WESTERN OREGON—Jerry Franklin has spent much of his life in the company of giants. From his childhood in the woods of Washington state to a scientific career that catapulted him to international prominence, the towering trees of the U.S. Pacific Northwest have shaped his world. In the 1980s, the forest ecologist became a hero to many conservationists thanks to research that helped lead to a controversial 1994 plan protecting millions of hectares of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest from logging.
But one morning this past summer, Franklin stood on a dirt road in southwest Oregon gazing at a logged hillside that was the antithesis of a lush, old-growth forest. The chainsaws had left stumps, piles of tangled limbs, and a smattering of standing trees, along with bushes and grass. "The scene of the crime," he declared, with a hint of irony.
Today, in the twilight of his life, the 80-year-old scientist has become a champion of this far different landscape, which he sees as vital to supporting a full range of forest species. That change has again thrust Franklin, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, to the center of a debate over the future of the northwest's forests—including a potential rewrite of that seminal 1990s Northwest Forest Plan. This time, Franklin is drawing the ire of conservationists for promoting forest management techniques—including targeted logging—designed to create more of the scraggly patches of protoforest that ecologists call "early seral" communities.
Forest managers in North America and elsewhere think Franklin is onto something. In part, that reflects an evolving understanding of forest ecology, and a growing appreciation of the importance of humble bushes and grasses. But Franklin's continuing influence also reflects his knack for straddling the worlds of science and politics. His comfort in the woods is matched by his ease at conveying technical arguments to policymakers and the public. Now, he's bringing those formidable skills to bear on a proposition that might seem like a tough sell: Sometimes bushes are better than trees, and sometimes logging is the best route to a species-rich landscape. Franklin admits: "I'm kind of a provocateur."
Franklin's middle name is Forest, which suggests parental prescience. He grew up in the small Washington town of Camas, where his father, like most of the men there, worked at the local paper mill. His first encounter with an old-growth forest came when he was 8 years old, when his family went camping nearby. He was enraptured. "I learned that people got paid to work in these forests. I decided that's what I wanted to do," he says.
That romantic connection to the woods persisted. In 1987, when he proposed to his current wife, Phyllis Franklin, he brought her to a grove of ancient Douglas firs near his cabin to, as she puts it, "introduce me to his elders." It was same forest where he had fallen under the trees' spell as a boy.
Yet at first, Franklin had little scientific interest in the Pacific Northwest's coastal old-growth, dominated by mammoth Douglas firs. In the 1960s, many scientists considered those dark, dank forests to be biologically barren. But in 1969, while working as a U.S. Forest Service scientist in Oregon, Franklin jumped at an opportunity to help lead a study of a coniferous forest as part of an international project. He and his colleagues uncovered a rich and intricate world, in which ancient trees nourished new life with fallen logs, cleansed salmon-filled streams, and provided habitat for a menagerie of life, including lichens, rodents, and owls.
As that picture coalesced in the 1970s, it coincided with the stirrings of opposition to the logging industry that relied on old-growth forests. The so-called "Timber Wars" of the 1980s and early '90s pitted environmentalists wielding lawsuits and civil disobedience against federal officials and timber firms. Efforts to protect the northern spotted owl, an old-growth denizen, became a centerpiece of the conservation campaign, and the shy owl its mascot. But Franklin's scientific work backed a broader argument: that logging was dismantling the foundations of a vibrant ecosystem that nurtured far more than just the owl.
At one point, environmentalists obtained a draft of a Franklin-led Forest Service report and distributed copies, fearing the agency's leaders would bury it. The document "was like a bible," says Andy Kerr, an environmental activist based in Ashland, Oregon, who heads the consulting firm The Larch Company.
As the conflict peaked, Franklin, by then a professor at the University of Washington, found himself at the center of an intense political struggle that featured bumper stickers advising: "Save a logger, eat an owl." In 1991, at the request of Congress, Franklin and three other leading forest scientists spent 6 weeks holed up in Portland, Oregon, crafting a sweeping plan to protect federal old growth across western Washington and Oregon, as well as northern California. The work of what became known as the "Gang of Four" served as the template for the final Northwest Forest Plan adopted by then-President Bill Clinton. Norm Johnson, a forest economist at Oregon State University (OSU) in Corvallis and a member of the gang, says Franklin blended scientific savvy with persuasion. "Once Franklin believes in something, you can't get him off it," Johnson says. "He's the best salesman in the world."
