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why so few hardwoods in the PNW?

Larry Caldwell larryc at teleport.com
Tue Aug 11 04:12:01 EST 1998

In article <01bdc2e3$b0a65f20$8f3b8ed1 at laptop>, fotoware at jps.net says...

> I would definitely have to agree with you on this one, Don. Fires, big and
> small, were rare in the rainforest type areas but, they did happen. In the
> redwood forests of California, fires were essential to the survival of
> redwoods. Their thick bark is testament to that and is part of their
> survival strategy and dominance. Since we can't go and burn much through
> the redwoods, logging has to suffice as a means of simulating the natural
> occurence of fire. Picking and plucking trees that would have naturally
> died while identifying and saving those genetically superior trees is
> essential to today's forestry.

Redwoods are a separate issue, since they have so many fire survival 
traits.  It's pretty hard to kill a redwood.  Just about nothing you can 
say about a redwood forest is applicable to a doug fir forest.  

The reason you can have a doug fir forest is that something killed all 
the trees.  Almost all species of softwood live longer than doug fir.  
Not only does it have a short growth life, but unlike redwoods, almost 
anything will kill the tree.  If you find an even aged stand of doug fir 
anywhere, either that is the footprint of a forest fire or a logging 
operation.  A few cores will tell you very accurately when it happened.  

If you recall the protests over the China Left sale a couple years ago, 
that was a doug fir forest, and the trees that were being taken out were 
certainly quite a bit younger than the State of Oregon.  The whole area 
burned to the ground sometime in the 1860's.  

I don't know where you got the idea that fires were rare in the PNW 
before Europeans arrived, but it's not true.  Generally the west slope of 
the coast range stays pretty wet and hard to burn, which is why the 
native spruce forest is limited to that area.  Once again, you're talking 
about a different species and a different forest.  The photos of giant 
trees 12 feet across the butt are photos of spruce, not doug fir.  DF 
doesn't live long enough to grow that large.  Find a native spruce forest 
and you define the footprint of woods that were too wet to burn.  The 
small extent of native spruce forest demonstrates that forest fires were 
the rule, not the exception in the PNW.

To get back to the hardwoods question, there are actually quite a few 
hardwoods in the PNW, but they rarely get old enough to be commercially 
interesting.  There are exceptions. 

You will reliably find hardwoods along rivers and streams throughout the 
PNW.  One easy way to kill DF is to get its feet wet, so anywhere in a 20 
year flood plain will be open enough to stimulate hardwood growth.  
Broadleaf maple is a popular finish lumber.  A number of other hardwoods 
have niche markets, like myrtle, chinkapin, cottonwood and alder.  Red 
alder is developing its own industry, since it is a nitrogen fixing tree 
that yields short rotation timber crops.  Alder furniture is a popular 
low budget wood furniture. 

Much of the PNW was also oak savannah up until the Europeans arrived.  
The local natives used fire to clear land for hunting, and for thousands 
of years set fires in the dry season.  Even today some ranchers continue 
the tradition, and you will see many thousands of acres of grasslands 
dotted with oak groves.  This is white oak (quercus garryana) and has 
recently been found to be an excellent substitute for European white oak 
in wine casks.  There is a small but growing cooperage industry in the 

A common hardwood that is rarely mentioned is madrone (arbutus menzeseii) 
which is rarely considered a commercial species.  It can be found 
plentifully near oak savannah.  It survives fire by suckering from the 
roots, which leads to dense stands of spindly stems.  If you happen to 
have mill sized logs of madrone, it is quite valuable, but finding one 
that has survived unburned long enough to form a log is a rarity.  Like 
redwood, it's real hard to kill a madrone, though doug fir will 
eventually overtop it and shade it out.

-- Larry

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