Toward a Douglas-Fir National Monument

Old-growth Douglas-fir grove in the Umpqua National Forest. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Some of the most spectacular forests of Douglas fir in the West are found on the west slope of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. Though heavily logged by the timber industry for its straight-grained wood over the years, some important examples of these once-extensive old-growth forests can still be found in western Oregon.

The Friends of the Douglas Fir National Monument are working to preserve all the remaining old-growth stands on federal lands in the North, Middle, and South Santiam watersheds. A map of the current proposal boundaries can be found here.  On lands previously logged and turned into plantations, restoration forestry would seek to restore the forests and eventually preclude the logging of these areas.

Unlike a national park which only Congress can designate, a national monument can be created by executive decree of a president under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Designation of a Douglas Fir National Monument by President Biden would help achieve several of the President’s stated goals of protecting 30% of the American land base by 2030 and meeting climate change targets by preserving the best carbon storage “machines” we have—old growth forests.

Previous efforts to preserve specific vegetation as national monuments or parks include the Giant Sequoia National Monument, Sequoia National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Saguaro National Park, and Organ Pipe National Monument.

Some of the area’s old-growth forests are currently preserved in the Mount Washington, Menagerie, Mount Jefferson, and Middle Santiam Wildernesses within the Douglas Fir National Monument proposal. However, many stands are threatened by logging, and their continued existence as intact ecosystems is not assured. For instance, the Sweet Home Ranger District recently unveiled the Quartzville-Middle Santiam timber sale that would affect 7900 acres. Fortunately the Forest Service, after hearing objections from the Friends and other organizations, has withdrawn the sale for now.

The Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is named for Scottish botanist David Douglaswho first explored and documented the trees in western Oregon. Douglas wrote of the western Cascades forests “A forest of these trees is a spectacle too much for one man to see.”

Douglas traveled extensively in western North America between 1825 and 1830, and more than 80 species of plants bear his name. But the one species that most impressed Douglas was the mighty tree which is only second to redwood in height and girth.

Mature Douglas fir can reach heights of 300 feet and 10 feet in girth. In addition, Douglas-fir can live for 1,000 years, earning the moniker “old growth” or “ancient” forest. Representative examples of these ancient forests can be found in and around the Middle Santiam Wilderness, Crabtree Valley, and Millennium Grove near Gordon Meadows within the proposed national monument.

The 702,000-acre proposed national monument would have numerous benefits for ecosystem health.

First, it would preserve the last great stands of Douglas fir and associated species found along a sizeable portion of the Oregon Cascades. Old-growth forests have long been recognized as critical for numerous species of wildlife from the spotted owl to important spawning and rearing habitat for salmon.

These giants store incredible amounts of carbon, thus contributing to carbon storage. By precluding the logging of these virgin stands, the national monument would ensure that carbon will continue accumulating in the growing trees and the large woody debris (down logs) that characterize the ancient forests.

Contrary to some assertions, mature and old-growth forests continue to store carbon throughout their lives. Once they die, the snags and large down trees (what biologists term down woody debris) continue to store carbon for centuries. By contrast, logging removes the carbon from the forest storehouse and releases much of it into the atmosphere.

Logging old-growth forests releases nearly 60% of their stored carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Indeed, in Oregon, 35% of the carbon emissions in the state are attributed to the timber industry.

Indeed, in a recent 2021 paper, a number of prominent scientists called for creating strategic reserves to preserve and protect forest carbon. One of the study’s authors, Bev Law, was surprised to find that only 10% of Oregon’s forests are protected at the highest levels such as wilderness or national parks, which restrict extractive activities such as mining and logging.

Despite its reputation as a “progressive” state, another recent study found that Oregon has protected the lowest percentage of protected forestlands of any western state. The proposed Douglas Fir National Monument would go a long way toward protecting some of Oregon’s most carbon-rich forests.

From a climate change point of view, the best thing we can do is to preserve old-growth forests intact and to allow previously logged areas to regrow into mature forests.

The monument proposal takes its name from the dominance of the giant Douglas fir; however, the area supports one of the finest examples of western conifer forests to be found anywhere, including western red cedar, western white pine, noble fir, Pacific silver fir, grand fir, sugar pine, ponderosa pine, Alaska cedar, western hemlock, mountain hemlock, Engelmann spruce, lodgepole pine, and subalpine fir.

The Douglas Fir National Monument proposal would also protect some of the finest waterways in western Oregon, many supporting salmon, bull trout, and native cutthroat trout, among other species. A portion of Quartzville Creek is designated as a Wild and Scenic River. Most of the remaining significant streams and rivers in the proposal are included in the River Democracy Act of 2021, which would protect them under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. You can see the Monument rivers nominated for inclusion in the Act here.

The monument would ensure that these watersheds would heal from past logging abuses and continue to provide clean water essential for healthy aquatic ecosystems, salmon, and recreation. Plus, drinking water for many Willamette Valley communities. Numerous recreational opportunities for hiking and camping exist within the proposed monument. Go to this link to read Q and A about the monument proposal that responds to numerous issues.

To learn more about the numerous special places within the proposal, check out this link.

I only have one quibble with the proposal; it should be larger, including the upper Willamette River and its tributaries on the McKenzie and Middle Fork Ranger Districts, extending south to the Umpqua River divide.

You can connect with Friends of the Douglas Fir National Monument here or on Facebook.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy