Thinning forests for the trees

Scott Swanson

It’s a rainy November morning and U.S. Forest Service staffers Joan Schmidgall and Autumn Metz stand with a visitor on a hillside in the Quartzville drainage, looking over a stand of 36-year-old trees that may soon be cut.

But not all of them, because these trees are in the Quartzville-Middle Santiam management project, a plan to thin nearly 90,000 acres of overgrown forests, create firebreaks and open spaces, and maintain and reconstruct nearly 300 miles of roads in the Quartzville Creek-Green Peter lake and headwaters and Middle Santiam River watersheds.

The project, in the works for more than two years, is now at the stage where USFS officials are inviting public comment on a draft environmental assessment that has been completed.

It can be viewed at

The project is the largest “Sweet Home Ranger District has seen in quite a while,” said Schmidgall, who’s worked in the district since 2012.

“It is pretty big,” acknowledged District Ranger Nikki Swanson.

She said production of timber from the Sweet Home Ranger District hasn’t been what she’d like to see.

“It’s been kind of hand-to-mouth,” said Swanson, who’s headed the district since 2016. “I felt like we need to catch up a little bit. I’d like to kind of build some shelf stock, for lack of a better word.”

The goal with this project, Schmidgall said, is to do necessary thinning in overgrown areas while establishing a steady supply of timber for the next five years.

USFS staff are proposing management treatments for 7,800 acres, including commercial thinning (5,300 acres), shelterwood with reserves (140 acres), gap creation (170 acres), dominant tree release (620 acres), and skips (1,570 acres).

If approved, the plan would utilize ground-based systems (4,556 acres), skyline yarding systems (2,755 acres), and helicopter yarding systems (480 acres) to produce an estimated 60 to 80 million board feet from a total of approximately 89,000 acres of Sweet Home Ranger District lands and 14,000 acres of private lands.

Money from the timber sales, Schmidgall said, will be used for “restoration.”

“We use it to create snags in these units for habitat, we use it for weed treatment, we use it for road maintenance to help with water quality – there’s so many different things we can use these funds for.”

The proposed action would maintain and reconstruct about 293 miles of system roads. About five miles of new non-system roads and 27 miles of existing non-system roads would be temporarily used and subsequently decommissioned. Other activities proposed include road decommissioning (14 miles), road closure (19 miles), and noxious weed treatments.

All of this will take place under the auspices of the Northwest Forest Plan and the 1990 Land and Resource Management Plan (Forest Plan) for the Willamette National Forest.

“When we decide to do a timber sale, probably the first thing we look at is ‘What does our Forest Plan say and the Northwest Forest Plan?'” Schmidgall said, “because those plans really dictate how we treat units – where we harvest and when we harvest.”

Swanson said the process of producing the Environmental Assessment has been delayed, mostly by the fires of 2020.

“A lot of our workforce was shifted to fire recovery,” she said. “We would have had it out at this time last year, but we got delayed. That was a big deal, but we’re back on track. Here we are, despite the 2021 fires – I didn’t think we’d see fires like that two years in a row.”

Another challenge, she said, has been “getting people to understand what this project is, and isn’t.”

“Some folks think we’re proposing to log a lot of old trees. It’s 140 acres. I’ve been to that stand myself. It’s dense. Some people characterize it as the whole project. That’s not what this is.”

She said her staff has been “very thoughtful” in selecting areas that need improvement and determining what “prescriptions” are best suited to each situation.

In a Nov. 10 letter announcing the proposal, Swanson said the Forest Service considered four alternatives for the area before issuing the assessment up for public review. The one before the public is what came out of that shuffle.

She said later, in an interview, that she believes Forest Service staffers listened to feedback from the public gathered during the scoping process, which was the first stage of the project, in producing the current proposal.

“I feel like my team did a really good job trying to be transparent, and incorporate the things we hear,” Swanson said.

She urged those interested in the project to “dive deeper into” the Environmental Assessment before responding. It really paints a great picture of what this project is and isn’t – pictures, diagrams. It really highlights the areas we heard from the public during scoping.

“I hope people look themselves and not just respond to calls to action they get in their email.”

Out in Quartzville with Metz and Schmidgall, in one particular unit on Forest Road 1155, old-growth stumps are slowly rotting away, while the younger trees, most between 10 and 14 inches in diameter, are spaced so close together that they have, as Metz puts it, “self-pruned” – trunks bare of branches up to the canopy some 50 feet above the ground, and little to no undergrowth. Weaker trees are dead, she noted.

Metz said the plan is to use commercial thinning to reduce the stand down to approximately 100 trees per acre. Right now, Schmidgall said, it has an estimated 230 per acre.

She said other alternatives would remove more trees in spots, creating more open space, such as shelterwood with reserves, or gaps, depending on the situation.

Down the hill is another unit that has already been thinned. Metz points out “dominant trees” and “gaps” where larger trees have been left with open space around to give them “a lot of growing space” and “some spatial variation, you know, both vertically and horizontally.”

Schmidgall said that approach allows other species of plants to grow as well, adding to variation in the forest.

One of the goals, she said, is to increase light to the forest floor and, although attracting wildlife may not be a primary focus of the project plan, it is definitely a factor.

The project plan includes approximately five units where the focus would be creating shelterwood with reserve treatments, “more intensive treatments” in which the goals go beyond regeneration.

“They will remove more of the trees, and those aim to leave about 15% of the trees in clumps, and so it will be less uniform,” she said, which would help establish wildlife habitat.

“Our wildlife biologist has done a pretty extensive analysis for deer and elk habitat,” she said. “And it shows that if we are able to implement the project, we will actually contribute to quality habitat for deer.”

Swanson said she understands concerns about recreational needs, which she said will be addressed more fully in the future, along with fire control concerns and figuring out how to manage the forest from a “biological perspective” while maintaining a steady timber supply.

“When I move on, I want to make sure I leave something for next guy, that we’re acting in sustainable fashion.”

She said “specific” comments from the public are helpful in identifying concerns that might not be immediately obvious to planners.

“We want to supply a steady supply of timber to market,” she said. “But if we’ve missed the mark somehow, having specific comments helps us.

“People might say, ‘I wish you’d do something instead. You’re closing this road. Why aren’t you closing that road?’

“It’s way more helpful if people tell us these things. If the timber industry feels they need to access a road real quick in response to a fire, it’s helpful to know that.

“Somebody might tell us we’re closing the road to their favorite elk camp, that they’ve been going to since they were a kid.

“It’s really understanding the project, not just reacting to letter-writing campaigns.”

The deadline to comment is 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 10.

Written comments may be mailed to Swanson at the Sweet Home Ranger Station, 4431 Hwy. 20, Sweet Home OR, 97386. Comments may be submitted by phone to Schmidgall at (541) 259-9804 during normal business hours, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, except on federal holidays. Hand-delivered comments cannot be accepted.

Only those who submit specific written comments that meet requirements under Forest Service regulations during the comment period will be eligible to participate in the administrative review (objection) process.

Comments received in response to this solicitation, including names and addresses of those who comment, will be considered part of the public record for this project, available for public inspection, and released if requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

For more information, contact Joan Schmidgall, NEPA Planner, by phone at (541) 259-9804, by email at [email protected], or visit the EA project website.