There’s no elk to be seen and no singing birds to be heard above the rumble of logging equipment stripping branches and sawing up logs.
But unlikely as it may seem, the animals of the state’s Oak Creek Wildlife Area stand to benefit greatly from the logging, said area manager Ross Huffman.
“It’s a short-term impact, but long-term benefits,” Huffman said of the logging taking place on about 450 acres in the wildlife area west of Naches.
It’s not a clearcut. Many large pines with red marks on their trunks remain standing. And when it’s finished, there will be open forest that spurs new grass growth and is more fire tolerant, Huffman said.
Nearby patches remain untouched, dense with firs and golden larches. Other spots are a mix of lightly logged or thinned areas with frequent clumps of trees.
Many foresters say this type of selective logging is a solution to the thick overgrowth that makes Eastern Washington’s forests prone to disease and destructive wildfires. But it remains to be seen if can be cost-effective on a large scale.
About $440,000 worth of timber will be cut down this year, about enough to cover the cost of the logging crew and the road work needed to accommodate them, but not to turn a profit.
“If we were in it for the money, we’d be taking those big trees instead,” Huffman said, pointing to a towering ponderosa pine. “We’re trying to accomplish our restoration goals and hopefully it pays for itself.”
The logging is just one piece of restoration project spanning years and designed to improve wildlife habitat on some of the 10,000 acres the state purchased from Plum Creek Timber in 2007. The purchase was facilitated by The Nature Conservancy, which also paid a forester to plan for the land’s future.
After the logging done by Plum Creek and without the natural thinning of frequent wildfires, much of the area regrew into unnaturally dense concentrations of small trees prone to disease and devastating fires.
Work over the past few years has included thinning out small trees and brush on more than 600 acres and protecting Oak Creek from erosion. Next year, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the wildlife area, plans to work with the Forest Service — which owns every other block of land in the area — in using controlled burns to improve the forest health.
With forest health funding in high demand and short supply, pairing commercial logging with restoration work makes fiscal sense.
But that’s just easier said than done.
Good wildlife habitat requires a diverse forest of open areas full of grass for elk, standing dead trees for woodpeckers and dense areas that provide cover for many species. That requires different planning than a commercial harvest aimed primarily at making the most money off the trees, said forester Matt Dahlgren, who planned the Oak Creek project when he worked for The Nature Conservancy.
That means wildlife-friendly logging is less efficient than typical commercial logging, and therefore, less profitable.
But even though the logging didn’t turn a profit, it’s still a success, according to Huffman and Greg Mackey, a wildlife department forester.
The forest will be healthier, the project paid for itself, and it put an Ellensburg-based crew of loggers to work for the summer, Mackey said.
Mackey said that most of the saw logs are headed to a mill west of White Pass in Randle. The smaller wood will head to a pulp mill, and logs selected to be future hop poles will head down to the Yakima Valley.
Selling each product separately allows the agency to maximize the value of the timber, Mackey said. That’s important, because with few sawmills left in Eastern Washington, the cost of hauling logs further cuts into the harvest value.
On some slopes, the light logging needed wouldn’t justify a commercial crew. So foresters partnered with fish biologists to place cut logs into the creek to reduce erosion and improve habitat.
“The logs slow down the water so it backs up and re-connects with the floodplain, which acts like a sponge,” explained John Marvin, a habitat biologist for the Yakama Nation.
Marvin worked with a Washington Conservation Corps crew to cut down trees, mostly by hand or with small equipment, and put them in the creek last winter. In other places, fish biologists often have to buy logs to use for this type of project, so combining it with the logging that needed to be done made the project more convenient and cost-effective, he said.
The idea that the timber harvest should raise enough money to pay for the rest of the needed restoration doesn’t always work, said Reese Lolley, director of Eastern Washington Forests program for The Nature Conservancy.
That’s because in many places, like the Oak Creek, lands were heavily logged already by the commercial timber companies that previously owned them.
“The problem is that in some places, we’ve cut all the standing equity already; most of those big old-growth trees that built the West are gone,” Lolley said. “Now we’re investing in growing more for the future.”