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Deep in the Sixes Forest

The rainforests of the Pacific Northwest inspire a new model of development based on nature.

Editor’s Note: On March 31, 2015, Ecotrust founder and chairman Spencer B. Beebe will receive The National Audubon Society’s Dan W. Lufkin Prize for Environmental Leadership at the annual Audubon Gala Dinner in New York. In celebration of Spencer’s 40 years of work to redefine the environmental movement, we are running weekly excerpts from his 2010 memoir Cache: Creating Natural Economies. These posts represent pivotal points in Spencer’s journey to build economies that restore nature and invest in people. And they are five moments that made Ecotrust.

By Spencer B. Beebe

It’s August 2008, and I’m standing with salmon restoration biologist Charley Dewberry in Dry Creek, a small tributary of the Sixes River on the southern Oregon coast. We’re up to our knees in salmon; there must be 300 baby salmon or “fry” — coho, Chinook, and steelhead — in this single clear pool overhung by big leaf maple, red alder, and Sitka spruce. Most are two to three inches long and shimmer red, blue, black, and even grey, beautiful when you can spot them — no easy task; their coloration was designed to camouflage them in these pools. Charley is describing what he’s learned about stream ecology from more than 20 years of snorkeling streams from British Columbia to California.

“Salmon in streams like this are finding just one to two percent of the food they would have gotten 100 years ago, before logging,” he says. “When you see cohort fry of the same species and same age, but of different sizes, you know there’s not enough food to go around and that some are getting more food than others and growing bigger faster.”

Their food, he says, are stone flies, caddis, midges, and other aquatic insects. And what do the insects eat? The microscopic organisms that feed off decaying leaf litter. In other words, the salmon-stream ecosystem is fed by the falling needles and leaves of the surrounding forest, particularly red alder.

Charley noticed me looking around at the forest, and added: “Yes, there are still lots of trees here, and lots of leaf litter to drive the food system that feeds salmon and, ultimately, the nutrients that the salmon supply to the ecosystem. What’s different now compared to pre-logging days is stream metabolism the way it processes organic matter.” Fewer big old-growth trees fall into the stream or are driven into the streams by debris flows of rock from the steep slopes in winter storms. It was those rocks and trees cascading down steep hillsides, complete with big old-growth trees with their huge root wads, that set up debris dams that slowed stream flow and created the small pools that collected and processed organic matter. And it was in these stable pools, those held by rock and 5- to 10- to 20-foot-diameter trees that even high winter flood water couldn’t budge, that most of the fry were found in the first months and years of their freshwater lives. Without the large woody material, the water washes all the food and smaller debris into the ocean in big blowout winter storms and spring floods.

Later, Charley showed me other small pools; he pointed to some rocks: “Look. These rocks don’t have any moss or algae, the food base of the small aquatic insects that feed salmon fry. Look more closely and you’ll see dozens of aquatic snails, eating the vegetation off the rocks. And what eats aquatic snail? Pacific giant salamanders. There are lots of snails here because I’m guessing there are few salamanders here. Why is that? Because salamanders need large rotting logs, which aren’t here because of clear-cut versus selective logging.” He looked at me like a counsel for the defense about to rest his case: “Few Pacific salamanders, lots of snails, little vegetation, few aquatic insects, too little food for baby salmon, poor salmon returns, poor fishermen who can’t pay mortgages on their fishing boats. What the salmon are telling us is, when we lose the natural relationships and connections in healthy ecosystems, we lose jobs.”

And, I wanted to add, returns for forest ecosystem investors. Unfortunately, this connection between healthy ecosystems and reliable prosperity is one that we Americans are slow to learn. In 1892, Gifford Pinchot, America’s first trained forester and later founder of both the Yale University Forest School and the U.S. Forest Service, began his career with the goal of developing a “regular system of forest management, the prime object of which is to pay the owner while improving the forest.” Pinchot was convinced that he could “prove what America did not yet understand, that trees could be cut and the forest preserved at one and the same time.” Over 100 years later, we are still a long way from understanding Pinchot’s lessons.

