The Wind River Canopy Crane fell silent May 27, after 16 years of ferrying scientists into the forest canopy of the Wind River Experimental Forest north of Carson, Skamania County, in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, a casualty of the cost of operating and maintaining the crane and declining interest in canopy research.
WIND RIVER EXPERIMENTAL FOREST, Skamania County — Suspended from the arm of a construction crane in a bright yellow gondola, to which we are securely attached with climbing harnesses, we rise swiftly from the ground, leaving the dark, moist forest floor behind.
“We’re down here in a nice, cool, verdant forest,” says Ken Bible, a University of Washington forester and site director at the Wind River Canopy Crane. “As we ascend, the environment will change. You’ll see the change almost immediately. And everyone gets a window seat.”
The seven in our group are the last to ascend by gondola 250 feet into the treetops at the Wind River Experimental Forest north of Carson, Skamania County, in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
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The Wind River Canopy Crane fell silent May 27, after 16 years of ferrying scientists into the forest canopy. They had unprecedented access to a 500-year-old forest and the ability to maneuver from tree to tree within a 560-foot circle.
Forest managers cite the cost of operating and maintaining the crane and declining interest in canopy research as reasons for shutting it down.
Our first stop, about 30 feet up, is in the mid-canopy, where the forest opens and light pours in. Here you can see the shapes of the firs, cedars and hemlocks and the gaps between them that create flyways for birds and flying squirrels.
Farther up, we pass a very tall grand fir. Bible pointed out the seed cones and pollen cones dangling from the tips of the branches, signaling new growth.
Next stop: the canopy, where we look down on a part of the forest inhabited mainly by spiders and mites and the occasional raptor in search of prey.
Familiar trees look different up here. From above, the western hemlock, which grows to a height of 165 feet, looks like an open green parasol. Douglas fir needles grow in brushy, spruce-like clumps. Western red cedars have looping, graceful branches loaded with cones.
The canopy world is a dry world. Water from the roots must travel more than 200 feet to reach the crowns of the conifers. Mistletoe has colonized many trees, forcing them to grow new tops.
A tall Douglas fir thrusts a black spire into the sky. Dead at the top, alive below, it was partially killed by standing water from an ephemeral stream.
The gray-green lichen known as “old man’s beard” droops from the limbs of the Douglas firs.
“The tree doesn’t get anything from it, but the lichen gains structure,” Bible says. “The lichen gets a free ride.” Bible and the scores of other scientists who have worked in the canopy have come to know these trees very well. Each of the 2,000 in the experimental forest plot has a number. About 300 of them were reachable via the crane.
Before the crane, biologists and other researchers had to use climbing equipment to scale tall conifers. Once there, they couldn’t move from tree to tree.
Managed by the Forest Service Research Lab, the Gifford Pinchot forest and the University of Washington, the crane has enabled biologists to study bats and birds and flying squirrels, and to learn more about how old-growth trees store carbon, circulate water and waste, and resist pests and disease.
Research under way at Wind River since 1999 has allowed scientists to gather the world’s longest continuously collected set of data on carbon flow from a forest. That data indicate that this particular forest is a slight carbon sink: It takes up more carbon when trees put on new growth in spring and summer than it releases through decay.
University of Washington forest ecologist Jerry Franklin, who led the effort in the 1990s to win funding for the $1 million project, says work at the crane confirmed what he and other scientists had suspected as early as the 1980s: that old-growth Douglas fir forests weren’t emitting more carbon than they were absorbing — making them an important tool for reducing greenhouse gases.
From the gondola, a few dead brown snags punctuate the green canopy. They’re an important part of the ecosystem, too.
“A lot of the bird diversity is in these hard snags,” Bible said. For birds like the nuthatch, a dead snag is a banquet of insects.
Though the threatened northern spotted owl inhabits old-growth forests, this patch is not large enough to sustain a mating owl pair”There’s not enough food for them,” Bible says.
Even after 16 years, there are moments of transcendence. Bible remembers going up into the canopy at night with other scientists. Fog rolled in, and the tips of trees on the surrounding ridgetops poked through the mist. It felt like being on a mountaintop.
Researchers and students using the crane have generated more than 250 scientific publications.
One of the last projects under way at the crane was a study of lichens designed to measure concentrations of heavy metals in a transect stretching from the Wind River forest all the way to Portland.
So why close the canopy crane down?
“The crane has taught us a lot,” Bible said, “but we’re probably at a point where there’s not a lot more it can teach. It probably has outlived its usefulness.”
Mark Creighton, who has operated the crane from day one, is sorry to see it go. He’ll be returning to city work, operating construction cranes on high-rise buildings.
Worldwide, only a few canopy cranes continue to operate, he said, back on the ground after his last trip into the treetops. The one at Wind River “is the biggest one, and the only one in a conifer forest. And they’re going to shut it down for nickels and dimes.”
“It’s not about maintenance,” he said. “The crane runs perfectly. And it’s not about diminishing interest. It’s a lack of research dollars.”
In his 16 years at Wind River, “I’ve had people tell me this is the best experience they ever had,” Creighton said. “But no one will ever get to do this again.”