The plan was transformative. It essentially halted logging in federally owned old-growth forests—generally defined as having trees older than 180 years—on federal lands. It also protected 4 million hectares of mixed old-growth and previously logged lands. The amount of wood coming out of federal forests fell from nearly 12 million cubic meters per year in the late 1980s to a 10th of that in recent years. As the saws went silent, many small mill towns withered.
Even before the forest plan was signed, however, Franklin had embarked on new research that has led him to question some of its management approaches.
The insights began with a bang. On 18 May 1980, Mount St. Helens, then a 2945-meter-tall, glacier-capped peak in southwest Washington, erupted. The blast leveled forests over an area the size of Chicago, Illinois (nearly 600 square kilometers), burying much of it in 30 centimeters of ash and rock. Franklin soon was leading the scientific effort to track the ecosystem's recovery.
On a visit to the volcano's flank this summer, it was apparent that Franklin has slowed a bit from those years, when he sometimes hiked 40 kilometers a day. But he headed up a trail with an assured, steady stride. He has the bearing of a dapper gentleman scientist in a collared blue shirt and khaki pants, with a trim white mustache and a brown felt hat vaguely reminiscent of Indiana Jones. A worn canvas vest with patches of the U.S. flag and a Soviet Union star—a memento from a scientific exchange in the 1970s—signal his decades in the field.
Scars on the landscape left by the eruption remain after 37 years. Franklin's feet crunched on bits of pumice. Pillars of burnt trees, weathered smooth and silver, stood like gravestones in a wispy morning fog.
Yet life was quick to return to the moonscape left by the eruption, Franklin and other scientists learned. With the trees gone, grasses and bushes sprouted from seeds lying beneath the ash or brought in by animals or the wind. Today, bouquets of flowers—twinflower, fireweed, lupines, and pearly everlasting—carpet the ground. Huckleberry bushes compete with mountain ash, which bears clusters of bright red berries.
"This is just a supermarket," says Franklin, surveying the scene, hands on hips. "It's rich in foliage for different critters to eat [and] blossoms for pollinators."
That supermarket has attracted insects, birds, amphibians, and mammals. Eighteen types of small mammals have moved in. And, by 2010, the researchers found that the abundance and diversity of birds was much higher in areas that had been left to recover on their own, forming brushy early seral habitat, than in the adjacent landscapes quickly replanted with conifers.
As if to underscore that point, during his visit to the volcano Franklin spotted an olive-sided flycatcher, a species rare in the deep woods. He pursed his lips, making a two-note whistle resembling a cat call, and listened for a response. The species, he noted, has become an emblem of early seral habitat, flourishing in open stands of dead trees.
Franklin admits that, like many forest scientists, he once dismissed early seral landscapes, treating them as something to be ignored or replanted as quickly as possible. (On private timber lands, managers often use herbicides to keep shrubs from choking out the emerging conifers.) "It took me about 15 years wandering around and participating in science on Mount St. Helens to say, ‘My God, this is telling us that these … open conditions are just absolutely essential’" to encouraging biodiversity.
Franklin isn't a lone voice. Among forest scientists, early seral has become something of a trendy buzzword, says Tom Spies, a Forest Service ecologist in Corvallis leading a federal analysis of the latest science about northwest forests. "In the '90s it was old growth and now it's early seral. It's risen in popularity, and for good reason."
One reason is that early seral landscapes are becoming rare. A 2002 study estimated that complex early seral habitat once occupied nearly 20% of forests near the Oregon coast. But just 2% remained by the end of the 20th century, a more recent study concluded. (So-called "simple" early seral habitat—logged areas devoid of trees or carpeted by small replanted conifers—is more common.)
In 2011, a group of prominent forest experts, including Franklin, wrote a paper aimed at calling attention to early seral forest, which they labeled "the forgotten stage." They urged caution about logging and replanting trees after wildfires, arguing that a complex, scrubby ecosystem should be allowed to develop without interference.
But although there is broad agreement that early seral landscapes are valuable, there is growing debate over how far forest managers should go in trying to create them. For their part, Franklin and Johnson have concluded that logging in federal forests could be a valuable tool for creating new patches, particularly in coastal Pacific Northwest tracts now densely packed with replanted Douglas firs. Natural promoters of seral habitat, such as storms and fires, are relatively rare in the region, Franklin notes in his argument for a more hands-on approach. And logging would have a side benefit, he says, by helping the hard-hit industry. Franklin now touts a formula for creating seral habitat that calls for logging about two-thirds of the trees on a tract, and doing no replanting.
Other scientists support the approach. Ecologist Mark Swanson of Washington State University in Pullman, the lead author of the 2011 early seral study, says that if logging younger forests leaves vestiges that imitate some of the complexity of a natural forest, "then I think we can do fine."
