Jump-Starting a Coastal Forest - Columbia Land Trust
The Land Trust is improving habitat and contributing to a green economy through piloting restoration forest on the coast

Ask a Pacific Northwest timber crew to cut Douglas-fir first and leave spruce, hemlock, and alder standing, and you’re bound to get some quizzical looks. That was the case last October for Austin Tomlinson, Columbia Land Trust’s land steward on the coast, when he described the plan for a forest along the east edge of Willapa Bay.

Tomlinson was standing on 100 acres of forest that the Land Trust cares for along the Nemah River, prescribing a plan for thinning a stand of trees previously planted as commercial timberland. Young to middle-aged forests like this one extend all across the Oregon and Washington coasts, and thinning is typically directed to ensure Douglas-firs grow quickly for a maximum harvest. For the Land Trust, the goal is a bit different.

Working with Curtis Hill Forestry out of Chehalis, Washington, Tomlinson guided a process aimed at creating a diverse forest—one that would eventually feature hemlock, spruce, alder, maple, and Douglas-fir at various heights and ages, with some trees rotting on the forest floor, supporting other plants as well as wildlife.

“The crew was awesome and incredibly efficient at felling 60-foot trees,” says Tomlinson. “It was fun to see them grow more excited as they took the opposite approach of a typical job, removing trees in a more creative way.” The crew thinned a 33-acre stand that featured roughly 600 to 900 trees per acre. Forests this dense tend to become “locked up,” meaning none of the trees grow fast because they can’t individually garner enough resources to thrive. Almost nothing grows on the dark forest floor. Our work to thin the trees to 220 per acre let in light and helped jump-start the stand’s journey toward a diverse, complex, mature forest.

Wood from the thinned trees was used to create 123 wildlife piles. At 4 to 6 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter, the piles offer valuable shelter for small mammals, such as weasels, squirrels, and voles, as well as perches and cover for songbirds. As birds perch on the piles, they deposit seeds and help bring back a lush vegetation layer to the newly sunlit forest floor.

Tomlinson hopes to learn as much as possible from this pilot effort for future coast projects. He’ll be monitoring changes in plots over time, tracking the rates at which trees grow taller and their crowns grow as well as the rates at which felled trees decay across different prescriptions. “This is a great example of what we hope to do more of on the coast,” says Tomlinson. “Restoration forestry creates new economic opportunities while offering better habitat for wildlife.”

This project was funded by a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s grant for forest stand improvement.