The Noblest of Firs

Forests of Noble fir forests spread out to the horizon along the crest of Waucoma Ridge, just north of Mount Hood (Mount Adams in the distance)

We’re coming into another holiday season when millions of Americans will set up a Christmas tree cut in Oregon. There’s a good chance it will be a Noble fir, long prized as the most beautiful and durable of Christmas trees, representing about a third of the cut tree industry here. 

There was a time when Noble fir grown as holiday trees were left in their natural state, which features elegant tiers of symmetrical branches and soft, deep green, upwardly curving needles. In recent years, Nobles grown for mass-market consumption have increasingly been sheared to produce a densely branched, unnatural thicket (acknowledging my bias, here!) in the same way that Douglas fir have long been cultivated in the Christmas tree trade. Still, the un-sheared Nobles remain the gold standard, and they sell for gold-standard prices at tree lots, too.

New grown emerging on Noble fir boughs

Noble fir cones

In Oregon, families also have the option of cutting their own Christmas trees at U-cut tree farms, a popular benefit of living in a region that produces millions of holiday trees for the nation. It’s also possible to cut your own tree on National Forest land, a tradition that dates back a century or more. Though more regulated today by the U.S. Forest Service, families looking for a more adventurous option than local tree lot can head up to designated areas on the mountain (typically powerline corridors or recovering clear cuts) and bring home their own cut tree.

The author at age 11 (second from left) with family and friends on a 1973 trip to Lolo Pass to cut Christmas trees. Noble fir were always the goal, but in those days of heavier mountain snows, simply reaching the Noble fir zone in December was an adventure!

Christmas trees are pretty much the extent of public knowledge of the noblest of our true firs. As the common name might suggest, noble fir is the largest of all true firs. Their name was given in the fall of 1825 by botanist David Douglas when he ventured into the high country above the Columbia River River Gorge, in the vicinity of today’s Cascade Locks. Though he wasn’t specific about the peak he climbed on the north side of the river, it is believed to be today’s Table Mountain. A few days later, he climbed to a high point on the Oregon side, most likely today’s Benson Plateau.

On this pair of climbs, he came upon magnificent, old-growth stands of Noble fir, and gave them their well-deserved name. While they are undeniably beautiful as young trees, old-growth Noble fir are a sight to behold. Like many of our Pacific Northwest conifers, these trees grow to be giants, with the largest on record reaching nearly 300 feet in height and nearly 10 feet in diameter.  

Old-growth Noble fir forests near Mount Hood’s Bennett Pass

An ancient Noble fir giant towers above the surrounding forest canopy near Bennett Pass

Noble fir are also unique to the Pacific Northwest, with a range that extends from just above of Snoqualmie Pass in Washington south to the Siskiyou Mountains in Southern Oregon and the Trinity Alps region along the northern edge of California. In their southern extent, they are known to hybridize with California’s Shasta fir, a variety of the Red fir that grows in the Sierras and extends into the southern fringe of the Noble fir range.

Despite their willingness to grow in planted rows as farmed Christmas tree seedlings in the hot, dry summers of the Willamette Valley floor, Noble fir are a subalpine species. They typically grow at elevations of 3,500 feet to 5,500 feet, where they are long-lived and acclimated to the harsh winters of our mountains. Not surprisingly, they grow more slowly under these conditions, but they are tremendously adaptable, and often grow on very steep mountain slopes and exposed, rocky ridgetops.

Centuries-old Noble fir giant near Bennett Pass

Noble fir is a sun-loving pioneer species in our forests, quickly colonizing in burn areas to form pure, long-lived stands. Hike through one of the towering old-growth stands found in the high country of the Columbia Gorge or on the peaks surrounding Mount Hood, and you’re likely walking through an old burn, with the age of the trees as a good indicator of when fire last roared through, long ago. That’s because they are not only post-fire colonizers, but also highly susceptible to fire as mature trees, as they lack the protective bark of fire-adapted conifers like Ponderosa pine and Western larch.

This cycle of burn-and-rebirth in our Noble fir forests is on full display today on the north slopes of Mount Hood, where the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire burned through sprawling stands of subalpine Noble fir. These forests were almost entirely killed where the fires swept through, yet today, the forest recovery is already well underway, with young Noble fir seedlings leading the way among other post-fire pioneer species.

Ghost forest of Noble fir skeletons where the Dollar Lake Fire swept through a decade ago

Ancient Noble fir killed by the Dollar Lake Fire will provide wildlife habitat for many decades to come as a new forest grows here

Noble fir seedling emerging from the charred ashes of the Dollar Lake Fire

Meanwhile, across the Clear Branch canyon on the north of the mountain, the forests along the crest of Blue Ridge and at Owl Point (along today’s Old Vista Ridge Trail) are made up almost entirely of Noble fir that had colonized an earlier burn there, one that occurred sometime in the early 1900s. This pair of photos (below) from Owl Point shows how the foreground was burned and just beginning to recover in 1952, while 70 years later the scene is reversed: the forests along Blue Ridge and Owl Point have largely recovered, while the north slope of the mountain is just beginning its recovery from the 2011 Dollar lake Fire.

When our Noble fir forests are spared of fire and logging, individual trees can easily live up to 400 years.  The oldest known Noble fir have reached 600 to 700 years, though trees of this age are exceedingly rare after more than a century of commercial logging in the Pacific Northwest. 

In the early days of extensive logging, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, true firs were considered a lesser wood, so the timber industry marketed the massive, old-growth Noble firs as “Larch”. This explains two Larch Mountains in the Columbia River Gorge, one on each side of the river, and each the site of extensive turn-of-the-century logging in the early 1900s. The better-known Larch Mountain is on the Oregon side, and its broad, high elevation slopes provided a perfect habitat for Noble fir.

Loggers felling a massive Noble fir on Larch Mountain in 1905

By the early 1900s, the Bridal Veil Mill on the Columbia River had established an upstream sister mill in the heart of these Noble fir forests, where the trees were hundreds of years old, having been spared by fire for many centuries. The upstream mill was known as the Palmer Mill (and later, New Palmer Mill, after the first mill burned), and a road on Larch Mountain still carries its name. 

Loggers carried giant Noble fir cut on the slopes of Larch Mountain to the New Palmer Mill on logging railroads. This scene is from 1905

Old-growth Noble fir logs were milled at the original Palmer Mill site on the north slope of Larch Mountain. This scene is from 1896, when logging of the virgin Noble fir forests there was in its heyday

Palmer Mill was attached to the main mill by a long flume that followed Bridal Veil Creek, and it was the hub for a massive logging enterprise on Larch Mountain that felled most of the virgin Noble fir forests. Huge logs were first sent to Palmer Mill on a branched system of logging railroad spurs, then milled into rough lumber that was floated down the flume system to the Bridal Veil Mill for finishing into construction grade lumber.

Today, all but a few traces of the Palmer Mill are gone, and many of the Noble fir forests on Larch Mountain are approaching 100 years in age. The area somehow dodged the 2017 Gorge Fire that swept through vast areas of the Gorge, burning through thousands of acres of Noble fir forests in the Gorge high country. 

Noble fir in the age of Climate Change

Today, Noble fir country in the western Oregon Cascades is a checkerboard of clear cuts that mark the advent of National Forest logging that began on a commercial scale in the late 1940s. When these trees were cut, the catch phrase used to justify logging ancient forests was “sustained yield”, though sustained yield forestry never envisioned restoring ancient forests to their natural state. Instead, the management philosophy was to provide a continual supply of 60-100 year-old trees from plantations that could be repeatedly logged via a vast network of logging roads built in our forests from the late 1940s through the early 1990s.

