Loggers give unique Oregon ponderosa pine a lifeline

  • The Willamette Valley ponderosa seed orchard, 11 years from seed.

    Robert L. McNitt
  • A Willamette Valley ponderosa pine flower.

    Rick Quam, J.E. Schroeder Orchard

On a gray February afternoon, rain falls in huge drops on Chuck Volz's 65-acre property near Springfield, Ore. It drips from the brim of his faded camouflage baseball cap and rolls off his tan jacket as he walks down a muddy path crisscrossed by deer hoofprints. He stops at a young ponderosa pine and frowns: "Horn rubbing," he says, fingering a sappy spot where a buck scraped off the bark with its antlers. He hates to see his trees under duress.

In the last decade, Volz, a retired engineer for the lumber company Weyerhaeuser, has planted roughly 1,500 Willamette Valley ponderosa pines -- a type of the ubiquitous Western conifer that's found only in this valley. Unique genetic characteristics have been discovered in the pine's chloroplasts, the part of a plant cell that conducts photosynthesis. And ponderosas taken from dry eastern Oregon and replanted in the soggy Willamette Valley usually die within a few years. With this evidence in hand, scientists are now in the process of getting Pinus ponderosa var. willamettensis formally recognized as a distinct variety.

Settlers decimated the trees when they built homes and cleared land for agriculture, and until recently, the pine survived only in scattered stands between Hillsboro and Cottage Grove. It suffered more than other species because it grew on the valley floor -- unlike Douglas fir, which occupy hillsides -- and was softer and easier to mill than hardwoods. Animals that relied on the tree for habitat and food -- including the Lewis' woodpecker and the slender-billed nuthatch, which both nest in the tree -- declined along with it. Today researchers believe that the persistence of ponderosa pine here depends on the survival of the remaining native stock.

The valley's ponderosas are beginning to rebound, thanks largely to former loggers like Volz. In partnership with the Oregon Department of Forestry, the Willamette Valley Ponderosa Pine Conservation Association -- a group composed mostly of timber industry retirees -- has worked since 1994 to preserve the tree's genetics, re-establish it on private and public lands, and create a commercial market for its lumber. They aren't ecologically motivated: "Some folks want to save every tree," says Bob McNitt, the group's executive director, who brags about the number of trees he used to fell. "We want to grow 'em and make products for people." Yet their championship of the valley ponderosa has been, in effect, an act of conservation.

By preserving its genetic diversity, the loggers have given this uncommon tree an evolutionary lifeline. Had the valley ponderosas been left to themselves, inbreeding within remnant stands containing only a few trees, coupled with pressures from development, could have led to the variety's collapse, explains Larry Miller, Oregon's state forest geneticist. "The association captured a solid sample of the genetic resources of valley pine," Miller says. "Now, landowners who plant the pine are expanding its range, and increasing the diversity within that range."

McNitt, who retired from industrial forestry partly because he didn't "want to deal with that crap with the environment or environmentalists," did much of that genetic reconnaissance and preservation. He spent nine months in the mid-'90s roaming northwestern Oregon with a GPS and a notebook, recording the locations of roughly 450 native pine stands -- drastically fewer than what once grew here, according to 19th century surveys. There were still enough to constitute a genetically viable pool, but the distance between stands prevented the trees from cross-pollinating, so their seeds were likely to be inbred and unfit for survival.

McNitt and others collected seed and scions -- branches cut from adult trees and grafted onto rootstock -- from many of those sites, then partnered with the Oregon Department of Forestry to raise them. The fruits of that effort now grow on a 14-acre seed orchard. When the trees flower, wind carries pollen from the unrelated individuals throughout the orderly rows. Once the fertilized flowers become pineapple-shaped cones, orchard employees break them open to get at the seeds, which are distributed to nurseries where landowners can buy seedlings. The state also plants a small number on public lands.

When the association began its crusade to save the pine, before the economic downturn, individuals and lumber companies were thrilled by the variety's potential. Valley ponderosa thrive in poor soils where timber staples like the Douglas fir tend to falter. They also grow fast, ensuring a relatively quick turnaround from planting to harvesting, and their lumber can be sold for shavings or even biofuel. And though the initial fervor has cooled as the timber market at large teeters, McNitt remains optimistic. "My feeling is that demand will cycle around again," he says. For now he's focused on increasing supply, urging friends, neighbors and strangers to plant the tree with an almost evangelical zeal.

Hundreds of thousands have been planted in the last decade, though the sluggish economy means fewer seedlings are bought these days. At the same time, the recession is indirectly protecting established pines. The real estate bust halted the feverish construction of the mid-2000s, and for the time being, forested land -- including ponderosa stands -- is less likely to be sold and converted to housing or strip malls, Miller explains.

Still, the reforestation effort hasn't been a definitive victory for habitat restoration, cautions David Hibbs, professor of silviculture at Oregon State University. Historically, the pines grew widely dispersed among other species, particularly oak. Now, people are mainly planting them in tightly packed mini-plantations. "You don't want to mistake this with restoration," Hibbs says. "They're not creating the habitat that the pine used to be a part of."

It's better than nothing, though, says research wildlife biologist Joan Hagar. "They certainly couldn't (bring back the habitat) if they weren't replanting the ponderosas," she says. If McNitt and other loggers get their way, some will be cut down. But others will thrive and reproduce. And the future lies in those seeds, says Hagar: "They're preserving options by keeping the pine in the ecosystem."

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