Morning Hill Forest Farm

Morning Hill Forest Farm

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Natural Processes
Support Each Other
Supporting the processes which create and maintain the forest is our job as sustainable forest farmers. Soils are a fragile resource in the cold/dry climate of the southern Blue Mountains. Forest pests and their predators are impacted by human activity which increases pest numbers. Restoration forestry returns and mimics the natural processes which entomologist Torolf Torgerson refers to as “the forest’s immune system”.

Chickadee and Pygmy Nuthatch

Fire

The ponderosa pine forests of eastern Oregon are a fire-dependent (even fire-created) ecosystem. Materials accumulate faster than they can decay in the cold, dry climate. Spring, summer, and fall bring frequent lightning storms, often dry. Prior to the current fire suppression era, the pine forests were managed by the native peoples who lived here.

In a natural forest, dead trees become snags which provide feeding, nesting, perching, and roosting habitat for birds. As snags decay, they become woody material on the forest floor which shelters and supports other birds, small mammals, and amphibians. Eventually, they act as a water reservoir and host nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and micorrhizal fungi which improve the soil and support seedling establishment by supplying soil nutrients.

Managed forests are often short on snags, and ours was no exception. We began culling some of our less desirable trees by turning them into snags for wildlife. Experimentation showed that burned snags stood longer and were most preferred by birds. Cavity- nesters have begun using our snags, and two years ago, the first family of Hairy Woodpeckers chose one of them to hollow out and raise a family.

spring burning

Data from tree rings in our neighborhood indicate a historic fire frequency of 8 to 20 years. If lightning did not ignite fires as often as needed, the land’s original people would light them before they left for winter homes at lower elevations. In this way, they ensured that when natural fires started, there was so little fuel accumulation that flames stayed low to the ground. Thick-barked ponderosa pine trees easily withstand light fire.

We cannot, as Indians did, light fires in late summer or fall and leave. We want our management to be reasonably fire-safe but not destructive. Our program combines light spring and fall burning, collection of fire-prone material for fuelwood (with ashes returned to the land), and pruning of ladder fuels. We use fire suppression when appropriate, but believe an integrated approach works best.

The same resident chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers that frequent our feeders, snags, and nest boxes eat insects which are known to damage pine trees: bark beetles, pitchmidges, pine-shoot butterfly larvae, and others.

Slash from our forestry is hand-processed for fuel or other use, with small branches and green tips spread on the ground to support wildlife and soil processes. Almost none of our slash is piled and burned.

In the recent past, large areas of the inland west have not been managed in a fire-conscious way. Benefits of the careful fire management demonstrated at Morning Hill include: lower fire suppression costs, increased safety for people and property, and a sustainable forest for the future.