When 7.5 minute USGS maps were created in the 1950s and early 60s, there were already thousands of clear cuts on Forest Service lands that showed up on the new maps as a checkboard in heavily logged areas like Mount Hood’s Blue Ridge (shown here). Many more clear cuts followed, and sixty years later, these clear cuts are often overcrowded plantations of conifers that the Forest Service is now thinning through new timber sales

Despite the early bias against true firs, the wood produced by Noble fir eventually came to be valued for being light and strong, and was used during World War II in aircraft, as well as more common construction uses in windows, doors and paper production. This led to aggressive logging in the later years of the commercial timber boom of the 1950s-90s, when lower elevation forests had already been logged over, and high-elevation Noble fir forests were increasingly targeted. 

The Pacific Crest Trail follows the crest of this ridge near Lolo Pass, where heavily logged, high-elevation Noble fir forests have been slow to recover. These clear cuts are now 40-50 years old, and yet the stunted, crowded young plantation trees are still dwarfed by the groves of big, old-growth trees that were spared the chainsaw

Clearcutting on the steep, mountainous terrain where Noble fir grow was never sustainable, at least as measured in human lifetimes. The big, high elevation Noble fir forests sold off by the Forest Service were often hundreds of years old, with even the smaller-diameter trees well over a century old. There was never a chance to produce a rotating “crop” of trees at these elevations large enough to justify logging for generations to come, but that didn’t slow the rush to log these forests.

Instead, the logging boom finally peaked with the listing of the Spotted Owl and subsequent “timber wars” in the early 1990s, and it has never fully recovered, though some logging on our national forests continues today.

This Noble fir fell across the Timberline Trail recently, and was sawed out by trail crews. While it is only about 15” in diameter, a count of the annual growth rings revealed this tree to be over 160 years old, demonstrating how elevation and mountain conditions slow the growth of these trees

It’s easily to lose perspective on just how old the trees in our mountain forests really are. The above is a timeline of human events that unfolded since this tree took root as a Noble fir seedling on Mount Hood until a windstorm knocked it down in 2020. This tree is approximately 14 inches in diameter and 160 years old.

These stumps near Bennet Pass mark some of the oldest and largest Noble fir ever logged near Mount Hood, with some of these trees approaching 300 years old when they were cut. These stumps look like they might be a couple years old, with bark still intact. In fact, these trees were logged about 30 years ago, yet the Noble fir seedlings growing in this recovering clear cut are barely six feet tall

This is the same stump that appears in the foreground in the previous photo, with approximate dates according to tree rings. When it was cut, it has lived through more than a quarter of the first millennium.

The Bennett Pass clear cut (shown above) might look recent, given the intact condition of the stumps and the young Noble fir trees just getting established. Yet, this forest was cut nearly 30 years ago, as shown in the aerial photo pair (below). Thanks to its high elevation at over 4,000 feet, and resulting slow forest recovery, this logged area is still just beginning to reforest.

After nearly 30 years, this clear cut in an old-growth Noble fir forest near Bennett Pass is only beginning to recover

These examples are typical of logged Noble fir forests throughout the Mount Hood National Forest. They simply haven’t recovered at the pace the Forest Service assumed when logging was still king. Noble fir seedlings in these cut-over areas have often grown very slowly, reaching just 6 or 8 feet in height after 30 or 40 years of post-logging recovery. The slow recovery has also compounded the fragmentation effect on wildlife that depend on uninterrupted old-growth forest habitat.

Today, the Forest Service is grappling with the perfect storm of an aging, overbuilt system of spur roads from the heyday of commercial logging coupled with increasingly catastrophic forest fires resulting from climate change and a century of fire suppression. This is especially true in high-elevation Noble fir country, where clear cut plantations are especially vulnerable to summer drought and fire, and logging roads are impacted by severe winter conditions.

