Discovery and Learning in Mac Dunn

While recreation has become more strongly valued in contemporary times, research has always been an objective within Oregon State University’s McDonald and Dunn Research Forests. The forest was put together piece by piece after several land purchases in 1926, and research began with a study on telephone pole preservation in 1928.

“If you thought watching paint dry was boring, watching poles dry has got that beat by decades,” laughs Stephen Fitzgerald, Director of the Research Forests and Extension Silviculture Specialist. However, the importance of this study is still relevant. The trees felled to create telephone poles must meet very specific criteria in terms of their size and shape. Because of this, they are more expensive to fell than ordinary trees. Keeping the poles from rotting is critical, and using environmentally safe chemical preservatives is perhaps more so.

A Research Forest

Research on harvesting equipment and techniques is commonly carried out in OSU Forests. For example, studies on new machinery that could keep loggers safer are being conducted, examining everything from their overall productivity, the stress levels of those operating the equipment on steep slopes, and the impacts that occur to the underlying soils due to their use.

In terms of harvesting techniques, several long-term studies within the College of Forestry’s Integrated Research Project seek to understand forest systems and how different management activities impact them. Many studies in this realm explore more alternative silvicultural techniques that attempt to mimic aspects of an old-growth forest in younger stands, in order to give them “premature gray hair,” Fitzgerald analogizes. While still holding the ultimate goal of harvest, in the meantime these practices can increase the diversity and habitat value of a working forest.

Additionally, wildlife research on cavity-nesting birds, purple martins, tree voles, weasels, raccoons, and cougars have occurred, as well as aquatic studies of Oak Creek. Overall, “since 1966 there’s been probably about 650 different studies done out here that we have in our database,” says Fitzgerald. It’s important to note that OSU alone doesn’t undergo all of these studies: many other universities, state to national agencies, and even non-profits have played a role.

A Teaching Forest

Beyond traditional research, McDonald and Dunn Forests serve as a living laboratory for College of Forestry students, including those from outside Colleges and Universities.

“As a student, you don’t have the luxury of going out to a lot of places for a long period, you’re just starting a career,” says Fitzgerald.

Research forests help students apply what they learn in the classroom to the real world, teaching them practical skills “like how do you measure trees, how to identify trees, how to inventory trees, and what that tells you about that site,” as well as the less cut and dry skills of interpretation.

“A lot of times when we look at managing forests we look at the forest and say ‘how did it get here? What happened before I got here? Was there a natural set of disturbances that occurred that got this forest where it is now or was there some human intervention that created what I see right now? Is what I see right now healthy, is it in a good state?’” Fitzgerald continues, “One thing people who work out in the forests tend to have is a much longer view of life because we tend to think decades out, versus most of our society which thinks about what is happening in the next five minutes.”

While class field trips to the Forests encourage students to begin taking on this challenging perspective, the forests also employ students from a variety of disciplines to help with everything from logging, designing interpretive and closure signs, and accounting. These jobs help many get through their time at the University in a better financial state, and give them experience that may otherwise be hard to come by so early in their life.

OSU Forests are Unique

Compared to perhaps similarly cherished national forests, OSU Research Forests are distinct in their management. Instead, being defined by land totaling in upwards of a million contiguous acres, McDonald and Dunn Forests total at 11,500 acres, which is part of a larger network of 15,000 disconnected acres that OSU owns throughout the state. Whether it be a similar Douglas-Fir dominant forest in western Oregon or a Ponderosa-Pine forest on the east side, these lands also see harvesting activities occurring in order to support their maintenance and the values of research and teaching. Due to their relatively small and fragmented nature, these operations commonly occur in recreational areas, whereas in large national forests there is more room to separate these different uses geographically.

“We’re doing things right in public view, which is what we want, for people to see what harvests look like,” Fitzgerald says.

Ryan Brown, Recreation and Engagement Program Manager and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Coordinator for OSU Research Forests expands on this, noting “we are really unique in that we’re located right next to a town with a huge population of outdoor enthusiasts that love the Forest. We also have lots of other users sharing the same landscape, driving us to be really thoughtful and careful about how to manage those together.”

By Ari Blatt