'Anything you say about a whole forest is wrong'

  • Art Partridge

    Lisa Jones

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, Two views of forest health at the University of Idaho, in a special issue about the West's forestry schools.

Art Partridge is walking through the tall firs of the Coeur d'Alene National Forest in northern Idaho. Pausing occasionally to keep tabs on his excited Chihuahua, E.T., he lobs a question - -do you get more timber fiber by growing a few big trees or lots of little ones?" - then drops to his knees to inspect a rotting stump, and points out nearby clearcuts - -The major forest health problem in Idaho."

The talk then turns to mites.

"Right now, you've got mites crawling all through your eyelids clipping off all the dead skin and you don't even know it," he announces with the grin of a teacher who knows how to get the attention of his students. The mites, he points out, are a condition, not a disease. Root rot is similar: "Virtually every tree we cut and dissect has some root disease if you want to look at every little teeny root ... I'm not against logging, but logging for root disease is nonsense. Logging for it doesn't achieve anything. It causes it to be worse, if anything."

Death and decay are an integral part of the forest's life cycle, says the 35-year veteran of the University of Idaho College of Forestry, Wildlife and Range. Small openings in the forest canopy capture and hold snow, which nourishes berry patches which feed animals and birds. Dead trees in diseased areas provide nest sites for woodpeckers that, in turn, are agents of bark beetle control. The same trees are nesting, cache, den and shelter sites for small birds, owls, squirrels, chipmunks and other wildlife and open perches for rodent-controlling raptors.

But foresters, academics and now politicians are saying that the forest is in terrible shape. It's got beetle-kill and a fire-susceptible understory in southern Idaho, and root rot here in the north. It's overcrowded, and hardy pines are being replaced by more disease-prone firs. The prescription signed into law in last summer's salvage rider is to remove dead, dying or at-risk trees "to the maximum extent feasible." It also allows 230 million board-feet to be taken out of old-growth forests in Oregon and Washington (see Hotline page 2).

Partridge concedes that some spots are overcrowded and that disease and insects can periodically reach crisis proportions in localized areas, but he maintains that the loss of the best trees to logging has harmed the forest more than anything else: "The superior genetic stock isn't here any more," he says. "We simply don't have the good trees."

Partridge objects to any simple diagnosis of something as complex as a forest. "Anything you say about a whole forest is wrong," he says.

He's not alone. Says Jerry Franklin, a pioneer of "new forestry" (see story page 16) and a forest ecologist at the University of Washington: "I don't think there's really a forest health crisis, I think the problem with forest health is highly localized. It's not a generic kind of problem. If we were really interested (in improving forest health) we'd be focusing primarily on reducing densities of small- and medium-diameter trees and increasing the overall vigor of the stands, not taking out old trees."

Partridge calls the forest health crisis "a big fraud, a way to convince people that they're doing everything right. My God, the Forest Service has screwed up everything they've touched for 60 years. How do we expect them to do anything right now?"

So how does he think the forest should be managed?

"I would say 'Okay, the first thing you've got to pay attention to is to protect the soil at all cost. Because in the future we'll not have a forest if we don't.' Then I'd make sure you have all of the complexities and diversities in a normal forest. I'm talking animals, birds, fungi, bacteria, insects, everything.

"As an educator I've done a lousy job teaching these years. I should have started at the bottom, with the soil. The first thing they learn is silviculture - how to cut trees. Now (forestry students) can get through school without (studying) soils, pathology or entomology. It's not just our school. A lot of schools are that way."

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