• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Healing Powers of Chainsaws

Air Date: Week of

The chainsaw is often the symbol of forest destruction, but in the Pacific Northwest it's being used to recreate wildlife habitat in clear-cut areas. Forest ecologists are using chainsaws to create standing dead timber, or "snags," to provide nesting spots for a number of birds that would otherwise be displaced. From our Northwest Bureau, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

There's plenty of life to be found in dead trees. A stump or rotting log is home for many species, and standing dead trees, called snags, are the preferred nesting spots for a number of animals. So, when logging clears away all the dead trees, some species in the area go as well. Instead of waiting 100 or more years for snags to reappear on their own, some forest ecologists are now using chainsaws to recreate snag-style habitat. From our Northwest Bureau, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports.

(Walking through thicket)

FITZ PATRICK: In the hills along the Sauk River in Washington's Cascade Mountains, a team from the U.S. Forest Service is looking for a tree to kill.

REED: I was thinking that second tree back.

BROWN: So that first tree, the one right behind that?

REED: Correct.

FITZ PATRICK: The workers plan to cut the top off a 70-year-old Douglas Fir. That will create something this forest has lacked since it was clear-cut decades ago: standing dead trees known as "snags." Forest Service biologist Lisa Norris says snags are essential for a diverse assortment of wildlife.

NORRIS: Overall, about a third of all the wildlife species across the United States utilize snags or downed logs for nesting, breeding, feeding, foraging, denning. So it's a large, large number of critters we're talking about. We'll lose them if we don't have these kinds of habitat.

(River sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Old growth forests are filled with trees in various stages of death and decomposition--victims of wind or fire or lightning. The snags provide a niche for fungus and insects, even eagles and endangered spotted owls.

(Gear being moved)

FITZ PATRICK: But second-growth forests like this one are too young to contain many naturally-occurring snags, which means they can't support the same diversity of wildlife.

(Gear moving continues, clanking sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: So, freelance tree-faller Tim Brown is gearing up to turn a living tree into a snag.

BROWN: There's more life in a dead tree than a live tree. Once a tree dies, its life span is half over. It's still going to be a home for many, many, many, many species.

(More clanking)

FITZ PATRICK: Mr. Brown straps on his climbing spurs and harness. The tree to be sacrificed is 80 feet tall and 2 feet thick.

(More clanking)

BROWN: It's big enough in diameter to support a pilleated woodpecker, which is the biggest of the woodpecker family. And it's along an open road, so it's a great flyway corridor for bats.

(Climbing sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: As he works his way up the tree, Mr. Brown communicates with the ground via radio.

(More clanking.)

BROWN (on radio): So, I'm gonna throw this tree down the hill, is that all right?

REED: Okay.

(A chainsaw starts up and cutting begins)

FITZ PATRICK: As the cut begins, Forest Service biologist Phyllis Reed watches from a road nearby. She looks uneasy.

(To Reed) Does it bother you to see a tree go down?

REED: Oh, yes. It always sort of is like, you know, going out here and trying to decide which one of these vigorous young trees we're going to take the top off, kind of, "Off with its head!"

(Chainsaw continues)

FITZ PATRICK: It takes just 90 seconds for the top half of the tree to come crashing down.

(Chainsaw buzz continues; tree crashes)

FITZ PATRICK: All that's left is a limbless trunk 40 feet tall.

(Chainsaw revving continues)

FITZ PATRICK: But Mr. Brown's work has really just begun. Next, he carefully carves jagged edges into the tree top to make it look more natural and expose more surface area to the elements. Then, he slips partway down, where he roughs up the bark for sapsuckers and chisels an elaborate cave for bats.

(Chainsaw buzz continues)

REED: The work that Tim does for us in the wildlife tree creation is really artistic. Hopefully the pattern of scarring that is on the tree is very natural looking and will attract some of the wildlife species that we're targeting.

(Chainsaw buzz continues, then stops.)

BROWN (on radio): That look okay from down there?

REED: Yeah, it looks like the tree snapped off in a wind storm.

BROWN (on radio): This slit here has the capability of holding about 30 bats comfortably. I wanted these bats to have a different micro-climate that they could select from during cold weather, as well as protection.

(Chainsaw starts back up)

FITZ PATRICK: Tim Brown single-handedly created the practice of sculpting trees like this for wildlife. Biologists have known about the importance of snags for some time, and have experimented with crude attempts to blast the tops off trees with dynamite. But Mr. Brown has elevated the work to an art form, with more than 1,000 specific chainsaw techniques, tailored to help everything from bears to salamanders. He's a self-taught woodsman and former logger who believes people have a role in restoring the forest to health.

BROWN: I never was happy cutting timber because most of those were huge clear-cuts. They went across streams, rivers, right down to the lake.
And it was agonizing. And as the environment began to get squeezed more and more, I felt this moral obligation to assist.

FITZ PATRICK: Mr. Brown went into business for himself, and at first concentrated on dead trees that threatened roads, power lines, or homes.
Instead of taking the entire tree down, he persuaded clients to leave as much of the trunk standing as possible. Then, he turned to clear-cut areas that were starting to grow back. Mr. Brown convinced government officials that, as the forest returned, a man with a chainsaw could do some good.

BROWN: Chainsaws: sure, they're viewed as a weapon of destruction, you know, in the forest. They wipe out the forest, they kill the trees, and so forth. But they also can be viewed as a tool of healing on the landscape.

(Clanking and boring sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Mr. Brown spends part of his time evaluating how well his chainsaw creations have worked.

(Loud squeaking sounds of boring through tree)

FITZ PATRICK: On this 200-year-old cedar, he's boring a core sample to gauge the extent of decay. This tree was left behind by loggers because its center is hollow.

(Sliding out core sample)

BROWN: You can see here how rotten it is. So it's a low value for lumber, but it's a high value for wildlife.

(More clanking sounds, climbing up the tree)

FITZ PATRICK: Four years ago, Mr. Brown cut a 3-foot hole that opened up the tree's chimney-like interior. Now, he's climbing back to the opening to see what's inside.

BROWN (on radio): I think I see a squirrel up in here that just went into its nest in here.

(More clanking sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: The cavity is home to 2 squirrel nests. And the bark has numerous claw marks, a sign that bears have been investigating this tree as a future den for hibernation. The results were encouraging to the Forest Service's Lisa Norris.

NORRIS: I think it's very successful when we can come back and actually find critters there. That to me tells me it's a success as a technique, and we just need to expand the use of the technique.

FITZ PATRICK: American and Canadian officials have sponsored seminars where Tim Brown has taught his chainsaw techniques to unemployed loggers. His hope is that snag creation will one day become an important source of habitat restoration jobs in communities that once depended on cutting trees.

(Chainsaw starts up)

FITZ PATRICK: For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest near Seattle.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth