behalf of GHCC. Kent, now retired, was a research assistant with Oregon State University and spent thirty-one years with the US Forest Service as a forestry technician and botanist.
Our route through the 300 acres proposed for treatment took us down one of the recreation trails, into the open stands of Ponderosa pine that grace the lower slopes, and then back up on the logging road that will likely be the base of operations for the contractor hired by Union County to do the work. That climb works its way to a northerly aspect and into moister sites. Those pockets harbor denser mixed stands of Douglas fir, true fir, and western larch, along with a rich understory of shrubs. Kent had the good sense to record video of our movements, now safely tucked into one of the seemingly endless corners of the Internet. We hope it will live there for some time – at least long enough for those who are concerned about the work to be able to get some idea of where we went and what we saw. You can get a birds-eye view of that trek here.
A contractor has been chosen and the logging may have already started as I write this. As part of the request for proposals, the County forester did agree to allow the work to be done over this year and the winter of 2022-2023. That deep crust of packed snow should help to reduce any harm to the soil and vegetation, at least this winter. The concern for serious damage to the project area’s soil and its mountain biking trails should be about next winter’s follow-up work. If we’ve learned one thing about the dynamics of a changing climate, it’s that there can be wild swings summer to winter as well as year to year. The string of 100° days this part of the world experienced this past summer re-wrote all the records. To have that followed up with three feet of snow a few months later is a message we need to heed.
Blue paint was used to mark trees for logging. The markings we saw included a few pine that could have been reworked to adjacent trees or that were maturing and well-spaced, but the overall marking seemed to us to be reasonably consistent, even conservative, and in line with the project’s stated goals. For the most part, adjacent trees that would contend for water and nutrients were marked for removal. The idea is to give each tree a minimum of fifteen feet from other pines as it matures so that competition for those resources is reduced. But the way a project is marked isn’t necessarily the way it’s cut; it will be crucial to ensure that the contract work is done properly by checking up regularly on the results of the logging. For our part, we took photos so that we could gauge the changes afterwards. There will also have to be more oversight and open communication from the County if it is to gain the confidence of all stakeholders.
The largest tree marked to be cut was a Ponderosa that has what Brian identified as Western gall rust, a fungus that infects pine. The Forest Service has managed the bulk of the land where the gall rust is a problem, and their scientists have published what they’ve learned. It’s not the deadliest disease by any means, but the disease cycle is such that sporulation (spores erupting from the gall cankers) occurs 2-3 years after infection. There is no intermediate host: infection happens strictly pine to pine so spores move airborne through pine stands. While it's unlikely to kill Ponderosa, it can deform the mature ones, making them less merchantable. It's not pretty to look at and it’s largely impossible to eliminate completely.
While the marking of the large mature pine with Western gall rust indicates a concern over the merchantable value of the trees logged in this project, the over-riding issue that informs management of pine stands is fire. Prior to total suppression, which was the rule a century ago when fighting forest fires became serious business, open-grown Ponderosa pine were given to regular light fires – about every 10-20 years in much of the Blue Mountains. These regular fires had the beneficial effect of keeping stands clear of what would have otherwise been abundant seedlings and brush. Only over the last few decades has controlled burning been reintroduced as part of forest management. Smoke from such fires, and the risk of fires escaping containment, can be a problem for those living in the wildland-urban interface. So, while prescribed fire is the first choice, due to the number of homes in the vicinity, it may be out of the question. It’s worth noting that the risks a fire poses to homes in the area is also best addressed from the home outward. A thinning project in these 300 acres will not provide much of a safeguard to structures that haven’t also been prepared and “hardened.”
As we moved along the lower portion of the area, we saw parts of the pine forest that were omitted from this first stage of the Red Apple project and were in serious need of hand thinning. It will be important. While thinning does not quickly lead to mineralization – where organic matter from light burning is made readily available for growing plants – it does reduce the possibility of a forest fire that catches these young, densely-packed trees can ladder its way up into the crown of taller ones, causing a bigger and more intense fire.
While we did not make our way very far into the stands of mixed conifers just over the ridge from the pine forest, some of those trees are also marked for cutting. In those deeply shaded places there is another disease that finds a home—Annosus root and butt rot. The above ground expression is infected trees. The below-ground manifestation is an ever-spreading mass of soil hosting that fungus, Fomes annosus. Its“[w]indborne spores germinate on freshly cut stump surfaces… the fungus colonizes the stump and roots… [the] roots of surrounding live trees that are in contact with those of the stump become infected as well.” The grand fir-white fir hybrid we have here in NE Oregon plays host, so care will also have to be taken by the County in those stands to keep the infection from spreading.
After the logging that happened when MERA was created, a friend, one who’d been with Boise-Cascade for a long time, suggested that it would take twenty years of effort for the area to be properly managed. The County has taken that on and that is a good thing. Even better might be to explore options that would directly involve stakeholders pursuing non-profit status. Such an organization could live on even as its members changed. It could reach out to funders in order to support a broader mission, developing community forestry on an appropriate scale that supports what many who frequent the area see as a vital recreational benefit.