On an unusually balmy January day, a lush Douglas fir forest in the Green River Valley is dappled with sunlight. Dick Ford (’70 Forest Mgt.) may not have arranged the blue skies, but the longtime Weyerhaeuser forester did engineer this verdant rebirth of the company’s timberlands from an ashen wasteland north of Mount St. Helens.
A quarter-century after the volcano’s catastrophic eruption, that rebirth is complete. This winter the first truckloads of logs rolled off these slopes to become lumber.
Ford no longer works in the woods. As director of the nearby Forest Learning Center at Mount St. Helens, it is his job to tell the dramatic story of the forest’s stunning comeback to visitors from around the world. This May 18, as the reawakened volcano attracts new interest, Weyerhaeuser will host the “signature event” at the center to commemorate the eruption’s 25th anniversary.
From deep inside the sylvan sanctuary, it’s difficult to imagine the devastation that blew across this forest and killed 57 people on May 18, 1980. If Mount St. Helens had remained corked for 24 more hours, the blast would have killed hundreds more workers on private timberlands outside of a restricted “red zone.” One of those casualties of a delayed eruption might have been Ford himself.
On the morning of May 19, 1980, he was scheduled to burn logging slash to prepare a clear-cut for replanting. That site was within the blast zone, the 150,000-acre area where the overwhelming force and searing heat of the eruption killed every tree.
Instead, the mountain blew the day before, at 8:32 a.m. on a placid Sunday. That morning Ford was digging razor clams from the surf near Long Beach when his wife heard the news on their car radio. Driving back toward Longview, Ford caught his first glimpse of the massive plume of ash while rounding a bend along the Columbia River.
Many people, including prominent scientists, doubted the scarred land would ever generate another two-by-four. Ford helped prove them wrong.
In 1980, he was forester for Weyerhaeuser’s large Camp Baker district, which included the 68,000 acres the company owned inside the blast zone. The district is part of the massive St. Helens Tree Farm, which the company has owned for more than a century.
Ford managed “a scale [of reforestation] that we had not done on the West Coast,” says John Keatley (’64 Forest Mgt.), his supervisor at that time and one of a group of Cougars who helped restore Weyerhaeuser’s timberlands around Mount St. Helens. “He did that very well.”
Just 30 days after the eruption, Ford and three coworkers shoveled through layers of sandy ash to plant the very first tree seedlings in the blast zone to see how they would fare. The ash held few nutrients, made digging difficult, and presented other problems, but the heavy layer also held in moisture and curtailed weed growth to give young trees a head start.
From those early trials, foresters quickly devised a plan to replant 45,000 acres the company would retain inside the zone’s boundaries. Before much of the planting, Weyerhaeuser salvaged enough lumber from dead trees to build 85,000 three-bedroom homes.
The timber company swapped a third of its land inside the blast zone for smaller public holdings elsewhere during formation of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in the early 1980s. Left to nature’s slower pace, the monument also is undergoing a renewal, but remains a starker landscape next to Weyerhaeuser lands wrapped in solid evergreen.
“After the monument was formed, everything we owned, we planted,” Ford says. “I negotiated every single planting contract out here.”
For seven seasons after the blast, Ford oversaw contract crews that planted 18.4 million trees-mostly the Douglas and noble firs native to the Cascade Mountain slopes.
Planters started at the fringes of the blast zone, where the ash was only two inches deep, compared to the two-foot drifts closer to the crater. Today, the dynamic forest soils have swallowed up the ash.
The logging of those replanted forests that started this year inside the blast zone is known as commercial thinning, which provides valuable lumber and pulp while priming the remaining 160 trees per acre to become top-grade timber within 15 years.
Forestry has changed nearly as much as the Mount St. Helens landscape in the 35 years since Ford graduated from Washington State University and returned home to work in rainy southwest Washington.
“You didn’t see anything like this in the woods in the ’70s and ’80s,” Ford says, watching a modern harvester machine buzz a standing tree into two cut-to-order logs in less than 30 seconds while barely leaving a tire track on the soil. “This is a pretty exciting time to be a forester.”
Besides new technology, says Ford, Weyerhaeuser adheres to tougher environmental laws, certifies all of its operations for sustainable forestry practices, and mandates stricter safety rules that have made the profession less treacherous.
Back in the ’60s, Ford went to WSU on scholarship to wrestle, a solitary sport that took him to the 1969 nationals. He still officiates high-school matches in his spare time. He went into the similarly solitary field of forestry, because aptitude tests suggested he was most at home in the woods.
So at first there seems a bit of irony in his current position as founding director of the 10-year-old Forest Learning Center, which Weyerhaeuser operates in a partnership with the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
“I chose the field to be out in the trees and away from people,” Ford says, pulling into the center with a commanding view of Mount St. Helens. Now what do I do? I manage a center that gets 250,000 visitors a year.”
“There’s nobody with the history of the area like mine,” he says. “You eventually reach a point where you want to tell people about it.”