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There's Life in Dead Trees: Why that snag is more valuable than you think

The title of this week's column comes right from the U.S. Forest Service ad people, a slogan they created to let everyone who uses our forests know that dead trees are vital to forest health.



The title of this week's column comes right from the U.S. Forest Service ad people, a slogan they created to let everyone who uses our forests know that dead trees are vital to forest health.

And with that statement, a word about the above photo. Those little pine chipmunks are having a party. They're imbibing a liquid that resembles "white lightnin'." And they are only a small number of an incredible array of wildlife foodies I found running up and down that old cat-faced wildlife tree getting smashed. Honest! Read on...

I watched that tree die during a summer I spent placing wildlife tree signs on pines out on the Fort Rock District many years ago. My theory is that in the dying process, the water that had been taken up by photosynthesis was slowly falling back to Earth through the old pine's tissues. Along the way, it was picking up a lot of sugars and other ingredients that slowly distilled in the heat of summer into a fluid containing a certain amount of alcohol.

Red-napped Sapsuckers were the first to sample this sweet-tasting liquid, and pounded out some "sap-wells." Within days, other birds - including hummingbirds - began partaking in the bountiful fluids and were quickly joined by a host of other wildlife, including butterflies.

When I discovered this oozing oasis, I had to see what was so attractive to so many species on one dying tree and took a sip or two. I have to tell you - it tasted pretty darn good!

Dying and dead trees mean life to so many animals in the forest that it would take this whole edition of The Source Weekly to list them all. In that light, government agencies managing woodcutting permits prohibit the removal of ponderosa pine snags (dead trees), standing or down.

When the USFS - probably at the behest of fire management people who look at standing snags as "lightning rods" - puts out huge timber sales aimed at removing dead wood from the forest, it unleashes a forest health dilemma that is still going on today: the mountain pine beetle infestation.

The mountain pine beetle, dendroctonus ponderosa, is a tiny insect native to the forests of western North America. It is a hard-backed beetle about the size of a grain of rice and when millions of them are unleashed on a forest, their impact is devastating. In our countryside, they attack ponderosa and lodgepole pine in numbers beyond belief and the results are horrifying to see.

By the mid-'80s, thousands of acres of our lodgepole pine forests turned red with dead needles. Although ridding the forest of the threat of wildfire was the goal of snag removal, what took place was an "insectivorous fire."

The predators that are most effective on these tiny bark-miners are the "gleaners" - chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers and other birds that "glean" a tree from daylight to dawn. Most of these species depend on woodpeckers to build their nesting cavities in dead and dying trees. Without those nesting cavities, the gleaner numbers drop and the beetles go on unchecked.

In the '60s, near the main railroad line at the Reed Market crossing, I saw thousands of giant old ponderosa pine snags cold-decked, waiting to be hauled off to sawmills and log-loading facilities to lumber mills overseas.

Brooks-Scanlon, the biggest sawmill in Bend at that time, marketed the product cut from the dead trees as "Brooks' Wood." The lumber had no construction value, but rough-sawn it was a very attractive blue, orange and red lumber and was sold for paneling.

Recognizing the need for snags in a forest community, the USFS eventually let out hundreds of contracts to kill trees by girdling and blasting. I had one of the contracts and proceeded to blast the tops out of 500 trees in the area near FS Road 40, southeast of Bend. Several of those trees didn't die. Instead, they put on new growth and in so doing, became perfect substrate for Osprey and other raptors to build their nests. Woodpeckers (and-wood-boring beetles) quickly invaded the trees that did die, and the interactions of organisms in a healthy forest ecosystem began to ply their trade.

Woodcutters who think ecologically do not cut dead lodgepole with a nesting cavity in it. The USFS changed its procedures for logging sales and established a policy to leave as many snags as the silviculturists and wildlife biologists thought necessary to bring about that elusive goal still sought after today: forest health.

The upshot is that years ago, timber-fallers were paid 50 cents to fall a dead tree thought to be a hazard, a lighting rod and a danger to a healthy forest. Today, the same trees are known as "wildlife trees" and protected for forest health. The evolution in education and forest management is a wonderful process.

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