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Summary

Paul continues his discussion with Alan Booker on the subject of the wildfires active in the USA, mostly talking about prevention.

Continuing Paul’s hypothetical million acres of conifer forest plan:

Gradually replace conifers with food forest.  Half-acre islands of conifer are fine, just not as a monoculture.  Take out the medium-sized trees to use for personal construction and make a lot of ponds, about 1/4 acre pond per 2 acres.  Alan wouldn’t want to distribute people throughout his hypothetical one million acres, instead congregating them in villages and have about 30-40% of the area be used for permaculture, and the rest for eco-culture, which is like permaculture, but predominately for the benefit of nature.  Bring in animal workers like goats to help manage the land as well.  Instead of breaking the land into even chunks, he’d break it down into approximate ecosystems.  He’d also want to keep the islands of conifers, just have them in an ocean of eco-culture.  Bring back beavers!  Use them to build damns and the overall hydrology of the land.  

Better ways to use surplus fuel wood from the forest then just burning it?  Branches and twigs can be used to help fix muddy roads, be used as animal bedding or made into brush piles and roundwood furniture.  It can also be used to remove algae from ponds – toss some dead wood in and the algae goes away.

A pond isn’t merely a hole in the ground with water in it, it’s an ecosystem.  And if the “pond” is simply a hole in the ground full of algae, it’s a quite resilient ecosystem and will require a fair bit of effort to get it into a state of being a resilient pond ecosystem.  When people dig ponds, they tend to dig a “bathtub cut”, that is a pond with very steep sides that eliminates emergent plants and almost prevents an ecosystem from developing.  


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COMMENTS:
 
pollinator
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Regarding how Paul and Allen would manage 1million acres of western Oregon timber land, points about Northwest coniferous forest ecology and hydrology were at times quite inaccurate by my understanding of the current science (they did only have 30min prep), but many of the points in this podcast were great. I have always particularly liked Paul's main idea of moving many permies onto the land so it has more stewards/acre. Done well, this infusion of beneficial keystone species (permies) would be a vast improvement compared to the ridiculously low current # of Forest Service employees/acre. Being so stretched thin is what seems to prompt many unsustainable and ecologically destructive practices like herbicide spraying, monoculture, and poor fire management. I would bet this is similar on private forest lands, but should admit I know a lot less about current private practices (often kept private as proprietary) than those used in public land management.

I think it is important to note how I should grant Allen and Paul the benefit of the doubt and assume they are talking about plots with little to no old-growth left, and that they would preserve any truly ancient forests and the endemic soil species (often endemics are found in each old growth tree), unmatched carbon sequestration, water retention, fire resistance, and sanctuary they provide. Therefore I should also assume Paul is not using the straw man that is current forestry (i.e. tree farmed) land management as an argument against conifer forests’ potential ecological and human value, as that would be akin to criticizing the “three sisters guild” by means of an indictment against current corn monoculture. Old-growth forests and tree farms (as much of or national forests and private forests are managed), are qualitatively different, but I again feel the need to defend conifers’ integral place in health NW ecosystems. Despite native burning and preference for oaks and other deciduous trees in many places, the NW still had the vast majority of its land covered in conifer forests that had the highest biomass/acre of any place on Earth (10x tropical broadleaf forests). On the other hand, “forestry” lands are now either mono crops or are largely very low in species diversity, and even diversity within species is horrible, with many large swaths aerially over-seeded  with very narrowly sourced genetics of just Douglas fir.  Fires are suppressed entirely to protect short term profits. Private and publicly managed forestry lands are also subjected to herbicides to remove integral support species like alders, willows, and bays that are misconstrued as competitors for light, water and nutrients instead of as hosts for nitrogen fixating and nutrient chelating soil microbes. This makes these forests less healthy, less able to retain water and produce sap to repel insect pests that then leave them as dead ladder fuels. I think Paul’s preference for “woodland” over “forest” as a more permaculture friendly term, despite how the former embeds the resource to be extracted in the name “woodland” and implies that as the sole value thereof, reflects just how mismanaged many of our national and privately owned “forests” have been. I would argue tree farms are not forests any more than a corn field is a prairie. I would have liked a little more specificity about the nature of the forests they were inheriting was, but again they only had 30min to think about this and I should cut them some slack.

Within their 1million acre plots, Allen makes sound points about conglomerating settlements (I’d imagine around water) and allocating large contiguous areas for intact ecosystems (zones 4-5) to allow for other keystone species’ return. These would include beavers, wolves, grizzlies and salmon.

