Shouting from the tree tops

An autonomous group of environmental activists occupied a part of the Willamette National Forest beginning on Sept. 11 in advance of a proposed timber sale by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Cascadia Forest Defenders positioned themselves high in the trees in the Olallie Creek area. In several towns on the way to the forest like Vida, Nimrod, Finn Rock, Rainbow, and Blue River, there were charred trees and many stone chimneys, all that was left of people’s homes and businesses. There were construction crews throughout, though, helping to rebuild.

On Sept. 15, DSM arrived at a nondescript, very plain-looking campground parking area deep in the forest around 12 p.m.

We walked down an unpaved road that we were directed to park off of in a nondescript camp lot. There, we were met with Nettle and Skipper. The two guided the four of us to a natural spring prior to being led to their makeshift camp where we were greeted by others. 

The road we met the activists on is a barrier in the Willamette National Forest. Not only is it a man-made disturbance with edge effects, the road also divides the forest. As one walks along the dirt road the structural differences between each side become evident.

Along one side, the trees have been previously thinned — probably 15 or 20 years ago. Thinning is a technique that has been used to appease both conservationists as well as continue to provide trees to the logging industry. 

[John Adair // Double Sided Media]

This technique is not favored by Nettle, one of the activists. He would prefer to let the forest do what a forest does best and he said “thinning occurs naturally through wind, fire, infection, and disease.”

On the other side, signs of an “untouched” old growth forest creeped to the edge of the road.

Sharing a similar background in biology allowed conversation between Nettle and DSM’s Mary Bell to flow effortlessly. Before we bushwhacked our way to Olallie creek—one of the sources of water on the planned logging site—he and I took a moment to acknowledge “that this land is sacred land belonging to the Native Kalapuya and Molala Tribes.”

“What we do here matters,” Nettle said, before leading the way to the creek.

The thinned track of land showed signs of a rebounding ecosystem. The dominant trees here are Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar. Though tall, these trees are relatively small in diameter and “well distanced” from each other. 

Sunlight streams down in large swaths on this side of the road. 

Big sword ferns blocked our path at almost every turn. Down-fall from broken tree limbs, and unhealthy young trees lay in wait, under yards of vines, hoping to trip an unsuspecting “newbie” in the woods. 

These large pockets of sun allow for a vast amount of understory growth. Young conifers, too, have sprung up in these sun spots. Vine maples and corylus trees increase in number as we near the water’s edge. 

Wildflowers would grace this forest earlier in the year, soon fall mushrooms will pop up for their chance to proliferate and multiply. It’s a slippery and steep slope to the spring. The ground is damp and soggy. The temperature drops noticeably and the sound is deafening. 

[John Adair // Double Sided Media]

The trip will always be worth it.

Gushing out from underneath the base of two trees—a western red cedar and a Douglas-fir—is a large spring that crashes into Olallie Creek. The source of the spring is unknown to the group. Olallie Creek, however, is a tributary to the McKenzie River. The effects on this watershed are a top concern for the activists protesting the proposed lumber sale.

Studies looking at the effects on hydrologic processes after clearcuts have been carried out at the nearby H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest

The HJA was initially established in 1948 as a US Forest Service Experimental Forest with goals of improving the logging industry. Since its creation, it has transformed and now is a 16,000 acre long-term ecological research site. It’s mission is supporting “research on forests, streams, and watersheds and to foster strong collaboration among ecosystem science, education, natural resource management, and the humanities.”  

One study completed at the HJA shows that there are significant long term effects after clearcutting with no clear evidence of hydrologic recovery. These include increases in quickflow runoff early in the year with decreases in fall delayed flow.

In other words, old forests maintain water longer and actually use less water as compared to a replanted forest, even 50 years after a clear cut. So, streams and rivers have a predictable and continuous flow of water year round, but after a clearcut these flows change in drastic ways.

Downstream, the changes in flow could have larger effects. Especially in the Willamette Valley grasslands which rely on consistent water flow from the mountains — including the fresh water supply for people living in the McKenzie Watershed.