Panorama of coastal forest, sea in background.
On the northern Oregon coast, Ecotrust Forests' Garibaldi property has created long-term wealth through healthy watersheds, carbon storage, and stable forestry jobs in rural communities.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the coastal temperate rain forests of North America, where the dominant industrial forestry model is to clear-cut and plant, a model driven by short-term “efficiencies” rather than by the very particular characteristics of the local environment, much like modern agriculture, fisheries, commercial building, and so much else we’ve learned from the Western reductionist model of industrial improvement. As Wendell Berry has pointed out, we once had cows living in pastures: the cows were fed, the pasture was fertilized. Then we put cows in feedlots. Now we have a fertilizer problem and a pollution problem. Instead of going back to the simple solution of cows in a pasture, we’ve invented two new problems. And, of course, the genius of capitalism is that these are two new opportunities to make money, but sadly, this is often what happens when technology attempts to replace nature rather than respecting and learning from it.

Take the case of the coastal temperate rain forests, that great swath of redwoods, western hemlock, Sitka spruce, Western red cedar, and Douglas fir from central California to Alaska’s Kodiak Island. These forests’ very particular characteristics include complexity rather than simplicity; they have a rich diversity of species, age classes, and biophysical structure. These forests have evolved over millennia in an environment of abundant rainfall throughout the year and, therefore, relative absence of summer drought and rare occurrence of catastrophic fire. The natural history of these forests is shaped principally by winter windstorms, rock and snow avalanches, changing stream courses, and individual tree fall. Because this kind of ecological disturbance, the underlying driver of ecological process is small and patchy in nature, and individual trees live long, some over 1,000 years, and grow tall and unusually large — almost 400 feet high and more than 20 feet in diameter. Nowhere in the world do forests get bigger and carry more standing biomass than coastal temperate rain forests. They store more carbon than any ecosystem on earth. Seeds are adapted to germinate on organic seedbeds on the mossy forest floor, and trees grow slowly in the shady understory of older trees, their needles adapted to capture various levels of light. Some trees are slowly dying, creating “snags,” or standing dead trees, with a variety of crevices and holes that harbor nesting insectivorous birds and arboreal mammals. Multiple canopies are supremely adapted to capturing the full range of light, moisture, and nutrients that contribute to extraordinary productivity. With diversity comes adaptation to a range of environmental stress and a resilience uncommon to simpler ecosystems. This diversity contributes as well to relatively stable, endemic populations of insects and disease, unlike the epidemic populations that often favor simpler systems driven by more catastrophic disturbance like fire.

Spencer Beebe and two others standing on felled logs in a forest

We know all this. And yet the coastal temperate rain forests of North American have been managed by a modern industrial system that converts this distinctive diversity into monocultures and even-aged plantations of one- to 40-year-old trees. Shade-tolerant species like red cedar, which are adapted to the moist coast, have been replaced with more sun-loving Douglas fir, often genetically “improved” seedlings of a single seed source. But when we attempt to replace nature with technology, we often get surprises. One result of the industrial clear-cut and plant model on the coasts of Oregon and Washington, for example, is an increase in the incidence of Swiss needle cast, a native pathogen found at low endemic levels in natural forests, but which, in monocultures of young, even-aged Douglas fir, explodes and reduces growth or kills the trees altogether. A recent study indicates that more than 300,000 acres of Douglas fir plantations have been infected with needle cast.

Another example is red alder, a native deciduous hardwood species found on recently disturbed sites in native coastal forests. With landslides, snow avalanches, or the larger patches of disturbance created by windstorms, the light, wind-disbursed seeds of red alder quickly spread to exposed mineral soils, taking advantage of their unusual nitrogen-fixing ability, and grow quickly to outpace the slower-growing but longer-lived evergreen conifers. But for decades, industrial forest managers have systematically sprayed herbicides from helicopters to kill red alder and prevent it from slowing the growth of Douglas fir plantations. Recently, however, Asian log buyers discovered the excellent quality of red alder for furniture making and drove the price of red alder sawlogs to three times the value of Douglas fir saw logs. Slower-growing red cedar is also two to three times the value of the Douglas fir that has replaced it and is becoming biologically and economically extinct on many of the sites where it was historically abundant.

