You have probably noticed something new in the forests west of Bend on your dog walks and bike rides this year; a lot more paint on trees. This is all part of the West Bend Project on the Deschutes National Forest, designed to restore forest ecosystems, reduce the risk to our community from high-severity wildfire, and provide economic and social benefits to all of us who love the forest. We thought we would check in with Tamara Kerr, a Forester on the Deschutes National Forest, to get a better idea of what the paint is all about.
The Forest Service uses paint as one of the means to communicate with the contractors, who are working with us to treat areas of West Bend, to define the location of unit boundaries and the trees to be removed within a contract area. Contracts can be three or more years in duration, so tree marking needs to last that long. Paint is the cheapest and most durable physical means of designating project boundaries, as well as guiding how the forest is to be commercially thinned within those boundaries. Plastic flagging gets torn down and removed by both wildlife and humans and is not durable enough to get us through a contract period. Painting of trees allows both the contractor and the Forest Service to clearly understand and ensure that the correct trees are being removed under the contract.
We use several colors of paint to communicate different things within a contract area; the most commonly used are orange and blue. Orange paint is used to designate unit boundaries as well as designate trees that are to be left uncut. Blue marked trees are those that have been designated for removal.
Trees marked with letters or numbers are typically associated with research plots or a cruise. A cruise is how we measure a sample of the trees that will be removed during commercial thinning to determine the economic value. The trees that are included in the sample are physically numbered for accountability and transparency. In the West Bend Project the economic value of the trees is being used to do important restoration work in the area such as mowing of brush, thinning of small trees, and application of prescribed fire.
The stands are evaluated prior to contract preparation to determine the most efficient and cost-effective designation method to achieve the desired outcomes (reduced fire hazard, healthier and more resilient forests, or improved wildlife habitat). We want to use as little paint as possible to get the job done. Sometimes we choose blue paint in highly scenic areas to limit the long term visual impact of paint in the landscape. It is a tradeoff between scenic views, efficiency, and cost.
The paint is designed to last for the duration of our contracts, which is typically 3-5 years. In most instances the paint fades significantly after about five years depending on how much direct sun exposure it receives.
The paint colors that we use are mandated across the Forest Service and help to standardize the way we do business in the region. Having a predictable, standardized system decreases the chance of confusion in our contracts and increases the certainty that we’ll have desirable restoration outcomes.
No, if the desired outcome is straightforward and simple enough, we can also use contract language to describe which trees are to be removed, rather than physically painting them. We also often use a combination of paint and contract language to achieve the best restoration outcome for our forests.