Established in 1911, Priest River Experimental Forest is one of the first experimental forests set aside by the Forest Service as a forestry research center. Located just outside of Priest River, Idaho, this experimental forest is currently administered by the Rocky Mountain Research Station from the Forestry Sciences Laboratory in Moscow, Idaho.
Priest River Experimental Forest (PREF) lies 13 miles northeast of the city of Priest River, Idaho, and 23 miles northwest of Sandpoint, Idaho. The Forest Service established the Priest River Experimental Forest in 1911 as one of the first experimental forests set aside as a forestry research center. PREF also served as the headquarters for the District 1 (now Region 1) investigative program until 1930, when PREF was incorporated into the Northern Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, headquartered in Missoula, Montana. The Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS), headquartered in Fort Collins, Colorado, currently administers the PREF from the Moscow Forestry Sciences Laboratory, Moscow, Idaho.
Situated on the westward slope of a spur of the Selkirk Mountains, PREF contains elevations that vary from 2,200 feet (671m) at the Priest River on the western boundary, to 5,900 feet (1,798 m) at Experimental Point, 5.6 miles (9 km) to the east. Mountains comprise approximately 90% of the area. This high land is cut by a number of streams that flow east to west, with ridges between them that also run in a general east-west direction. Though the main slopes face north and south, because tributary waterways also cut into ridges, a considerable number of slopes have east-west exposures. The slopes range from moderately steep to very steep. Benton Creek, Canyon Creek, and Fox Creek drain into Priest River, which cuts across the southwestern corner of the Experimental Forest.
PREF contains approximately 6,368 acres (2,758 ha) of mountainous forestland, with small areas of talus and alpine grassland. The Experimental Forest contains a variety of managed and reserve areas, a multitude of ecological site choices from wild to extremely disturbed areas, and all of the significant forest types and habitat associations of the region.
Within PREF are two Research Natural Areas, Canyon Creek, 977 acres (395 ha), established in 1937, and Wellner Cliffs, 310 acres (125 ha), established in 2006.
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In terms of climate, topography, flora, and fauna, the Northern Rocky Mountains are a diverse region. Within this context, Priest River Experimental Forest is an excellent representation of the forested ecosystems that are common to an area west of the continental divide and north of the Snake River Plain.
In general terms, the Priest River-Northern Rocky Mountain climate is transitional between a northern Pacific coastal type and a continental type.
The Pacific influence is noted particularly by the late autumn and winter maximum cloudiness and precipitation. The relatively moderate average winter temperatures, compared with areas east of the continental divide, also show the Pacific influence. Summer is characteristically sunny and dry, though July and August are the only distinct summer months.
The average annual (water year, Oct 1 – Sep 30) precipitation at the Forest headquarters is 32.17 inches (817 mm). At higher elevations, precipitation slightly increases. The Benton Spring rain gauge at 4,774 feet-elevation (1455 m) receives an annual average of 36.42 inches (925 mm) of precipitation. The wettest months are November through March, which receive close to 60% of the annual total precipitation. Snowfall accounts for more than 50% of the total precipitation at elevations above 4,593 feet (1400 m). Snow cover usually persists in the valleys from early December through the end of March, with maximum averages around 19.29 inches (49 cm) deep. High-elevation snowpack can reach an average depth of 51.97 inches (132 cm) at the end of March and sometimes remain into June.
The monthly mean temperatures at the headquarters range from 25oF (-4oC) in January to 64oF (18oC) in July. The annual mean temperature is 45oF (7oC). Extreme temperatures have ranged from a high of 103oF (40oC) to a low of -36oF (-38oC). The climate at PREF provides a transition between the strong maritime influence on the coniferous forests of the coastal Pacific Northwest domain and the dryer, colder interior flora found east of the continental divide. The long-term daily weather record, coupled with the snow pack record, allow researchers to document subtle changes in weather patterns. This is particularly relevant to stakeholders within the drainages of the Priest, Pend O'Reille, Snake, Clearwater, and Columbia River systems.
The soils of the mountain slopes are underlain by rocks, including granites, gneiss, and schist. The major rock type appears to be gneiss. The schist contains prominent biotite and muscovite mica, and is thinner bedded than the gneiss. Soil surface horizons have formed in aeolian loess and volcanic ash. Surface textures are mostly silt loams, relatively fine-textured soils with low rock contents and high water-holding capacity.
