The Smear Campaign to Kill Dead Trees

Many Oregon elementary school children have the opportunity to attend Outdoor School, essentially a blend of camping-plus-school that takes children into the forest to talk about wildlife, water, geology, and plant life. Through songs and traditions, as well as hands-on learning, it’s a fantastic experience that sticks with students for their entire lives. Oregon children are instilled at a very young age with an appreciation of nature.

I was fortunate enough to attend Outdoor School in Pendleton both as an elementary school student and as a high school counselor. Like many Oregonians, I learned the life cycle of the forest from Outdoor School, including the importance of dead trees. Called snags when they’re standing and nurse logs once they’ve fallen, dead trees are an essential part to a healthy forest. It was often said that when a tree died, its life was only half-over.

Snags provide habitat to wildlife like owls, Pacific fisher, and woodpeckers. Nurse logs are filled with the fungi that break down and fertilize the soil, providing nutrients to new plants. Anyone who has hiked the rolling terrain of an old-growth forest knows the soft feeling beneath their feet of walking over a massive tree that had been decomposing over the course of hundreds of years, feeding bugs and microbes in the soil, becoming a “garden of life” for the forest’s next generation.

A few other ecosystem services provided by dead trees include: carbon storage, providing favorable microsites for germination of new trees and plants, stabilizing soil and steep slopes, storing water that plants can use during the dry season, building complex fish habitat when they fall in streams, offering scenic “sculptures” in the forest.

Rose, C.L., Marcot, B.G., Mellen, T.K., Ohmann, J.L., Waddell, K.L., Lindely, D.L., and B. Schrieber. 2001. Decaying Wood in Pacific Northwest Forests: Concepts and Tools for Habitat Management, Chapter 24 in Wildlife-Habitat Relationships in Oregon and Washington (Johnson, D. H. and T. A. O’Neil. OSU Press. 2001) 

Sadly, the logging industry has initiated a smear campaign against dead trees. Using the tax-funded Oregon Forest Resources Institute as their patsy, the industry is trying to rebrand dead trees as “zombie trees” and a reason to return to clearcutting public lands, and carve new roads into the wildest places left in the state. They intimate that the presence of snags are always a sign of an unhealthy forest (they’re not) and blame them for exacerbating wildfires (they don’t). Discouragingly, some Oregon politicians like Representatives Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden have bought into this wrongheadedness.

Most harmful of all, however, are industry attempts at post-fire logging. To an untrained eye, the post-fire landscape may appear to be desolate or apocalyptic, but life returns to these areas quickly. Some plants and trees (called pyrophytes) like lodgepole pine flourish in the aftermath of fire.  In fact, post-fire landscapes have greater plant and animal variety than any other landscape other than old-growth forests.

Post-fire logging destroys this natural recovery process by removing the dead trees that provide habitat and nutrients (as well as incidentally logging large, healthy trees the logging industry insists “don’t know they’re dead yet”). Adding insult to injury, the use of heavy machinery compacts soils, making it harder for native plants to take roots. The plantation-style monoculture that is replanted after a salvage operation pushes out other vegetation and can actually increase the severity of the next wildfire.

Dead trees are part of the circle of life that builds our forests. They are to be appreciated, not demonized and used as an excuse to clearcut public lands. Most Oregonians learn this in elementary school. Unfortunately, the logging industry is running a campaign that is not smarter than a 5th grader.


Photo Credits: 
Photos by Arran Robertson