From the Field

Checkerboard: Putting Western Forest Pieces Back Together

December 3, 2014

The checkerboard improves recreational access -- and also has profound effects on wildlife connectivity. Photo: © Steven Gnam

A checkered past still limits forest management in the West today.

Last month The Nature Conservancy announced the purchase of 165,000 acres from Plum Creek Timber Company in the eastern Cascade Mountain Range of Washington and in the Blackfoot River Valley in Montana. The purchase was one of the largest forest acquisition projects ever undertaken by a conservation group.

Buying clearcuts for conservation is not new. But the scale and scatter of parcels included in this land deal is unprecedented.

A lot of the media attention has deservedly focused on improved recreational access to public lands. That is important to me and many people who live here in these states, and beyond.

It is a success worth celebrating.

But the foundation of this purchase is also based in rigorous science. The “checkerboard” of lands plays a key role in wildlife connectivity and forest health.

To really understand why a conservation group would buy this particular scattering of lands, you need to know a bit of history.

More than a hundred years ago, Congress made a decision — a decision that seemed logical enough at the time, but still has serious limitations on forest management and wildlife today.

An aerial view shows the legacy of the checkerboard: patches of cut and replanted forest. Photo: © Benjamin Drummond
An aerial view shows the legacy of the checkerboard: patches of cut and replanted forest. Photo: © BenjDrummond/LightHawk

History: A Legacy of the Railroad

Go west young man, go west.

This effectively became a mantra for 19th century America; the pioneer lure and promise of the gold rush in California drew many a young man and families to the West.

Getting there, however, was no small challenge as it could take months to make the journey. The transcontinental railroad completed in 1869 changed all that, making travel time possible in less than a week.

Building the railroad no doubt revolutionized settlement of the West, but the manner in which the railroad was funded has left a permanent legacy on the landscape – a checkerboard pattern of alternating public and private ownership clearly visible on Google earth images today.

Under the Union Pacific Act of 1862, Congress granted every other section along the railroad – in one square mile blocks — to Union Pacific and retained the alternate sections as federal government lands.

The prevailing thought at the time was that the railroad itself would greatly increase the value of the lands over time, and the government lands could be sold at a later date for profit.

While this model had worked well in the East, it proved less than profitable in the semi-arid rangelands of the West.

Over time, the railroad company sold many of its sections to timber companies, including Plum Creek Timber Company (itself a direct descendant of the Great Northern Railroad).

Timber company lands have often been managed for maximum yield which generally involves clear cut harvests of the maximum size permissible by law (size laws vary by state, though some states like Montana have no limits).

Meanwhile, adjacent and intermixed federal parcels are intended to be managed jointly for timber and wildlife uses, and at least provide a greater level of protection for endangered species under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Fast forward a century: timber prices have fallen and these private forest lands are now often managed for the “higher and better use” of rural residential and commercial development.

Of late, as timber lands have become less economically viable and forest landowners are looking for new sources of revenues. That has often meant selling them to developers.

Many of these one-square mile parcels on the checkerboard now offer a potential dream home in the woods, especially those parcels easily accessible to a major city like Seattle.

But development here comes with a steep public price tag.

As forest fires have ravaged these landscapes in recent years, protecting rural homes intermixed with forest lands is complex and extremely expensive. For recreational enthusiasts from hikers to hunters, it can turn a routine trip to public lands into a confusing quagmire.

The Great Western Checkerboards Project preserves recreational access and helps conserve the ecological integrity of 165,073 acres in Washington and Montana. Photo: © 2014 John F Marshall

Science: Navigating the Checkerboard

And then there’s wildlife.

To understand the checkerboard effect on wildlife, consider this: if you were to walk in a straight line through these checkered woods you would cross a stark boundary between bright and open harvested parcels and darker forested parcels roughly every 20 minutes.

If you were a wide-roaming grizzly bear whose range requires up to 500 square miles, you’d be crossing these stark boundaries on a regular basis.

