By Jacob Jones
Atop a low ridge in the heart of Oregon’s Blue Mountains, Michael McWilliams pushes through brittle branches and scrambles over toppled logs and decay. Bare trunks tower overhead, but the U.S. Forest Service pathologist focuses low. He’s searching for something that lurks underfoot, hidden despite its immense size.
A sickly fir tree is where he finally stops and kneels. He begins raking at its roots with the curved adz blade of his wood-handled Pulaski. The tool clinks and scrapes, revealing a cream-colored film beneath the bark. It’s an inches-long glimpse of what is likely to be the world’s largest single living organism, a fungus thousands of years old yet still capable of strangling an entire forest.
“Yeah, baby,” McWilliams says, scraping away. “This is a tree killer.”
Dubbed the “Humongous Fungus,” the honey mushroom officially classified as Armillaria ostoyae spreads underground through trees’ root systems. It fruits an edible honey-brown cap just a few weeks each year, typically after the first fall rains. The rest of the year it’s elusive, its presence subterranean.
But what a presence that is: Researchers estimate that the colony here covers 3.7 square miles and may weigh a collective 35,000 tons.
“If you can expand your perception of what a mushroom is,” McWilliams says, “you can see it everywhere.”
Another Forest Service scientist first noticed the widespread die-off of local tree stands in 1988. Greg Whipple linked the problem to armillaria, then worked with others to map samples across hundreds of acres. The teams eventually confirmed that many shared the same DNA.
Whipple, now retired, remembers how his early attempts to limit the damage by clearing out infected areas drew death threats. Timber wars were raging between loggers and environmentalists, upending federal forest management in the Pacific Northwest.
“It was my lesson into politics,” he says.
Decades later, the killer fungus carries on, growing 1 to 3 feet a year. In satellite images of the Malheur National Forest in Eastern Oregon, rusty streaks of dead canopy and the pale, crisscrossed skeletons of downed trees now litter the infestation areas.
Researchers believe part of the colony could date to 6600 B.C. “It’s one of those things that makes you realize mankind is pretty insignificant,” Whipple says. “You realize just how small of a blip we are on the landscape.”
Root disease kills more trees in this region than bugs or beetles, but it moves slowly, picking winners and losers over generations. The fungus remakes the forest as it expands, choking off fir or pine while sparing more tolerant larch. Stunted saplings turn orange as the fungus takes hold. Trees often keel over to reveal roots completely eaten away.
In 2001, forest pathologists in Oregon discovered what was killing trees in Curry County in southwest Oregon – a devastating disease known as sudden oak death. Almost 20 years later, sudden oak death hasn’t spread beyond the county’s borders.
Although the initial goal was eradication, limiting sudden oak death’s spread proved to be a success, said Everett Hansen, a now-retired Oregon State University professor who helped spearhead the effort to contain the spread of the disease.
“From day one, we invoked legal machinery to mandate the destruction of diseased trees,” Hansen said. “Every time we found a diseased tree we cut it down as fast as we could. We were going full bore. So, we went through all these years without any published data to suggest what we were doing was working.”
In a new study published in the journal Forest Pathology, Hansen and colleagues at the Oregon Department of Forestry and U.S. Forest Service highlight the successes of the two-decade effort to manage and reduce the spread of sudden oak death in Oregon.
In 2001, federal, state and local agencies marshaled their resources to manage the outbreak. They quarantined areas where the trees had been infected and cut down and burned sick trees.
“We focused on local treatments instead of landscapes, sometimes by design but sometimes out of necessity,” said Hansen, lead author on the study. “If it was one tree and we cut it down and all the surrounding trees for a mile we might well have eradicated it. But we never had that chance. We didn’t have enough chainsaws.”
However, the researchers found that these treatments did demonstrably reduce the infestation. They concluded that eradication of sudden oak death is difficult — the pathogen that causes the disease may survive in soil for several years – but not impossible.
By Rob Davis
The university clearcut a 16-acre grove of old-growth trees, drawing scrutiny at exactly the wrong time.
The seedling that sprouted in 1599 in Oregon State University’s McDonald-Dunn research forest was cut down by the public college, along with other trees more than 250 years old. The decision netted $425,000 for the university’s College of Forestry. School officials say the revenue will fund teaching, research and outreach, but it happened at a time when the university’s forestry school has accelerated other timber cuts and dipped into its reserves to fund $19 million in cost overruns on a major construction project.
