Our Forests

The greater Columbia River Gorge country – the rivers and peaks between Mount Adams and Mount Hood – boasts a wonderland of forests, not just with the amount of trees, but the kinds of forest communities. And while many people think of Douglas-fir (aka “red fir”) as the prime tree in the area, and they are both valuable and wide-spread, there are all sorts of forests here. Within a short drive, or sometimes even on a single hike, one can wander through tall, rain-drenched fir forests of the Cascade Mountains foothills, over streams shaded by alders, hemlocks and red-cedars, and across rocky slopes with maples and ponderosa pine.

In terms of wildlife habitat, the humble oak tree is the star, supporting more than 400 species of birds, mammals and insects. There is a single species of native oak tree here, Quercus garryana, variably called white oak, scrub oak, Oregon oak and Garry oak. On rocky thin soils, it often grows in elfin rings or small, twisty-limbed patches hunched against the wind. On bottomlands where there is deeper soil and more water, even in dry locales like The Dalles, the same oaks grow large, spreading their limbs out in graceful umbrellas. Dropping these limbs under loads of ice or wind yields cavities, where all owls, squirrels, bobcats and all manner of other animals make homes. The Oregon oak lives in the Willamette and Puget Sound valleys, and through the Gorge – even in the middle of the Cascade Mountains, for example, on steep ledgey canyon slopes of the lower Wind River.

The graphic to the left shows the dominant forest communities in the greater Columbia Gorge.

Forest Ecology

Besides displaying the area’s biodiversity, the graph above illustrates a truth: All native, wild species grow in particular places, where they are most competitive. Some trees that have been denigrated are less commercially valuable, true, but grow where they do because they are successful and adapted to it. Those grand fir in the understory, or the twisty vine maple that can grow dense and treacherous to off-trail travel? They have been inconvenient at times, but they’re survivors bred over long, long times.

Forests are communities. Like human communities, they have different members, who are sometimes in conflicts or competition and sometimes live in harmony. And much of these interactions are still sort of mysterious to us. There are different layers of life and canopies, too.
Forests can generally be thought to have several layers: A root layer or rhizosphere in the soil; the flowers, grasses and vines at ground level; a shrubs layer (think of tall Oregon grape or salal, hazel and hawthorn bushes, etc.); an understory canopy, of immature trees and species adapted to lower light conditions, such as Pacific dogwood; and the over-story canopy: those tall Douglas-fir or ponderosa pines towering over all. How vigorous each layer is depends on the forest’s history and condition, its soil and water and light, whether it’s been logged recently or a long time ago or never, the slope where it grows, and other factors. A forested area next to a Cascades stream won’t look the same as one high on the slopes of Mount Adams!

Getting to know a handful of native trees and shrubs is a great idea: It’s so much more rewarding to recognize a stand of western red-cedar, say, than to simply see a mass of greenery. The local chapters of the Washington Native Plant Society and Native Plant Society of Oregon put on monthly meetings and occasional programs that might be of interest and are a great way to meet other native plant enthusiasts. Several useful books are also available to help you identify our local flora--Trees to Know In Oregon, from Oregon State University Extension,gorge-forest-columbia-river-gorge is a full-color guide  to both native and ornamental trees in our area.  A similarly helpful title is Shrubs to Know in Pacific Northwest Forests, by the same author and also full-color.  A good free guide is Trees of Washington, published by Washington State University Extension, and available as a .pdf file.  UCD also has many native plant books available for reference in the office, please stop by if you have an identification question!


Forests are dynamic places, full of life and changing conditions as the ecological communities respond to fire, landslides and other disturbances. Much of our natural wealth is built on these forest communities, from the standing wealth of commercial forests to the saturation of precipitation that stores clean water. The wildlife around us, too, depends on these communities. The iconic steelhead and salmon of our streams, even. Yes: Fish need trees. Streamside trees shade and cool the water; their roots hold streambanks together; their leaves and litter form the basis of the aquatic food-web; and when a tree falls into the water, the log provides cover to juvenile fish and hydraulic habitat in the form of pools, which are very important to wild fish. If you own streamside land, one of the best things you can do for the ecosystem is leave the trees to grow, and eventually fall in. In past decades, land managers were encouraged to “clean up” streams, but we know now that fish need trees and logs in the streams.

This forest diversity – of tree communities, streams and wildlife – can seem messy to human eyes. For wildlife, messiness generally means food and shelter.  It’s this messiness that provides niches for many different organisms to live and thrive. Keeping forest diversity intact, and where possible connected in big wild patches, is important today, and will become even more important in coming decades. No one is certain how forest communities will adapt to drier, warmer conditions in the changing climate. We have all seen trees under stress from the recent years of drought. It may be that this stress and loss of trees around us is a pattern of conditions to come.

Wildfires and Firewise

Wildfires are often described as devastating, consuming, and destructive. And although they can be destructive to our homes when we build in forested rural areas, wildfire is also a naturally occurring aspect of healthy forests. Northwest forests need occasional patchy wildfires for health and wildlife habitat, as often as every decade or two on east-side pine and oak stands, and more like every couple centuries in wetter west-side forests of fir and hemlock. Indeed, state, federal and private foresters mostly agree that overstocked forests and decades of fire-suppression have created unhealthy forest conditions.

How can you balance living where the houses meet the trees (often called the Wildland-Urban Interface, or WUI) with wildfire hazard reduction? The answer is not to be scared of wildfire, but to live with it wisely – to be Firewise.


