Research into Forest Health

Seward Park’s 120 acre old-growth forest is a rare remant of a million acres of such forest which for 10,000 years filled the lowlands surrounding the Salish Sea.      These forests had been resilient against fire and insects, robust against floods and volcanoes, had been in part sustainably managed by indigenous people.  The forests returned to good health and rich biodiversity after every disturbance. 

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That changed 170 years ago.   All but a thousand of those million acres have been cut down.

But not at Seward. Here we see a classic lowland Douglas-Fir/Cedar/hemlock PNW forest, large enough to be a functioning ecosystem.  It grew up after a stand-replacement fire 500 years ago, then partly survived a  less severe fire 200 years later. About a 100 mature doug firs,  with thick bark, a few cedars, and (we conjecture) many sword ferns were among the survivors.

The forest is an old and beautiful place.    Many firs are 6 feet in diameter and more. The forest floor includes, and is sometimes dominated by, ancient individual sword ferns, each possibly a thousand years old, as has been suggested to us by fern botanist David Barrington. Like the Douglas-Fir, sword ferns colonize open ground, rarely reproduce under a closed canopy, and live very long lives. Like in the fir, endophytic protective fungi plausibly provide defense for the fern against rapidly evolving pathogens and herbivores. Such mutualisms are apparently needed by all long-lived plant species. These mutualisms, easily seen (as in nurse logs and flower pollination) or hidden from view (as with the endophytes) are part of the beauty of this forest.

However, at present and for the last decade, all is not well in the forest.     Two crucial species (sword fern and western hemlock) have severe and regionally unprecedented  mortality.   These may be transient effects: we have seen some signs of reduced mortality in the ferns.    The hemlocks do not yet provide any reason for optimism.

As citizen scientists, we study the forest, monitor populations, run simple experiments, restore bare ground created by die-off and enthusiastic overuse by visitors.  We call this “science by bake sale”  or, more accurately,  self-funded shoestring operations abetted, now and again, by small amounts of donated funds.

Our study of the fern die-off has produced substantial evidence for a water-borne pathogen, and against drought causes.   We have some interesting hemlock data.    Seattle Parks has done excellent work removing invasives, and supplying mulch and native plants for our restoration projects.    We have a scientific advisory board (SAB), described below .

These studies and work projects will continue.    However, some of the research question require more money and skill than we volunteers can provide.  We need your help – researchers and funders alike.

To that end, we have prepared a summary of our past projects, and suggestions – with cost estimates – for possible new projects, on new topics, but also and primarily, on the problems we have already identified.