A Forest for the Trees
(From Winter/Spring 1998)
by Gregory Tozian
Don Shawe Has Been Treating Trees “Organically” for Nearly Half a Century
“Federal Chain-Saw Massacre!” screamed the cover story in Harper’s magazine this summer. The article relates how, despite President Clinton’s forest-preservation rhetoric, the White House is letting big timber companies cut down many of the last great public forests in the Pacific Northwest.
According to Harper’s, if the U.S. Forest Service continues “salvaging” trees at the rate Clinton’s allowing, in another 20 years half the remaining national forests will be clearcut.
It’s a sad story, but like most tales of woe, it gets darker when you look a little closer.
If you zoom down into the heart of the forest controversy, in Oregon, where a large percentage of the best trees are, the situation seems equally urgent. This summer, the Oregon State Board of Forestry approved a plan that would mark nearly 800,000 acres of state forest lands primarily for lumber production. Cuttin’ ‘em down to be made into boards is the single best use for these publicly owned trees, according to the state.
Of course, there are many other potential roles for these rapidly disappearing forests: as contributors to clean soil, air and water, or as protectors of native fish runs for endangered salmon. They might also be valued as guardians of bio-diversity for plant species, or as centuries-old habitat for wildlife, and as places for recreational activities such as hiking. Finally, these forests—only 5% of which remain from before man’s intervention—could be seen as timeless, aesthetic jewels. However, none of these other purposes are being considered “primary” by the Board of Forestry in Oregon. Once more, money talks. Again, battle lines are being drawn around trees.
While these issues continue to be argued nationally, Organica learned of a man in northwestern Oregon who for decades has been harvesting trees selectively from the 160 acres of prime forest he lives on with his wife and daughter.
Even though Don Shawe, who turned 80 in August, makes his living from the forest, he has found a way to leave more than he takes. Remarkably, when you visit the place where he’s been harvesting trees for 40 years, you are still standing in a healthy, vibrantly green forest. Shawe also turns out to be an articulate inspiration on the fine art of living. We went to find the man where he lives: in the middle of the forest.
HOOD RIVER, OREGON–Armed with good directions, you’ll find Don Shawe’s homestead up at the 1,700-foot elevation in the Cascade range, a mere 15 or 20 minutes from downtown Hood River. The Shawe place, named Rahane, commands a spectacular view of valleys, surrounding tree-covered mountains and the more than 11,000-foot, snow-capped peak of Mount Hood. It’s the kind of view that a resort would pay millions to build a complex around. Shawe, who’s owned the property since the ’40s, is just now adding on another story to the double-envelope, earth-sheltered, solar and hydro-powered small house he built here 12 years ago.
The sustainable forester lives here with his wife, Karey, and 11-year-old daughter, Silvan. A bright-eyed child, whose name means “of, or characteristic of the woods,” Silvan is being home-schooled by the Shawes among the dark green forest, the large organic garden, and a spirited Palomino (Surprise), and pure-white Arabian (Trinket). Silvan plays youth soccer down in the flatlands on weekends, but is surprisingly “adult” in her mannerisms, and can run a video camera like a pro.
The family’s lifestyle has several obvious modern conveniences: electric lights, running water, and a small video-editing set up for the tree-friendly, cable-access programming they like to produce. But Rahane is also rustic. In the winter, the Shawes heat with wood when necessary, though the earth-sheltering keeps the place pretty comfortable most of the year. When they aren’t shopping for organic produce at a health food store down in the city, they dine from the more than 400 quarts of food they’ve bottled in the root cellar. While there is no TV or telephone, there is an outhouse.
Early Life in the Rugged West
Shawe says he was born “in the center of Oregon, in Prineville, in a starve-out homestead.” His father, Victor, had been a writer of Western fiction for the Saturday Evening Post; his stories ended up in the same issues with such luminaries as Sinclair Lewis and H.G. Wells.
