In mid-June, on a visit to the Olympic Natural Resources Center out in Forks, Wash., I had the opportunity to tour the Hoh River Trust lands on the Olympic Peninsula. The Trust purchased and set aside these lands, which cover about 7,000 acres, during the last 20 years. The goal was to preserve the beauty of the 56-mile Hoh River that runs through the heart of the property, and create a zone of ecological integrity along the watershed.
Much of the area had been heavily managed in the previous 80 years, passing from small landowners to timber companies and ultimately to the Trust, and the forest is still managed today. In general, timber is being harvested at a sustainable rate and in a manner that supports continuous cover and habitat between harvest entries—and with an eye toward long-term habitat restoration and improvement. You have to marvel at the sheer size of some of the older stumps, and while I know it will take many, many years to restore the forest to the grandeur of those historical stands, I also know that much of that potential hinges on how we manage the forest today.
So the forest isn’t ‘idle,’ and neither is the land. It is an intense and ever-changing ecosystem driven by the hydraulic power of the Hoh River and the forces of fire and wind. One of the original European homesteads on the land has been lost to bank erosion from the river shifting across the floodplain at an average rate of about 20 feet per year, drawing rocks, trees, house and soil into the river, and leaving behind fresh-cut bank with exposed roots and burrow holes—all to be washed away in the next large runoff event. Amazingly, a day before our tour, two fires had broken out in this wet part of Washington in June, and one was still burning more than 20 days later. The lesson: Landscapes are incredibly dynamic, whether they experience constant human intervention or none at all. Such dynamism is found everywhere in nature, and our ability to address and work with these forces requires us to explore and understand ecological systems in their entirety.
Rural communities, with their interdependency on nearby forests and links to regional cities and international markets, also display complex dynamism. In those environments, creating a more integrated ecological and community system adds an additional layer of complexity—and also risk. Matching timber maturity and harvest scheduling with ecological objectives, for instance, can lead to cash flow challenges that cripple an organization or a company.
But that’s what makes this human ecosystem along the Hoh such an ideal test ground, and why I’m excited for the opportunity to partner with the Hoh River Trust, as well as the neighboring Olympic Experimental State Forest and Olympic National Forest, to conduct research involving faculty and students from our School. Natural laboratories like these lands, which share elements of the wild and of human management, are essential to sustainable forestry and the forest products industry. They give us a chance to integrate research across multiple disciplines, combining the expertise of our foresters, social scientists, ecologists, microbiologists, engineers, hydrologists and economists, among others.
Using these lands as an open research laboratory would allow us to conduct long-term studies experimenting with new approaches to silviculture, timber harvest and wood utilization that emphasize habitat objectives and continuous cover—all while achieving a sustainable flow of timber and revenue that supports regional demand and community well-being. I can envision us developing alternative strategies for restoration and conservation along the Hoh that will help increase the resilience of our ecosystems, economies and social networks throughout the Pacific Northwest.
There’s so much potential in this dynamic environment, and I heartily welcome the opportunity for us to help study, understand, manage, restore and sustain these rural landscapes.
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences