If you are a regular visitor to Walton Lake in the Ochoco Mountains east of Prineville, prepare yourself for dramatic changes in the landscape. A restoration project is removing thousands of trees for the sake of public safety.
The first phase of the Walton Lake Restoration Project was removal of all the Douglas and grand fir trees from the southern and eastern slopes above the lake. The trees were removed because they were infected with laminated root rot, a disease that weakens trees, making them susceptible to falling without warning.
The proof can be seen in the center of a fresh cut stump, where I fully extended my arm through a hole that shouldn’t be there.
“What you are seeing is the visual expression of the root disease,” said Amy Lowe, an Ochoco National Forest forester. “It’s really affecting the structure of this tree. It’s really evident by the size of this hole and has more of that straw that you’ve been seeing in the area. It’s delaminating. It’s pulling apart. It can be pretty dangerous in an area where we are recreating and asking people to gather. Maybe even a visually healthy-looking tree, once you cut it down, shows some pretty dramatic evidence of not being structurally sound.”
In developed recreation areas where the public gathers, the forest service is authorized to remove hazard trees that might fall and hit people or campground facilities. At Walton Lake, where so many trees are infected with root rot, a proactive treatment known as “sanitation harvest” was deemed necessary.
“I have thought often of the people who’ve been coming up here for two or three decades with their family. Maybe this is their Fourth of July spot. They are going to come around that corner. They are going to feel like this is a completely different forest. Frankly, they might have a moment of shock or grief,” said Kassidy Kern, Ochoco National Forest public information officer. “We all love these places, and we love them in very personal ways that may look like family memories. We recognize that this is going to change that for you.”
The 40 acres where all the fir trees were removed will be replanted with pondersa pine and western larch saplings, as well as native bushes and shrubs that are resistant to the effects of laminated root rot. The restoration should be finished in time for the campgrounds to open next summer.
“Keep in mind, you are coming into a changed condition. You might need to bring more shade whereas before you might rely on it,” Kern said. “I feel so much more comfortable bringing my family up here now that we have done this work because we have minimized what we knew was a risk. That’s going to help people have a better experience.”
Environmental activists criticized the sanitation harvest as an excuse for timber companies to cut trees, but most of the tree were so rotten they weren’t commercially viable. The vast majority of the cut trees ended up in a log deck in the Walton Lake Sno Park. They will be ground into wood chips and used as paper pulp or fuel.
“You can start with a log like this,” Lowe said. “It looks like it should have some merchantability factor. We should be able to use this for saw timber. But if you come closer, you can see some rot in this area. This is starting to pull away and looking like it is starting to delaminate, which over time will look more like this.”
With little effort, Lowe pulled the core out of the center of the log. What should be the strongest part of the log had the consistency of spaghetti.
“There’s nothing holding it together. All of the wood in this deck is not able to be used for saw timber at the local mill.”
There will be additional thinning of trees within the campgrounds and closer to the shores of Walton Lake. The second phase work will be performed by loggers on foot with chainsaws to reduce impacts on public facilities. The loggers will be looking up for dead branches and conks, indicators that a tree is riddled with fungus, and so should you when visiting places where root rot exists.
“If you are walking out in the forest or sitting at a lunch spot, look up and see if the tree you are sitting under has these. All of these are signs of decay on the inside of this tree,” Kern said. “All the trees we have been looking at, the insides are just straw. So, if you are in a place that has some wind, you are at risk of failure. Same thing if you park your $50,000 pickup underneath something like this. That’s where we get to a point of critical failures.”
Lowe described the restoration project as a thoughtful process in the name of safety.
“This is a very important spot on the Ochoco National Forest. We ask people to come recreate here. It’s a beautiful area. It will continue to be a beautiful area, just in a different way. I hope people know they can come back and still create the memories here and just do it in a safe way now that we’ve treated what we need to on this landscape.”