To meet these challenges, along with Congressional quotas for timber production that have always been unsustainable, the Forest Service has pivoted to forest thinning the thickets of young plantation trees in previously logged areas. It’s arguable that this strategy will help restore forests to a healthy state, but sadly, the Forest Service mission isn’t to restore a mature, healthy forest. Their goal is to bring more marketable logs to maturity, the primary management objective for much of Mount Hood National Forest.

Forest thinning operation on Butcher Knife Ridge, north of Mount Hood, where roughly one third of the trees have been removed from a clear cut plantation to encourage a more diverse forest structure

Forest thinning typically produces massive piles of woody debris, as seen here on Blue Ridge, just outside the Mount Hood Wilderness. Logging debris was historically burned as “slash”, though new uses are under development to make better use of this material as we enter the age of widespread forest thinning

The jury is out as to whether forest thinning improves the health of crowded plantations better than simply doing nothing, given the impact of heavy equipment on tree root systems and the forest understory.  The science does suggest that thinning can help as a preventative means for reducing forest fire severity, since it removes potential fuel from the forest. The benefit of thinning Noble fir plantations is less clear, however, since the species is already more vulnerable to fire than other conifers, and seldom survives fire.

Noble fir also tolerate crowded conditions better than other conifers, presumably because these trees are so effective at colonizing burns and often form nearly pure stands in the process. Young Noble fir forests often have little understory beyond a carpet of beargrass because the trees are so closely spaced. But these pure stands have also evolved to self-thin over time, maturing to a more open canopy that allows huckleberry, rhododendron and other mountain understory species to thrive among more widely spaced, mature trees. In these forests, young Noble fir are also part of the understory, as the forest canopy continues to regenerate.

The following images show self-thinning in a young (about 80 years old) Noble fir forest on Bald Mountain, along the Timberline Trail. A recent windstorm selectively toppled the weakest among these trees, a timeless process that Noble fir don’t need our help with.

Recent downfall in a young stand of Noble fir on Bald Mountain are part of an ongoing, self-thinning process these trees have evolved for

Recent self-thinning event in a pure Noble fir stand on Bald Mountain. If it doesn’t burn, this protected forest inside the Mount Hood Wilderness will continue to self-thin, becoming an old-growth Noble fir forest in time

With logged high-elevation forests recovering very slowly, and high-elevation spur roads failing especially badly, and the mounting negative impacts of clear cutting, continued logging of our Noble fir forests simply isn’t a sustainable practice. A new management philosophy that centers on forest restoration and climate adaptation over timber extraction is long overdue.

Instead of waiting a century or more to produce marketable Noble fir saw logs, these recovering forests could be sold for credits on the carbon market, using their gradual recovery as carbon offsets for polluting industries. Over the long term, Noble fir have immense capacity for carbon capture and storage. Scientists studying the ancient Noble fir forests at the Goat March Research Natural Area, near Mount St. Helens, have determined this forest to have a biomass second only to the coastal Redwood forests of Northern California.

A mature, thriving Noble fir forest at the 4,000 elevation on Mount Hood, with a diverse mix of mature and younger trees, and a few wildlife snags 

Such a shift in Forest Service philosophy would not only help the global response to climate change, it would also yield a host of other benefits that high elevation forests in our region provide – a list that include critical wildlife habitat, cooler and more stable stream runoff for endangered salmon and steelhead and crucial water supplies for nearby communities that depend on mountain snowpack that forests help retain.

Mature Noble fir forest on Mount Hood, with towering old-growth trees mixed with younger trees and a dense understory

Such a shift in focus would also allow for the Forest Service to retire many of its deteriorating logging spur roads, and revenue from the sale of carbon credits could provide needed funding to do the work. Beyond the escalating cost to maintain them, these roads are notorious for triggering landslides and dumping sediments into streams when cut-and-fill roadbeds fail from plugged culverts or landslides. They also represent an increasing hazard in the form of human-caused forest fires and illegal dumping, as some of the worst lawless activity occurs on these remote roads where law enforcement simply cannot have a meaningful presence.

