BLACK BUTTE RANCH — With a whir, the extendable black and yellow claw of the logging machine grabbed the base of a tree, sliced through its trunk, and dropped it to the ground with cracks of branches and a cloud of frost. Just to the east of Glaze Meadow near Black Butte Ranch, the machine drove through the ponderosa pines, grabbing and cutting trees marked with blue paint. The operator set sections of the cut trunks in one place and piled branches and the scraggly tops in another.
Work started on the Glaze Meadow Forest Restoration Project this week, five years after a conservation group first started pitching the idea of bringing different groups and interests together to collaborate on a timber project. It's a project that organizers hope will become an example for forest restoration and timber production in the coming years — and one that demonstrates many principles from legislation U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., recently proposed to guide forestry work on the east side of the Cascades.
“We're looking at this as a model of how this legislation would work out,” said Tim Lillebo, with the conservation group Oregon Wild.
Project designers consulted with scientists to determine how many trees should be cut in different forest types to protect old-growth trees and make the stands more resilient, he said, and made decisions using a collaborative process.
In the end, no one filed an appeal against the Glaze project — making it the first project involving commercial timber to avoid appeals since 1996.
“I think this is the way we're headed,” said Maret Pajutee, an ecologist with the Sisters Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service.
The goal is to make “Glaze” a kind of shorthand, she said, so foresters could say a project is “like Glaze” and conservationists, community members and those in the timber industry will get a sense of the objectives and methods involved.
One thing that all involved agreed on, Lillebo said, was the need to protect old-growth stands and ensure the banks of Indian Ford Creek were protected.
But the groups, which included the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, also agreed that there was some timber harvest that could both help the forest along and provide logs for mills.
And over the course of hundreds of hours of field trips to the site, with hundreds of conservationists, timber industry representatives and community members, the collaborators came up with a plan.
At one point, Forest Service planners went out with environmentalists to go tree by tree in some stands, discussing whether the pine in question should be cut down or left standing.
The idea is for the project to “be most agreeable to most of the people,” Lillebo said. “If we can get buy-in from these different groups, we won't have appeals and litigation.”
So on the 1,200-acre project, none of the yellowed old-growth ponderosa pines will be cut — even if they're small.
All of the heavy-machinery work will be done when the ground is frozen, to lessen the damage to the soil.
Tree limbs and smaller trees will be chipped up and used for biomass, preventing the need for burning piles in the forest.
The logging crews will cut down trees to leave open gaps in some places, thick stands in others and clumps of trees elsewhere, to make the forest resemble what it would have been before people began suppressing fires and logging.
“It's diversity within the forest,” Lillebo said, “not like trees in a park.”
Still, choosing which trees would be cut was a time-intensive process.
Groups went out into the forest to talk about designing the forestry plan, and then Forest Service staffers went out and marked every tree — both the ones to cut, and the ones to leave — in order for visitors to know exactly which trees would be cut down.
“We really wanted people to see what we were going to be doing,” Pajutee said. “People wanted to make sure the biggest trees (stayed standing).”
There were debates about which trees to cut, said Clay Penhollow with the tribes, but in the end the project showed how groups can find a common goal.
“We maybe didn't agree on everything,” Penhollow said. “But we agreed enough, each of the groups, to not challenge things (legally) too.”
Although the project was approved in 2008, work couldn't start until recently because crews needed frozen ground to work on so the machinery wouldn't compact or tear up the soil.
Thursday, Robbie Melcher of Melcher Logging out of Sweet Home was at work in the forest, driving a machine that picked up and piled logs while two others worked the tree harvesters.
The project is different from most other ones in that it could only be done on frozen ground, he said — not many jobs require that added level of protection, but it was one of the agreements the Glaze collaborators made.
And, in order to save the tree branches for biomass, the crews were piling them up to the side of the harvester machine's tracks. Usually, they pile them up in front of the machine and then drive over the branches — but that would make it harder to chip them up later.
In the week, the crews have done most of a 77-acre parcel to the southeast of Glaze Meadow and are hoping to work on a different section before the ground thaws and work has to stop.
Terry Craigg, soil scientist with the Forest Service, was out with a long, skinny shovel, digging holes to make sure the ground was still frozen, so the work could continue.
And Pajutee pointed out that the area had been cut decades ago, and now only small and medium-sized pines remained — something the project is designed to change.
“When you look around here, there's hardly a big tree to be seen,” Pajutee said. “We're trying to jump-start the old growth.”