Go GREEN: Genetics take root in forest

Two thousand genetically superior trees grow in orderly lines on 100 acres at the edge of dense second-growth forest not far from Enumclaw in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Disease resistant, fast growing and perfectly suited to the specific elevation and ecosystem, their seeds are money in the bank.

Tucked away just off of State Route 410 between Greenwater and Mount Rainier, the McCullough Orchard’s Douglas firs, noble firs and western white pines are insurance against wind storms, widespread blight, fires or anything else that could wipe out forested land.

Forest Service geneticists established seed orchards throughout the country through a long, complex process, determining the orchard size and number of trees by projecting future reforestation needs, according to Shirley Lorentz, silviculturist for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

“We start with a walk in the woods, selecting trees with form and growth traits that we like, phenotypically superior trees and collect their cones,” she said. Some of the seeds from those trees are germinated and grown in evaluation plantations. Additionally, cuttings are grafted onto rootstock and planted in seed orchards, where they are irrigated and fenced to protect them from animals.

The best trees are determined through testing and monitoring and used for cone production. Geneticists keep detailed records on the survival and growth performance of individual seed sources. The process works. White pine blister rust almost wiped out white pine in the mid-20th century. Geneticists focused on the survivors and now the white pine in the McCullough seed orchard is 66 percent resistant to the disease.

Foresters started planting the orchard in the 1980s, when the timber industry was still in its heyday. By 1995 the spotted owl and marbled murrelet had halted timber harvesting and the Northwest Forest Plan determined how land managers would restore ecosystems, wildlife habitat and old-growth forest. Since then, scarce funding and a small staff have left the orchard with minimal maintenance, leaving the trees needing care and the fence falling down.

Wildlife biologist Sonny Paz decided to do something about that, seeing an opportunity to preserve the orchard while creating sorely-needed wildlife habitat for deer and elk by moving the fence away from the dense forest into an open area adjacent to the orchard, where grasses and forbs grow.

“Sunlight reaches the floor, it is a nice quiet place, peaceful, and on a clear day you can see Mount Rainier,” he said.

Paz has recruited volunteers the last three years and put them to work during the summers. On a recent weekend, 23 young people from Seattle Parks and Recreation 02, an outdoor experience summer program, and AmeriCorps, a national service organization, helped him for a day and a half.

“This is a way to teach a new generation and for them to experience what we do as stewards, managing for fish and wildlife, healthy forests, soil and clean water,” Paz said.

They worked on the fence, setting and reinforcing the new posts. Now they are ready for bracing and fencing. The AmeriCorps group treated about 300 trees, removing irrigation lines and old mulch mats that were installed when the seedlings were planted and are now constricting them, cutting into the cambium layer.

Paz estimates three more work parties can finish the work on the fence by this fall, in time for the elk migrating down from Mount Rainier to find food. He said removing the mats from the trees will take more time and effort, but hopes to be finished in the orchard by next summer.

“It is a huge investment," Lorentz said. "This collection of information puts us in a good position to monitor and adapt to the potential effects of climate change."

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