Losing the Forest for the Trees

A massive die-off of white fir unsettles a Southern Oregon mountain community.

A photo of a hillside covered in trees. About half are green, and half are reddish-brown and dying.

Juliet Grable

We share with several neighbors an informal trail system behind our forested properties. One morning last June—my favorite time in the Greensprings—I was walking these trails with my friend and neighbor Cindy. The dogs trotted ahead as we traversed an enormous log that has become part of the trail. Over the years our feet have chewed away at it, sending cascades of punky red cellulose down its sides.

The sky was blue—it was too early in the season for wildfire smoke—and the sun was coaxing earthy scents out of the forest.

“It smells so good!” Cindy exclaimed, inhaling deeply.

“It really does,” I said, but I secretly wondered. We were walking under a canopy of fir trees, half of which were dead or dying. I’d caught this cloying scent, sweet as death, more than once. Was it the odor of trees in distress, pushing pitch toward the bark in a vain attempt to thwart beetles?

Conifers are dying en masse in the Greensprings. By now I recognize the early signs: a kind of pallor to the foliage; sometimes a trunk streaked with sap. The tip of the crown reddens, and that’s it: the entire tree flags, the needles turning from green to red-brown in a matter of weeks. Wherever I walk I scan the canopy for new victims—call it a morbid preoccupation.

On a day so sublime, it was easy to forget the drought of the past few years, the anxiety of fire season, the smoke-choked skies. But the trees are still suffering, and all of us who live here are still dealing with it.

The Greensprings is a rural mountain community in Southern Oregon, about twenty miles east of Ashland. Most of the residences are arrayed along Highway 66, which shadows an old stagecoach route. Unless you were looking closely, you probably wouldn’t guess so many homes are nestled among the conifers. 

We all live within the borders of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Designated by President Clinton in 2000, the monument is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Much of it was logged in the past century. In the late 1920s, the Henry Lumber Company built a mill town called Lincoln and set about turning centuries-old sugar pines into board feet. At some point, the company began selling off parcels of five to ten acres, and in the mid-1970s, a cadre of idealistic young Christian educators purchased the Lincoln mill site and turned it into a college extension campus that still hosts students every fall. Other emigrants arrived around the same time: hippies, homesteaders, Vietnam veterans, and others seeking to carve out a life in a secluded eddy outside of the mainstream. Communes and churches sprang up. Today’s Greenspringers cover the spectrum from liberal to libertarian, with a shared stubbornness that often transcends politics—although events both within the community and without occasionally pry open our inherent divisions. 

We reside in a collection of eccentric compounds, many of them built by the original homesteaders in the 1970s and ’80s and cobbled onto and remodeled in subsequent decades. Outbuildings abound. Many, including my own, are works in progress.  

My husband, Brint, and I purchased our skinny rectangle of the Greensprings in 2014. Its forest bears the mark of the Henry Company’s legacy: rotting ziggurats that were once massive stumps, and one lovely mature sugar pine. Here and elsewhere, other trees have grown in the absence of fire—Douglas fir, incense cedar, ponderosa pine, and especially white fir. Most of the trees are eighty years old or younger.

In the 1990s, after a landowner cut down an enormous sugar pine right next to the highway, a community organization called Friends of the Greensprings raised enough money to purchase nine individual trees from private property owners to ensure they would never be felled. Each tree has its own deed, and the sale price for each was based on the estimated value of its lumber. Not all of the sugar pines along the highway are protected, including one that graces the road just a quarter mile west of us. Last year a drunk or reckless driver slammed into it, shearing off a windshield-sized chunk of bark. 

We all treasure the old sugar pines, with their impossibly straight trunks, delicate silver-gray needles, and enormous, pendulous cones. The poor white fir seems vulgar in comparison. Vigorous seedlings colonize sunny patches. Jammed against neighbors, it grows gangly, puny-crowned. Sometimes, seemingly healthy trees abruptly fall over, their roots shearing off at ground level. Our neighbor Cam told me this is a sign of laminated root rot, which is caused by a fungus. A tree infected with root rot is more vulnerable to invasion by beetles. Drought stress makes both afflictions worse.

