CEDAR FLATS RESEARCH NATURAL AREA, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Skamania County — Perhaps it was destiny that one of the world’s premier authorities on old-growth forest ecosystems would be Jerry Franklin, whose middle name is Forest.

Retired UW professor Jerry Franklin takes in the old-growth giants on the nature trail loop at Cedar Flats Research Natural Area. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
The benefits — to us, and to nature — of forging a friendship with our forests

Franklin was among the first to discover the unique ecological value of old-growth trees, and forest ecosystems. He also was among a team of scientists whose work led to the protection of millions of acres of old growth on federal land in Washington, Oregon and Northern California with implementation of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994.

Big, old trees used to be preferentially cut by the U.S. Forest Service on public lands, to feed a booming housing market in the post-WWII years. Foresters wanted to get rid of deep, dark, dank, decadent old-growth forests, to make room for thrifty young stands: Such was the thinking as recently as a generation ago, Franklin recounts.

“If you were to ask a scientist in 1960, you know: ‘Tell me something about an old-growth forest,’ they wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything,” Franklin says. “We knew how to cut it down. But we didn’t know anything about it.”

But that, marvelously, was just the invitation that Franklin, now 84, needed for a lifelong adventure of scientific inquiry, still underway.


“We didn’t think we were going to save it,” he says, reflecting on those early days in the 1970s of research on old-growth forests culminating in the foundational paper published in 1981 called “Ecological characteristics of old-growth Douglas fir forests,” on which he was the lead author.

“We thought we were going to cut it all, except what was in parks and wilderness areas. That’s what foresters thought they ought to do. So what we were going to do was document it before it was all gone.”

An old tree, this research revealed, isn’t just a bigger version of a young tree, any more than an old person is just a bigger kid. Like any elder, a venerable old tree’s characteristics show its life story. The attributes and gifts of old trees, in the communities they create and sustain, are fully attained only at great age.

This pathbreaking science converged in the 1970s with a time in the nation when Congress and the public favored sweeping legislation to protect the natural environment, from the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the Clean Air Act and National Environmental Policy Act, to passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Forest Management Act.  

“We were in the right place at the right time with the scientific information that was needed,” says Franklin in an interview by a wood stove ticking with heat at his cabin at Government Mineral Springs by Trapper Creek. “And the outcome was, we’re going to stop cutting these old forests.”

Born of litigation over the spotted owl, the Northwest Forest Plan of 1994 was one of the most sweeping changes to forest management in the world and the largest shift in management focus in the national forests in the Pacific Northwest since their creation more than a century ago. Instead of management to provide a steady yield of lumber on these lands, the goal became conservation of biodiversity, with an emphasis on protecting endangered species, and sustaining and restoring older forests and their species.


The plan was always about more than just the spotted owl (which has continued to decline, in part because of competition from the invasive barred owl). It also was intended to be a permanent solution to live up to the requirements of the ESA not only for owls, but wild Chinook salmon and steelhead stocks, marbled murrelets, and other species also at risk.

The plan affected 24 million acres of federal forest from Washington to Northern California. Most clear-cutting on federal lands ceased by the mid-1990s, and since 1994, federal timber harvest levels have been chopped down by 98% in Washington state, and 80% across the three-state region.

Just how radical this decision was can be understood with a look north, as British Columbia continues to cut the last of its old growth just across the Washington border.

Most of British Columbia’s old-growth forests of big trees live only on maps, and what’s left on the ground is fast disappearing.

HERE IN WASHINGTON, the last grand trees still whisper their long stories in winds winding through embowered forestlands, some of the most productive on Earth, and home to assemblages of species found nowhere else.

In the Gifford Pinchot National Forest is a remnant of the ancient forests that used to blanket this landscape in the western Cascades. Cedar Flats Research Natural Area in Skamania County graces the valley bottom benches of the Muddy Fork of the Lewis River, which winds through the southwestern Washington Cascade Range. This island of old growth in a sea of clear-cuts and industrial forest plantations was set aside back in 1946 as a preserve and living laboratory.


The forest is a 680-acre trip back in time.

Mammoth old-growth Western red cedar, Douglas firs and Western hemlock are the dominant species here, where 600- to 800-year-old trees keep company with lush swamps and marshes.

Vine maples twine through the understory that in spring is spangled with trillium and carpeted with vanilla leaf, a native perennial forest herb named for its sweet scent when dried. Sword ferns wide and soft as a mattress, and trees with trunks nearly 10 feet around, are an invitation to wonder.

On a recent visit, the sun filtered in aqueous light through the canopy and threw gold shafts between massive trunks. There was a mushroomy scent to the air, rising from deep forest duff. Only the sound of a raven’s wings sliced the velvety quiet.

The oldest trees had complex, broken, snaggletoothed tops, from centuries in the weather. Broad, wide branches were just perfect as nesting platforms for birds. Deep and shadowy cavities beckoned as hidey-holes for everything from bats to birds to squirrels.

Some venerable trees were still alive, though their trunks were hollowed to a room-size cavernous tuck-away, just perfect for a sleeping bear. Spiders — great protein for birds — ballooned on shining silk wisps.

This is the forest that Franklin used as an outdoor classroom for generations of students at the University of Washington. He walked a path of soft forest duff through the forest to trees he knows as individuals, from years of long acquaintance and deep sense memories.


Here is where he inadvertently startled a band of slumbering Roosevelt elk, one of his biggest scares in the woods, as the animals stampeded and he scrambled up a hemlock to keep from getting stomped. There where the sound of a sudden avalanche of bark shedding from a towering Douglas fir made the ground shake, scaring Franklin witless.

“I went ass over teakettle. All I could think of is, ‘It’s Sasquatch; she’s got me,’ ” says Franklin, remembering the incredible crashing boom and big whoosh of air as the tree let loose about a half ton of bark.

