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Backlot Logging Equipment

Vulnerable Soils

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Productivity Maps


     Abstract. This chapter summarizes the extent of timber harvesting in San Juan County over the past 50 years. Both harvest volumes and acreage are reported.

     For a county not renowned for the quality of its timber, San Juan County has been and is still being very extensively logged. A large part of this logging has been by "high grading," which is an insidiously destructive form of "selective" logging. The motivation behind this form of logging is commodity exploitation at the expense of future forest productivity and health.

     The data in this report allow comparisons between this county and others in the region. Readers may be surpised to learn that San Juan County has in recent years been the most heavily logged of all counties west of the Cascades. At the same time, it has the overall lowest capability for growing timber. Taken together, these sobering facts should give pause to every resident who is interested in sustaining our forested landscape for the future.


pages about
forest history

The Presettlement Forest

Lost & Found Prairie

Impact of the Lme Industry

Late 19-thCentury Landcover

Bigfoot's Forest (incomplete))

Early Forest Composition




     WHEN YOU SEE a logging truck on the road and realize that someone's trees have just been cut, do you wonder how much logging has gone on countywide over time? What is the bigger picture? Does anyone actually keep records?

     Yes, there are records, but they are hard to retrieve. By rooting around major libraries and state agencies, I have turned up seemingly-accurate harvest records for the past 50 years. Additional data, not included here, can extend harvest volumes back to 1925.

     Without hard data, opinions about the social, economic and ecological consequences of timber harvesting will remain just that - opinions. What follows is some of the fundamental information that must be incorporated into a rational dialogue regarding our forests.


     HOW MUCH TIMBER is cut and sold each year in the San Juans? As the following graph shows, harvest volumes for the last half century have fluctuated cyclically. Three periods of heavy logging (1950s, mid-1970s and early 1990s) were separated by slumps in activity. In the late 1990s we entered a period of relative "bust," mostly due to temporarily depressed log prices and slow Asian markets.

     The first "boom" coincided with the post-WWII expansion in home construction market. Indeed, earlier records going back to 1925 (not included here) show that logging was very low, except for a one-year spike in 1934, until the end of the war. Logging prior to 1925 was probably fairly heavy in cetain regions to generate fuelwood for lime kilns, other commercial uses, and domestic use, as will be explored in another page dealing with forest history.

     The recent boom of the early 1990s coincided with major shifts in timber availability regionwide due to federal spotted-owl policy. Limited cutting in national forests created sharply rising log prices that peaked around 1995 and the demand sought out timber in vulnerable (or willing) private forestland holdings throughout the state, including San Juan County, where essentially all of the forests are privately owned.

     Damaging windstorms of late 1989 and early 1991 in this county also stimulated high volumes of harvesting in the very early 1990s. The amount of downed timber exceeded the capacity of local logging operators at the time so many gyppo loggers came into the islands for the salvage work. An inflated workforce, combined with the dramatically panicked landowners and tempting log prices, precipitated a circus of opportunistic cutting that far exceeded salvage harvests. In the frenzy many landowners and forest sites were abused, as will be examined in greater detail on another page devoted to nuances of logging activity during the 1990s.

     Regarding the data in the above graph, harvest volume is reported in board feet, not trees. How many board feet are there in a tree? Of course, it depends. One useful rule-of-thumb conversion is the volume commonly carried by a loaded logging truck: in our setting, a loaded truck conventionally carries 3000-4000 board feet of logs, say about 3,250 board feet on average. Accordingly, if 10 million board feet are cut and sold from San Juan County in a given year, about 3000 truck loads are transported to out-of-county mills and dealers. That's ten trucks every working day! (For a variety of reasons, many logs are actually transported by raft or barge, in addition to logging trucks, but full logging trucks are easily recognized on the ferries, especially on the low-traffic runs, when, coincidentally, they are less observed.)


     THE AMOUNT OF forestland acreage subjected to timber harvesting has also been recorded. Once again, the data show peaks and troughs of activity, without clear distinction between clearcuts or partial-cut harvests.

     The above chart shows peaks of a couple thousand acres harvested each year. Is 2000 acres of logging in a year a lot? Is it too much? Well, relative to what?

     The San Juans have a total of 70,000 acres of forestland - 60,000 acres in private ownership, where virtually all of the logging occurs - so 2000 acres cut in a single year is more than 3% of the overall resource. This rate of cutting is many times greater than the rate of local timber growth, which is exceptionally slow relative to other parts of Washington (see "productivity" below). The many aspects of local timber productivity will be expanded in a later page.


     THE BEST WAY to see what is happening in a forest is to take an informed look at the plant community itself, especially the trees. But getting the historical, countywide picture presents special problems that field work alone can't solve. Fortunately, there is an analytical approach which uses the 50-year harvest stats shown above. So, leave your boots by the door for a while and carry out the following simple calculation. The result may be disturbing.

     A given year's harvest yield is calculated by dividing its harvest volume by its harvest acreage; this gives the yield in board feet per acre that was extracted in that year. By comparing 5-year average annual yields during the three boom harvest periods, there is a progressive and obvious decline.

     The harvest yield in the 1990s was only about one-third what it had been in the 1950s. This strongly suggests that trees harvested from our forests are getting dramatically smaller. After all, logging in San Juan County has always focused on removing the most marketable trees, i.e. "taking the biggest and best, and leaving the rest." It is well known in forestry that the predictable consequences of repeated "high-grading" is progressive forest decline. And that is what seems to be going on in San Juan County. The present rate of harvest in the San Juans is evidently excessive; wood is being removed from the forests faster than it is being replaced through growth.


     ANOTHER WAY TO look at the rate of cutting is to plot the acreage data cumulatively. The chart below shows that harvesting has advanced through 75,000 acres of forestland since 1949. That is, in a span of merely 45 years an area equivalent to the entire forested landscape, which is 70,000 acres, has been cut. (Virtually all cutting has occurred on the 60,000 acres of private forestland.) What are the consequences of cutting-over the county's forests in a mere 45 years?

     Remember that lots of logging went on in the San Juans prior to 1950 when the presented data begin. It began seriously in about 1890 and continued with a vengeance up to about 1930, by which time most of the pre-settlement forest in the county had been cutover (though not necessarily clearcut by today's standards). After a slowdown with the Depression and the War, logging began in earnest in the last years of the 1940s. So most likely the above chart represents, on average, the second time the forest has been cut.

     The amount of time between cycles of cutting, regeneration and regrowth of mature trees, and then subsequent cutting of a forest stand is called the "rotation time." A rotation as short as 45 years is highly unusual anywhere in Washington.;45-year rotations are sometimes practiced by the most intensively managed industrial tree farms located on the most highly productive timber growing sites of the Cascade foothills; but anywhere else, such short rotations are prima facie evidence of forest destruction. It is common sense: just how much can a tree grow in 45 years, especially where tree growth is slow (see below) and what is the overall average condition of a landscape that is cut so frequently?

     Obviously, the forests of San Juan County still exist today, despite the above cumulative harvest acreage during the past 50 years. This seeming contradiction dissolves because partial cutting, rather than clearcutting, has become the common standard here (except, of course, for ~1-acre home-site clearings and certain other cases). Partial cutting always leaves some trees behind, even though the usual - and imprudent - practice is to remove the economically (and ecologically) most valuable trees and leave the lesser ones. Thus, the concept of rotation doesn't quite pertain in ten San Juans; essentially every acre of our forests may indeed have been harvested twice since 1890, but only partially harvested. To the undiscerning eye, therefore, we seem able to eat our cake and yet still have it too. The real question, however, is what the meaning of "it" is.... What kind of forest remains after high-grade logging?


     RELATIVELY SHORT ROTATIONS (i.e., time between cuts) are arguably sustainable in regions where timber productivity is sensationally high. How do timber-growing conditions in the San Juans compare with others in Washington state: are ours sensational, average, or mediocre? An answers to this question may lend meaning to the high rates of harvest, high extent of harvest, and short rotation cycles reported above. Is San Juan County bonanza timber-growing country or does our rate of cutting exceed our forest's capacity to re-grow trees?

     Many people have heard that trees grow more slowly here than in some other places in Washington, but how have the experts actually quantified our timber productivity? (The term "timber productivity" refers to the peak potential for growth in a hypothetical mature stand and is based on local growing conditions, which in turn defined "land grades." This peak rate of growth occurs at a characteristic age, i.e., at "culmination.") The following chart puts San Juan County's timber productivity into a region-wide perspective and can be read like a report card of potential timber productivity. Our county gets the only "poor" grade in Western Washington! Its timber productivity is the absolute lowest.

     The comparative chart above shows that San Juan County's forest productivity is by far the lowest in western Washington. Our trees grow substantially slower than elsewhere. The average land grade is between IV and V, which means that timber growth is severely limited by soil and climatic conditions. (Land grades in the county actually range locally between III and V; the geographic distribution of productivity grades will be explored more fully in another report.)

     Low timber productivity in San Juan County means that, even at culmination, the rate of volume growth is low. Culmination - the age at maximum timber growth - is also relatively delayed compared to more productive areas. In this county's forests culmination is at 100-120 years, whereas in forests on "good" land of grade II culmination is at about 50 years. For sustainability, age at culmination should be matched to rotation of timber harvesting, so it follows that San Juan's forests are being harvested 2 to 3 times too rapidly (turning over ever 45 years vs 100-120 years).

     From this comparison of timber productivity, we should become very vigilant of the trends in timber harvesting in San Juan County. Our forestry practices seem to be way out of balance with our local limitations. Our forests are being cut at an exceptional rate and in a destructive manner that is neither sensible nor prudent. Furthermore, since timber productivity here is instrinsicaly so diminished, regrowth after harvesting is unusually slow, which means that the visual and ecological consequence of harvesting will persist much longer than elsewhere.

     So, if we want to retain our forests, let alone to incease the quality of our forests for the future, our harvesting practices need to be geared to local realities, not simply to expediency, short-term profitability, or mainland standards.


1. 50-year harvest volume and acreage: 1949-86, Washington Timber Harvest Annual Reports, Washington Dept. of Natural Resources (harvest volume and acreage); 1987-94, Washington Timber Harvest Annual Reports (timber volume only); 1988-99, Forest Tax Reports, Washington Dept. of Revenue (volume only);1987-1999, Forest Practices Applications for San Juan County, Washington Dept. of Natural Resources (projected volume and acreage).

2. Productivity: Averaging land grades over large areas is unconventional and problematical. To prepare this chart, overall county average land grades were determined by averaging acreage-weighted land grades based on acreages and grade designations from Washington Department of Natural Resouces.

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Tom Schroeder