Forestry Legends: Interview with Mike Newton - Part 3

Forestry Legends: Interview with Mike Newton - Part 3

Editor’s note: Evergreen Foundation board member, Mike Newton, is one of the most respected forest scientists in the nation. He holds a PhD in Botany and taught in the Oregon State University College of Forestry for 40 years before retiring in 2000. Still young and very fit at 81, he is still very much engaged in his passion: science-based management of private and public forestlands. In this wide-ranging interview, he discusses his life and career as one of the Douglas-fir region’s premier forest ecologists. In Part Il of this three part interview, Dr. Newton answered questions about wildfires, salvage logging, species richness, clearcutting and problems with stream temperatures in riparian zones. We continue.

“We have platoons of PhD’s among us today dependent on federal grants responsive often to politically contrived need for research on behalf of federal and other lands and essential to budgets at our universities. Some of them are asking the wrong questions. Others are ignoring basic truths about Douglas-fir and ecosystem resiliency. The direct cost to taxpayers runs in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and that doesn’t count the lost opportunity costs associated with research that fails to identify the important questions needing answers.”

Mike Newton, PhD Botanist, Professor Emeritus, Oregon State University Board of Directors, the Evergreen Foundation


Evergreen: You have long advocated for managing the whole forest – meaning trees of all ages and sizes, in patches of even-aged trees. Yet the public seems to favor reserving old growth forests in very large no-harvest reserves, especially on federal land. Is there some reason we should not emphasize the management of younger stands that aren’t the focus of so much controversy? How does your field research speak to this question?

Newton: Our region’s old forests were young once, often pretty uniformly over very large areas resulting from huge fires. The area of “old growth” is increasing, almost entirely on federal lands. This is a point that is often forgotten in the heat of emotional debate. Also forgotten is the fact that the old forests we have today won’t be with us forever. Douglas-fir eventually gives way to shade tolerant hemlock, spruce and true firs or shade-tolerant hardwoods – the so-called “climax” or last forest. What follows is a natural disturbance large enough to start the process all over again with sun loving Douglas-fir. As I said earlier, we’ve been through at least fourteen such cycles since the last glaciers retreated from the Pacific Northwest some ten thousand years ago. The progression from early though later seral stage is much shorter in managed forests. We get a similar balance but we avoid the feast or famine cycles associated with natural cycles that make no accommodation for the needs of our post—industrial society.

Evergreen: How is “old growth” defined?

Newton: Oh my, such a question. There is no single, precise definition. The features related to biological diversity and so-called “conservation” have been debated for more than 30 years with no resolution in sight. We seem trapped in this sort of Disneyesque view of nature that denies the forces of nature and nature’s ever changing ways. We won’t get out of this until we accept the fact that the old trees we think we are saving can’t be saved from the forces of nature. But we can plan for a better outcome, in our own terms, than the one that awaits us if we leave these old forests to nature’s forces while species of the young forest die in wildfires or are consumed by insects and disease that attack trees stressed by a lack of nutrition, moisture or sunlight. These latter conditions characterize forests that contain too many trees for the natural growing capacity of the site. But to answer your question, old growth is often defined as the stage during which bark is deeply fissured, fungi create decay pockets in trees that offer cavities in which some birds can nest, and growth of epiphytes in crowns that lead to “witches brooms” of dense branches that form potential nest sites. Also, as stands age, mortality leads to abundant accumulations of down trees and buildup of organic layers on forest floors that support diverse fungal populations as well as accumulating fuel. And on and on.

Evergreen: How can we overcome our Disney problem?

Newton: Well, perhaps the most direct way is to teach “Disney the Teacher” some of the simple realities of forest biology and encourage them to teach while entertaining. Our role as professionals and teachers of land managers is to emphasize the concept of managing the whole forest. Education cannot be limited just to the politically correct bits and pieces that satisfy critics--that is the mode of advocacy groups that arrest management by filing lawsuits over details in ways Endangered Species Act or National Environmental Policy Act are administered. Lawsuits with ecological relevance argued by people who cannot even recognize the entities they argue over, or their value as part of the forest. Our field work with studies of public land management emphasizes longer rotations – rotations being the years between harvests. The rotations should be long enough so that half the landscape that we are managing is covered with large blocks of trees that exhibit old-growth features because are in the second half of life. This provides opportunities for the little things to show up. The other half of the landscape would hold trees in stands advancing through various stages of younger growth toward old-forest conditions while being thinned and groomed to provide both timber and needed old-forest features, thus providing early and mid-seral conditions. These stands can be thinned periodically to reduce density and promote growth. Thinning also permits sunlight to reach the forest floor for brief periods, promoting early seral habitats in harvested openings. Think time lapse photography, and you can visualize the changes that would occur as our forest transitions from early to mid to late succession.

