Learning About Our Work in the Hoh Rainforest

By Claire Dawson, Hershman Marine Policy Fellow

As a fellow on the Marine Team here at The Nature Conservancy in Washington, I spend my days thinking mostly about fish. Today, I am swapping hats to write about forest conservation, something I actually don’t know much about. I have no clue what it takes to restore Washington’s forests to their historic beauty and, more important, their historic function.

Luckily for this fish nerd, I was able to speak to some folks here at The Nature Conservancy in Washington who do know: Dave Rolph, our director of forest conservation and management, Kyle Smith, our Washington forest manager, and Garrett Dalan, our Washington coast conservation coordinator. I am excited to share with you here what I learned!

Kyle Smith looks up at old growth along the Hoh River. Photo by Joel Rogers.

I asked them about the recent transfer of nearly 7,000 acres along the Hoh River on the Olympic Peninsula to The Nature Conservancy. I wanted to find out more about why this area is so special, what our plans are for its restoration and how they plan on keeping forest and resource management local. The Hoh Rainforest is a World Heritage Site, and its namesake river is one of the wildest and healthiest in Washington state. With Olympic National Park protecting its upper reaches and no dams to stop its flow, this river supports spring and fall Chinook, coho, winter and summer steelhead and cutthroat trout.

Aquatic Ecologist Emily Howe and Forest Ecologist Ryan Haugo assess river habitat this spring in the Hoh River. 

Despite its beauty, this area is far from its ecological potential. Years of human activity has removed the largest and most beautiful trees. Surprisingly, one of the ways to promote growth opportunities for large trees involves cutting others down. Not understanding much about "restoration thinning." I was unable to picture how taking trees away would benefit the forest. As it turns out, removing smaller undesirable trees creates space for those larger trees to grow slowly over time and thrive. Check out Kyle Smith in the video below giving us some examples of what trees would be thinned. In 200 years, it will be a forest of giants once more.

All of this feeds back into the health of the river. While all rivers slowly change course, weaving back and forth across their historic floodplains, this can take 80 to a hundred years, with some islands holding on for 400 years, allowing big trees to grow. The absence of large trees to anchor the Hoh’s path more firmly may allow this river to sweep back and forth more quickly, effectively eliminating the chances large trees will grow up, fall over and die along this river. This presents an issue, as large trees are exactly what rivers need: Their giant root balls and resulting woody debris secure islands and floodplains in and along the river, creating habitat for important critters. Juvenile salmonids need this habitat and shelter while spending their formative years in the river system before venturing off as teenagers into the open ocean.

Juvenile salmonids in the Hoh River. Photo by Joel Rogers.

This work is ambitious, and it takes a huge amount of effort. From repairing roads, to building culverts to planting new trees to increase diversity, jobs will be generated — and the team is keen to keep these jobs as local as possible. Stand assessments are already under way to establish a baseline of forest health for this new acquisition, and this will help us be able to quantify how much carbon is being stored in this forest.

So while I may not have known much about forest conservation and restoration before, I feel like I am starting to get the hang of it. I am very excited to keep tabs on this team and hear about the work on the ground firsthand!