We all burn white fir because we all have it. Fresh-cut rounds are heavy and sopping wet: loggers call it “piss fir” because of its propensity to squirt water at you when you bite into it with a chain saw. If you’ve heard the adage about wood warming you twice when you chop it yourself, white fir warms you thrice. It may not put out many BTUs, but you’ll work up a sweat running back and forth between the woodpile and the stove.

Recently, the white firs have become a paradoxical problem. They are here in such density because fire has been absent, and now that so many of them are dying, they are fueling the risk of catastrophic wildfire. 


Before we moved to the Greensprings, I’d never owned rural property. Brint had. As we quickly learned, Greenspringers are an opinionated bunch. The myriad views on how to best steward the forest fall into three general groups: On one end are those who believe we’ve done enough damage and should step aside and let the forest rewild itself. In the middle are those who argue that we’ve messed up the forest and therefore have an obligation to fix it through sound management. Finally, there are those who believe that if we hadn’t stopped logging in the first place, we would never have gotten into this mess. 

Over the years, I’ve asked for advice about how to manage my chunk of forest.

“If there’s a crown fire with high winds, there’s nothing we can do but run,” said Cam. He’s been burned out before, in Southern California.

“Dead trees are messy, but wildlife likes messy,” said our friend Charlie, who’s also the monument’s ecologist.

Steve, whose first job after moving to the Greensprings was to climb sugar pines and harvest their cones, advocated removing most of the white fir trees. “Take the chinquapin, too,” he advised. “It likes to burn.”

It can get confusing.

Many of our neighbors have won grants from the USDA to “treat” their properties with a variety of goals in mind: reducing the wildfire risk, creating wildlife habitat, improving the health of the forest. These projects generally involve hand crews who come in with chain saws, cutting small trees and shrubs, stacking the limbs and branches by hand into dozens of small piles, and burning them when it’s safe.

We started cautiously. I limbed trees, removing the dead bottommost branches with a polesaw, starting with the ones immediately around our house. Brint took down a few white firs every year, targeting dead trees and those in especially crowded stands.

Then, in 2020, the Labor Day fires torched off across Oregon. Our all-volunteer fire department was called down to the valley to help fight the Almeda fire, which ultimately destroyed more than 2,600 residences in Talent, Phoenix, and Medford. 

Brint and I were both volunteer firefighters at the time, so we went with the rest of our crew. After working the fire for more than twenty-four hours, we returned to the Greensprings, our hair and clothes suffused with acrid smoke, and our heads full of images we wanted to forget. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I went upstairs and stared at my computer screen until a buzzing sound broke my reverie. I ran outside and found my exhausted husband, grim-faced, attacking small trees and brush around our barn with his chain saw. 

I waved to get his attention.

“Stop,” I said. “You need to stop. We can do this later.” He stared at me, hollow-eyed.

The Almeda fire changed us: now we go into high alert during fire season. Around the same time, trees started dying at an alarming rate: large ones and small ones, lone trees and clusters—it didn’t seem to matter.

In early 2022, we hired a trusted local logger to thin out the white firs on our property. We wanted to promote the larger Douglas firs and pines, and we hoped that reducing competition for water would help them.

The weekend before the crew came, Brint and I walked our six and a half acres and marked trees—green ribbons for the ones we wanted to keep; blue spray paint for the ones we wanted to cut down. We bickered over strategy, over clumps of trees, over individual trees. Brint wanted to take out 70 to 80 percent of the white fir; I lobbied for a lighter touch.

“You know they’re all going to die,” he said.

“I don’t care,” I said. 

I worried that, even with the best intentions, we were making the wrong choice.

I worried what our neighbors, especially the ones who leaned toward rewilding, were going to think. 

We compromised, agreeing to leave the largest trees, dead and living, for wildlife, along with some denser clumps so it wouldn’t look like a tree plantation. We walked the property again with Pancho, our logger, and he marked the doomed trees with orange paint. The plan was to sell the merchantable logs to the mill, using the revenue to pay Pancho’s crew to clean up the slash.

For the next week, the usual quiet was supplanted by new sounds and rhythms: the chink! chink! chink! of the wedge driving into the cut; the pause before the fall; the whump-crash! of cellulose impacting earth; the busy buzz of chain saws lopping limbs.

