By Amy Grotta, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension – Columbia, Washington & Yamhill Counties
Early seral…it’s one of the biggest buzzwords in Pacific Northwest forestry these days. But what is it? Put simply, early seral refers to the first stage in forest development following any disturbance, including wind, ice, fire or logging. An early seral, or early successional community is made up of the first colonizers of a forest opening: grasses, other herbaceous plants and broadleaf shrubs.
This biologically rich early seral stage was highlighted as a high priority at last year’s Wildlife in Managed Forests Conference (I did promise I’d eventually get back to writing about that!). It’s also an important component of the “ecological forestry” strategy that is proposed under the Wyden bill for management of federal forest lands.
There are several reasons why these early successional communities are the subject of research and policy discussion. One is their value for wildlife: these hardwood mixtures contain a high variety and abundance of foliage, fruit and pollen used by all manner of insects, birds, and larger animals. In fact, some birds rely almost exclusively on this landscape component.
Secondly, there’s not as much of it as there used to be. “Wait a minute”, you say, “what about clearcuts? Shouldn’t there be more early successional sites on the landscape?” The thing is, most landowners want to get trees growing again as quickly as possible; and our Forest Practice rules require it. Shrubs and grasses are seen as getting in the way of this objective, for good reason. So, in effect, the early seral stage on most private lands begins to disappear as soon as the trees are Free to Grow; by law, in six years. On the other hand, early seral communities can last decades when they evolve naturally after a big disturbance, without any trees being planted. In fact, much of the thinking behind early seral characteristics comes from research done at Mt. St. Helens, where these communities persist 30 years after the blast. In fact, as I heard one scientist put it, when it comes to early seral communities, “regeneration failure is success!”
Obviously, on private lands, regeneration failure is not what we are after! So, there’s quite a bit of research going on at OSU and within private industry about how to balance the competing objectives of growing new trees quickly while maintaining the structural characteristics of an early seral community.
Meanwhile, as a small woodland owner, you may find that your land management goals allow some room for these early seral habitats. So while we pay attention to what the science tells us, there are also examples and lessons to be learned from other woodland owners who have successfully (or unsuccessfully) tried to encourage early seral communities in their regeneration areas. This summer our Master Woodland Manager class visited a clearcut where, thanks to some careful management, the trees are free-to-grow and deciduous plants are thriving. (See photo at top of post.) Herbicides were used to control bigleaf maple clumps and to free up growing space around the trees, but shrubs such as elderberry and hazel were left to grow in spaces between the trees.
Are you a bird enthusiast? Then you might take a page from the Hayes family, who has been monitoring birds in different types of forests on their land, from mature, closed-canopy timber to “variable retention” areas where forest openings (i.e. early seral communities) were created through a partial harvest. Watch a video to see what they’ve found. Read a recent case study to learn more about the variable retention harvest featured in the video.
“Early seral” may not yet be the topic of your next dinner party. But in the conversation of forestry, it appears that this is one that’s here to stay for a while.