Link to Home page
Link to Forestry Information
Link to Watershed Information
Link to Mill Information
Link to Consumer Information
Link to Extras Page
Link to More Information

:: Home > Watersheds > Old and Second Growth > Hot Topic: Mountain Pine Beetles
East Side issues..

Why are so many trees dying in Eastern Oregon, and what can we do about it?

Characteristic red and brown foliage of dead and dying trees in eastern Oregon.

Forests in eastern Oregon are experiencing devastating health problems. Forest visitors often comment on the large number of dead and dying trees–victims of attack from Bark Beetles and other insects.

Unhealthy forests alter scenery and wildilife habitat, reduce timber supply, and are at risk of catastrophic wildfire.

The problem is staggering and complex. To help sort it out, ForestLearn interviewed Dr. Gregg Filip, Forest Science Department, OSU College of Forestry, and Stephen Fitzgerald, Area Extension Forester, Forest Resources Department, OSU College of Forestry

Mountain Bark Beetle

ForestLearn: So Greg, what's the story behind the forest health problems on the East Side of Oregon?

FILIP: Bark Beetles are always a major problem in Pine and fir. The problem always revolves around stands that are too dense and weak. When a drought comes along (as we had mid-80's and early 90's) you are going to face bark beetle epidemics occurring in lodgepole pine in southern and eastern Oregon, to ponderosa, Douglas-fir, and true fir in the Santiam Pass.

Spruce budworm

FITZGERALD: In forests dominated by fir species, larvae (caterpillars) of the western spruce budworm and tussock moth

defoliated (consumed the needles) many trees across large areas particularly those areas in the eastern Cascades and in the Blue Mts. When a tree’s needles are eaten and removed, the tree cannot photosynthesize and produce "food" for growth. So the trees become weak and vulnerable to other insects, like bark beetles, that Dr. Filip mentions.

Dense stands invite forest health problems.

ForestLearn: What are scientists recommending to forest managers to do about this?

FILIP: The key message we've been giving to landowners is to make sure you manage your stands and thin them appropriately.

FITZGERALD: We know from past studies that pine bark beetles can be reduced by thinning and opening up dense stands. By doing this, the remaining trees have more resources available to them, like water, nutrients, and sunlight. This improves tree growth and vigor and makes the trees resistant to bark beetle attack. The key to reducing the potential for future western spruce budworm and tussock moth outbreaks is active management of stands, but at a much larger scale. The long-term health and vigor of fir-dominated forests can be improved by removing a significant amount of the fir and promoting more pest-resistant trees species like ponderosa pine and western larch. To be effective, though, this needs to occur over large watershed and landscapes.

"Salvage logging is unnecessary if you thin appropriately. Salvage is kind of like cleaning up after the war and the bodies are lying around. What you want to do is something before the war starts to prevent the war."

ForestLearn: Does that include salvage logging?

FILIP: Salvage logging is unnecessary if you thin appropriately. Salvage is kind of like cleaning up after the war and the bodies are lying around. What you want to do is something before the war starts to prevent the war. Private industry has done fairly well in managing their land for density because they haven't had the restrictions placed on them that the public land agencies have had. With those kinds of restrictions, it's difficult to manage forests to bring those densities down. If you have density-dependent species like spotted owl, that's in direct conflict with density as far as growing healthy trees. The question then becomes how do you balance one with the other?

FITZGERALD: I couldn’t agree more! Salvage logging is a reactive rather than a proactive measure. If you actively manage and tend stands and landscapes over time, salvage logging will not be needed.

Spotted owl

ForestLearn: So how did nature balance owls and forest density on the East Side?

FILIP: Well, nature didn’t' do it in the past because all that area was open pine, and owls weren't in the open pine. When we took fire out of the system, the fir became dense and the owls moved in to an artificial situation. Then, when the trees all died from budworm and bark beetles instead of fire, the owls began moving out because of no more cover.

ForestLearn: And then the people started complaining, "The owls are going!"…

"When we took fire out of the system, the fir became dense and the owls moved in to an artificial situation."

FILIP: Right! But we’ve got ideas on how one could sustain them. I've been involved in the Santiam Area with a large experiment looking at how to balance keeping and sustaining trees at the same time y

ou are sustaining things like spotted owls. It involves cutting some trees. But the Forest Service is reluctant to do this in those areas designated as LSRs (Late Successional Reserves). They are facing a learning curve in when and how many trees can be taken out of those areas to maintain tree cover and owls, while not making it look like we're trying to salvage log, and keep "harvesting as usual".

A thinned stand.

FITZGERALD: The purpose of cutting some trees is to get rid of trees that are vulnerable to insects and disease and over time try to recruit more pine, larch and other pest-resistant species. In areas that we plan on thinning, the purpose is to promote their long-term health and longevity. In the short run, owl habitat is temporarily reduced, but we are trying to look to the future, the long term, so that we have good owl habitat for the long term.

So, you've got the public looking at the Forest Service saying "Why are you cutting trees in the LSRs? These are owl areas!". And the Forest Service has to say, "Well, because if we don't cut some they're all going to die. Either they are going to burn up or the bark beetles and budworm are going to get them."

We have to manage these stands as they were historically at some low-density level so that they'll be able to sustain themselves. It's really an acute problem on the East Side to be able to maintain stands of trees out there and keep them healthy.