I could go on, but the net result of the industrial clear-cut and plant system is that it replaces the ecosystem services of diversity, productivity, resilience, and stability with expensive technological and petroleum-dependent resources that reduce the forests’ distinctive characteristics. The free ecological processes that have evolved over millions of years are replaced with expensive technological systems. Where we had carbon storage, we now have burning slash piles pumping carbon-dioxide-filled smoke in the air. Where we had as much as 100,000 board feet of wood on an average acre, we now have 10,000 to 12,000 board feet per acre. Where there was flood control and soil build up, we have increased flooding, soil degradation, warmer water, fewer salmon-friendly and sediment-filled streams. Where there was abundant wild salmon, there are now endangered or extinct runs up and down the coast. Where there was old-growth Sitka spruce capable of building Howard Hughes’ famous, if useless, six-engine Spruce Goose, the largest wood airplane in the world, there are now 10- to 18-inch-diameter Douglas fir, spruce, and western hemlock that are managed to produce only two-by-fours and pulp for toilet paper.

In the middle of a forest, a large golden retriever sits between Bettina and Spencer in baseball caps

It was with all this in mind that, in 2005, Ecotrust created Ecotrust Forests, LLC, a for-profit private forest investment fund. Ecotrust Forests embodies the “radical” idea of going back to a centuries-old model of natural forest management, one still dominant in parts of Europe, and indeed still practiced sporadically in some of the public forests in the West, as well as in many hardwood forests back East. The capital structure of the fund is designed to match the particular nature of the forest itself — not just any forest, but the distinctive qualities of the coastal temperate rain forests of North America — rather than forcing the forest to serve the interests of investors looking for short-term gain.

Ecotrust Forests is the world’s first ecosystem investment fund — which is to say, a fund that would restore forests while intending to pay the owners. It produces traditional forest products like saw logs for lumber and pulp logs for paper, while also producing forest ecosystem services like clean water, habitat for fish and wildlife, soil-building and carbon storage, as well as recreational opportunities. The Fund now owns 12,000 acres of highly productive second-growth forestland in coastal Oregon and Washington, four tracts upon which Ecotrust is harvesting wood, but also producing ecosystem services while restoring the natural ecosystem.

We extend the average age of rotation — the age at which trees are generally harvested — which increases the volume and quality of wood, the amount of carbon stored, and the quality of habitat for native species. We restore the natural mix of species and age classes. For example, we cut more of the planted Douglas firs in order to get the species mix back to its natural diversity — Sitka spruce, red alder, and red cedar — which improves habitat. We leave snags and large trees for endangered spotted owls and nesting marbled murrelets, a diminutive sea bird that nests on the mossy limbs of large old-growth trees near the coast, and make sure that there are large conifer trees like Sitka spruce and red cedar adjacent to rivers. When they fall in, they create long- lasting pools, which are good for the fish. When we cut, we try to mimic the natural disturbances of the ecosystem — small patches usually caused by blowdowns or avalanches.

The economy of the Northwest is shifting from natural resource products to services such as tourism, hotels, restaurants, and entertainment. By layering revenues from sales of ecosystem services on top of sales of forest products, the combined long-term revenues of Ecotrust Forests are projected to be greater than traditional forest management. For example, Ecotrust Forests is selling conservation easements to protect streamside habitat and, in early 2010, closed the first substantial sale of forest carbon in the Pacific Northwest — a mechanism for capturing carbon from atmospheric Co2 into the wood of trees. As the economy shifts from goods to services, so goes Ecotrust Forests.