Evergreen: How long would you hold these trees before harvesting them?

Newton: Our region’s most productive growing sites harbor most old-growth dependent species when they are 70 to 110 years old and beyond. This is especially true where the sites are being managed to promote growth in big trees – meaning we use herbicides for young regeneration to control competing vegetation, fertilize where it is cost effective and thin out the poorest quality trees to give the best trees more room to grow. But to err on the side of caution, I’d hold this forest until it was 150 years old so half the rotation will have trees approximating old growth. Obviously such long growing cycles will not work well for private land-owners who need to recover their investments in shorter time frames that Wall Street likes, but it is a good recipe for public lands and also provides maximum yields per acre per year, landscape scale.

Evergreen: You’re talking about very large landscapes, aren’t you?

Newton: Yes, I am – entire drainages; 100,000 acres or more. But remember, we’ve said our rotation age might reasonably be 150 years, so every year we’re only clearcutting one-hundred fiftieth of the landscape, say 660 acres. For the decade or two following harvest and replanting, these are the acres that would provide habitat for deer, elk, small herbivores and their predators. Small portion, but highly important.

Evergreen: So through time you would move through the entire landscape, and then start over again?

Newton: That’s correct. And after the first cycle, as well as within cycles, the same proportion of each landscape will remain constant forever, ideally, despite rotating gradually around the entire landscape. Half the landscape would always be in the second half of a long rotation. Witness a big circle, half of which is black, that rotates, the black part rotates around with the perimeter, so that half is always black and half is always white. The young and old should not be mixed much, while allowing some for biodiversity. Now think of this as mostly varying shades of gray, with the whole circle starting at one point white, with increasingly gray all the way around until it is black, then suddenly changing to white. Intensive management in the light gray areas, in the dark gray half, being darker and darker until it is black. With some mottling. The rotating landscape would always have half of its area in stands with old growth-like features capable of providing niche habitats for old-forest-dependent species, and also provide huge timber yields of superb quality at final harvest. Then continue this rotation involving all the landscape all the time, never needing to go through a period with shortage of early and late-seral forests.

Evergreen: The fabled Clinton Forest Plan has never been implemented – a result of conflicting environmental regulations and still unresolved federal court rulings. If the slate could be wiped clean, how would you manage the West’s federal forests for the benefits the public seems to favor – clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife and a wealth of year-round recreation opportunity.

Newton: You’ve asked a policy question that ought to be off limits for a scientist, but I’ll take a crack at it anyway. I’d reinstate the boundaries of Wilderness areas as of 1980, and put those areas off-limits to logging or trail building so they become real wilderness areas. Several million acres of the Douglas-fir Region would remain in wilderness. Then I’d pursue the above long-rotation, even-aged management in a continuous progression with the older half approximating old growth and younger half in intensively managed younger stands – as I just described it. Congress would need to protect these areas from judicial review, meaning you could not litigate to stop the process. And other diddling with details at the behest of special interest groups.

Evergreen: Would your management regime benefit fish and wildlife species?

Newton: There would be winners and losers, just as there are in nature, but nobody would become extinct, and none horrendously abundant in each landscape. Fish would definitely benefit because I would mandate some harvesting very close to streams so as to allow light to reach water, but not overheat it. Herbivores would benefit when compared to the Northwest Forest Plan, which promulgates canopy closure over very large areas. But long rotation forestry would still mean less open habitat that was available to deer, elk, small herbivores and their predators than in the shorter rotations of 1980. But on the flip side of this coin, the areas that we would be harvesting annually would provide short-term pulses of early seral habitats throughout the half of each landscape when part of the circle where some partial-cut harvesting is done maybe 75 years or more prior to clearcutting. It’s hard for lay persons to envision a moving circle of succession, half of which is moving through increasingly old-forest features with little apparent changes, followed by conversion to young forests that start again to grow toward that maturity once more, in perpetuity.

Evergreen: How would late succession species favored by the Northwest Forest Plan fare?

Newton: Given the enormous amount of old growth now present, I don’t see much if any impact on late seral species, including spotted owls and marbled murrelets. Hemlocks and true firs would become less abundant. But wildlife would reach steady states, more or less, depending on site and local climate. Frequency of catastrophic fires would decline. The deliberate plan to have old-forest features on half of every landscape in constant rotation would ensure that nobody’s habitat would disappear – ever. At the moment, however, there is a serious lack of early-seral owing to lack of recent clearcuts.