ForestLearn: So was wildfire prevention the major problem behind forest health issues on the East Side?

FILIP: Preventing wildfire was a noble thing to do. Fire was a major problem, and wildfire then and today still needs to be controlled. But what they did so well was to remove all fire from the system. Traditionally, those areas had fires every 5 to 10 years. They weren't major fires—they were little light ground fires. They burned through the grass and needles, and burned some of the little trees. The big old growth weren't affected at all. Those fires cleaned up those sites, kept the density down, and kept the firs out. So it was no problem, and was maintained like that for centuries.

Before extensive fire prevention, cooler ground fires were common, and cleaned sites of fir trees.

FITZGERALD: Because of this frequent burning, historically, stands were much more open, park-like, and dominated by pine and western larch, with lesser amounts of Douglas-fir and true firs. Around 1910 due to the large wildfires across the western United States, we began looking at fire as something evil or bad and began putting all the fires out. The Smokey the Bear campaign further re-enforced this thinking. By the 1980’s and 90’s we see the effects of this. Stands that are over-dense and dominated by fire which are vulnerable to a drought and a whole host of insects and diseases.

FILIP: Right. When we began to remove all wildfire from the system, the fir came in. We harvested off the biggest pines, leaving a lot of little pines and firs. Over the last 100 years they've grown into what we've got over there now. Eventually, the system couldn't maintain that, so the opportunists moved in—bark beetles and the budworms—and began to kill trees. So, instead of using fire, the system used insects and diseases to bring things back to the level that it should be.

ForestLearn: So the bugs aren't really the 'villains' here…?

FILIP: No. I always teach that many of the insect problems and diseases aren't the cause of the forest health problem, they're the result of it! And if you go back, the forest health problem, in most cases on the East Side, is overstocking and stands, that— for whatever reason—were kept overdense. The major reason public agencies give is that these are wildlife areas and wildlife need cover, and that the trees (mostly true fir) were not valuable. So they left it. The result is an overstocked forest.

"If a fire comes in, it's going to burn not only the dead material, but also the live material, and whatever else is near there. Most forest managers would rather not manage forests by large catastrophic events!"

FITZGERALD: I agree. The bugs are a symptom of a much greater problem. This is, changes in forest composition and structure over large landscapes.

ForestLearn: And eventually a catastrophic fire comes through…

FILIP: That's the worst part. If a fire comes in, it's going to burn not only the dead material, but also the live material, and whatever else is near there. Most forest managers would rather not manage forests by large catastrophic events! We would rather be able to manage it and extract products in a continual, sustainable way, while at the same time keeping the forest healthy. We've got the knowledge to do that on the East Side. It's just a matter of educating the public and environmental groups to not appeal every sale to the point where things get delayed and things don't get done over there.

Blue stain fungus from beetle attack.

FITZGERALD: Because we have no control over catastrophic fires and their effects, we can get real resource damage such as exposed and degraded soils and riparian forests that are consumed in the fire. Active management can reduce the potential for these large fires. The key is thinning stands and reducing fuel through mechanical removals and prescribed burning.

ForestLearn: Sounds like a complex problem…

FILIP: It's a complex issue that the public doesn’t understand. And they don't have the trust in the agency from past experiences, so there is a reluctance to let the Forest Service

manage it properly. And that means cutting some trees in order to make other ones healthy.

"We're beginning to see more industries springing up over there that are looking at utilizing more... chips, and more of the dead and dying wood."

ForestLearn: What are some of the impacts of East Side forest health issues on FP workers?

FILIP: When you get to the point where all you are doing is salvaging your forest as a response to dead trees, then that, from a forest products standpoint, has serious implications. You are looking at a different blend of products then you would have gotten if they had managed for healthier trees. What you would pull out of a forest like Santiam Pass would be some healthy wood, some wood with stain and decay, and some totally decayed to the point where you couldn't make a board out of it. Instead of a 2X4, now you're looking at chips. We're beginning to see more industries springing up over there that are looking at utilizing more of the chips, and more of the dead and dying wood.

FITZGERALD: I agree. The quality and value of the wood coming to sawmills is less.

Radiata pine composite

ForestLearn: What about the supply of ponderosa going to the mills?

FILIP: The major thing is the availability of wood as a result of diminishing trees available from public lands. We're not going to be able to make everything out of pure ponderosa like we used to. I'm seeing a lot of the mills out there looking at imports, particularly radiata pine (from New Zealand and Chile). You're looking at a different wood, but maybe making the same products. One mill was taking fast-growing radiata and gluing it to pondersoa pine. They'll take the pondersoa and make a real thin layer and lay that over the top, so it looks like a piece of pondersoa with the nice grain, but the inside is totally radiata. They are basically stretching the pondersoa resource!

FITZGERALD: Supply has become an important issue for the viability of mills across the PNW. Here in central Oregon we’ve had mill import other species, like Dr. Filip mentions, but also local mills have been trucking logs in as far away as Montana in order to keep their mill going because they couldn’t obtain the wood locally off of Forest Service lands.


  • Dr. Gregg Filip, Extension forest protection management specialist, OSU Forest Science Department
  • Stephen Fitzgerald, Area Extension Forester, Deschutes County.