The Willamette Valley Ponderosa Pine Association is an organization that was formed from a grass-roots level concern for a race of trees. The recent history of ponderosa pine in the Willamette Valley is rooted in forest landowners wanting to reforest but whose lands were poorly suited for Douglas-fir. They saw that ponderosa pine could survive and thrive in soils too wet or too dry for Douglas-fir. Those same landowners became the conservation advocates and champions of “valley pine” as they managed their low elevation forests, and watched the Valley population of ponderosa pine diminish as it was being lost to farming and development.
While there is evidence of ponderosa pine plantings going back to early reforestation efforts in Western Oregon, the efforts of Howard Dew of Sweet Home established the foundation for current efforts. Years before others started looking to ponderosa pine, Dew, a reforestation forester for Timber Service Co. of Sweet Home planted what ponderosa seedlings he could find, all of which were off site seed from Central Oregon, he watched them grow vigorously for 15 to 20 years and then fall victim to a variety of needle and stem diseases. His early efforts demonstrated the importance of using local Willamette Valley seed and focused the efforts of a group of local foresters and landowners interested in ponderosa pine on collecting seed from Willamette Valley trees.
In the late 1970’s, Bob Kintigh, a nursery owner and forester from Springfield began collecting seed and growing seedlings from native ponderosas in the Eugene area. Bob’s success in this venture led him to becoming the first commercial seedling nursery to offer the Valley source of ponderosas.
Gathering local ponderosa pine seed proved to be quite a task as good cone production years were few and far between. When there was a collectable crop of pine cones, it was difficult to get seed collectors adequately organized to collect it. There wasn’t a demonstrated market to interest tree seed companies and local landowners and foresters lacked the financial backing and organization to take advantage of the limited opportunities.
Under the leadership of early Valley pine advocates Bob Mealey and Bert Udell, the Linn County Small Woodlands Association (LSWA) along with the OSU Extension Service launched the first organized effort to collect and grow seed for general distribution of Valley ponderosas, beginning in the mid 1980’s. With a grant from the Upper Willamette Resource Conservation and Development Council (now part of the Cascade Pacific RC&D Council), the LSWA oversaw the collection, growing and selling of Willamette Valley Ponderosa Pine. This effort saw over 200,000 seedlings planted during the late 1980s and early ‘90s. With demand always greater than the supply, the LSWA’s pine project demonstrated to seed collectors and tree nurseries the commercial value of Valley pine. Gathering an adequate seed supply continued to be a problem. Dave Overhulser, Oregon Department of Forestry entomologist, identified the source of the limited cone crops. The ponderosa pine cone beetle, Conopthorus ponderosae, was boring into the base of the cones before maturity causing them to drop before maturing.
The rapid increase in harvest during the early to mid 1990s pointed to the potential loss of Willamette Valley ponderosa pine’s genetic base. With the difficulties in finding local source seedlings and the accelerated harvest of mature pine, Howard Dew and others feared that the species could eventually be lost. An invitation went out to local landowners, foresters and forest geneticists to determine the interest in working to conserve the genetic base of ponderosa pine so that it would be available to play its role in Willamette Valley forestry. Interest was high, and the Willamette Valley ponderosa pine Conservation Association was formally organized in 1997.
A vision was developed and goals set for the new Association. The vision was the conservation of valley ponderosa pine’s genetic base, and to provide a stable and adequate supply of pine seedling from high quality local trees. The Association identified 10 goals:
- Conserve Willamette Valley ponderosa pine as a genetic resource.
- Maintain genetic diversity and adaptability of seed sources used in reforestation, Wildlife habitat, and urban tree planting programs.
- Improve the genetic quality of Willamette Valley ponderosa pine through careful tree selection and prescriptive seed deployment.
- Locate and map native Willamette Valley ponderosa pine stands for future genetic collections,
- Locate and map plantations of ponderosa pine from known Willamette Valley parent trees and seed sources.
- Provide supplies of high quality seed for planting programs until seed orchards begin production (next 10 years).
- Provide for long-term supplies of high quality seed through development of a seed orchard.
- Promote applied research into growing and managing ponderosa pine in the Willamette Valley. Topics may include density management, pruning, suitability to various soil types, and pest management.
- Networking information among Willamette Valley ponderosa pine growers and researchers.
- Disseminate information to interested parties and the general public via newsletters, publications, tours, meetings, news releases and other means.
Goals 1, 2 and 3 have been completed. A target of 200 tree families from throughout the Willamette Valley was set for the gene conservation orchard. In gathering genetic material for the orchard the first option was to harvest seed of mature native ponderosa pines of good form. If seed was not available, scion material from selected trees would be grafted to pine root stock at the orchard site. The Department of Forestry’s Schroeder Seed Orchard near St Paul was selected as the orchard site because of its long-term stability and willingness to oversee the development and management of a pine orchard. Fourteen acres were identified for pine, and seedlings were planted in 1996 and 1999. The orchard has 162 families represented with a goal of approximately 6 trees per family at cone harvest age. Of the 162 families, 142 come from seed and 40 from grafting.
A major source of funding for establishing the orchard has come from USDA-Forest Service Pacific Northwest State and Private Forestry. Additional funding has come from individual donations and Association dues. The Schroeder Seed Orchard is funding the management of the orchard and will recover its costs through the selling of seed. The Association has first rights of refusal for up to 50% of the orchard production.
Goal 4 has been completed with parent tree selection and major pine stands mapped using GIS.
The Association Directors decided that goal 5 was unnecessary as there would be little value in mapping Valley pine plantations as future cone collection sites.
With regards to Goal 6, the Association has continually monitored cone development in native valley pine stands. Dave Overhulser and Chris Newa, USDA-FS entomologist conducted a study to see if they could control the ponderosa pine cone beetle through pheromone traps. The traps did not appreciably reduce insect damage. Bob McNitt and Roy Silen, retired PNW-FS geneticist conducted a study in native stands to stimulate cone development through mechanical and chemical means. Their results showed that one can increase cone development, but with the cone beetle it is not a practical method for securing seed from wild stands.
Goal 7 is well on the way to completion. A few trees in the older portion of the pine orchard produced seed in 2003. It is expected that the orchard will be providing seed at a production level within a few years.
Goal 8 has been implemented with the publishing of the Willamette Valley Ponderosa Pine Management Guide. Rick Fletcher, OSU Extension Forester oversaw the development and printing of the guide, which has been well received. A study to correlate native pine stands with soil types is nearing completion.
Goal 9 and 10, networking and disseminating information on pine, are ongoing efforts. The Association has functioned as the hub for sharing information on Valley ponderosa, through regular Executive Committee meetings, Annual Association meeting, the Annual Report, summer tours, pine brochures and the Management Guide.
In summary, many of the Association’s 10 goals have been completed or are near completion. In reviewing its tasks, the group is currently faced with two options. One is to disband in recognition that it has met its charge; and the other is look at what more can be done to promote the management of ponderosa pine in the Willamette Valley. The various growth characteristics of the pine families in the Robert H. Mealey Native Gene Conservancy orchard suggest that there is an opportunity for significant tree health and commercial tree improvement. The future of the Association will be a key topic for discussion at the 2004 annual meeting.