Learning to Love "Brushy Hellholes"

By David Ryan, Field Forester

The day before, I was looking out across a couple draws and finger ridges in Ellsworth.  "That looks like an interesting stand over there," I thought.  I was doing some recon work for stand assessment surveys.  The next day, I was standing atop a bowl above the very stand I was admiring 24 hours prior: Stand 15.  Only this time my assessment was, "This looks like a brushy hellhole". 

Stand 15 © David Ryan / TNC

Having spent a fair amount of time trying to actually work in brushy hellholes, their finer points have evaded me.  It is well-nigh impossible to put in an accurate plot when the vegetation is so thick that seeing beyond my glasses is a challenge.  False huckleberry=MeFe hellholes; vine maple=AcCi hellholes, or any number of other shrub, forb and tree species that combine to make walking an effort and plot work problematic have seldom garnered my admiration.

Black-headed grosbeak © David Ryan / TNC

I fought my way through the ecotone guardians of salmonberry, salal, Western hemlock saplings, vaccinium and a host of other vegetation that stood between the road and the interior.  The thorny, harsh exterior gave way.  Stopping on the other side, the vibe had shifted.  Not as much a plantation as it was a garden.  But given the impenetrable aspect of the vegetation I was yet unwilling to yield on my brushy hellhole determination. 

A flute-like call that made me think robin persisted until I saw that it was not a Robin at all but a Black-headed grosbeak.  Standing atop a cedar stump, I paused for a few moments listening to the bees working the sticky, pink salal flowers as hummingbirds buzzed from perch to perch and a host of other birds called from the depths.

Observing the current stand conditions and noting how it was visibly different than other industrial legacy plantations, I finally put in my first plot.  This stand lacked uniformity, the even spacing of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of seedlings and saplings common to tree farms.  One plot would carry few trees and many shrubs, others were the inverse.

Salal berries © David Ryan / TNC

Coyote den © David Ryan / TNC

I mused on the stand history while bushwhacking through a landscape that shifted from trees to shrubs and tree-like shrubs to shrub-like trees and back again.  Scrambling over the old bones of the titan cedars who lorded here until they were felled in the early to mid-twentieth century, I came across what appeared to be a coyote den.  Unsure of its occupancy and with a dose of trepidation, I peered into the home of one of many inhabitants who still gleaned a living from these dead monarchs.

The more recent stumps indicated that the stand had last been logged maybe 20 years ago, just before The Nature Conservancy's acquisition.  But why were many of the young trees seemingly in the 10 to 15-year age class?  Why was there so much brush?  Industrial timber practices usually mean aggressive vegetation control and planting of Western hemlock and Douglas-fir, thereby ensuring the next stand would be free from competition and regrow thick with more revenue generating fiber.

Hermit thrush © David Ryan / TNC

Forging ahead, I was greeted by a hermit thrush who continually called and flitted from limb to limb within a mere yard of me.  Harboring no Disney-fied illusions about being some latter-day Snow White with all the little forest creatures flitting around me out of pure love, I realized that my avian brother was likely guarding a nearby nest and doing his level best to protect his young from this lumbering biped.  Stepping more cautiously, I moved on.

Monkey flowers © David Ryan / TNC

This brushy hellhole was growing on me as I crawled more than walked through draws and ridges coming across passels of monkey flowers, snails and other invertebrates.  Bear tunnels and elk trails crisscrossed the stand, taking me in and out of an impressive diversity of habitats for a 30-odd-acre parcel.  Here, a field of salal and there, a thicket of hemlock or alder.  Giant cedar stumps hosting some red huckleberry and copious amounts of cascara peppered throughout.

After spending far longer than I intended in this little garden, I came to the other side of Stand 15 where I was greeted by a slightly older stand that bore the marks of its industrial heritage.  This new stand was essentially an even-aged, hemlock monoculture whose purpose at birth was to generate dollars for the landowner.  The lack of understory vegetation made for an easy walk and much easier plot work, although my appreciation for it had waned in the preceding hours as my appreciation for brushy hellholes had waxed.

Snail on a log © David Ryan / TNC

Stand 15 proved to be a silvicultural awakening for me.  Pondering its history and current condition caused a bit of a sea change in my mindset, both in terms of stand management and appreciation. Theories evolved in my head that are too lengthy to expound on here.  This young, wayward ramble of a stand proved every bit as evocative for me as our thousand-year-old growth.  And although I will still refer to it as a "brushy hellhole," it will be with far less derision and far more respect.   

Explore Ellsworth Creek