This road decommissioning work has already begun in the Mount Hood National Forest, though only in fits and starts, as it has thus far been driven by declining agency budgets more than an eye toward forest recovery and restoration. A focus on the broader outcomes of climate, water quality and fish habitat could speed up this important work with a new sense of urgency.

Where to see Noble fir

Want to see some of these trees close-up? One of the best and most accessible places is the short trail to Sherrard Point, which is the rocky summit pinnacle of Larch Mountain. The road to the summit picnic area and Sherrard Point trail is gated in the winter, but usually opens by early June. An easy, paved trail and series of stairsteps leads to the viewpoint.

Noble fir giants at sunset in WyEast country

If you’d like a longer hike, the short, steep climb to the summit of Bald Mountain, near Lolo Pass, leads through some of the best old growth Noble fir in the Mount Hood area:

Bald Mountain from Top Spur

For an even longer hike, start from Lolo Pass and follow the Pacific Crest Trail to Bald Mountain, with much of the route through Noble fir forests:

Bald Mountain from Lolo Pass

Perhaps the best Noble fir forests in the Cascades are at Goat Marsh, near Mt. St. Helens. A short trail takes you into this fascinating research area and some of the largest known Noble fir trees in the world:

Goat Marsh Lake

Bald Mountain and Goat Marsh are snowed in during the winter months, but typically open by early June.

Enjoy!

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Tom Kloster | November 2021

Owl Point Sentinel Tree

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Mount Hood from Owl Point in October 2006

Just over a decade has passed since I first visited Owl Point, a spectacular rocky viewpoint along the Old Vista Ridge Trail, on Mount Hood’s north side. At the time, the trail had fallen into disrepair after years of neglect, but it has since rebounded thanks to volunteers pitching in.

Since that first visit, I’ve been to Owl Point every year to admire and photograph the dramatic view of Mount Hood and enjoy the relative solitude, compared to many other places on the mountain. I’ve watched the landscape change, sometimes dramatically, as was the case with the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire that swept the north side of Mount Hood. But I’ve also watched more subtle changes as the details of this beautiful spot become ever more familiar.

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The author at Owl Point in 2008 (Photo: Andy Prahl)

One of those more subtle features is a craggy Noble Fir perched among the boulders on the exposed south flank of Owl Point. This old survivor can be seen in the far left of one of the first photos I shot in 2006 (at the top of the article) and in the photo, above, taken in 2008 by trail volunteer Andy Prahl.

If you’ve followed this blog over the years, you’ve seen earlier articles about “sentinel trees”. These are trees that seem to defy the odds and elements in their size, grandeur or simple tenacity in finding a way to survive. This tree certainly qualifies.

From an aesthetic perspective, the old Noble Fir at Owl Point is a gift for photographers, adding testimony to the rugged, often harsh conditions found there. The old tree also adds a nice visual balance and interest to the scene. So, in this way the Owl Point sentinel tree has become an old friend to this photographer.

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Owl Point in July 2011, with the old Noble Fir on the left – just days before the Dollar Lake Fire

In 2011, I visited Owl Point just a few days before the catastrophic Dollar Lake Fire swept across the north slopes of Mount Hood, burning 6,300 acres of subalpine wilderness. The photo above is among the last that I captured of the once-green forests on the mountain before the fire changed the landscape.

Though the fire burned for more than two months that summer, Owl Point and the Old Vista Ridge Trail were somehow spared and the craggy old Noble Fir sentinel tree at Old Point lived on.

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The Dollar Lake Fire in 2011

After the fire, Owl Point served as one of the best places to absorb the full scope of the Dollar Lake Fire, with nearly the entire extent of the burn visible from there. While the brown swath of scorched trees was jarring to look at, it was also a reminder that fire is a regular and necessary visitor to our forests.

The forests we lost to the fire have since given us a new window into how new forests emerge from the ashes, a process as old as the forests, themselves.

