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A cross country skier passes by

a thicket of Douglas fir undergrowth Wednesday while skiing the Sam Braxton Trail in upper Pattee Canyon. With the exclusion of periodic fire in the ecosystem, the saplings tend to choke out the more mature forest trees and act as ladder fuels when fire does occur.

MISSOULA -- Missoulians often mistake Douglas fir trees for elk-- a fact that would amuse David Douglas to no end.

Had he made it to the Missoula Valley during his botanical explorations in the 1820s, the elk on Mount Jumbo would have no Douglas fir saplings to mingle with. Salish Indians regularly burned the mountainsides to deny ambush cover to Blackfeet Indians as they traveled through the vicinity. The only black spots in the winter range would be foraging ungulates, not invading evergreens.

Today, the tree that bears Douglas’ name frequently winds up in the news. It’s one of the main targets in the Lolo National Forest’s Marshall Woods project in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. It's also been targeted by Missoula Parks and Recreation forestry management efforts. Christmas tree hunters like it for decoration, although in recent years it has been degraded by needle-nibbling moths.

And on Thursday evening, the Traveler’s Rest Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation will screen a documentary of David Douglas and the adventures that earned him the honor of becoming a household silvicultural name.

“I don’t know if I want to call the tree a ‘Doug fir’ any more,” Traveler’s Rest Chapter President Ritchie Doyle said after previewing the explorer’s exploits in the film “Finding David Douglas.” “He sure got around. The movie is a great idea to enlighten people about this guy.”

Douglas was born in 1799 and lived just 35 years. He spent seven of them as an apprentice to the gardener of the Earl of Mansfield, learning all he could about plants. Seven years after that, he got a chance to apply his studies on a mission to Fort Vancouver, in what is now Washington state. He traveled inland at least as far as Thompson Falls, and then extensively in Canada, California and Hawaii.

In just two years of diligent collecting, Douglas confirmed or expanded upon many of the scientific observations made by Lewis and Clark. He returned to England with hundreds of plant specimens and wrote or contributed to more than a dozen scientific papers. One point he made corrected Lewis and Clark's claim that (the soon-to-be-called) Douglas fir grew to 300 feet. Douglas argued his observations topped out at 227 feet, according to records reviewed by Missoula historian Joe Musselman. 

Then Douglas found a tutor who explained the intricacies of geological and astronomical surveying, and he got a return trip to help the British government in its debate with the United States over the location of the U.S.-Canadian border. After a couple years of that, he traveled to Hawaii to make observations on the Big Island's volcanoes. He died there in 1834, after falling into a cattle pit-trap.

About 190 years later, Douglas’ contributions to natural history are celebrated but his eponymous tree is a bit of a pest.

“If you look at Jumbo right now, all those little trees fanning out into the grassland -- that’s all Douglas fir,” said Missoula Conservation Lands Manager Morgan Valliant. “They are early seral trees that are able to move in quickly and colonize sites. It’s a classic example of a forest that’s grown in the absence of fire.”

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Ponderosa pine trees tend to shed their lower branches as they mature, and their bark has a flaky, puzzle-piece formation. Those bark flakes shed off during forest fires, protecting the core of the pine and making it harder for the flames to reach the higher branches. In contrast, Douglas fir torches easily. But it grows back much faster than Ponderosa or larch.

Lolo forest silviculturalists made the same observation in their plans to thin forest areas and meadows along Rattlesnake Creek north of Missoula. Douglas fir saplings have mixed with aspen stands and encroached on old homestead sites. The Marshall Woods project proposes extensive thinning along the creek corridor -- a plan that’s aggravated some observers who say it involves too much damage to an area that is supposed to be managed with a light touch. A decision on objections to that project is due in early January.

On the other hand, cross-country skiers in Pattee Canyon can see the difference in a place that allows more intensive intrusion.

“They really thinned up here quite a bit,” said Keith Glaes, who cross-country skis the end of the canyon two or three times a week during the winter. “You can see the difference along the Sam Braxton Trail where they didn’t log to preserve some goshawk habitat. The Douglas fir have just really crowded out everything else. They’re an interesting tree. If you let them, they just take off.”

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