Ugly Beautiful: How dead trees are bringing life to our forests.

Feb 01, 2019
The winds have whipped through Central Oregon leaving behind a mess of dead trees and broken branches, but should we clean it up?

by Rebekah Ratcliff

 

It only takes a quick jaunt through the forest to notice how the wind has whipped through Central Oregon leaving behind a trail of toppled trees and broken branches. This seemingly devastating event is actually quite vital for the health of our forests.

 

Dead or dying trees are often referred to as snags. Tree snags may look a little gnarly, as their tops and branches break off over time, but they provide our forests with so many benefits. Dying trees slowly break down, but they have many years to contribute to a forest before they return to nutrients in our soil.

 

Pygmy nuthatch and young near nest hole in created snag at Camp Polk Meadow. Photo: Karen Parker
Pygmy nuthatch and young near nest hole in created snag at Camp Polk Meadow. Photo: Karen Parker
Snags welcome all kinds of creatures with open branches. As beetles, termites and other insects feed on a tree’s dead bark, carnivorous birds happily arrive to find plenty to eat. Large snags are great nests for owls and woodpeckers. Snags are also critical for small songbirds like the pygmy nuthatch that likes to live and raise young in holes. Birds that utilize these snag holes are called cavity nesters, but they aren’t the only one to find their homes in snags. Small squirrels can use snags to build their nests, hawks and kingfishers perch high on the snag’s limbs and trunk, and the fallen branches create cover and food for turkey and other creatures beneath the canopy. Once we begin to think about all the different creatures utilizing snags for nourishment, protection, or a home; they truly come to life as bustling tree hotels.

 

White-headed woodpecker perched on snags. Photo: Dick Tipton
White-headed woodpecker perched on snags. Photo: Dick Tipton

 

Trees in Streams

Even other trees benefit from snags. Dead logs can provide a seedbed for trees and other plant seedlings, giving all their nutrients to the new generation of forest growth. For similar reasons, trees are extremely important for restoring streams. As snags fall (or are pushed by wonderful stewardship staff) into our streams they become large woody debris. Trees in our streams help to slow the flow of water and provide shade to cool the water. While fish like salmon and steelhead enjoy the cooler and slower water, they also benefit from large woody debris by finding deep pools and hiding places. The first steelhead to return to Whychus Creek, Stella,  was found hiding under a log jam made of large woody debris!

 

Watch out for Snags

Juniper snag at Boyer easement. Photo: Lisa Bagwell
Juniper snag at Boyer easement. Photo: Lisa Bagwell

As you make your way through Central Oregon’s forests and around our waterways do keep an eye out for newly created snags or soon-to-be snags. Some trees and branches may still be in the process of breaking off, and you want to make sure you aren’t underneath! Be especially careful on windy days when these newly weakened trees might start to break free. You can also be on the lookout for those new snags and marvel at all the critters they benefit.

 

UPDATE:

The Metolius Preserve has many fallen trees after this winter’s windstorm. Several have fall on or near our bridges and trails and the Preserve is still inaccessible due to snow. Once we can get into the Preserve, we will work to make our trails safely accessible. Keep in mind, as winds continue to blow, trees will continue to fall. Thank you for your patience as we mindfully remove these hazards.

 

Bridge closed due to down tree at Metolius Preserve. Photo: Gus Gustafson
Bridge closed due to down tree at Metolius Preserve. Photo: Gus Gustafson

 

Learn More:

Snags at Camp Polk Meadow

Creating Snags at the Metolius Preserve

Western Larch Snags

Woody debris at Whychus Canyon Preserve

Cavity Nesting Pygmy Nuthatch