Soils at elevations up to 3,280 feet (1,000 m) on southerly aspects are associated with shallow Saltese soils with minor amounts of deeper Jughandle soils on concave slopes of the drainages. Above this threshold, the Jughandle soils and associated phases of exposure, except the subalpine phase above 4,593 feet (1400 m), are mapped in the zone of maximum soil moisture and soil temperature effectiveness. Fertility is high on these sites. Above 4,593 feet (1,400 m), the colder soils predominate, though moisture is near maximum. South-facing slopes near this elevation and above contain the Horsehead soils, which represent a prairie-forest transition to the subalpine environment.
The soils of Priest River Experimental Forest, Jughandle, Cabinet, Springdale, and Chamokane, are extensively mapped in forest lands in northern Idaho. Saltese and Horsehead soils have been mapped in Montana in the St. Regis and Ninemile area. A detailed geologic map of the Sandpoint Quadrangle, which includes the entire Priest River drainage, was completed in 1979.
Moisture usually limits high timber production on soils of the river terraces and lacustrine benches, and the south-facing slopes at lower elevations. Relatively high evaporation from prevailing southwest winds helps make these sites dry. The stream terraces and fans of Benton and Canyon Creeks have favorable run-in moisture from side slopes, and fertility and productivity are near maximum in the area. Soils of the middle elevations, and on northerly, easterly, and westerly slopes have highest fertility and productivity associated with favorable moisture-temperature relationships. Fertilizer experiments have demonstrated that nitrogen and, on metamorphic bedrocks, potassium deficiencies, may co-limit productivity. Soils of the high elevations have less favorable soil temperature and lowest fertility (McConnell 1965).
About two thirds of the Experimental Forest is covered in mixed conifer forest more than 100 years old. Most of this is timber in the 120- to 140-year age class (resulting from a fire ca. 1860). The remainder is in timber more than 200 years old. The other third of the Experimental Forest is in non-stocked areas or in young timber on harvest units and burns that have occurred since PREF was established (Wellner 1976).
The most detailed and intensive sampling of habitat types and cover types at PREF was reported by Daubenmire (1973) (also see Wellner 1976). A species list of vascular flora collected and identified by Daubenmire is found in Wellner's 1976 publication. Reconnaissance surveys and mapping have helped determine cover types and habitat types. Habitat types within PREF are best described as "complex" because of the extremely rapid changes in aspects and from wet to dry habitats. Plant species diversity is high due to the number of different habitat types that are intimately intermixed. Within the Wellner Cliffs RNA are plants indicative of wet habitats — western redcedar (Thuja plicata), wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), baneberry (Actaea rubra), and devils club (Oplopanax horridum). These occur within a few feet of dry habitats that support species such as ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), lodgepole pine (P. contorta), Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis), and bluebunch wheatgrass (Agropyron spicatum) (Ferguson and Zack 2006).
Mosses and lichens were inventoried along the lower section of Canyon Creek within the RNA in 2001. During this inventory, the moss Ulota megalospora was recorded for the first time in Idaho. A list of lichens observed by Mike Hays at Wellner Cliffs RNA was complied in July 1997.
A survey of lower Canyon Creek was conducted by Fred Rabe in 1995 (Rabe 1995). The surveyed portion of the stream was the last 0.3 miles (0.5 km) of Canyon Creek before it exits the Wellner Cliffs RNA. In this section of the stream, Canyon Creek is a 2nd order stream with v-shaped valley form and 4-6% gradient. Stream size is 5–15ft (1.5–4.6m), averaging 11ft (3.4m). Sinuosity index is 1.3 (average) with many debris dams caused by windthrown trees falling into the stream. This riffle-pool stream had a pH of 7.3 and 45oF (7.2oC) temperature on September 25, 1995. Canopy coverage was estimated at 60–75% of the channel shaded by vegetation, which was mostly shrubs and conifers.
Rabe compiled a list of 40 macroinvertebrate taxa found in the RNA. A low biotic index was calculated from these data, indicating the macro invertebrate community is quite intolerant of poor water quality conditions.In his summary, Rabe notes that lower Canyon Creek would be a good choice as a reference site for comparison with impacted streams of similar size and flow.
