When Van Keele first came upon the ancient Ponderosa Pine that had been felled as part of a Forest Service tree-felling training session in the spring of 2018, he was appalled. Counting the tree’s rings, it was estimated to be about 565 years old. That means it started growing around the time Constantinople fell and the Middle Ages were coming to an end. There was evidence that the tree was living when cut and he could not believe it was destroyed for “training purposes.”
A few dozen other enormous trees were also felled in the area, according to Keele, but the Camas Pine was the only one that was obviously alive at the time they dropped it. Others had nesting cavities, including one with pileated woodpecker egg shells inside.
He took his complaint to the Forest Service but came away dissatisfied when the agency defended the practice as a valuable part of the program’s safety training. Unable to let the issue go, he returned to the area north of Camas Creek with some help and with a crosscut saw sliced a “cookie” off the huge tree. He was going to bring a piece of it home to memorialize the incident. They used an improvised “stretcher” to carry the slab out, then a dolly (with climbing ropes, belaying!) to lower the 150-pound slab to the bottom. The large cookie was then prepared for display by soaking it for months in a stabilizing solution. Wil Wilkins created a metal display cart for the piece. The exhibit was on display this past Saturday at the Farmers Market in Hamilton.
Keele said that Old Growth pine (minimum 170 years old, 21 inches diameter) is rare on the Bitterroot National Forest. He said only about a third of the historical average of old growth remains. The 2006 Bitterroot Forest Plan document called for increasing Old Growth by 25-75%.
“But despite the rarity of old growth and the public’s demand to protect it,” he said, “the BNF is planning to log old growth on a large scale for the first time in decades in the Gold-Butterfly project in the Sapphires.” In fact, he said, the Forest even proposes to clear-cut old growth in that project.
“Old growth forest is too rare, too valuable, and too special to cut,” he said. He said many old growth-dependent species will be impacted, like fisher, flammulated owls, and pileated woodpeckers. He believes all large diameter trees should be left to protect existing old growth and to promote future old growth.
“They propose to build many miles of new roads, including through old growth. These practices of old growth logging, clearcutting, and extensive road building have not been seen on the Bitterroot National Forest for decades, and all three activities are very unpopular with the public as witnessed by overwhelming public comment opposition to them on Gold Butterfly,” said Keele. He said the Gold Butterfly’s “Purpose and Need” could be achieved without doing these “unpopular and ecologically damaging activities.”
“We hope to increase public awareness on how rare and special not only the Camas Pine is, but old growth in general,” he said. “We hope to get the FS to review and change their policy about this practice. We know it’s needed but old growth trees, living or dead, should not be cut down.”
Keele said that anyone wanting to get involved or get more information on the Camas Pine or the Gold Butterfly Project can visit www.friendsofthebitterroot.net.