Evergreen: There is a public perception that the kind of forestry research in which you are engaged is a relatively new phenomenon; that it’s all experimental, and results have yet to be proven. Is this true?

Newton: Heavens no! I started my research in 1958, and I’m a relative newcomer. Field study in the Douglas-fir region dates to Thornton Munger’s fine growth and yield work at Wind River in southwest Washington in the early 1900s. The earliest government-sponsored forest surveys in our region were conducted by U.S. Geological Survey men, including John Bernard Leiberg, who rode horseback through the region in the 1890s. Leiberg was a botanist whose very descriptive 1899 narrative tells us a great deal about the nature of forests that were here at that time. Leo Isaac came along in the 1930s, and did a lot of very good work that validated the findings of Munger and others of his era. Isaac pretty much laid the reoccurring clearcutting debate to rest in the early 1950s in a marvelous literature review in which he concluded that it was the best management tool we had for our shade-intolerant Douglas-fir. One cannot ignore botanists such as Douglas, after whom the tree was named, and many others who assigned Latin names to species, after which their abbreviated names appear in epithets.

Evergreen: Did forest scientists of Isaac’s or Munger’s time insert themselves into political controversies as many do today?

Newton: No, they didn’t as far as I know, though they invited vigorous debate amongst themselves. Most were keen observers who spent a lot of time in the woods. They wrote many of the defining documents describing the ecology of Douglas-fir. Isaac’s clearcutting paper came along at a time when the Forest Service was fighting with itself about switching to a selection harvesting regime that would have been a silvicultural disaster. About today, we have platoons of PhD’s among us today dependent on federal grants responsive often to politically contrived need for research about details on behalf of federal lands (and their lawsuits) and essential to budgets of our universities. Many are asking questions of marginal relevance to managers apart from legal issues. Others are ignoring basic truths about Douglas-fir. The direct cost to taxpayers runs in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and that doesn’t include the lost opportunity costs associated with research that fails to identify the important questions needing answers.

Evergreen: You mention universities. Many worry that our great forestry schools have been caught up in the same politically driven forestry lynching that now grips the Forest Service. Do you agree?

Newton: Forestry schools face two great challenges. First, most students entering forestry schools come from urban backgrounds. They have to learn to think with a dimension of time. Their interest in forestry is often akin to that of an idealistic observer of still-life nature presented by media guided by what is popular. Their lifetime experience leads to a very different mindset or viewpoint from that of a true woods worker – meaning one who has grown up with hands-on approaches to woods/nature. They bring a very different vocabulary to bear – or no vocabulary at all – because they have no idea what forestry and forest management is or what it has meant to our country’s development. Our universities are committed to accepting these students to keep their enrollments up, but accepting them has meant that a lot of rigorous course work has had to be diluted with preparatory concepts, hence dumbed down. Worse, the number of credits required to earn a degree in forestry has been reduced; at Oregon State from 204 to 180 since 1980. Classes that I consider basic – geology, calculus, organic chemistry, zoology and wildlife ecology – are no longer required for a BS in Forestry.

Evergreen: What’s the second problem?

Newton: The second problem is that faculty recruitment has encountered serious problems. Universities require professorial hires to have PhD’s. Virtually all doctoral candidates have been in school all of their lives, perhaps shaped by environments much like those of the above incoming freshmen. They are often poorly equipped in practical forestry for teaching naïve undergraduates about the facts of life in forests and forestry. New Phds are usually highly specialized in terms of their thesis research. Having been hired from pools who obtained degrees primarily focusing on basic research, they are hired to be able to draw grant money; teaching and woods experiences are secondary. Hence, they may teach a broadly applied course material as if some “ology.” Their capacity as generalists is often poor and their teaching competence is typically unknown. These are really bright people, and I like them. But a good forestry teacher must be enough of a woodsman to be fluent in very practical common sense terms about the woods, intuitively.

Evergreen: Can anything be done to improve faculty or student quality?

Newton: It’s a very slow process. I’ve urged our new Forestry Dean to open hiring to experienced woodsmen who have managed for twenty or more years, men and women who have mentored new hires and understand that learning how to effectively manage forests requires years of on the ground experience. Blessedly, he is listening, but he can’t solve the reduced credits problem without forcing students to pay for a fifth year in forestry school. The tuition is devastating. He has instituted some extra-curricular instruction in a “field school” before students enter their junior years.

Evergreen: What’s being done on the student side of this equation?