After two days of felling, Pancho began running the masticator, riding the squat machine like a giant riding lawn mower. The spinning cutter shredded tree limbs and spat them out in a spray of mulch. 

Seven truckloads of logs went to the mill. Once the crew left for good, we walked the property again, slowly. There were no slash piles, nothing to burn. The non-merchantable logs and tops were left stacked neatly in piles next to our road. 

A few weeks later we learned that the mill had not paid as much for the logs as Pancho had expected. The operation paid for itself, but just barely.

Afterward, I oscillated between relief and remorse. I was glad we’d finally made a decision and acted on it, but on darker days, I ruminated: the stumps were ugly. Even with a layer of mulch, the ground looked raw. And trees were still dying.

At a women’s gathering, a neighbor, Carol, described her agony over the dying trees. She and her husband have a much larger property, and they too had hired a logger to thin their forest. They have a large deck piled with white fir logs that can’t be sold to any mill.

“It’s heartbreaking, really,” said Carol in her lilting Manx accent, while the rest of us nodded sympathetically. “But we felt we had to do it.”


A few years ago, utility company Pacific Power ramped up efforts to clear dead and dying trees in power-line easements. They’ve targeted the Greensprings as a high-risk area. For months, a battalion of orange trucks was staged at a nearby wayside. Crews moved from property to property; on ours, one year after our thinning project, they took another dozen trees. The crews lopped and piled the branches, but even so, the work left a huge mess. 

“White fir: it’s the new zucchini,” I joked on our community Facebook page, after yet another neighbor posted a picture of the logs they hoped to give away.

On a recent walk, Brint remarked, as he often does, how pleased he is with our thinning project. Last spring a bumper crop of morels pushed through the mulch, along with snowberry and lupine and Oregon grape. We’ve also had to remove hundreds of Canada thistle plants that are thriving in the disturbed ground.

Halfway down our road, Brint stopped to admire the deeply furrowed trunk of a large white fir—possibly the largest on our property.

“I hope we don’t lose this one,” he said.

“It’s already dead,” I said. We walked away from the trunk so we could crane our necks and see the tip of the canopy. It was brown.

Brint is right: most of the white firs on our little parcel are going to die. Same with our neighbors’ properties. The red-brown patches on the mountain flanks will keep expanding. 

Antler, bone, scat; frass, feather, flesh—the forest is a graveyard and a banquet, continually remaking itself. Cindy and I text each other pictures and share sightings when we see each other: “I heard the Western pygmy owl last night. I saw a coyote. The fritillary are coming up through the snow.”

Just a few years ago, the sight of so many dead and dying trees would have alarmed me. I’ve moved to acceptance, trying to think of the dying white firs as succession, the forest taking care of itself in the absence of fire. I’m trying to think of the word forest not as a collection of trees and shrubs and mice and mycelia, but as a verb, a process. 

In the last few years, when I walk through the forest in summer and hear the dry needles crackling under my feet, I experience, strangely, the forest’s thirst—not for water, but for fire. There’s one stand in particular, on public land just beyond our property line, where almost every tree has died. The snags keep falling; they lay stacked one on another like a jumble of toothpicks. I can almost viscerally experience the relief as I imagine flames, like a washing rain, consuming the duff and dead branches.

Fires used to occur here, on average, every thirty-five years, whether sparked by lightning or set purposefully by the people who lived here before us and before the idealistic teachers and the hippie back-to-the-landers and the Henry Lumber Company and the stagecoaches and wagons arrived. I like the idea of bringing fire to this forest deliberately. One way or another, it will find its way back. Whatever the forest here becomes, it won’t be a static thing. It never was.  


Land, Natural resources, Place, Home, Climate, Ecology, Nature


1 comments have been posted.

Nice job, Juliet. If the forest doesn't get fire the bugs and root rot move in, that is the natural progression in a fire dependent ecosystem. That's why we need to create zones in the forest where the threat to people is minimal and wildfires can be left to burn. Our obsession with fire as catastrophic is wrong in a fire dependent ecosystem and we must alter our relationship. Putting every fire out in fear is not the answer, and either is sending logging crews throughout the forest. We, as humans, have an extremely poor record of fixing ecological problems. Let's fix the underlying issue at a higher level and love fire and stop using fossil fuels.

Charles Schelz | January 2024 | Ashland

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