For people who live in rural areas, east-side or west, Firewise means:

Be aware. Wildfire, to some degree, is inevitable, as well as sometimes destructive to human habitations. Fire’s not something that happens in other places – they scorch grasslands, forest stands and private property here in the greater Columbia Gorge / Mount Adams country, too. 

Be prepared. Learn how to reduce wildfire hazards around your rural home. Basic ideas include pushing back vegetation 30-plus feet from your house and other structures; spacing trees (especially pines and firs) within about 100 feet of your structures and limbing them 8-12 feet off the ground; replacing fire-prone vegetation (such as arbor vitae and juniper bushes) with fire-resistant landscaping; and, keeping an easily-navigable entry and exit to your property. A great set of recommendations can be found here http://www.firewise.org/wildfire-preparedness/be-firewise/home-and-landscape.aspx

One step at a time. Being Firewise is both an awareness and a work in progress. Make a list of priority needs to reduce wildfire hazards to your rural home and work through it over time. Need another set of eyes on your home to identify these steps? Contact UCD for a free wildfire home hazard assessment. Call 509-493-1936, or email fire@ucdwa.org. Click here to read about this and other Firewise services from UCD.

Your Forests

Figuring out how to live in or with the forest can be challenging, but also very rewarding. There are a few big ideas worth keeping in mind for those folks managing family forests:

1) Know your forest – What do you have on your land? Spend some time, learn your community, get some advice.

2) Articulate clear goals – Consider, and write down, what it is you want from your forest in specific terms. What are you hoping to achieve in five years? In 30? Do you want to be able to collect firewood every year? Improve wildlife habitat? Re-plant harvested acreage? Enjoy a trail system around the property?

3) Make a plan to get there – Be specific. Draw maps; set out actions for the next two, five, ten years. Remember that actions aren’t goals, but how we achieve our goals.

Does your list of chores and projects to reach your goals seem overwhelming? Not to worry! There is an abundance of resources for people with family forests. These resources can help you investigate your property’s forest conditions and make long-term plans to achieve your goals.

Resources For Family Forest Landowners

Underwood Conservation District (email: info@ucdwa.org; phone: 509-493-1936). UCD technicians can visit with you at your non-commercial forestland, at your request, and offer another pair of eyes and some advice. This free, no-obligation visit to landowners in western Klickitat and Skamania Counties is part of our mission to help people conserve and thoughtfully use their natural resources. UCD also offers cost-share, conservation-planning, and other free services to local landowners. If you have fewer than 10 acres of forestland, UCD is probably the best fit for local hands-on advice. (Larger properties are fine, too! In fact, if you have large forest acreage, UCD can help you navigate other potential resources, such as the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Washington Department of Natural Resources (WA DNR) programs.)

Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Another source of forestry experience, DNR foresters have grant programs and advice for landowners. If you have more than 10 acres of forestland, a DNR forest visit is probably a good idea for you! In western Klickitat or Skamania County, DNR stewardship forester Jesse Calkins is your contact. Reach him by email: jesse.calkins@dnr.wa.gov, or by phone: 509-493-3218.

Washington State University (WSU) Extension Forestry program. The Extension service brings academic research and technical knowledge from the university to the public. WSU Extension employees include foresters and specialists for the state. For a list of contacts, click here: http://cru.cahe.wsu.edu/CEPublications/FS043E/FS043E.pdf

Western Farm Forestry Association (WFFA). There’s an active chapter (the Mount Adams chapter) of friendly, knowledgeable people who own noncommercial forests in this area. The chapter holds meetings, workshops and site visits for forest landowners in the greater Columbia Gorge area. Email: wffamtadamschapter@hughes.net



• This online booklet from Washington State University Extension is a great resource, touching on all the facets of your forest management: “Backyard Forest Stewardship in Western Washington”: https://pubs.wsu.edu/ItemDetail.aspx?ProductID=15429

• A good overview web site, with many helpful tips, is Oregon State University’s “Know Your Forest” web site: http://knowyourforest.org/learning-library/forest-management-planning

• The Department of Natural Resources (the state’s forestry agency) has a Small Forest Landowner Office with links to various resources. Subscribe to their monthly newsletter for a range of small-forest articles and tips. You can sign up on their website: http://www.dnr.wa.gov/sflo

• Similarly, the WSU Extension has a small-forest website, with a large collection of very useful brochures, booklets and more: http://forestry.wsu.edu/resources/

• WSU forestry coached planning online. This may be the single most useful thing a small-forest landowner could do. This well-structured, online class involves a good deal of learning about your forest from the ground up. Over 8 weeks, you’ll receive information and guidance from experienced state foresters and biologists, and create your own Forest Stewardship Plan. To get the most out of this course, plan to spend several hours a week outside of the 3-hr class time. View their website for more information: http://forestry.wsu.edu/nps/events/cponline/



• If you’re planning a commercial harvest – that is, logging more than about one log-truck load – you must contact the Washington Department of Natural Resources and follow the Forest Practices rules. Visit their website for more information:  http://www.dnr.wa.gov/programs-and-services/forest-practices. For a local (Husum, WA) DNR contact, phone 509-493-3218. You’ll also find a number of good resources on the WSU Extension website relating to harvesting and managing your own timber sale: http://forestry.wsu.edu/resources/#harvest