October 21, 1993 Meeting Presentation:


“A Blanket of Old-Growth”:
Good Science, Myth, and the Historical Record

By Bob Zybach

At the time of settlement . . . the Northwest was blanketed with forests. Perhaps 60 to 70 percent of that forest was old growth. . . over 200 years of age. Those extensive stands of old forests are mostly gone now. Essentially all old forest has been cut on the private lands. . . on National Forest or BLM lands, old growth constitutes from . . . 10 percent to perhaps 50 percent of the current area. . . of the old forest has been dramatically reduced—what remains has been highly fragmented . . . Even on public lands, cutting has created so many holes in the blanket of the forest, that the fabric holding the segments together has been severed. We routinely find that the old growth forest exists mostly as islands.

Charles Meslow (FEMAT: II-63; VII-2; Appendix VII-A: 79)




1. The “Blanket of Old-Growth” Myth

The Time of Settlement/The Blanket of Trees
The Ancient Forest/”Islands” of Fir and Management Options

2. Cultural Landscapes and Succession Theory

Indian Burning Practices/Early Historical Vegetation Patterns
Succession Theory, Disturbance Theory, and the FEMAT Alternatives

3. Logging History and Resource Destruction

Douglas-fir Logging History/Clearcutting and Resource Destruction
Logging Rates and Extinction Rates/Mimicking Nature

4. Cultural and Biological Forest Dynamics

Regional Nonhuman Disturbance History/Family Activities
Cultural Values, Forest Products, and Wildlife Habitat


The “Blanket of Old-Growth” in FEMAT, Science, and History

How can we preserve our precious old growth forests which are part of our national heritage and when once destroyed can never be replaced? . . . We need to protect the long-term health of our forests, of our wildlife, and our waterways. They are . . . a gift from God. . . If we destroy our old growth forest we will lose jobs and salmon fishing and tourism and eventually in the timber industry as well. We’ll destroy recreational opportunities and hunting and fishing for all and eventually make our communities less attractive.

President William Clinton, FEMAT Appendix VII-A: 74

Assuming that the average regional natural fire rotation was about 250 years for severe fires (those removing 70 percent or more of the basal area), then 60 to 70 percent of the forest area of the region was typically dominated by late-successional and old-growth forests, depending on the age which “mature” forest conditions develop (assume a range of 80 to 100 years).

DSEIS: 3&4-32

Cutting of forests in the Pacific Northwest began in the 1800’s when the first non-Indian immigrants began to settle and farm in the interior valleys of western Oregon. Initially, the extensive forests that covered much of the landscape were viewed as an impediment to progress and were systematically cleared and burned to make way for agriculture.


The leading features of the Willamette Valley and the Tualatin plains [in 1845] were peculiar and strange to me as compared with any other country I had seen. Among the striking peculiarities was the entire absence of anything like brush or undergrowth in the forests of fir timber that had sprung up in the midst of the large plains, looking at a distance like green islands here and there dotting the vast expanse of vision. The plains covered with rich grasses & wild flowers looking like our vast cultivated fields, and where the rolling foothills approached the level valley these spurs would be sprinkled with low spreading oak trees, frequently with a seeming regularity that would seem unlike nature’s doing, and at a distance like orchards of old apple trees.

James A. Neall (1977: 44)

At that time [1851] Cow Creek valley looked like a great wheat field. The Indians, according to their custom, had burned the grass during the summer, and early rains had caused a luxuriant crop of grass on which our imigrant cattle were fat by Christmas time. . . Fortuneately [sic] in our case the land was ready for the plow. There was no grubbing to do. In all the low valleys of the Umpqua there was very little undergrowth, the annual fires set by the Indians preventing young growth of timber . . .

George W. Riddle (1920)

Instead of finding an uninterrupted forest carrying 100,000 feet or more per acre reaching from the Cascades to the Pacific, the first settlers seventy-five years ago [1840] found in the valleys great areas of “prairie” land covered with grass, brakes or brush which were burned and kept treeless by the Indians, and mountain sides upon which forest fires had destroyed the mature forest and which were then covered by a “second growth” of Douglas fir saplings or poles.

Thornton T. Munger (1916: 92)

The North America that European peoples invaded and settled was not a “virgin” land undisturbed by people. There was no “pristine wilderness” here. Prairie and forest was to a large extent the creation of indigenous peoples. The main justification by Europeans for genocide—that land was not being used to its productive potential by its Native inhabitants—is false. Vast meadows and smaller forest openings which had been maintained for millennia by Indian burning became farms and towns without the need to fell a single tree.

Dennis Martinez (1993: 27)

Zybach/SAF/SOTIA 19931021

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