However, conifers are also a keystone species in NW ecosystems, and I would assert far more than 5% in 1/2acre groves (Paul’s suggestion) would be necessary for the system to function. The primary reasons for this are related to how conifers are particularly well suited for the NW climate, with its mild wet winters, dry summers and regular fires. These mild wet winters allow for coastal conifers, with their A-shape suited for low sun angles, to grow just as fast in January as they do in June (Noss, Redwood Ecology, 1998).  Deciduous trees’ shapes are much better suited for high sun angles of summer, when we have little to no rain. Moreover, conifers holding their leaves/needles through the rainy season makes them much better at slowing, spreading and sinking water than bare deciduous trees. When in the BBB Mollison refers to the peak water holding capacity of ancient forests, where it can take 70yrs for a raindrop to reach the river, my understanding is he was speaking of coastal redwoods and other NW coastal conifers. The assertion that conifers dry up streams was a common logger justification for cutting them, and their evidence was how often the rivers beneath the forests swelled over their banks in unprecedented ways after logging. This obviously neglected how the biomass of the trees removed and the soil they held would have been holding the rain through into the summer to humidify everything downwind, and in the soil for decades as it seeped downstream through innumerable lifeforms. The dog-hair second growth would then also grow as the streams eventually dried up due to the loss of biomass, reinforcing this misconception that conifers dry up streams, despite how healthy coniferous forests’ bottom layer used to always be a healthy salmon or trout bearing stream. These fish were the primary food produced by NW native forests that were dominated by conifers, but also hosted a diverse array of understory broadleaf trees that also produced significant food sources (hazel and bay nuts, acorns, huckleberry,). Where I live now in NW CA, also hosts the highest botanical biodiversity of vascular plants (300+/hectare) in North America, and the canopy is dominated by the most diverse array of conifers on earth (23). I plan to embed food forests and holistic management practices with animals in and around this native bounty.

Montana seems to vary greatly from Western Oregon/WA/CA in this factor, but the NW coast of the US is also one of the least lightning prone regions on Earth, allowing for trees of greater height (and with it upwards of 10x the collective biomass/acre) than native deciduous trees ever achieve (I don’t think we’d want to introduce the only comparably tall broadleaf, the fire prone eucalyptus). The biomass of these coniferous forests can therefore hold vastly more water than a deciduous forest ever could. These native NW forests evolved to do this likely in response to wet winters and dry summers. This water held from winter rains by massive conifers provides the majority of summer humidity and precipitation inland all the way across the continent (Mollison), as the trees transpire up to 500gal/day (Noss). Moreover, due to their growth period (spring-summer) being largely during the dry season, deciduous trees in the NW can only grow near water, where they also get columns of light through the coniferous canopy.  For similar reasons, larger native deciduous trees like big leaf maple, alders, bays and Oregon white oaks often have beards of beneficial moss and lichen to hold winter rain into the dry season for them to absorb through roots that form between their trunks and the moss. Many non-native deciduous trees are not adapted to do this and can die from rot if moss and lichen growth on their trunks gets excessive. Fighting against the NW climate’s selective preference for conifers, especially on slopes and the coasts, seems like rolling the rock uphill. Of course I would love to build food forests dominated by deciduous broadleaf trees on the south flanks of conifer canopied groves and forests, but on any slopes over 15deg and where human access is difficult I would allow evolution to take its course and this will almost always favor conifers for the reasons mentioned above. However this all varies greatly based on the health, age and state of succession of the forest we are talking about. If we are talking about a dog-hair Doug fir regrowth monoculture, I would say Paul’s suggested treatments for selective logging and using the wood for building, hugelkuture, junk pole fencing and other permafications are appropriate.

Why might I not be written off as a dumbfuck? I have intensively studied and worked in NW forests for over 15yrs, in addition to hiking a great deal of the west coast (thru-hiking the PCT, spending a decade of summers working in NW forests as a backcountry, interpretive and ed ranger, trail crew member/leader, environmental educator, and restorationist). What I do know about our local private logging practices comes primarily from a 30yr veteran forester for Green Diamond, and from knowing many loggers, foresters, biologists, botanists and ecologists. I have also talked with quite a few native (mostly Makah, but some Clallam, Tolowa and Yurok) friends extensively about their traditional practices, as well as reading about them quite a bit. I do not know it all of course, but if I know anything, its NW forest ecology. I have applied this background to my study and practice of permaculture for the past 7 years, and am now the food forest site developer for Del Norte County and adjacent tribal lands, and a co-founder of the Wild Rivers Permaculture Guild. Therefore, even though I listen to pretty much ever podcast Paul puts out, the idea of managing a million acres in a permaculture way to work with fire particularly piqued my interest. I was disappointed to hear some common misconceptions about conifers, or at least assertions that deserved some contextualization. I don’t expect anyone to get everything right, and I hope this feedback is taken as constructive. If you’d like my source material, I could dig it all up, but I’d start with the books Conifer Country (Kauffmann) and  Redwood Ecology (Noss), which of course are focused on NW CA  and SW OR, but they also cover many associated species and ecosystem dynamics common to Oregon as well.
 