And if you were a Northern Spotted Owl, you’d simply avoid most of the checkerboard altogether, as you prefer only the densest of old growth stands, and edge habitat is where your toughest competitor, the adaptable and even invasive Barred Owl, excels.

Perhaps no species can elicit a beet-red face in a forester quite like a Northern Spotted Owl.

And rightfully so; despite decades of effort and controversy, little progress has been made in recovery of the species – at least on the East Side of the Cascade Mountains.

The checkerboard pattern, in a fire-prone landscape, has simply become a nightmare for forest managers tasked with sustaining forest resources like the spotted owls.

Traditionally, forest managers develop stand management plans for old-growth reserves that protect the best of the owl habitat and oldest of the trees. However, the futility of this approach – the idea that you can draw a line around a piece of prime forest and expect it to stay that way — is especially evident after the last few extreme fires years across the West.

One of the unintended consequences of setting aside reserves is that these often are the stands with the highest fuel levels and consequently the most likely to burn with high severity during a wildfire.

It’s a delicate balance but as forest managers look towards a future with even higher fire risk, it’s clear a more dynamic approach to forest management is needed.

Forestry science has evolved with the emergence of the landscape and disturbance ecology fields. The science now suggests that the best (perhaps the only) way to sustain forest resources is to allow for a “shifting mosaic” of habitats, essentially allowing forests to act as small groups of hyperactive teenagers that each need room to roam and co-mingle.

While trees may be stationary, dry side forests are disturbance-driven and incredibly dynamic. Therefore, the shifting mosaic approach to forest management requires a large landscape perspective; it’s functionally impossible in a forest landscape checkered with federal and private landowners.

After almost 30 years working for the Forest Service, Bill Gaines is one who knows all too well the challenge of managing forest in a fragmented landscape.

Gaines is part of a new guard of conservationists and land managers pushing hard for big landscapes, who think working in chopped-up little parcels and reserves just doesn’t add up.

Wildfires have burned through these areas in recent years offering a stark reminder that you can’t protect isolated parts of the landscape.

“Certainly the legacy of multiple ownership checkerboard creates a tremendous challenge for managing these fire-prone landscapes,” says Gaines, “But there’s a real recognition now that we can’t just do conservation or create resilient landscapes within the boundaries of the federal lands; everyone has a stake in that. Fires jump those property boundaries, and species cross those boundaries. If we want to create resilient landscapes we really need to figure out a way to stitch these landscapes back together.”

The purchase of 165,000 acres of checkerboard lands for conservation last month represents a major step in this new direction of managing big forest landscapes.

Whether it’s possible to restore these fragmented landscapes and create fire resilient forests, is yet to be determined.

But while the mega-fires the last few years are still fresh in our minds, it’s clear we need to fix the problems of our checkered past if we are going to sustain forest health into the future.

The recent forest checkerboard acquisitions in Washington.
The recent forest checkerboard acquisitions in Washington.

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  1. Your land history is askew.

    Before Plum Creek’s recent acquisition by Weyerhauser, it was the largest landholder in America.
    Why? Because it was the direct legal, corporate descendant of the Northern Pacific Railway.
    The Northern Pacific – not the Great Northern – was the largest railroad land grant recipient.
    (The Great Northern was built without federal land grants.)

    Your article states that the railroad sold the lands to Plum Creek. No.
    Plumb Creek was a recent spin-off from the merged Burlington Northern in 1989.
    The mismanagement, corruption, and speculation of the Northern Pacific Railway – with the land grant asset chief among these – led to the Panic of 1873 which was the worst depression prior to the 1930s.

    Plum Creek – now under Weyerhauser – is not some benign forest products corporation.
    Plum Creek represents the theft of public resources and its repercussions a century later.
    I am glad that the Nature Conservancy purchased these lands, but the underlying history –
    is sad.