Christmas trees are going up. People are eager for some sparkle and good cheer to cap this challenging year.
In the Pacific Northwest, the major Christmas tree species is the Douglas fir. It was a happy coincidence that the book that appeared at the top of my pile of review books this week was “Douglas Fir: The Story of the West’s Most Remarkable Tree.”
The book is written by authors Stephen F. Arno and Carl E. Fiedler, both of whom hold Ph.D.s in forestry. The book celebrates the Douglas fir, an adaptable species found throughout western North America, from central British Columbia, Canada, down to Mexico’s southern tip.
The tree is capable of occupying some of the hottest, driest, coldest, windiest and moistest habitats within its vast range. In optimum growing conditions, it can achieve world-class heights.
Dubbing the Douglas fir “nature’s all-purpose tree,” Arno and Fiedler note that it has been used in construction projects for over 1,000 years. The Pueblo people used it as roof beams for their kivas. Centuries later, pioneers built entire towns out of Douglas fir lumber. The Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah, was built with Douglas fir, as were the blimp hangars at the Tillamook naval air station.
But Douglas fir has other applications, too. Northwest coastal tribes used the tree to make hunting bows, snowshoes and medicines. In the middle of the 19th century, the Spanish Navy refitted its entire sailing fleet with Douglas fir spars from Puget Sound. Not long after, when railroads were built across the continent, Douglas fir was used for the railroad ties.
Douglas fir flagpoles have flown flags that have waved proudly over forts and world’s fairs and London’s Kew Gardens.
Within the last half-century, folks started realizing that the Pacific Northwest’s old-growth forests were in danger of being logged out. In response, Douglas fir plantations have been established in France, New Zealand, Argentina and elsewhere to meet ongoing demand.
Douglas fir wood is strong, stable in drying and resistant to dry rot. But Douglas firs aren’t unassailable when it comes to fire.
The authors point out that while fire has always been an essential part of the forest ecosystem — and mature Douglas firs have thick, corky bark that can resist flames to some extent — 20th century fire suppression policies resulted in disastrous fuel accumulations that, along with climate change, have contributed to 21st century megafires.
Because Douglas fir grows in many different types of forests, Arno and Fiedler don’t offer a one-size-fits-all “rake the forest” policy. Instead, they advocate for customized, ecology-based forestry practices to reduce forest density and allow for commercial logging of smaller trees in some cases — and lightning-caused or prescribed burns in others.
Concluding with an enticing visitors’ guide to notable Douglas fir specimens throughout the West, this book offers lively perspectives on a tree that we perhaps take for granted too often.