Since the Priest River Experimental Forest began, numerous educators, Forest Service researchers, and state and private forestry personnel have used the site. Research conducted by J.A. Larsen, Harry Gisborne, Ken Davis, Charles Wellner, and Irvine Haig provided information on basic forestry principles still used today for managing Rocky Mountain forests. These and other researchers throughout PREF's history have made it a key location for conducting studies of forest ecosystems of the Northern Rocky Mountains.
Regeneration studies using shelterwood, seedtree, and clearcut methods have provided information for regenerating mixed-conifer forests. Site preparation, planting, cleaning, weeding, and thinning studies have provided information on regeneration and maintenance of forest stand composition and growth.
Performance trials began in 1911 with a species variation test of ponderosa pine, composed of seed sources from 22 locations throughout the western United States. Researchers have studied growth characteristics of disease-resistant western white pine since 1955, and seed-transfer rules and zones for western conifers.
Fire research began with the development of the first fire danger rating system, followed by studies on weather factors, fire behavior, fuel inflammability, and fire effects. This effort is the foundation for the current fire danger systems now used throughout the United States and Canada.
Researchers have studied forest growth and yield on the PREF since 1914, with several permanent plots re-measured at regular intervals. Information from these plots and other locations throughout the Northern Rocky Mountains is used to verify and test growth and yield computer models.
Currently, researchers are studying ecosystem processes and functions, including: the effects of management activities on long-term soil productivity, coarse woody debris function, atmospheric deposition, western white pine seedling development in canopy gaps, forest structure impacts on water yield and quality, white bark pine progeny trials, and carbon sequestration in mixed-conifer forests.
The following major research findings were developed at Priest River:
The Forest Service has collected and archived long-term datasets of daily weather (1911), snow pack (1937), tree growth (1914) and streamflow (1938). In 2003, PREF became a monitoring site (site # ID02) of the National Atmospheric Deposition Program (NADP).
The climatic, hydrological, and atmospheric datasets collected at PREF are public domain and available to interested parties. Raw data are archived at the PREF and the Moscow Forestry Sciences Lab, and is also available at several websites:
Daily Observations (11/27/1911 to present) are available. Search using the Priest River Experimental Station, ID # 107386. The data set consists of daily maximum and minimum temperature, precipitation, daily snowfall and accumulated snow fall.
(WY 1937 to present) are available for the Benton Meadow (elev. 2,380 ft, 725 m) and Benton Spring (elev. 4,775 ft, 1,455 m) snowcourses:
On December 31, 2002, a National Atmospheric Deposition Program (NADP) site was established in Priest River Experimental Forest. The site designation is ID02. Data can be found at the NADP webpage.
Digitized gauge heights from 1955 to present are available from the Moscow Forestry Sciences Lab. This data will eventually be archived in the Rocky Mountain Research Station database.
Derived from permanent growth and yield plots, 1914 to present is available at the Moscow Lab.
A detailed archaeological survey of PREF was conducted in 1978 and is on file at the Moscow Forestry Sciences Lab.
Road access to Priest River Experimental Forest is by State Highway 2 from Spokane, Washington to Priest River, Idaho. From Priest River, drive north on State Highway 57 for 3 miles, then north on Peninsula Road, a Bonner County road (5 miles pavement and then 5 miles of gravel) to reach the Experimental Forest. Within PREF, the entry and forest roads are surfaced with gravel or native soils.
The headquarters site consists of an office/lab building, three residential buildings, a bunkhouse/mess hall, and modest shop. A full-time resident and employee occupy a fourth residence. All were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1934 and 1939 and are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Gisborne Fire Lookout is listed on the National Historic Lookout Register. A conference building, with a capacity of 50, was added in 1998.
During the field season, the Experimental Forest averages 1000 use-days by Forest Service personnel and their cooperators. The residential buildings and bunkhouse have a capacity of 27 beds. During the winter months, a cabin and the bunkhouse/mess hall are shut down, reducing bed space to 18. The residential buildings are ADA compliant and provide visitors with full kitchen facilities and linens.
The diversity of conifer species, age classes, and associated flora and fauna provide endless opportunities for research projects. Forest conditions range from pristine to highly disturbed. Of the 13 major conifer species found in the Northern Rocky Mountains, all are represented in PREF. In addition, long-term climate data is valuable for characterizing subtle weather changes in this ecosystem and can supplement a variety of ecological studies. Priest River Experimental Forest GIS layers and LiDAR coverage are available at the Moscow Lab.