“Under the present management scheme promulgated in the U.S. Forest Service’s Northwest Forest Plan, this early seral stage, with all of its deer, elk, bears, mice, voles, squirrels and other species that forage on plants that grow in full sunlight, is not allowed to exist unless it is promoted by a big wildfire.”

Mike Newton, PhD Botanist, Professor Emeritus, Oregon State University
Board of Directors, the Evergreen Foundation

Editor’s note: Evergreen Foundation board member, Mike Newton, is one of the most respected forest scientists in the nation. He holds a PhD in Botany and taught in the Oregon State University College of Forestry for 40 years before retiring in 2000. Still young and very fit at 81, he is still very much engaged in his passion: science-based management of private and public forestlands. In this wide-ranging interview, he discusses his life and career as one of the Douglas-fir region’s premier forest ecologists.

Evergreen: Mike, tell us a bit about yourself; where you grew up, your education, your decision to pursue a career in forestry, and your long teaching career at Oregon State University.

Dr. Newton: I’m a Vermonter. I grew up 18 miles from the nearest pavement, on a primitive country road that wasn’t paved until after World War II. In fact, the last four miles leading to where I grew up is still “gravel”. We moved there from Connecticut when I was four. My father had been a teacher at Loomis Institute, a fine prep school at Windsor, but he decided that he wanted to open his own prep school for boys, so we moved to the Vermont boondocks, where he successfully combined teaching heads and hands into a single and very comprehensive learning experience.

Evergreen: Interesting. Was there a campus?

Newton: Not in the sense of what we envision today. The school had thirty students. They lived in a converted cow barn and attended classes in a separate building. The student body also served as the work force for everything from logging on our 165 acres to milking cows, shoveling manure and haying. Classes began promptly at 7:30 and ran until noon. Then you had lunch and headed for the woods or shoveled snow or did whatever needed doing around the school. It was a great little setup and a marvelous learning experience. It’s unfortunate that today’s students can’t enjoy such an experience.

Evergreen: Sounds pretty rustic to us.

Newton: It was to the extent that we were originally at the end of 18 miles of dirt, but the actual school building was a classic Cape Cod style house built in our town – Jamaica – in 1780, when the entire town consisted of three houses. It had been constructed from hand-hewn timbers, mortised and pegged together with hand-forged spikes. Dad’s students helped rebuild it. They lived in the portion that had been a cow barn, and converted the woodshed portion into a classroom/lounge known as the “slump room.” The expanded woodshed also included a big kitchen where my mother did most of the cooking and canning. The whole place was warmed much of the time with steam from a wood furnace that consumed 60 cords of wood every winter.

Evergreen: That’s a furnace that took cordwood. The woods crew cut it, the teamsters brought it in, and crews pitched into the cellar where the furnace was to melt the snow off and dry it a bit.

Newton: The students did most of it, but my dad tended the furnace most of the time. The students also learned pitch in when work needed to be done as well as to care for tools, sharpen axes and saws and drive the team of horses that pulled the sleds that brought in the wood.

Evergreen: Your Dad’s students got an education that went well beyond text books.

Newton: They did indeed. They learned how to build things, how to shoe and log with horses, how to work with a wide variety of hand tools and how take very good care of the surrounding woods. Study hall was from five to six p.m., after they completed their afternoon in the woods and other chores, then dinner, then study hall from seven to eight-thirty, then lights out at nine. They were expected to be well prepared to enter Harvard, Princeton or Dartmouth by the time they graduated from my father’s prep school – and few failed in that task.

Evergreen: Tough duty compared to the education – or lack of education – that most students experience today.

Newton: It was an incredibly diverse educational environment, demanding of energy and attention. Every graduate was a hard worker who knew a lot about both the classics and the rigorous and challenging rural lifestyle that was still very much present across the nation in the 1930s. They also had lots of opportunity to ski, hunt deer and grouse and other recreational pursuits. It was not all grind. Saturday and Sunday afternoons were free.

Evergreen: Did you attend your father’s school too?

Newton: Not exactly at first. My siblings – there were four of us – were too young. Dad hired a grade school teacher to teach us in a literally little red school house about 200 yards from the main school buildings until we were old enough for prep school. I graduated from prep school there when I was 16, then enrolled in the University of Vermont in Animal Husbandry with a minor in forestry. I graduated in 1954, married Jane, put on my Second Lieutenant’s uniform and pulled two years with the Army at Fort Riley, Kansas and a year in Germany.

Evergreen: When did you come west?

Newton: After I was discharged, January of 1957. By then Jane and I had two children. I used my GI bill to fund a second Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in Forest Management from Oregon State College. In 1958, I got a summer job with Starker Forests and fell in love with forestry and managed woods, with Bruce Starker as a wonderful and encyclopedic forester and teacher. As you can plainly see, I never left!

Evergreen: What caused you to pursue a teaching career rather than entire private industry or go to work for the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management?

Newton: That’s a good question. The above answer was prominent in that decision. There were surely lots of opportunities, but I guess I’ve always admired what my father did and I wanted to see if I could teach as well as he taught, so when the OSU College of Forestry offered me an instructor’s position in Forest Management in January of 1960, I took it. I had fifty seven seniors and graduate students in my first class, Watershed Management, and also taught Mensuration and Protection in my first year. It was a trial by fire for sure!

Evergreen: Did you begin your career in research then?

Newton: Yes, in a manner of speaking. The teaching post also allowed me to continue with a weed control project I’d started in 1958 as part of my Master’s thesis. But I also started taking a few classes leading to my doctorate in Botany. I finished the doctoral thesis in 1964 and was appointed as Assistant Professor with tenure. Over the last 45 years, I’ve spent about ninety percent of my time in research, and had about 75 grad students under my wing. It’s been a lot of fun.

Evergreen: Tell us about your research career.

Newton: My research has always been focused on concepts of managing forest vegetation, including regeneration and wildlife habitat; emphasizing competition for planted seedlings in clearcuts following harvest. More specifically, on the environmental influences of plant cover on competitive interactions in forest plant communities. These interactions have huge influences on wildlife and its sustenance, as well as conifer seedlings. And the studies had to evaluate a lot of animal physiology associated with herbicides.

Evergreen: That’s a big research area around which to wrap your mind.

Newton: Yes, it is, but I find the work to be enjoyably challenging. By keeping several balls in the air most of the time, I’ve learned a bit about how plant cover influences forest ecosystems and about how to manage plant cover for desired end conditions, not just in terms of commercial timber outcomes but also in terms of the habitats those conditions provide for wildlife. The bottom line is that when one looks at two or more things that affect each other, one learns about interactions and how they shape forests in the lifespan of trees. And there was plenty of controversy to keep me stimulated!

Evergreen: Our back of the envelop math tells us you are 81 now. Are you still teaching or involved in any research projects?

Newton: I formally retired in 2000, effectively ending my teaching career, though I’ve had the pleasure of guiding several graduate students since then. But mostly I am now focused on my personal devotion to field work. In this task – and nearly everything is a task when you are 81 – I have been blessed to be assisted by Liz Cole, a 1984 MS graduate student of mine. We are summarizing our research, several hundred publications since 1961that fall into four broad subject matter areas: Forest vegetation management, environmental chemistry, primarily pertaining to herbicides; the ecology of managed forests and silvicultural practice, growth and yield, and forest x stream interactions – and in the process teaching many outside the university.

Evergreen: I know that some of your research involving the use of herbicides has been controversial. What was the controversy about and what benefits flow from herbicides?

Newton: There are many belief systems out there. Most of them embrace a kind of “religious” approach to nature. This approach may lead to or promote fear of the unknown or irrational belief in some danger. Although we can’t see a tiny drop of herbicide released in aerial spraying, we can see the cloud the spray momentarily creates. A pound or two of these substances spread over 43,560 square feet (an acre) markedly alters the composition of plant cover in a forest plantation or a clearcut in which unwanted vegetation is sprouting so aggressively that it threatens, or will soon threaten, the survival and growth in newly planted tree seedlings. This is why we use herbicides – to impede growth selectively, safely and non-violently in unwanted vegetation long enough to allow tree seedlings to overtop competing vegetation. This enables planted trees to overcome competitors, many of which are exotic. This is powerful stuff. Yet the chemicals we use affect metabolic processes occurring only in plants. A great many people simply cannot grasp that, and fear sets in. And then, there are those who want forests to be guided only by nature.

Evergreen: So we have a public health issue?

Newton: In the minds of some, especially those who embrace purity of nature, yes. The issue involves perceptions, and self-diagnosed opinions of whatever ails one. Some people want to be made ill by chemicals in support of fears. My work has focused on how quickly these herbicides dissipate, how readily they are absorbed after human contact and the consequences of such contact, and how little our physiological exposure is. These products are registered by the federal government following exhaustive and very expensive testing that assures the public and users as to their safety and impact on the environment. The dose x toxicity determines risk, and it all cases I have study, risk is virtually unmeasurable because it is so low. My work on the fate of herbicides in ecosystems puts much of the federal research into the perspective of an environment in which personal contact is virtually zero if one is not handling the chemicals in concentrated form. And even then, unless one eats or drinks the concentrates in large quantity, our bodies eliminate it without measurable harm.

Evergreen: So you are saying that herbicides used in forestry have no impact on the environment or our food supply chain?

Newton: There is an impact to the extent that their use specifically affects the environment of planted or otherwise desirable trees or food crops. But no known impact of herbicides used in forests has been identified with supporting data to indicate that environmental exposure is harmful to man or beast. My four decades of field and laboratory research reveal no conflict with that assessment. Unfortunately, the urban majority that has come to have such an enormous and often negative impact on the political and economic life of millions of rural Americans knows nothing about this research and is easily stampeded by advocacy groups that, for reasons of their own, oppose human intervention in forests, and, by extension, the use of herbicides to control unwanted vegetation in forests. Or crops, for that matter.

Evergreen: How do you prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that herbicides are safe?

Newton: Nothing can be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt if people believe that a molecule is harmful. What I have sought to do in my work is provide reliable evidence of the margin of safety in herbicides – not just for humans but also for fish and wildlife, all of the non-target critters that may come in contact with herbicides. The controversy you referenced a couple of questions ago has been stirred up by advocacy groups that refuse, mainly for philosophical reasons, to believe that chemicals are safer tools for managing vegetation than wildfires, power tools or hand tools. The overwhelming body of evidence proves that there are no vegetation management tools that are safer than herbicides. Ask anyone who uses a chainsaw or drip torch regularly. I have some patches on myself!

Evergreen: Have you ever been exposed to any of these chemicals?

Newton: Many times, and I am in perfect health. It is a fact that galls my detractors and provides some degree of amusement for me. But on a more serious note, we know from countless thousands of studies that herbicides are safe when they are correctly applied by experienced applicators. The public has no scientific reason to fear them. Please bear in mind that unfounded fear is not without its own risks.

Evergreen: It is our recollection that you are a strong advocate for salvage logging in the aftermath of large wildfires. Environmentalists – and some scientists – insist that salvaging timber killed in a big fire does more harm than good. What say you and, more importantly, what does the field research tell us about possible environmental benefits of prompt salvage and replanting following big wildfires?

Newton: Oh my, such a big and important question. Much has been written about salvage logging following big fire events. The variations you see in the literature often emanate from the fact that not all forests respond to fire in the same way. The stage is set for a big wildfire in a mixed conifer dry site forest in the Intermountain West in a much different way than it sets or a big fire in a cooler, wetter coastal Douglas-fir and hemlock forest, or a hardwood forest in the Midwest or the East. How each of these forests responds to a big fire also differs, so there is no one-size fits all answer to your question. Nearby, there is controversy over leaving snags on O&C lands after the Douglas-Complex fires. In that situation, the adjacency of four miles of boundaries with private land on each section of federal land points to the disaster confronting any adjacent landowner next to a sea of snags that attract lightning. And snags do attract lightning, especially when on high ground. But on a general perspective, lots of burns leave a great deal of unburned but dried fuel. So they burn again, provide days or weeks of smoky skies and risk of escapement, with the repeated exposure of neighbors, destroyed reforestation efforts, wildlife and their forage and many kinds of habitat to prolonged and costly destruction. It just makes no sense unless one is a purist.

Evergreen: So how do fire regimes differ in Intermountain and coastal forests in the West?

Newton: Where I live, west of the Oregon Cascades, we generally get enough rainfall annually to grow big trees, fast. Our soils are fertile and the climate is conducive to growing trees. This is why the region is the timber capital of North America. You would think that all our rainfall would add up to wet summers, but we are generally pretty dry from early July through late September. It’s the height of our growing season, and we experience enormous growth in forest vegetation. And when it is dry, the enormous amounts of fuel may cause a holocaust. In the intermountain region, many of the forests have an abundance of snags from beetle attack or other reasons, and in their generally dry climates and relatively poor access, fires really take off. But regardless of where one is, if there is dry fuel, there will be hot fires. On the west side, the volumes of fuel are huge, but on the eastside, the flammability of fuel and periods of low humidity are facts of life much of the time, so the natural forests there are of species that tend to follow fires. So also is west side Douglas-fir, but in perhaps wider intervals, and higher intensity.

Evergreen: Do you experience the woody biomass fuel buildups we see in the Intermountain West?

Newton: Yes, we do, often more so because of local productivity. But our wildfires occur at less frequent intervals, especially in northwestern Oregon and Washington, which means that our fuel buildups are larger than those you see in the Intermountain West. As a result, our wildfires tend to be intense stand replacing events that burn over very large areas, destroying habitats for most bird species, including already threatened species like the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet. These losses can persist for centuries if nothing is done to aid nature’s long restoration process. But anywhere there is a lot of fuel and a very long, hot dry summer, one can have events like the 1910 Idaho burn or Tillamook Burn in Oregon that burned over 300,000, much of which burned three more times because of snags. Not surprisingly, there were no subsequent burns after the snags were salvaged. But yes, when a lot of fuel ignites, fires are similar everywhere.

Evergreen: But isn’t nature very resilient in its own right, meaning that forests destroyed by big wildfires eventually recover by themselves?

Newton: Yes, they do eventually recover. But as someone very wise once observes, “Nature is indifferent to human need.” I take that to mean that nature doesn’t care about our multiple and varied connections to forests, be they economic or aesthetic. The rains eventually come, seeds buried beneath burned snags germinate and a new forest is born, sometimes of brush species, sometimes of conifers, sometimes mixed. If there is no disruption in its long life cycle it will pass through several growth stages, each featuring a different suite of plant species. In our Douglas-fir region, the entire process from bare ground to climax forest can take from 600 to 1,000 years. We’ve been through perhaps fourteen such cycles since the last Ice Age.

Evergreen: Tell us more about these cycles.

Newton: Sure. The first or early seral stage, which lasts about 20 years on the west side, maybe longer in the intermountain west, is characterized by the presence of herbivorous wildlife species including deer, elk and bears along with mice, voles, squirrels and other species that forage on plants that grow in the full sunlight found in open spaces and forests that are too young to have much of a canopy. This is followed by a long transition period in which tree crowns are crowded close to one another, little sun gets to ground vegetation, and trees grow to be quite large and eventually begin to shade out the smaller trees, which then die, allowing shrubs and ferns to develop. This merges into the mid-seral stage at ages 50-80 or more years, and lasts another 100-200 or so years, depending on location and site quality. During this period, forest canopies begin to open gradually, allowing shade-tolerant species like hemlocks and true firs to colonize understories, along with shrubs. Sunlight increases very slowly, seldom if ever adequate for species such as Douglas-fir to regenerate, as overstories deteriorate. At some point in the Douglas-fir forest, a fire or clearcut will kill the overstory forest and the cycle begins again. In the absence of such a disturbance, the Douglas-fir all eventually dies, maybe at ages 400-700, leading to a hemlock, spruce, true fir or hardwood forest of relatively low net productivity, and habitats suitable primarily for hole-nesting and other birds requiring features of very old trees. Through this long cycle, the early seral habitat is limited to the first couple of decades, after which it fades, forcing herbivorous species to seek recently disturbed sites with clearings or open canopy forests and the wildlife species that remain live in tree canopies. Last comes the late seral stage. Under the present management scheme promulgated in the Forest Service’s Northwest Forest Plan, this early seral stage, with all of its deer, elk, bears, mice, voles, squirrels and other species that forage on plants that grow in full sunlight is not allowed to exist unless it is promoted by a big wildfire.