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Editorial: Big trees matter

The world is squandering its forest giants at real consequence

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Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2012 9:58 am

Our region mourned the Klootchy Creek Giant in December 2007 when it lost its long struggle to old age, lightning, titanic coastal storms and other forces. A new report cautions that the whole world is squandering its forest giants at a rapid pace, with lousy consequences for ecosystems.

Before falling, KCG on U.S. Highway 26 a few miles east of Seaside was 204 feet tall, a diameter of nearly 17 feet and a volume of almost 400 cubic yards. Beyond these crass statistics, KCG was both a symbol of much that has been lost in our world and a living home for a multitude of other organisms.

Some regard such big trees as little more than freaks, unworthy of attention or protection. Avoiding their harvest has certainly been controversial in the Pacific Northwest in the past generation, with national forests being particularly hamstrung by lawsuits seeking to protect residual stands of mature trees. In Scandinavia, logging companies continue to target the biggest-oldest trees, according to a study published in the Dec. 7 edition of the journal Science.

Such human factors – whether deliberate or unintended – are key to the loss of our planet’s forest giants. Aside from logging, examples of human impacts include things like planting grasses that burn at hot temperatures that kill trees that used to be capable of surviving less-intense blazes that once periodically cleared out natural undergrowth.

In the Amazon, as in the vicinity of Klootchy Creek, widespread clearance of surrounding vegetation leaves the tallest specimens overly exposed to being toppled by wind.

Loss of big, old trees can be devastating to thousands of other species that nest and take shelter in their branches and cavities, University of Washington forestry professor Jerry Franklin, a co-author of the paper, told the Seattle Times.

For most people in our area, enormous Sitka spruce like that at Klootchy Creek and the amazing western red cedars on Willapa’s Long Island and surrounding hills inspire visions of a bygone age. Even though years may pass between our personal visits to any of them, it comforts us to think of lives that span centuries in quiet force and dignity.

By all rights, our region should also be home to some of the world’s largest western hemlocks and Douglas firs. We do still have some mighty big ones, but no record-setters following 150 years of industrial logging. Western white pines in higher elevations of the Coast Range and Cascades were decimated by pine blister rust accidentally introduced in British Columbia in 1910.

Study authors hope they can change mindsets, to encourage citizens and forestry managers to keep these giants around and lay the groundwork for new ones in the decades and centuries ahead.

“We’re dramatically reducing the number of big trees,” Franklin said. “As part of our active management, we need to be planning to restore historic levels of those big, old trees. … The stakes are very high. Big trees can be lost very quickly, but it can take centuries for them to be replaced.”

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