The forestry school’s interim dean, Anthony Davis, has since acknowledged his mistake in approving the 16-acre cut known as the No Vacancy harvest. He has temporarily halted all logging of trees older than 160 years on the university’s 15,000 acres of research forests.
“Harvesting this stand did not align with the college’s values,” Davis wrote in a July 12 letter to the school community, first reported by the Corvallis Gazette-Times. “Moving forward, we have learned from this matter.”
The felling of the old growth trees raises questions about Oregon State’s land stewardship at precisely the wrong time. Top state leaders are weighing whether to hand over management of the 82,500-acre Elliott State Forest to the university’s college of forestry, a transfer that would quintuple Oregon State’s forest holdings.
Records reviewed by The Oregonian/OregonLive cast doubt on the university’s justification for cutting what it knew were trees as old as 260 years. Records also show the university recently allowed a separate clearcut seven times bigger than permitted under its own management plans.
Taken together, the cuts threaten the credibility of a school that has deep ties to the timber industry but says it can be trusted to do more than maximize timber production in the Elliott.
By George Plaven
Timm Locke relishes a chance to drive around Portland and showcase the latest commercial buildings made with mass timber, a construction material that uses wood beams and panels instead of concrete and steel.
First stop: Albina Yard, a four-story office building that opened in 2016 featuring cross-laminated timber panels from D.R. Johnson, a lumber company south of Roseburg.
Every piece of cross-laminated timber — or CLT for short — is prefabricated, designed for a specific part of the building, said Locke, director of forest products at the Oregon Forest Resources Institute. That means buildings go up faster, with fewer workers.
Wood is also environmentally superior to steel and concrete, Locke said, because it sequesters carbon and takes less energy to produce.
“There are so many benefits, it doesn’t matter which one you choose to start with,” Locke said.
First developed in Europe, mass timber is now catching on in the U.S., and Oregon is working to position itself as the industry hub, kick-starting rural economies that have traditionally relied on forest products. On Aug. 1, Oregon became the first state to approve language in its building codes allowing for wood-framed buildings up to 18 stories tall.
Lumber prices continue to be robust two months in a row. Logs are also strong. Home values continue improving with relatively brisk sales and building. Industry manufacturing has improved. Recent trends of lumber, logs, home construction, and housing markets, are compared.
Statistics look quite good this month. Median home value continues to rise, mortgage rates have somewhat stabilized, unsold inventories of homes remain low, albeit creeping up, and housing starts and building permits remain consistently in the 1200s, which is an improvement. But lumber prices and log prices are a big story, along with real estate selling briskly in both Portland and Roseburg.
The log price is holding up at $720. The lumber price has also held for two months in a row, at $360. This is the highest price for studs since 2013, and before that, since 2005. 2013 was the year the snails-pace recovery began in earnest. One year earlier, in 2012, median home prices hit rock bottom ($151,600 in January, 2012). Housing starts moved from the 800’s in 2012 to 1000’s in 2013 and there was a feeling of optimism. During the midst of the Great Recession, mill production levels were at their lowest and the increased demand in 2013 raised the lumber prices. Once mill production increased from basement levels, in anticipation of increased housing starts, prices dropped again. Now we are entering a new cycle.
By Tony Schick OPB/EarthFix
Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality drafted a report that identified logging as a contributor to known risks for drinking water quality in communities up and down the Oregon coast.
But the report has never been published.
It was scrapped by the agency after intense pushback and charges of anti-logging bias from the timber industry and the state’s Department of Forestry, according to interviews and public records.
Oregon’s Democratic U.S. senators have proposed a nearly doubling of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument as a way to better protect the unique biodiversity and habitats in the face of climate change.Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden have proposed expanding the 16-year-old monument by more than 66,500 acres inside a new, more than 100,000-acre footprint that stretches northwest past Dead Indian Memorial Road, west to Emigrant Lake, east into Klamath County and south into California near Iron Gate Reservoir.
The 90,328 acres proposed for expansion within Oregon includes 56,245 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands, including Hyatt Lake and lands surrounding Howard Prairie Lake, as well as chunks of the upper watersheds of Jenny Creek tributaries whose lower reaches are now part of the monument.
The current monument covers about 66,000 acres within an 85,000-acre boundary inside Jackson County east of Ashland.
Source: Expansion gains momentum