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Helping the Forest Tell Its Story

Peter Caligiuri 9/29/2012

Community members gather outside Skyliner Lodge

​by Pete Caligiuri

On a warm fall afternoon, a group of more than 30 Central Oregonians gathered outside the historic Skyliner Lodge on the edge of the Deschutes National Forest near Bend, Oregon. They came to participate in a forest restoration hike sponsored by the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project (DCFP) as part of the group’s “Forest Restoration Celebration.” The goal for the hike was simple: help the forest tell its story.

An Important Message
“Our forests are in trouble,” is one of the core messages of the DCFP, but many community members and visitors who live nearby or come to play in the Deschutes National Forest don’t realize that the forest needs our help. The DCFP’s community outreach strategy is aimed at addressing this disconnect. The forest restoration hike was designed to inspire users of the forest to think of themselves as part of a community of stewards and ambassadors of forest restoration. By the end of the hike, organizers hoped participants would understand what our forests looked like historically, why our forests are in trouble today, and what they can do to help.

The hiking route wound through a mosaic of stand conditions in the forest around Skyliner Lodge. Along the way, participants were able to see stands highly departed from historic conditions and also stands that had undergone a variety of restoration treatments towards a range of objectives, including wildfire risk reduction, protecting recreational trails, and restoring fire-tolerant plant communities. At planned stops, the hike’s leaders—a local extension forester, several ecologists, and DCFP staff—had placed visual aids like tree cores, historic photos, and tree cookies with fire scars. They also pointed to clues written in the forest itself, such as species composition and structure, to illustrate how the forest had changed over the past century and to underscore the need for active forest restoration.

Time to Talk
There was ample time for group discussion. Hikers asked about the role of historic disturbance processes like fire, the effects of past forest management and harvesting, and how to manage similar forest on their own land. The group also ventured into discussions regarding the definition and identification of old-growth trees, as well as the importance of large, fire-tolerant species like ponderosa pine in fire-adapted forest landscapes.

Participants returned from the hour-and-a-half hike more knowledgeable about the past and present forest, and about how they could help shape its future. Some were so fascinated by what they had learned that on the return hike they spun off into small groups, spreading out into the forest to point out legacy ponderosa pines emblazoned with the cat faces that are the telltale signs of historical, low-severity fires. They returned to the lodge as a new contingent of supporters ready to celebrate what the community could accomplish together in the forest.

Keys to Success
Several key ingredients went into making the hike a great success:

  • First, the forest restoration message was more powerful because participants came together to discuss issues right before their eyes;
  • Second, the hike employed leaders experienced with interpreting the forest for public audiences; and
  • Finally, thoughtful planning went in to selecting the route, the appropriate visual aids, and key points and discussion topics for each stop, which helped deliver the forest restoration message in a logical order.

Community turnout, engagement, and enthusiasm in the discussions indicated that the restoration hike achieved the goal of helping the forest tell its story and communicating the need for active restoration. DCFP staff is already thinking about the next opportunity for a forest restoration hike to build on the momentum from the Forest Restoration Celebration and to engage additional community members as supporters, stewards, and ambassadors of forest restoration.