Before his teens, Don moved to a cattle ranch in Elko, Nevada, working there until he finished college. And although he’d bought a ranch in Nevada after World War II, Shawe needed more greenery in his life. He decided to move to Seattle. On his way through Oregon, Shawe stopped for lunch in Hood River, where he saw a newspaper advertising a fruit farm for sale.
“I had won a little poker money on my return to America on the Queen Mary,” Don says. “It was enough to buy the fruit farm.” For 10 years, Shawe raised fruit trees in the richly fertile Hood River area, where apples and pears abound. It was during this time that the Oregon native developed a real concern for the ecosystem.
A Growing Consciousness for the Earth
Fruit farming was satisfying, Shawe says, but over time he became increasingly alarmed by the use of lead arsenic, the widely-prescribed answer for the devastating coddling moth. “Spray after spray, all summer long, they’d pour heavy amounts of lead arsenic on the land,” says Shawe. It was the beginning of his awakening to “the rape of the land by industrial farming.”
“Eventually, the farmers couldn’t get fruit trees to grow, or even clover to germinate. They experimented with a plow that would turn over 10 feet of soil, trying to find some good earth to grow in. But they couldn’t,” he says. “Then DDT came out. Overnight it took the place of lead arsenic. So, the problem got solved in an example of how you can go from bad to worse.”
Shawe started to read about how DDT was turning up in people’s bodies in autopsies. How it might be carcinogenic. “I started talking about the dangers of DDT, and I made myself very unpopular with the other growers,” Shawe remembers. “One guy who was an entomologist with the state said I’d be run out of town if I didn’t shut up. That was in the late ’40s, early ’50s. Of course, after Rachel Carson’s book The Silent Spring came out, DDT was banned.”
Eventually, Don sold the fruit farm and found the 160 acres he now lives on. The property included 40 acres of apple and pear trees.
“I wanted to do an experiment in organic culture. I was going to grow pears without spraying,” he says. He sold his first crop of organic pears to Food for Life in Los Angeles back in the ’50s. But after four years, Shawe got wanderlust again, moving to New York to become involved in the Free School Movement in the ’60s and ’70s. By the time his three sons were teenagers, Shawe got the urge to return to Oregon and “the land.”
First Experiments with Ecological Forestry
Don came back to Rahane to “tend the forest” in the late ’70s. “Our forestry is structured around what I call my community idealism,” Shawe says. Besides Don, Karey and Silvan, several other like-minded people live in their own structures on the property. “I like to think we raise our trees ‘organically,’ just like we do our vegetables,” Shawe says.
From the start, the forester wanted to see if he could manage his Grand Fir and Douglas Fir stands in ecologically responsible ways similar to those he’d used to raise fruit trees at Rahane decades before. Not surprisingly, some local people again disagreed with his methods.
A classic example of how far out of step Shawe was with forestry business-as-usual reared its head in the 1980s. The surrounding forests became infected with the Western Spruce Bug Worm. A lot of the local trees at that time were owned by the Longview Fiber Company, which was using helicopters to spray an invasive chemical on affected trees. “It was bad stuff,” Shawe says. He refused to allow spraying on his property, relying instead on the ants, yellow jackets and birds to take care of the bug problem. It rankled a number of people, some of whom suggested that Shawe’s trees might “infect” theirs. Then a well-publicized study was done that showed Shawe’s trees were as healthy as other local trees that had been sprayed with chemicals. Shawe appeared at a public meeting when the evidence was presented, and asked the conventional foresters, “Doesn’t this stir the ripples of your minds just a little?”
Over the past 20 years, Shawe has continued to perfect his methods of treating and harvesting trees with care, and he’s heartened by a slowly increasing acceptance of sanctioned ecological forestry methods on private lands.
Selective Forestry vs. Industrial Harvesting
An ideal forest, according to Shawe, is a forest with diversity of plant life, varieties of trees, shrubs, forbes, grasses (the understory) and structural diversity. That diversity must include “big trees, tall trees, old growth, middle-sized trees and young trees coming on. We get healthy young trees through intensive management,” he says. Shawe is proud of the fact his timber operation has third-party certification stating that the trees from Rahane “are grown as sustainably as we know how.”
“We have to know more—and then care—to tend trees this way,” Shawe adds of his methods. “It’s called ‘Selective Forestry,’ selectively choosing those stems—one tree at a time—that you will cut down. And you have to be concerned with minimizing damage to the ground.
“It’s where heart and mind interact. We have to think with our hearts,” he says, “For I believe that with extreme, loving care and a lot of knowledge, we can manage these trees for timber products without doing that much harm to the environment.”
Anyone who’s watched a large timber company doing a clearcut, or seen a film of clearcutting, can’t help but be awed by the brute force—and speed—of the operation. A substantial forest in the steepest terrain can be completely cut to the ground with an army of men wielding chain saws in a few weeks. Even the most massive trees are easily hauled to the top of the hill with giant, cable-dragging machines called yarders, to be loaded on long-bedded trucks. The ground in these areas is completely ruined, a mass of stumps and deep gouges where the yarder has dragged the trees out, for hundreds of feet at a time. In addition, destructive logging roads, necessary to get the yarder and big trucks in, leave clearcut hillsides damaged, promoting soil erosion, the destruction of fish habitat and increased potential for landslides.
Many experts feel a clearcut is far more devastating than a catastrophic forest fire. David Wallens, of Western Washington University, calculates that a forest recovers from a fire in 50 or 60 years. (That guess is borne out in Shawe’s own neighborhood by the great Tillamook Burn of the 1930s, which destroyed thousands of acres, now replenished by nature.) A clearcut, on the other hand, according to University of Washington principal researcher Jerry Franklin, ravages a forest for 150 to 200 years (before it fully recaptures the characteristics and diversity of an old-growth forest).
Shawe’s cutting methods are a far-cry from the way big timber companies operate. While he too uses chain saws to take down trees, the similarities end there. “First of all,” says Shawe, “we are selecting those individual trees we want to cut.”
Instead of the huge, mechanized yarders that drag huge trees violently up hills, leaving small trenches in the ground in their wake, and instead of building logging roads, Shawe uses “softer” methods. A rubber tire “skidder” is used to pull trees out of the forest. And Shawe and his tree-cutting assistants never leave established roads. “We don’t disturb the forest floor with compaction,” he says. “We use trails in the forests, not roads.”
Surprisingly, Shawe never plants trees either. “We don’t have to plant,” he says simply. “Nature takes care of that. We grow new trees from what we think are the genetically superior trees.” By this, Shawe means he lets the trees reseed the growth themselves, in their timeless natural way.
The trees Shawe has “thinned over the past 40 years” are carefully spaced from each other, and are now 80 to 90 feet tall. “In the beginning (decades ago), we had 125 stems per acre, 14 feet apart,” he says. “Over the years, we’ve reduced the stems per acre to 55 or 60. Now, we have 30,000 to 40,000 board feet per acre. That’s creating capital. It’s a healthy forest. We’ve thinned out diseased trees,” he adds.
Shawe’s forestry operation starts up each year in April and is shut down in early to mid-November, when it gets really cold and the snow sets in. Annually, the Shawe’s ship some 18 log-truck loads, accounting for 3,000 board feet per truck. “That’s $1,500 per truck load gross,” says the forester.
Last fall, the operation got a small saw mill, which runs off a Volkswagen engine. It was manufactured in the region 20 years ago, but it does the job. The longest board the machine can make is 18 feet. Although a younger, stronger man might be able to run the equipment himself, Shawe needs an assistant to operate the mill; at age 80, he’s no longer quite strong enough to cut the logs alone.
Since the inclusion of the mill, Shawe is able to sell not just raw logs, but “value added” lumber to contractors and builders. “Plus, now we can build with our own boards,” he says, pointing to the house, where the new second-story is going in.
Would Shawe’s Methods Work on a Larger Scale?
Looking at this small, commendably ecological logging operation prompts one to ask what aspects of it would translate to a real world in which huge lumber companies want a lot of wood, and big profits.
“How does this island adventure, as an alternative form, work in the larger scale?” Shawe asks rhetorically.
There are some examples of big companies doing it, he says. He mentions the Collins Pine Company, in Mississippi, which is managing 400,000 acres under certified, ecological principles. “There are also some companies producing what they call ‘Smart Wood’ around the country,” Shawe explains, “lumber harvested in an ecologically responsible manner.”
And he adds that an alternative to clearcutting, a kind of “uneven-age management” (which spares some second-growth trees, as well as the old growth, from the axe), is being practiced by the northwestern Yakima Indians at their reservation’s logging operation.
Oregon’s Tree Crisis
The state forestry board’s suggestion that Oregon’s public trees be managed “primarily” as timber resource is asking the wrong question, according to Shawe.
“It’s a Yes or No controversy. At public hearings, people have been asked to come down for or against this question. And it’s totally reactionary,” says Shawe, “totally against everything we’ve learned about ecological forestry between the ’50s and now. The cultural climate has changed. We know better how to manage forests, (how) to look for longer-range solutions, and that we should pay more attention to habitat.
“The problem facing professional siliculturists is an awareness of the tradeoffs. If you do clearcuts, you get landslides. If you don’t take care of a second growth forest, you get catastrophic fires. If you use heavy equipment, you restrict the organic, healthy life of the forest. We’ve known about these tradeoffs for a long time,” he continues. “Short term money adds up to long term disaster.”
According to Shawe, there are two important issues at hand. The first is how to preserve the ancient forest: the 5% to 7% of total forests in Oregon, Washington and California. Those are the oldest, biggest trees. The second issue is how to properly manage the second-growth forests, which the state and federal governments (as well as many private land holders) are itching to clearcut: the Grand Firs, Doug Firs, Spruce, Hemlock and other commercial-wood trees.
“Obviously, I think we should manage the second-growth trees under the principles of eco-forestry, which is about sustaining natural communities—the forests—and human communities—the people, the towns and the mills,” says Shawe.
A Walk in the Woods
In the afternoon, Shawe walks us into the woods, a dense mixture of Grand Firs, Douglas Firs, Dogwoods and Black Willow. The trees range in age from saplings just sprouting a few inches from the forest floor, to 500-year-old trees reaching well over 100 feet high. Of Don’s 100 acres of trees, the oldest second-growth is about his age: 80 to 90.
He digs his hands into a rich mixture of downed woody material and other plant life, coming up with a bundle of the thick, soft, aromatic padding that is underfoot everywhere. “That’s the forest floor,” says Shawe. “That’s where the life of the forest comes from. That top six inches.”
We walk on trails covered by the same dense forest—floor coverings. Surprisingly, these are places trees have been dragged out of the forest, though you can’t tell where or how.
“That 90-year-old tree there,” points out Shawe, “that’s a beauty, isn’t it? That will never go to the mill.”
Shawe says a condition of the deed to his property, Rahane, states that the trees there are to be treated in an ecologically responsible manner. He calls it “a conservation easement.”
“The forest loves to be treated this way. It loves to create its own nitrogen,” Shawe says. “The forest is very strong for taking care of itself. And here it’s well taken care of. If all forests were taken care of like this, they’d have healthy topsoil, native nutrition, habitat, scenic uses, recreation. We’d increase their value. But to do that, we’ve got to start valuing things we, as a people, haven’t valued. We need to value the organic, the economic and the ecological at the same time.
Shawe admits he’s an idealist; and after all these decades of trying to harvest in harmony with the earth, perhaps still something of a visionary. “If we just took a softer approach, we’d increase jobs 20 to 1, and young people would do that work with pride,” says Shawe. “Now foresters are raping the forest. But people could be taught to love the forest as their own natural treasure. We must go from taking it away to leaving it nearly as intact as we can. Now, that’s what I call the new winning of the West.”
Photo Caption: For more than 40 years Don Shawe, now 80, has practiced what he preaches — a responsible, ecologically sound way to harvest his 160 acres of prime forest.