But mostly, Cedar Flats for him has long been a place of quiet discovery. Franklin kneels to show the tiny face of a calypso orchid, just then coming into bloom. To watch him in the forest is to see delight resurface in someone who first became himself in the woods, the place he felt most comfortable.

“I think I viewed trees as my friends,” Franklin says. “I was very slow to mature; I didn’t have a lot of friends. I spent a lot of time in the woods, learning to listen.” His dad taught him as a kid to lie down in the trail, look up in the canopy and notice how various tree species made different sounds in the wind.

FRANKLIN GREW UP a pulp-mill kid in Camas. His father worked in the mill, and it wasn’t until the family finally had enough money to buy a car that Franklin discovered the wonder of forests, on family camping trips. Seeing a forest ranger, he thought, ‘You can actually get a job working in the woods,’ Franklin recalled in an oral history for Oregon State University done with Fred Swanson.

He confided his dream to a friend who quickly set him straight, saying, “You’re gonna be like all the rest of us and work in a paper mill the rest of our lives,” Franklin told Swanson.


And indeed he did work in the mill — to pay for college.

Franklin went to junior college at Clark College in Vancouver, and during his freshman year, he could earn $2 an hour at the paper mill — good money. Suddenly, he had enough to go to a four-year school, and he decided to enroll at Washington State University.

After spending his sophomore year drinking and carousing, “I realized, at the end of that year, that wasn’t really going to get me where I wanted to be,” Franklin says.

The next year, he signed up at Oregon State in the School of Forestry — the only forestry school approved by the Society of American Foresters in the United States that didn’t require summer camp. That was crucial to Franklin, who still had to work every summer to earn the money to stay in school.

He came out of forestry school during a time of colossal timber harvests from federal lands, as the Forest Service upped the cut to slake demand for housing for soldiers returned from WW II. This is the cutting that eventually resulted in the conflict between the federal government’s timber sale program and the environmentalists: the timber wars.

This conflict also was the cutting edge where Franklin’s research found its purpose. A purpose that he had pledged to the trees, long before.


He was maybe 13 or 14 years old, Franklin recalls, playing by himself in the woods one day, when he realized the forest was being pushed back and back by development, with trees cut down and housing being built.

“And that troubled me, what was happening to it,” Franklin says, recalling the moment his direction in life was set. “And so I stood up and said, essentially, that what I’m going to do is, I’m going to spend my life doing whatever I can to cut the best deal I can for forests and trees in a world dominated by human beings.

“Now, I wasn’t that sophisticated when I stood up in the woods and said it … it was something along the lines of, ‘I’m going to do whatever I can. And I don’t know how much that will be. But that’s what I’m going to do.’ And I said it out loud. That always makes a difference to me when you say things out loud. Even though there were only the trees to hear it. I declared myself.”

Franklin’s long career spanned work as research forester and chief plant ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service; director of the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Blue River, Oregon; and a longtime professor at the University of Washington.

Throughout his career, he has returned to check in with a circle of old-growth firs near his cabin, not far from Cedar Flats.

“I always come back to here to report. To be accountable. About what I did. It was always important to me that what I did was consistent with that commitment. And not done for some reason of ego … It always helped me to make the right decision about things. It’s very easy for ego to take over.”


Especially when you’ve become nationally known as the Guru of Old Growth.

HOME TO SPECIES that grow so big, like Douglas fir, that also are so long-lived, the forests of the Pacific Northwest can be productive not only for 100 years, but for centuries. And they produce dead and downed wood that also persists for centuries, building incredible accumulations of organic matter on the forest floor.

The result, as Douglas firs and red cedars abide for centuries, and hemlock cranks through life cycles of 100 to 150 years, is a very stable system that is a Fort Knox of carbon.

Today, most people, including professional foresters, accept the reality that old-growth forests have value.

“Cutting them down and replacing them with plantations is not a useful thing to do, from almost any standpoint, including carbon sequestration,” Franklin says. “These plantations that we’ve created are not good things from a climate point of view.”

For, while young trees grow faster, the sheer size of old trees means they sock away more carbon than a smaller tree as they continue to grow. Douglas fir is just hitting its stride at 40 and 50 years old — right at the time when industrial forest lands are typically logged.


In his most recent book, “Ecological Forest Management,” Franklin and his co-authors advocate active management of forests, including logging of lands where the original natural forest already has been cut. But even there, logging needs to be done with ecological values in mind, Franklin says. Managed forests should be grown longer with some of the trees, and downed logs and snags also retained to keep the complex elements of a real forest.

The forests should never be stripped, as is done on industrial forests. Those are typically clear-cut, then sprayed with pesticide, and another round of trees planted — all the same species and age class, on land from which the understory has been eliminated. The result is not a forest, but a crop.

Franklin also advocates that older, natural forests should be preserved everywhere they still exist.

These are the forests that are most resistant and resilient and able to recover from drought, fire, insect attack, and intensified winds and storms in a warming climate. “These trees have capabilities young trees don’t have,” Franklin says. Older trees have had a chance to develop deeper, more robust roots.

Old trees also are interconnected through grafted roots and mycorrhizal fungi, forming a community that has been interacting and collaborating for centuries.

“They function not as individuals but as networks,” Franklin says.

While old trees and forest ecosystems are unique, Franklin emphasizes that all parts of natural forests matter. Not only the big old trees, but the open patches, the new young growth, the canopy and understory, the dead and downed wood, and the soil.

The task now is for people to take their cue from the brilliance of the natural system that is a forest and learn to work with it, Franklin says. Even be mentored by it.

“I tend to think of it very much as a partnership, a collaboration, rather than something that we can just manipulate and do whatever we damn well please with.

“It has to do with humility.”