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Browned slopes of Mount Hood one year after the fire in 2012

The old Noble Fir sentinel tree at Owl Point had witnessed fire before the Dollar Lake Fire, and from a much closer vantage point. Sometime in the early 1900s, a similarly large fire swept across the high country north of Mount Hood, scorching Owl Point and thousands of acres in the surrounding area.

This 1952 photo (below) shows the forest recovery from this earlier fire at Owl Point just getting underway, decades after the burn. In fact, the area is still in recovery today, a century after the fire.

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Early 1900s burn that swept across Owl Point (Courtesy: Hood River History Museum)

The view from 1952 is an inverse scene from what we see today, with a scorched foreground and lush, green slopes on Mount Hood. These contrasting images over time area a reminder of the fire cycles that are as natural to the area as rain and wind.

A closer look at the 1952 photo reveals several trees that survived the older fire, thanks to their isolation in the open talus fields below Owl Point:

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These trees on the talus slopes of Owl Point survived the earlier fire

One of these fortunate survivors is the sentinel tree at Owl Point that we know today. Though only 30-40 feet tall, it could easily be a century or more old, stunted by the harsh conditions on the talus slope.

While the old Noble Fir at Owl Point appears to have dodged a couple of forest fires in its lifetime, the tree began to show signs of stress in 2012, the year after the Dollar Lake Fire. Foliage (below) from some of its lower limbs began to drop, suggesting the beginning of its decline.

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Owl Point sentinel tree in 2012, one year after the Dollar Lake Fire

By 2014 (below), the signs of stress were more ominous, and it was clear that the old sentinel tree was losing its battle to survive the elements at Owl Point.

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Owl Point sentinel tree in 2014

After the snowpack melted off in 2016, the situation for the old tree had become dire as it struggled to maintain the remaining foliage in its crown (below), a sign that the tree might not survive the season.

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Stress claims the crown of the Owl Point sentinel tree in 2016

But a closer look (below) this summer at the dying tree tells a different story. While the exposed upper portion of the tree has clearly lost its battle, a fringe of healthy new foliage is thriving around the base of the tree. It turns out that while the Owl Point Noble Fir has lost its main trunk, it is still very much alive.

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Owl Point sentinel tree finally succumbs to the elements in 2017

An even closer look at the base of the old tree (below) shows the secret of “krummholz”, the name for stunted trees that survive in harsh alpine environments. Trees like this Noble Fir adapt to their conditions by producing new leaders from their lowest branches to replace dying or broken tops.

These new leaders on Noble Fir growing as krummholz often form dense mats of foliage at the base of a tree, low enough to be protected by winter snowpack from the harshest weather conditions. This is clearly the case for the Owl Point sentinel tree.

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A new beginning for the Owl Point Noble Fir…

The classic example of a krummholz in Mount Hood country is the Whitebark Pine, a tree that thrives above 5,000 feet, often gnarled beyond imagination by the elements. The example below shows the skeleton of an ancient Whitebark Pine (on Lookout Mountain), surrounded by new leaders that have merged from limbs flattened to the ground by winter snowpack.

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Ancient Whitebark Pine krummholz on Lookout Mountain

While winter conditions regularly shear off new growth that pokes above the snowpack on a krummholz, a rapidly growing new trunk like the one emerging at the base of the Owl Point sentinel tree can eventually survive and grow to replace the older tree. This is clearly a slow process, and one that I won’t likely be around to witness!

But in the near-term, photographers like me will be able to watch the dying trunk of the Owl Point sentinel tree gradually weathering to become a dramatic sun-bleached snag that will be photogenic in its own right. And, as the new leader continues to rise from the base of the old trunk, this striking old tree will continue tell a powerful story of survival.

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You can visit Owl Point and see its sentinel Noble Fir by following the 4-mile round trip Old Vista Ridge hike from the Vista Ridge Trailhead. The hike is described here in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide.