McDonald-Dunn: Through the Ages

In many ways, the McDonald-Dunn forest is the beating heart of Corvallis. Not only is it a valuable source of revenue and education for Oregon State’s college forestry program, the citizens of Corvallis rely on the forest as an important source of physical and mental well-being through outdoor recreation. 

Forest Director Stephen Fitzgerald described a recent encounter with a recreationalist in the forest. He was touring a group of foresters through the Mac-Dunn, when a woman on a jog stopped to tell them that the forest had saved her life. The jogger didn’t go into detail, but it was clear what she meant. While navigating the forest’s peaceful, green depths, it’s almost impossible not to develop a strong emotional and therapeutic connection to the land.

In many ways, this forest is unique in the large variety of ecosystem goods and services that it is specifically managed for, along with the sheer volume of recreational visitors that travel its 26 miles of trails and 110 miles of road. The many roles of this forest make for a complex operation, so we’ll explore a wide range of topics: history and cultural value, finances, and future of the forest in respect to climate change. 

The Past
Artifacts found in the McDonald-Dunn Forest suggest that the Luckiamute and Mary’s River band of Kalapuya Native Americans used these lands for at least 10,000 years, making the preservation of cultural heritage sites a goal in the McDonald Dunn Forest Plan. The goal states: “Identify, protect, and perpetuate the cultural heritage resident on College Forests.” These sites are managed in coordination with the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz. In order to preserve these sites, it’s crucial that they remain unmolested by visitors. 

Like many natives, the Kalapuya were nearly completely annihilated by diseases brought by Europeans in the 18 and 19 centuries. The small amount of remaining natives consolidated, and after a series of skirmishes with settlers, ceded the majority of the Willamette Valley to the United States in exchange for various forms of long-term support. The Kalapuya were then removed by force and relocated. The US government reneged on its promises of support until the treaty was held up in court in the 1980s. 

When Euro-American homesteaders first began arriving in the Willamette Valley, the area consisted of vast grasslands dotted with enormous Oregon white oak. Under the stewardship of the Kalapuya, the understory (layer of ground-level forest vegetation) was frequently and purposefully burned. With the homesteaders came fire suppression efforts, which allowed the advantageous Douglas-fir to eventually dominate the canopy and out-compete many oaks for resources, leading to the ecosystem that can be observed today. 

In 1926, College of Forestry Dean George Peavy, with the help of fellow OSU (or Oregon College of Agriculture, as it was then known) legend T.J Starker purchased the first parcel that would become the McDonald Forest. Businesswoman Mary McDonald had donated land and funding to OSU for the specific purpose of funding forestry and agricultural research; through these donations the purchase of these lands were made possible. 16 years later, Dean Paul Dunn managed to acquire additional lands part of Camp Adair, that were used for training during WWII, and the Mac-Dunn Forest was born. 

Forest Finances
The McDonald-Dunn is considered a “working forest,” a term some equate with a forest that exists only to generate revenue.

“For us, that definition is way broader,” explains Fitzgerald. “It’s research and teaching, it’s recreation, and there’s harvesting that supports all of that.” 

Tree harvest is by far the primary financial source that keeps the forest in operation. Before any expenses, harvest generates anywhere from $4.5 – $5.5 million per year. Much of that money goes right back into harvesting operations, as it’s used to pay the independent contractors and laborers that perform the actual harvest, transport, and site preparation. 

The cost of keeping the gates open and lights on in the forest is approximately one million dollars per year. The 6.25 employees (the decimal accounts for a part-time employee) of the forest are paid roughly $650,000 in total, with the remaining funds going towards expenses relating to the various buildings and recreational facilities on the forest, as well as other recreational resources and development. 

The leftover funds, approximately one million dollars, go to the OSU College of Forestry to be used for education and research. 

The forest has also been awarded two grants from the Oregon Dept. of Parks and Recreation since 2015, of $25,000 and $76,000, to construct new trails and parking in the Lewisburg Saddle area of the forest. The new parking lot was opened in Oct. 2018.

Most of the forest’s recreation budget comes from timber harvest, but sometimes outside groups provide funding and labor to enhance the forest’s recreational opportunities. One such group is Team Dirt, an organization of mountain biking enthusiasts that have been working with the forest for the past three years. Dan Coyle, Team Dirt’s Mac-Dunn project manager says that the group spends between one and three thousand dollars on trail building in the forest yearly, and currently provides around 50 hours of volunteer labor monthly. 

The forest does receive some financial support from the community through contributions to the OSU Foundation account for recreation. Some of the most community support for the recreation fund comes from two annual trail run events: the Condor 25k in October, and the McDonald Forest 50k in May. The Condor was able to donate $4,000 this year, and the Mac 50k contributed $1,000. Another popular way to contribute to the forest has been through the sponsoring of commemorative benches.

Other community members donate their time to the forest’s recreation program. A core group of volunteers donate four to eight hours a week apiece, toiling away at improving the forest’s recreation opportunities through activities such as trail building and maintenance. In 2017, all volunteer work on the forest was valued at approximately $92,700.

Future Of The Forest: Managing For Climate Change 

Climate change is at the forefront of every land manager’s mind when planning for the future. A changing climate means a shifting ecosystem, where organisms that once thrived may have trouble surviving. A recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report states that we may reach the important threshold of 1.5 degree Celsius of warming by 2030, having already warmed one degree. 

As the climate changes and becomes less favorable to our local species of Douglas-fir, the trees will become less vigorous and more susceptible to pests and disease. When attacked by a bark beetle or borer, and even some kinds of fungi, the trees respond by producing pitch to expel the invader. While it gets hotter, the trees need more water, and as less resources are available, it becomes less able to defend itself from pests and pathogens. Fir borers have already been affecting the Doug-firs in southern Oregon and may head this way as the changing climate impacts tree vigor further and further north. This is no small concern, as pests such as bark beetles have caused catastrophic damage due to drought in California. 

Forest Director Fitzgerald keeps a close eye on his stands, (a group of similar trees) and says if the trees begin to suffer from lack of resources, he may have to lower the density of the stands so there’s enough resources to go around.

There may come a time when PNW forest managers will have to plant trees from a different seed source, however. Trees and seeds of the same species but from different climates are genetically accustomed to those specific climates. If the Willamette Valley climate becomes more like the climate of say, Northern California, planting from a Northern California seed source may become necessary. Fitzgerald explains that planting from another seed source now to mitigate the effects of future climate change on the trees is not a great idea. Trees are most vulnerable as seedlings, and if they’re growing in a climate that has not yet changed to match the seed source, chances of stunting or non-survival rise. 

A Powerful Resource
Through specific management for a large variety of ecosystem goods and services, McDonald-Dunn is an envoy for OSU’s Forestry Program in the community, fostering a connection between the school and the rest of Corvallis. A variety of people depend on this 11,500 acres, from the undergrad learning about the forest ecosystem, to the lifelong Corvallisite on a morning run, the research assistant studying the purple martin nesting habitat, or the loggers and employees depending on the forest for income. On a much larger scale, forests keep our planet habitable via air and water purification, carbon storage, and nutrient cycling, and McDonald-Dunn is helping us to learn more about these processes through research. On any given day, a hiker might encounter a breathtaking view, a group of students in goofy helmets huddled around a visibly exhausted TA, or a recently harvested stand. All are essential to making this place one of the most important pieces of land in Corvallis.

Full Disclosure: the author is a student in OSU’s School of Forestry and is in love with the woods. 

By Jay Sharpe