The Flat Country Project fails to list Olallie Creek as a water source in the timber sale. It also claims that: 

“Soil, slope, or other watershed conditions would not be irreversibly damaged; there is assurance that such lands can be adequately restocked within five years after harvest; protection is provided for streams, streambanks, shorelines, lakes, wetlands, and other bodies of water from detrimental changes in water temperatures, blockages of water courses, and deposits of sediment, where timber harvests are likely to seriously and adversely affect water conditions or fish habitat; the harvesting system to be used is not selected primarily because it would give the greatest dollar return or the greatest unit output of timber; any shelterwood cutting and other cuts designed to regenerate an even-aged stand of timber would be used as a cutting method on National Forest System lands only where is determined to be appropriate to meet the objectives and requirements of the Forest Plan; cut blocks, patches, or strips are shaped and blended to the extent practicable with the natural terrain; cuts are carried out according to the maximum size limit requirements for areas to be cut during one harvest operation; stands of trees are harvested according to requirements for culmination of mean annual increment of growth, and; the interdisciplinary review as determined by the Secretary has been complete and the potential environmental, biological, esthetic, engineering, and economic impacts on any advertised sale area have been assessed, as well as the consistency of the sale with the multiple uses of the general area.”

Current land management practices encourage this systematic approach as a way to ensure the forest continues to provide a sustainable supply of timber products by increasing the acres of younger trees.  

However, old growth forests are sources of massive carbon sequestration. Contrary to thought, simulations performed by the HJA show that carbon sequestration and storage is greatly reduced in a young fast-growing forest, not reaching the capacity of an old growth forest for at least 200 years. 

Old growth forests act in esense as a carbon sink, removing CO2 from the atmosphere at high rates. “Cutting down these trees during a period when atmospheric carbon has reached unprecedented levels, could have catastrophic life altering effects for everyone.” explained Nettle

We moved on from there back onto the main road and then back into the forest on the other side.

Getting to the camp involved a, mostly, unmarked hike deeper into the forest. Green, moist, and beautifully healthy, the forest provided remarkable scenery and streams to be crossed. 

This side of the forest is linked to the other in that it consists of many of the same inhabitants. However, as we trekked deeper into the woods, signs of a very mature old growth forest emerged.

Here, the forest floor appears less “messy.” This is due to the effects of decomposition and time. Forests have multiple stages of growth and house countless species, each with unique abilities, roles, and value. 

Often, the smallest members of the forest do the most work breaking down leaf litter, downfall, and large fallen trees, returning nutrients to the system. 

In an old growth forest, sunspots are smaller and disappear quickly. Plants who take up residence underneath the canopy here must tolerate shade well.

There is plenty of space between these giant trees. Due to a closed canopy, there are fewer saplings and gone are the tripping hazards from before. Walking about the forest becomes easy.

Eventually we arrived at the activists camp. Their camp—made, essentially, of a tarp strung up between trees—in the middle of deep-growth forest has two “rigs,” or liveable platforms, nestled high up, around 70 ft., in the trees. 

[John Adair // Double Sided Media]

In the camp, the rotating group of activists have plenty of food, water, and supplies — although they do often need buckets, rags, and duct tape. On the forest floor of the camp is a makeshift kitchen where food and hot coffee can be prepared. There’s also a sign that says “shitter” and directs to a human-made ditch for waste. 

Here the goal is to constantly occupy and “to fight for the trees.”  

In-between the two platforms high up in the tree was a banner that read “No Old Growth Logging in a Climate Crisis.” The latter two words encompassed with painted flames. 

Marsh, an activist who was already in the camp, introduced themselves to us and spoke at length with Mary about the ecology of the surrounding area.

Marsh has spent a lot of time in the forests of Oregon and has developed a deep relationship with the trees. 

“They provide a home to countless species and each one is important,” said Marsh.“The timber sale is an imminent danger to this ecosystem and all living things that rely on it, like the spotted owl and red tree vole, among other things.”

Marsh has also witnessed the effects of fire first hand as a previous wildland firefighter. They spent last summer fighting the Riverside fire outside of Portland.

[John Adair // Double Sided Media]

“Fire burns differently in Old Growth, it creeps along the floor and burns with low intensity. Breaking down old wood and other forest debris, returning nutrients to the system.” Marsh further explained that in a replanted forest that’s not the story. 

“Fire spreads rapidly in newly planted forests, not just on the forest floor, but from crown to crown and it takes down everything.” Marsh said.

We stayed for another hour-or-so getting to know the activists and about their protest. So far things in camp are quiet. The activists spend their time reading, playing guitar, and protecting the trees. 

During our entire visit, one activist was perched quietly up in the tree-sit, enjoying the views, peacefully. The fast approaching fall weather, though, might change things, but for now the Cascadia Forest Defenders plan to sit and wait with the trees.

Eventually, we bid our hosts a good afternoon before returning on the trail back to our cars and the city, a seemingly different universe.

Mary Bell
John Adair

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