February 14, 2012

Olsen Creek Seed Orchard

Filed under: Hiking — geezerwriter @ 7:14 pm
New, "improved" road

New, "improved" road

This morning I popped over to the other side of Lake Whatcom to have a look at the trail that we are scheduled to hike on Thursday. Pat had called me last week to report that there was some logging activity and that the road (which we have to follow for the first half mile or so to reach the trails) was closed on weekdays. Nursing a faint hope that they might be done working, I wanted to take a look.


Trailhead - I was beginning to feel unwelcome

The first clue that I was to be disappointed came on the Y Road about a quarter mile before the parking lot when I passed what had previously been a mostly overgrown and almost unnoticeable side road. It has been widened and freshly graveled and is very, very noticeable! To the left of center in the photo (click to enlarge), the road is heading toward a tree plantation that had always piqued my curiosity – you can perhaps make out that the trees are in neat rows, with no underbrush.

The trailhead parking lot is maintained by the Whatcom Backcountry Horsemen and is very popular with dog walkers, but today it was empty. And the trailhead itself (picture on the left) was liberally festooned with signs clearly designed to make the casual visitor feel less than welcome. I had hoped to poke around a little and try to see to what extent the trails were being gobbled up, but the sounds of the big boys’ Tonka trucks in the distance combined with the signs to quell my impatience.

Looking east (uphill)

Looking east (uphill)

Pivoting 90 degrees from the trailhead, I could see one big orange machine across the field to the east, just barely visible in the photo on the right. It looked like one of those long, articulated grabbers that can toss trees around like matchsticks. That, combined with the absence of the sound of chain saws and falling trees, tended to confirm Pat’s estimate that they are done with the cutting and into the cleanup phase.

Longview sign

Longview Fibre Company sign

The trailhead also sported a big public relations sign from the Longview Fibre Company (or Longview Timber Company, depending on which sign you believe) telling the story of the Olsen Creek Seed Orchard, that stand of trees (sort of) visible in my first picture. I ran it through some optical character recognition software to get a version that is a bit easier to read:

What’s Happening Here at the Olsen Creek Seed Orchard?

Georgia Pacific and Scott Paper companies joined forces to establish this site way back in 1977. Small twigs were collected from hundreds of trees scattered across Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish counties. These were then grafted onto special rootstock, reared in a nursery down at Clear Lake, and then outplanted here and at a duplicate site on Whidbey Island. Seed from these orchards are what’s used for reforestation today.

So why have we removed the vast majority of these orchard trees since that time? This is partly because they need plenty of daylight to produce both male catkins (pollen buds) and female flowers (cones). We thinned the Douglas fir orchards back in 2006, we’ll do the same thing this coming spring with the hemlocks.

Here are some aerial photos that were taken of the orchard and the surrounding areas back in 1998, 2006 and 2011: (Note: only the 2011 sign is shown here, and I turned it so north is up.)

Aerial photo from sign

2011 photo from sign

Wouldn’t it make more sense to have thinned these trees uniformly? Not since we know the pedigree of every tree in the orchard! A series of tests were established back in 1990 that have since told us which of these trees grow the best, which have good wood quality and which ones are well adapted to growing across a broad range of elevations and soil types. The very best of these orchard trees are what we culture for seed production today. The Washington DNR, the federal Bureau of Land Management and Oregon State University have since joined forces with timber companies across the region to breed and select the best grandchildren of these original trees!

What’s next? Pollen flows into the orchard from the firs and the hemlocks located outside of the orchard. These are just random trees, so they drastically reduce the seed quality when they pollinate the orchard trees each spring. We’ll therefore take out this source of “pollen contamination” by removing certain trees outside of the orchard. These stands will then be reforested with high-quality seedlings that will provide an excellent pollen cloud in the years to come. How’s that for attention to detail?

– Longview Timber Company, Mt. Vernon, WA

So: all I ever wanted to know about that scruffy stand of trees, and then some!

In order to orient the scene for those who have hiked there, I sent my GPS tracks (via Garmin‘s BaseCamp software) to Google Earth, and made this picture of roughly the same area:

View from space

View from space

You can see the Y Road (notice that I have adopted the curious Whatcom County style of using the definite article with rural road names. At least I think it’s only the rural ones – I haven’t heard anyone refer to “the Alabama Street” or “the Railroad Avenue”. Yet.) snaking along the left side of the picture past the locale of the new “improved” road labelled “Road Exit” and the “Olsen Creek TH”. The Seed Orchard is the genuinely artificial looking square patch just east of the road, surrounded on the east and south by the area “thinned” in 2006. (This seems to be a deeply euphemistic use of the word “thin – one might say similarly that the forests around Mount St. Helen were “thinned” by the 1980 eruption.)

The upper arrow is pointing the approximate location of the orange grabber (sort of) pictured above – that are has been pretty well “thinned” also.

The winding paths with the little circles are my GPS tracks from our December hike. We started by skirting the open (but fenced) field, crossing the road (faintly visible as a green line), twisting through the low-lying swampy area, along the fence and past the little red building (the roof shows as a bright white square) and back to the road. At that point (marked “Trail 2 lo”) the actual woodland trails into the high country (well, sort of high) start.

The big question for us hikers is whether to what extent those trails will be trashed. We can always walk to that point along the road but it would be a shame to lose those new trails. From the narrative on the sign, one might think that area is safe, being at a pretty good remove from the orchard, but who’s to know. The area between the Y Road and the orchard has been completely clearcut and they were working today well beyond the area cut in 2006.

How big a pollen cloud is required? I just can’t wrap my mind around the idea of a forest as an agricultural field – one person’s “pollen contamination” is another’s “genetic diversity”.



  1. Good explanation, Al, of what’s going on in that part of our hiking area. And thanks for the pictures to help me figure out just where we are talking about. I guess we will be swapping this hike with Cub Creek for sure, huh?

    Comment by DJan — February 15, 2012 @ 6:00 am

  2. I had to chuckle at this article. If you had any idea how many millions of dollars goes into tree improvement you would understand. I won’t type the pages of science here to explain, but it makes trees better… more disease resistant, grow faster, etc. and if pollen from the surrounding trees fertilizes a seed meant to grow at a higher elevation or different climate it often will be stunted or susceptible to pests there. And if nothing else it’s THEIR land and trees so they can do as they choose with them. Longview Timber and Longview Fiber were one and the same, they were purchased by Columbia Timber, and now are a partner of Weyerhaeuser. I’m proud to be part of the program contracting with them to make better forests and caring for their orchards and providing enough seed to replant tens of thousands of acres annually not just for Weyerhaeuser but for government and private lands as well.

    Comment by Dave Golding — March 13, 2017 @ 10:28 pm

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