Idaho Shared Stewardship

While flipping TV channels recently, I inadvertently landed on C-SPAN2 instead of the March Madness college basketball game I intended to watch.  Instead of dunks and three-pointers, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack responded to a Colorado senator’s questions regarding wildfire protection programs.  The secretary described national Priority Landscape Areas currently receiving emphasis to reduce wildfire risks and enhance forest health.

Idaho contains two such areas including the Northern Idaho Priority Landscape Area that encompasses southwest Bonner and northwest Kootenai Counties.  A similar area exists in southwest Idaho centered around McCall.

Under the leadership of the Idaho Department of Lands and the U.S. Forest Service, the Shared Stewardship approach encourages state, federal, tribal and private landowners to implement treatments that will benefit their lands while also protecting their neighbors’ land.  Wildfire and insect outbreaks don’t stop at property lines.  That is why it is also called No Boundaries Forestry.

Shared Stewardship partners are actively treating high risk forests in the Southwest Bonner County Focal Area. For example, the Forest Service and Department of Lands are conducting both commercial and non-commercial treatments on their scattered lands near Oldtown and Blanchard.  Fuels breaks have been established on state Endowment Lands that border densely populated subdivisions. Timber companies are also thinning overcrowded stands and addressing forest health concerns.  Family forest owners are learning of opportunities to implement defensible space and hazardous fuels treatments to protect their homesites.  Foresters and fire experts conduct site visits with landowners to prescribe site-specific activities.  For family forest owners, the Bonner County Emergency Services Bonfire program and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service offer cost-share assistance to implement practices.  Many of these funding opportunities require little to no out-of-pocket costs to the landowner. The Kalispel Tribe will implement treatments on their lands. When combined across the landscape, Shared Stewardship projects will reduce overcrowded conditions and ladder fuels, improve emergency access and provide for a healthier forest.

Inland Forest Management, Inc. is assisting these efforts by working with partners in delivering the Shared Stewardship program to private forest owners.

I’m glad I listened to Secretary Vilsack that evening instead of watching another basketball game.

Bill Love, Certified Forester


Western Redcedar: Facts, Bugs and Cruds

In their book Northwest Trees – Anniversary Edition, authors Stephen R. Arno and Ramona P. Hammerly begin their description of this native species, “Western redcedar is an icon of the Northwestern forest, beloved for its majesty, beauty, and excellent wood.”

Western redcedar (Thuja plicata), however, is not a true cedar but instead finds a taxonomic home in the cypress family – Cupressaceae.

Now with that dendrology lesson, let’s take a closer look at our native western redcedar.  We oftentimes visualize majestic groves of enormous, long-lived trees.  As a climax species on moist sites, it will survive long after competitor trees drop out of the stand.

The wood of western redcedar is naturally resistant to decay as the two most common stem decay fungi that infect it – cedar laminated butt rot and cedar brown pocket rot – seldom kill the tree.  But the decay pockets attract cavity-nesting birds and other animals.  Carpenter ant nests are also common at the base of the tree.  While these conditions may cull a tree for merchantability, western redcedar is a survivor and can live for centuries as a hollowed-out shell.

Occasionally cedar bark beetles (Phloesinus spp.) will attack western redcedar trees.  These attacks usually result in top kill or dead branches, only occasionally killing the tree.

For centuries this majestic species has done quite well occupying moist sites, surviving all but the most intense fires, fighting off occasional bark beetle attacks, and still standing even though its bole rings like a bass drum when pounded by the timber cruiser’s axe.  (Using a skill involving more art than science, old-time cruisers estimated the defect in cedar trees by the hollowness of its sound.)

But now, there is something amiss in the deep, dark woods where cedar thrives.  For the past few years, western redcedar growing west of the Cascades Mountains have been exhibiting uncharacteristic symptoms including top kill, dead branches, yellowing needles and, in some cases, mortality.  Don’t confuse these symptoms with the natural needle shed that occurs every year in early fall as evergreen trees drop foliage in preparation for winter.

There are indications that this condition is now appearing in North Idaho and eastern Washington.

This malady baffles landowners and foresters.  Without knowing for certain, forest health specialists refer to this phenomenon as western redcedar dieback.

At first glance, there does not appear to be a significant increase in the insects and pathogens that cedar trees have evolved with over past centuries.  Furthermore, no new pests affecting cedar have been identified.

Absent of any biotic explanation, abiotic causes might provide an answer to this unusual condition.  Climate change in the form of warmer, drier summers may be affecting western redcedar trees.

A concerted research effort involving federal, state and university forest health specialists is underway to better understand western redcedar dieback.  Are there common factors such as topography, soils, climate relating to this condition?  What size and age classes of trees are most affected?  How long does it take a tree to die?   Answers to these and many other questions will eventually solve this dilemma.

In the meantime, I offer two suggestions.  First, call a forester if you notice any visual changes to cedar trees in your forest.  Secondly, take a walk through the Ross Creek Cedars above Bull Lake in western Montana to appreciate this, “icon of the Northwestern forest, beloved for its majesty, beauty, and excellent wood.”

~Bill Love