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Dead and Just Don't Know it

Joe Banzer Markets Beetle Infested Douglas Fir

Linkbelt 240 X2
Banzer chose to shovel log the beetle-infested timber with his Kobelco 250LC, rather than skid with his Caterpillar 527 high track grapple skidder, because of the high water table.
By Jeff Mullin

For most in the timber industry, the December 2007 windstorm that felled an estimated 260 million board feet of timber in Oregon's Clatsop County is a distant memory overshadowed by the sluggish economy and depressed timber prices. But Joe Banzer, a lifelong logging contractor and owner of over 400 acres of timberland near Mist, Ore., is scrambling to stay one step ahead of a Douglas fir beetle infestation, which is possibly the result of that windstorm.

Joe's steep learning curve began in August 2009 when he noticed that some Douglas fir trees in his 100-year-old stand had died. Beetles were discovered to be the culprit. Prompt salvage operations netted 10 loads of logs, but a sinking feeling grew as degraded high ring count "top export sort" logs had to be sold in the domestic market at 30-50 percent less than expected. Research and consultation with forestry experts increased knowledge "but over the next few months," he says "I watched as more trees were dying right before my eyes." Many questions remained unanswered.

One of the factors contributing to the timber loss was a high water table supported by shallow roots, which "lily-padded" the trees. The trees became stressed when water dropped during severe dry spells.

Susceptible Trees

Douglas fir beetles (Dendroctonus pseudotsugae Hopkins, 1905) infest live Douglas fir, primarily attacking damaged or wind-thrown trees. Secondary infestations often occur after weather events (such as occurred in December 2007) as large numbers of healthy trees become host to the exploding beetle populations emerging from downed trees.

Stressed trees are even more susceptible. Over their one-year life cycle, beetles bore into the bark to lay eggs that hatch into larva, which mature while burrowing under the bark, killing the tree by disrupting sap flow -- then another generation emerges seeking other victims.

Signs of beetle presence include fine red-orange dust on tree bark (called frass -- the material insects pass as waste after digesting plant parts), small entrance/exit holes in the bark, trees exuding pitch in an attempt to evict the beetles, and eventually discoloration and de-needling. Often, moisture and fungus introduced by the beetles have stained and deteriorated the sapwood before the problem becomes apparent, so an infested healthy looking tree "is dead and doesn't even know it."

Getting the Most from the Tree

Joe Banzer soon realized only proactive approaches would minimize beetle propagation and maximize value from infested trees. Log prices were down, but waiting for drier weather would likely mean more deterioration and less value. In January 2010, Joe contracted with Forrest Falling to fell all trees from the 10-acre site adjacent to the RSG Olympic sawmill, the same site where the trees were selectively removed the previous August.

Joe opted to "shovel log" with his Kobelco 250LC rather than skid with his Caterpillar 527 high track grapple skidder because of the high water table. Two one-acre patches were intensely infested with beetles, and Joe estimates at least an additional 20 percent of trees were degraded. Sap wood damage and fungus stain bumped some logs down from export to domestic sorts, and at some mills domestic logs were deducted because of beetle induced damage.

Joe says, "By clear cutting now, I was still able to ship many logs as export before beetles degraded the entire stand. If I waited to take only brown trees, it would be too late. If neglected too long, beetle-killed trees would have value only as pulp." Now Joe is finding beetle "frass" in adjacent younger stands and is assessing what additional steps to take.

Another Outbreak?

Joe is not an alarmist, but he has many unanswered questions including, "Why my timber? Why now? Is this an isolated problem? Will we see a widespread Douglas fir beetle devastation of thousands of acres of coastal timber?"

Joe is reservedly hopeful but also "shaking in his boots" and perhaps for good reason if the problem becomes widespread as in the past. Four outbreaks of Douglas fir beetles between 1950 and 1969 killed 7.4 billion board feet of coastal timber in Oregon and Washington. A 1966 California infestation killed 800 million board feet, and from 1970 to 1973, Idaho lost 109 million board feet of Douglas fir.1

Rob Flowers, ODF insect specialist, says widespread outbreaks arise from precursor events such as fire, drought, and large volume windthrows. He points out that present infestation differs from previous ones that arose from greater volume and larger diameter trees left unsalvaged. He also considers habitats west of the Cascades less likely to experience widespread mortality or to have sustained epidemics.

"Usually, the numbers of newly killed standing trees tends to diminish to very few by year three unless there are other wind events," says Flowers.

Beetles can make executing a timber management plan for sustainable harvest and highest returns more of a guessing game. Banzer says that reacting to beetles may lead to premature harvesting but inaction may degrade or destroy the timber value.

Options for Timber Owners

For logging contractors like Joe Banzer, Douglas fir beetles make it a challenge to help timber owners decide whether to clear cut, selectively cut, or take a "wait and see" approach when Douglas fir beetles are found.

Joe says his experience with the beetles makes executing his timber management plan for sustainable harvest and highest returns more of a guessing game. Reacting to beetles may lead to needlessly harvesting prematurely but inaction may degrade or destroy the timber's value.

Rob Flowers admits difficulty in determining the best course of action, "Each situation has variables that must be considered but some important things to do are clear."2 Timely removal of windthrows larger than 12-14" dbh from stands is needed to eliminate primary beetle habitat. Although some attacked trees recover fully with minimal disruption to growth rates, those with frass all around the lower bole will likely die and should be removed. By the time the tree is yellow/brown, the beetles are probably already gone, and the only option is salvaging residual value.

Causes of Stress

Several factors may have contributed to the losses that Joe Banzer has experienced. A high water table supported shallow rooted "lily-padded" trees, which can become easily stressed when water drops during abnormally dry spells.

Beetles also prefer larger stems like Joe's 100-year-old trees where the beetles became established. Windthrown trees in the area may have provided a host for a primary infestation that "bloomed" with beetles numerous enough to overpower the live stems.

Another factor may be Joe's proximity to the RSG mill. Salvaged logs from the December 2007 storm stored in decks at the mill potentially arrived with beetles in residence. If a large number of beetles did emerge, Joe's adjacent forest was the closest hotel/restaurant available. This likelihood increased when poor markets idled the mill for about 5 months, and the log decks were not moving through the mill as they typically do.

Now that Joe has harvested his ten acres, he and RSG are working together to remove a narrow strip of dead and dying beetle infested trees on the mill's side of the property line to eliminate as much of the damaged and host wood as possible. Rob Flowers says that logs decked at landings where salvage operations occur can potentially also lead to pockets of infestation if beetles emerge before they are shipped.

Joe Banzer previously thought he had escaped most of the consequences of the December 2007 windstorm, but now he is not so sure. "One thing is for sure though," Joe says, "I am much more knowledgeable about Douglas fir beetles, much more attentive about their presence, and will be proactive in dealing with them, whether on my own land or helping timber owners get the most value from beetle threatened trees."

(Endnotes)

1Douglas-fir Beetle (leaflet 5) Richard F. Schmitz and Kenneth E. Gibson USDA

2RECENT BLOWDOWN IN WESTERN OREGON Rob Flowers Forest Health & Monitoring Unit Oregon Department of Forestry

 

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