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Ben Zumeta wrote:Regarding how Paul and Allen would manage 1million acres of western Oregon timber land, points about Northwest coniferous forest ecology and hydrology were at times quite inaccurate by my understanding of the current science (they did only have 30min prep), but many of the points in this podcast were great. I have always particularly liked Paul's main idea of moving many permies onto the land so it has more stewards/acre. Done well, this infusion of beneficial keystone species (permies) would be a vast improvement compared to the ridiculously low current # of Forest Service employees/acre. Being so stretched thin is what seems to prompt many unsustainable and ecologically destructive practices like herbicide spraying, monoculture, and poor fire management. I would bet this is similar on private forest lands, but should admit I know a lot less about current private practices (often kept private as proprietary) than those used in public land management.

I think it is important to note how I should grant Allen and Paul the benefit of the doubt and assume they are talking about plots with little to no old-growth left, and that they would preserve any truly ancient forests and the endemic soil species (often endemics are found in each old growth tree), unmatched carbon sequestration, water retention, fire resistance, and sanctuary they provide.



Ben, thank you for the comments. I can't speak for Paul, so I can only comment from my own perspective.

Yes, I do fully understand and appreciate the value of in-tact and healthy conifer ecosystems. In fact, I am currently working with a Native American group here in the southeast on a large tract of land where a large part of the work is restoring and maintaining one of the last stands of old-growth montane longleaf pines. Like many conifer forests, these are fire-dependent ecosystems which the native peoples here in the southeast actively managed with periodic burns.

When I commented that I would work to shift the land towards a full successional mosaic, I fully include climax ecosystems in that mix. I would definitely want to see a lot more than 5% of the land in late-succession and climax forest, and in-tact old growth forests would absolutely be at the top of my list to preserve and protect.

In my mind, a lot of problems have been created by poor logging practices that destroy the ecological balance of the forests (or just clear-cut them out of existence) followed by dense growth and suppression of fire. This creates exactly the kind of conifer stands that are such a fire risk (at least that is my experience here in the southeast).

So yes, I would like to see good areas of properly managed conifer ecosystems, especially old-growth, large enough to provide contiguous habitat, but with earlier succession ecosystems patterned onto the landscape throughout to provide varied habitat, break up pest corridors, and create edge.

To come up with an exact management plan, I would certainly need more than 30 minutes warning and more time to research the details of the ecosystems in that area. Part of that research would be what a natural mix of ecosystems would be in that area, along with the ecosystem mix that was maintained by the indigenous people when they managed those lands.
 
pollinator
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This is a very interesting exercise on 30 minutes notice!

The general thesis that previous forest practices (seeing the forests as a crop, a big version of corn) are the primary factor in the size and scope of these fires seems quite settled and thus altering those practices is THE starting point for any fire reduction strategy.  But I can't accept the proposed solutions as they leave out huge chunks of the ecosystem (yeah, 30 minutes ...) and generally represent the hypothesis that we know what we're doing.

My initial reaction is "what about the salmon?" I'm not an expert, but the breadcrumbs are pretty clear - the salmon and the forests are connected.  This is partly temperature, partly control of flow, and there are some suggestions that the trees deposit compounds in the water that are beneficial to the fish.  Off hand, swapping conifers for deciduous trees means changing the type of organic matter in streams (giant maple leaves behave very differently from doug fir needles), timing of organic matter in streams (a giant pulse in the fall), and different stream-shading effects (PNW coastal forests are apparently "the darkest forests in the world").  There are also other species that depend on the old-growth forests - the Marbled Murrelet is the new Spotted Owl.  While the Spotted Owl exists as part of the old growth ecosytems, the Marbled Murrelet is a sea bird that lives on the ocean but nests in old growth trees (surprisingly far from the coast).  I have no idea what role the Murrelet plays in the larger ecosystem, but its a little vein connecting the ocean and the forests and limiting conifers to 1/2 acre stands would almost certainly be an extinction event that eliminates that vein.

Conifers on ridges also act as water catchers, the tremendous surface area grabs moisture blowing across ridges and acts as key in "stacking water" on the ridges.  Its particularly bad when loggers start at the ridge and cut down (turns out thats a preferred technique), effectively depriving any re-growth of water and shade.  Replacing evergreen conifers will reduce this water collection, especially when deciduous trees are not in leaf.  On the flip side, I have to concede that its possible the deciduous trees engage in more respiration in the summer, possibly releasing more water per acre into the air - this water then goes along to the next system (coastal->cascades->east Cascades) where it contributes to a rain event.

These points lead to a larger discussion of managing ecosystems and the limits of human cognition (do we really know what we're doing?)... and that's not happening here! But roughly, yes,  putting the regulatory-captured US Forest Service and WA/OR/CA  Bureaus in charge of truly giant chunks of land has created huge problems and yet dissolving that system to manage the forests in tiny 10-100 acre plots creates a whole different set of problems.  These are not new problems (tragedy of the commons and all), but I remain skeptical  - hopeful but skeptical - that inserting more people into the forests to optimize their little piece of it will optimize the health and production of the whole forest.

I thank Paul and Alan for considering this topic, and I don't want to criticize them for failing to overcome my skepticism!  This is a big topic.
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