Stephen P. Broker
At least 15 species of Westside conifers grow to heights of 200 feet. Their huge size permits maximum exposure to sunlight during the year, especially when light levels are reduced in winter. There is also maximum exposure to moisture. The tallest species is Douglas-fir, the most valuable tree in terms of world timber commerce. It reaches 330 feet and 16 feet in diameter. It occurs in many kinds of ecosystems. Unlike most giant conifers, which begin life in shaded conditions, Douglas-fir is dependent on fire and it grows best in sunlit openings. It grows rapidly on good sites. The wood is used for framing lumber and plywood.
Western Red cedars are found in moister parts of the Pacific Northwest. They are typically scattered among other conifers. Sometimes they form pure stands in low spots where roots of other conifers would drown. This is a shade-tolerant species. It grows to 200 feet and 20 feet in diameter. It is fairly slow-growing. The wood is easily split, is decay-resistant, and is used for making shingles.
Western Hemlock is a moisture-loving species. It is probably the most abundant conifer from coastal Oregon to southeastern Alaska. It grows to 215 feet high, with a maximum diameter of 10 feet. It grows faster than Western Red cedar. Western Hemlock seedlings often blanket nurse logs. They are very shade tolerant. They can form extensive pure stands. The tree species is cut extensively for lumber and paper pulp.
Sitka Spruce towers over red cedars and hemlocks in foggy coastal forests, too wet to favor Douglas-fir. The tree reaches 300 feet in height and 17 feet in diameter. It is fast-growing and can reproduce in forest shade. Many gain an initial foothold in the forest on nurse logs. Sitka Spruce is a strong, light wood.
Additional species of old-growth conifers include Sugar Pine (maximum 250 feet high and 18 feet diameter), Ponderosa Pine (232 feet high, 8 feet diameter), Western White Pine (239 feet high, 7 feet diameter), Noble Fir (260 feet high, 9 feet diameter), Pacific Silver Fir (245 feet high, 8 feet diameter), Grand Fir (250 feet high, 5 feet diameter), White Fir (230 feet high, 6 feet diameter), Incense Cedar (225 feet high, 12 feet diameter), and Port Orford Cedar (240 feet high, 11 feet diameter). The uniqueness of the Olympic Rain Forest is illustrated by the number of world record sized trees found here. The world’s largest Yellow Cedar, Western Hemlock, and Subalpine Fir trees are found in the Olympic Range.
Non-conifer trees include Bigleaf Maple, Red Alder, Vine Maple, and Black Cottonwood. Shrubs include Devil’s Club and huckleberry. Herbaceous plants include ferns, mosses, club mosses, and lichens. An interesting adaptation to the low light levels and levels of precipitation reaching the forest floor is that a number of plant species—more than 100 in all—found in the Olympic rain forest are adapted to life up in the trees with no root connection to the forest soil. These epiphytes, plants which do not come into contact with the ground but are not parasitic, include liverworts, mosses, club mosses (
), lichens, and ferns (licorice fern and sword fern). They collect their water by soaking it up in soft plant tissues. Big-leaf Maple is the deciduous tree most likely to be covered with mats of epiphytes.
The unique climate and ecology of the Olympic Peninsula have produced a number of animals which are particularly well adapted to their surroundings. Several of them are endemic species or subspecies, found only in the Olympics. Two endemic species of fishes are Beardsley Trout (a type of rainbow trout) and Crescenti Trout (a cutthroat trout). The endemic species and subspecies of amphibians are the Olympic Salamander and Cope’s Giant Salamander. Olympic Salamander inhabits mountain streams and creeks.
There are no endemic bird species, as these animals have the ability to disperse to other regions -of the Pacific Northwest, North America, and wider geographic areas. However, several species are recognized as indicator species of mature, old-growth forest. The Spotted Owl is an endangered species which has highly specialized habitat requirements—dense, mature stands of trees and a minimum of 3000 acres of contiguous forested land with mature, multi-layered and multi-aged canopy, large snags, deformed branches for perches, and internal defects for nest cavities. The Marbled Murrelet is an alcid (puffin relative) which spends most of its life as a pelagic (oceanic) species but which nests fairly exclusively in old-growth forests. It constructs its nest 180 or more feet up in old-growth trees which are 300 to 600 years old. This extremely specialized nesting bird is the last species of North American bird to have its nest discovered (1974). The Pileated Woodpecker, a species also found in Connecticut, is not a rare species in the Olympics, but it does require mature habitats and thus is an indicator species of the ecological balance and health of the forest.
Olympic mammals include the Roosevelt Elk and Columbia Blacktailed Deer. These animals have seasonal migrations to open or forested areas, based on availability of browse and winter forest cover. Their movements are closely tied to the climate cycle. Several endemic species or subspecies of mammals are found in the Olympics, including the Olympic Marmot, Olympic Chipmunk, Yellow Pine Chipmunk, Olympic Snow Mole, and Short-tailed Weasel. They have specific habitat requirements, such as alpine and subalpine habitats of the marmot.