Some are more cautious. Charlie Crisafulli, a Forest Service ecologist in Amboy, Washington, who has spent decades tracking the revival of Mount St. Helens, wonders whether small logging projects would be enough. To create a variety of persistent early seral habitats like those seen on the volcano, he says, the disturbance "needs to be large. I'm talking something in the neighborhood of a hundred or hundreds of square kilometers." And Matt Betts, an OSU forest ecologist, points out that rigorous studies have yet to compare the ecological benefits of early seral landscapes created by logging with those resulting from natural disturbance.
Forest ecologist Dominick DellaSala, president of the Ashland-based Geos Institute, is convinced that logging is a poor substitute for natural disturbances, which leave a complex jumble of live and dead trees. DellaSala was Franklin's co-author on the 2011 paper about the importance of early seral habitat, but he has become Franklin's chief scientific critic. Franklin, he says, "thinks you can recreate [seral habitat] from nothing. And I think you can't recreate it from nothing. You've got to start with something and just not salvage log it."
DellaSala also fears Franklin's approach will give logging in forests outside young plantations a veneer of environmental respectability. Although DellaSala is willing to accept logging in dense stands where trees are less than 80 years old, he sees little benefit from cutting down trees older than that. Kerr, who praises much of Franklin's earlier work, is even more blunt. The new approach is little more than a "sloppy clearcut" aimed at getting more wood for mills. "It's not logging for pure ecological restoration, where commercial wood is a byproduct. It's ‘We're going to cut it.’"
The debate has grown more charged as Franklin has turned his ideas into on-the-ground action. In 2013, after Franklin and Johnson teamed up with the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for a small logging experiment near Roseburg, Oregon, protesters camped out for months among the limbs of the largest trees—some a century old—to block the project. Two years later, a federal judge sided with the opponents, ruling BLM hadn't fully studied the environmental impacts.
For Johnson, the fight took a personal toll. On a road near his home in Corvallis, activists erected a billboard showing a swath of logged BLM land, denouncing it as a "Johnson & Franklin" project. He says some people started avoiding him in coffee shops in the town, home to OSU and a center of forest research. "It was unbelievable," he recalls.
This past summer, standing on the same Oregon hillside pictured on that billboard, Franklin seemed unfazed. Four years after logging, the wasteland portrayed in the photo was thick with manzanita bushes, raspberries, snowbrush, bracken fern, and native blackberries. Franklin pointed out bear scat filled with berries. For him, the scene showed that his plan can work. "We know consistently that it's going to be much richer, biologically, than the adjacent forest."
But he has made compromises. The loggers left just 15% of the existing trees behind, fewer than Franklin wanted. And BLM insisted on replanting Douglas fir on the hillside, rather than leaving it untouched, out of concern the trees would grow back too slowly to meet future logging goals. But in a nod to Franklin, the agency planted half the usual density.
Still, he sees the project as a net victory. And his advocacy is having an impact beyond that hillside. In 2016, BLM unveiled new plans to manage 1 million hectares of Oregon forests, touting its logging strategy as in line with Franklin's approach. U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) earlier pushed legislation that would double logging rates on that same land, using support from Franklin and Johnson to boost the proposal's scientific credibility.
Franklin's influence also extends to other continents. Sue Baker, an Australian forest ecologist at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, says Franklin's work on patchy logging—called variable retention harvest—has left its mark in places as varied as Scandinavia, Argentina, and Australia.
Now, Franklin is pressing his case in another major arena: a review of the mammoth Northwest Forest Plan. Nearly a quarter-century after he helped give birth to the plan, federal scientists are re-evaluating the supporting research in a first step toward revising the plan.
DellaSala sees no need for major changes to a plan that he, like many, regards as a landmark. "It's not that the Northwest Forest Plan is broken," he says. But Franklin, who served as a reviewer for a draft of the scientific report, is urging a rethink. If he has his way, federal agencies will create more early seral habitat by logging some of the hundreds of thousands of hectares of dense forest replanted after clearcutting, and then letting it regrow on its own.
Any changes to the plan, the Forest Service says, would come over the next 4 years. Meanwhile, Franklin shows few signs of letting up. He and Johnson are finishing a forestry textbook. He plans to write a history of the Northwest Forest Plan. Last month, he packed up his pickup truck with gear to take forestry students into the Oregon woods for a 2-week course. There, he hoped to plant the seeds for another generation of forest scientists, urging them to marvel at the ancient, towering fir forests—and to take a closer look at the bushes between the trees.