Newton: Until a few months ago, we had a headhunter on staff who went from high school to high school talking with students about our forestry program. He brought us some pretty good students, but the Dean decided he couldn’t afford him so he was let go. But then the Dean hired four new PhD’s, I think only one with a forestry degree. Grant money and “prestigious research” now rule the roost. Not much the dean can do in the face of nation-wide university shift in approach to education.

Evergreen: Are any of the professional societies doing anything in the student recruitment arena.

Newton: Our local Society of American Foresters chapter hosts students at a gathering that gives them a chance to rub shoulders with mossy beards – those of us who have decades of teaching and research experience behind us – emphasis on applied research. When I talk with high school science teachers, I urge them to be sure that their students are enrolled in advanced placement classes in chemistry, physics and calculus, thus getting stuff now dropped out of college curricula. These courses are essential thought shapers, but definitely not part of the vocabulary we see in most first year forestry students. Sadly, I am certain that what we’re seeing at Oregon State is happening all over the country. We could help ourselves by refocusing our recruiting efforts on young men and women who already have hands on experience with nature, either by profession or avocation. I would like to think of our students knowing something about biology and forests before they show up as students in a professional school. A good thing is that each student must have employment for at least two summers before becoming eligible for a BS Degree. Not required for advanced degrees—note the hiring difficulty that presents when requiring the doctorate!

Evergreen: Your reaction, please, to this observation shared with me several years ago by Alan Houston, a PhD wildlife biologist in Tennessee. “When we leave forests to nature as so many people today seem to want to do, we get whatever nature serves up, which can be pretty devastating at times, but with forestry we have options and a degree of predictability not found in nature.”

Newton: He’s absolutely correct. This is the whole point of my emphasis on long-rotation, even-aged forests outlined above. It ensures nothing gets left out. And this gets back to your earlier teaching question. Universities now recruit faculty members who are capable of drawing grant money.

Evergreen: Is there something wrong with this manner of faculty recruitment?

Newton: On its face, no; but most of the research money comes from the federal government, which has its own politically-driven agendas where forest management is concerned. We have scientists in the field today trying to “prove” particular points of view - rather than questioning it - that flies in the face of natural considerations, to say nothing of decades of peer-review forest science.

Evergreen: So you feel about the same way about the veracity of current field research as you do about the dumbing down of the academic requirements for degrees in the forest sciences?

Newton: Yes, I do, to a degree. Political agendas aside, most of our academics are not trained observers in the broadest sense. One result is that a good portion of their research simply adds to controversies that swirl about the whole question of forest management, or whether forests should be managed at all, or simply left to nature’s vagaries. Swatting at gnats to justify grants can be a problem in perceptions as well as commitments.

Evergreen: Many activists believe timber harvesting is just plain wrong, if not for environmental reasons then certainly on moral or ethical grounds. How do we answer these people?

Newton: Timber harvesting allows us to use renewable natural resources that also store carbon, and without depleting anything if done according to a long-term plan. Moreover, harvesting provides a continuing supply of early seral forest habitat. So their criticism of forestry is a paradox when viewed in the context of their beliefs. Moreover, their criticism of “industry” denies the fact that many forestry businesses are family owned. In fact, much of the wood consumed annually in our country comes from family-owned Tree Farms, including our family’s Tree Farm, which is currently harvesting 60-year-old timber that our family has grown almost its entire life. And our little 300 acres had its first salable timber 40 years ago (not much of that cut yet) after we bought it without trees, reflecting many decades of subsistence farming, and now supports a volume of 6 million board feet of standing timber that allows a harvest of a million board feet every three years indefinitely. So we have a very even flow of both yield and habitat with average rotation of 70 years. Remarkably, we have also created a good bit of “old forest” habitat in the older age classes way before their “time.”

Evergreen: You are referencing what we call “the conflict industry?”

Newton: I am. Environmental activism through the courts, coupled with laws badly written by urban members of Congress, has become an industry unto itself. It recruits billions of dollars a year from donors who have no idea what damage they are doing to the environment and our country’s economy. Or don’t care. Millions more come from taxpayers who have no choice in the matter. Activism’s leaders are able propagandists with lawyer staffs paid to misrepresent science for unscientific purposes. As you’ve said so many times, there are no silver bullets. Forestry education takes time and costs a lot of money. Many traditional funding sources have dried up, not just at the university level, but certainly among groups that do the heavy lifting; Evergreen, our best example for lay education, has done so admirably for so many years. I continue to believe that seeing is believing, which is why I still hold field research in such high regard. We will not win back the public’s confidence until we can demonstrate that science-based forestry can provide the environmental and aesthetic benefits they seek. Putting these thoughts in the public eye is critically important to provide proper pressure on governments to use good judgment.

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