On its website, the U.S. Forest Service boasts that Redoubt Falls is the “crown jewel” of its fisheries programs in Alaska’s Sitka Ranger District. Indeed, since fishery enhancement efforts began there in 1982, sockeye salmon returns have increased from just 456 to over 100,000 in 2006.
The current returns are in line with those observed by Russian traders, who operated a saltery at Redoubt Falls and reported annual catches as high as 50,000 fish between 1817 and 1832. However, the future of the Forest Service operation at Redoubt Falls and ownership of the parcel are in question.
Redoubt Falls is one of almost 100 sacred places in the Tongass National Forest that the Sealaska Corporation has claimed ownership of since the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971. Most of these selections were conveyed to Sealaska 20 or more years ago, but the Redoubt selection has been tied up by competing claims to title and other issues. It is now in the final stages of the Bureau of Land Management’s conveyance process and could be removed from the National Forest and placed in private hands as early as this year.
The largest land claim settlement in American’ history, ANCSA created 12 regional Native corporations (a 13th was added later), and it provided land for each of these corporations to manage and develop to the benefit of its shareholders, who were Native Americans from the region. The corporations also were allowed to select “sacred” or “cultural” sites, which were to have been of long-standing significance to indigenous people.
Sealaska Corporation is the regional Native corporation for Southeast Alaska. It claimed Redoubt Falls as a sacred site in 1975, justifying the cultural value of the site with oral histories of Native American elders who said their grandparents had used the property in the late 1800s.
Unlike many cultural sites chosen by Sealaska, retired Forest Service archeologist Stan Davis says the 10-acre Redoubt selection does not contain petroglyphs, pictographs, graves or even archeological evidence of a former village. Instead, Davis, who surveyed the parcel in the early 1980s, says the Redoubt selection contains perhaps the most intact Russian archeological site in North America.
Davis argues that Redoubt Falls needs to remain in public hands because of its tremendous value as a Russian-American site. To many locals, losing access to the sockeye salmon, which run thick through the falls each July and August, is a bigger issue.
Each year, the State of Alaska issues a few hundred subsistence permits to Sitka residents allowing them to use dip-nets to harvest large numbers of sockeye at Redoubt Falls. The fish are often canned and frozen, and later serve as meals for Sitka families throughout the winter.
Just 12 miles south of Sitka, Redoubt Falls is not only the closest subsistence sockeye stream to town, but it the only stream in the vicinity that can be reached without exposure to the open ocean, making it an extremely popular fishing destination.
The Forest Service began its Redoubt enhancement operation to benefit the community. Joe Serio, the current operator of the Redoubt weir, says the program has since become important for research purposes, with 30 years of data on ages and sizes of fish, fish return numbers and water chemistry, among other things.
“The wealth of information tied to this project and its potential is huge in terms of climate change and changes in the ocean,” he said.
Working with three college interns, Serio spends his summers at Redoubt Falls, counting and measuring fish, and fertilizing Redoubt Lake, which extends six miles from the mouth of the falls. About 20,000 pounds of fertilizer are added to the lake over the course of a summer.
Fertilization has been necessary because Redoubt Lake is meromictic, meaning its layers don’t mix well and nutrients all stay at the bottom. However, Serio says he foresees a day in the near future when the salmon sustain themselves.
Whether the Forest Service makes it to that future is the question. Sealaska Corporation has said its intent is to allow the Forest Service to continue its operation and to allow the public to continue fishing at Redoubt Falls after a conveyance. However, ANCSA does not allow easements for recreation or fishing, and attorneys exploring the issue say the law provides no guarantees of the status quo after a conveyance.
The Sitka Conservation Society, a local environmental group, has taken the position that Sealaska should withdraw its claim and enter a cooperative management agreement with the Forest Service for use of the property.
The Forest Service itself has voiced opposition to the conveyance multiple times over the last 30 years, arguing in the past that the parcel did not meet the definitions of “sacred” under ANCSA. Recently, Forest Service leaders have been more hands off, and users of Redoubt Falls remain anxious given there may be no going back once a conveyance goes through.
Above, A mother and two cubs cross the Forest Service fish weir at Redoubt falls. Photo by Andrew Thoms
Not long ago if you wanted to measure the height of a tree, you had to do trigonometry on the ground—or gear up for a climb. But these days you have a more sophisticated option: beaming lasers from the sky.
A revolutionary airborne technology called LiDAR (“light detection and ranging”) is making it possible to measure and map entire forests in a sliver of the time—and for a fraction of the cost—of earlier methods. By bombarding forests with hundreds of thousands of light pulses from laser equipment mounted on airplanes, OSU scientists are getting never-before-seen 3-D images of dense old-growth stands such as McDonald Forest in the Willamette Valley and H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the McKenzie River Basin. And they’re doing it for the bargain-basement price of $2 an acre (not counting computer processing, which will add at least another dollar per acre to the cost). In contrast, the cost of putting two technicians on the forest floor with notebooks and measuring tapes is about $30 an hour. At a pace of about one hour per tree, mapping a forest the size of the Andrews on foot, with its 15,000 rugged acres in the Cascades foothills, would take years, if it could be done at all. With LiDAR you can start after breakfast and have the raw data in hand before lunch.
In fields as diverse as geology, oceanography and forest ecology, LiDAR is in fierce demand.
“LiDAR is everywhere,” says Tom Spies, a research ecologist at the USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, who has a courtesy appointment at OSU. “It’s the hot new technology, the hot stuff.”
Bound for the Crown
Boots on the ground, however, still have a role. That’s why OSU researchers have been out in the field manually double-checking the height of the Andrews’ tallest 10 or 12 trees the old-fashioned way: with a tape measure.
One cool autumn afternoon in 2010, Spies and Mark Schulze, OSU’s Andrews Forest director, stand at the foot of an ancient Douglas fir as they strap on the harnesses and snap on the carabiners they will use to leverage their body weight. With gloves and helmets secured, the College of Forestry researchers clip their ascenders onto two of the colorful nylon ropes rigged in advance by professional climbers Rob Miron and Jason Seppa of the Pacific Tree Climbing Institute. Craning their necks, they can barely see where the orange and red lines disappear into the deep-green canopy. Crowning at 280 feet, the tree towers as tall as a 25-storey building.
The scientists are soon dwarfed as they hoist themselves skyward, dangling beside pitch-stippled bark as gray and craggy as a weathered mountainside. This silent colossus was a seedling about the time Shakespeare was writing his plays.
Spies and Schulze are “ground truthing” the LiDAR readings—that is, they’re comparing the laser readings against manual measurements in order to verify the LiDAR’s accuracy.
“We use a 300-foot tape measure,” says Schulze. “We stake one end to the ground at the base of the tree and attach the other to our climbing harness and take it up in a straight line along the trunk. Eventually, we reach a point above which we’re not comfortable climbing, and use a telescoping height pole to measure the remaining distance to the tip of the crown.”
So far, accuracy has been within a whisker.
“LiDAR can measure heights to the nearest centimeter,” reports Spies.
LiDAR’s beauty, aside from being fast and cheap, is its 3-D capability. It can characterize a forest’s structure at every layer: from streambed to treetop, from open clearing to tangled undergrowth, from massive coniferous branches to twiggy deciduous boughs. Sitting at their computers, scientists can rotate the colorful LiDAR images to view the forest from an infinite number of angles.
This remote sensing tool is similar to the radar that air traffic controllers and meteorologists use to monitor jets and hurricanes, except one uses electromagnetic waves while the other uses pulses of light. Radar (originally dubbed RADAR, for “radio detection and ranging”) works by bouncing radio waves off a target to gauge its distance and position. LiDAR does the same thing with lasers, targeting anything from woodlands to coastlines to rainclouds.
For OSU’s forest research, 10 laser points per square meter are beamed to Earth from a sensor mounted beneath a small twin-engine plane owned and operated by Watershed Sciences, a Corvallis-based firm. After hitting an object—a fallen log, a rocky outcropping, a thick mesh of branches, a logging road—light from each pulse scatters backward to the sensor. This bounce-back is called an “echo.” The period of time each beam takes to return to the sensor indicates the object’s elevation. So if the beam comes back fast, that means it bounced against something tall. If it comes back later, it bounced against something lower in the forest layers, maybe even bare earth where foliage is thin. The digital images that emerge provide a comprehensive picture of forest structure unlike anything possible pre-LiDAR.
“Forest structure is key to its ecology,” says Spies. “Knowing the details of forest structure not only allows us to better predict and manage habitat for wildlife but also to understand microclimates, measure carbon and biomass, manage wildfires and design restoration efforts.”
OSU ecologist and wildlife biologist Matt Betts explains that “vertical structure”—how vegetation is layered throughout the forest—determines habitat selection and even survival for forest species.
“Many experts increasingly believe vertical structure is the primary driver of biodiversity,” asserts Betts, an assistant professor of forest ecosystems and society. “Researchers can often predict with considerable accuracy the diversity of birds, mammals, even insects and butterflies that will live in areas, based on what you can tell of the vertical structure of the forest.”
Forest ecologists like Spies and Betts comprise only one LiDAR user group. The current and future uses for this new tool are as vast as Oregon’s storied woods. Already, OSU geoscientists have used LiDAR to study post-tsunami landscapes in Samoa and detect hidden earthquake faults in Puget Sound. NASA is using it to estimate global carbon stocks and detect atmospheric changes across the planet. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is tracking topographic changes along coastlines. The list is long and varied.
Spies goes so far as to liken LiDAR to such transformational technologies as the telescope and the microscope.
“Anytime there’s a new tool in science and research, it opens up a whole new avenue of investigation, one that you couldn’t necessarily anticipate,” he notes. “You end up discovering that it can give you answers to questions you never thought you could ask before.”
reprinted with permission from Terra Magazine, Oregon State University
Louisiana Pine Snakes in Pine Forests by Wendee Holtcamp
Craig Rudolph’s white hair and a bushy white beard are a common sight in the longleaf pine savannah of East Texas. A U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station biologist, Rudolph and his colleagues regularly check dozens of four-by-four-foot square box traps, and with more than 350,000 “trap-days” under their belt, they catch a lot of snakes. But though they are searching in the historic range of one of North America’s rarest reptiles, the Louisiana pine snakes, they’re catching fewer and fewer as the years pass.
Rudoph has been studying the Louisiana pine snake for more than fifteen years. His research indicates that there are only three small isolated populations in east Texas, in addition to three slightly larger populations in western Louisiana. “My gut tells me they’re in a world of hurt,” he says, though the snake is not yet listed as an endangered species.
Texas lists Louisiana pine snakes as a threatened species, which makes it illegal for people to collect, sell or harm them, but the status offers no habitat protection, and Louisiana law does not protect them at all. In 1999, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service identified the snake as a candidate species for listing as endangered or threatened, and though the agency has enough information to list them under the Endangered Species Act, it’s precluded by other higher priority species.
The robust tan-and-brown checkered Louisiana pine snakes grow to around six feet long. They live primarily in fire-adapted longleaf pine forests, an ecosystem that once stretched across the southeastern United States, from Virginia to eastern Texas. From the late 19th century on, timber companies logged prized longleaf pine, but replanted with faster growing loblolly. Only 3 percent of the original 90 million acres of longleaf pine savannah acreage remains, with less than 0.01 percent of the original old growth forest left.
The open park-like forests near Angelina National Forest’s Boykin Springs reveals a glimpse of what early pioneers saw before logging and years of fire suppression changed the face of the forest. Longleaf pines grow in nutrient-poor sandy soils, comprised largely of quartz crystals. The trees don’t achieve large girth for hundreds of years because they are essentially growing in glass. Knee-high grasses and plants carpet the forest floor. In centuries past, regular wildfires swept through the pine forests clearing out underbrush, but wildfire suppression drastically changed the character of these fire-adapted forests. Although the Forest Service now regularly ignites carefully controlled burns, biologists are just now coming to grips with how past mismanagement has affected the forest ecosystem.
Rudolph first got intrigued by the Louisiana pine snake in the early 1980s. He knew they were rare but he wondered why he didn’t often see them. “I spent a lot of time in what should have been good habitat,” he says. “I never saw one.” He and other scientists started researching the snake in 1993, and at that time, they didn’t know if the species was rare or just rarely seen, and they didn’t understand basic information such as what the snakes ate, what habitat they preferred, when they bred or how vulnerable they might be.
The biologists started trapping in areas they thought might be prime habitat—the remaining longleaf pine savannah—and they caught some right away. “We started doing a basic telemetry study,” Rudolph says. After catching a snake, they’d surgically implant a transmitter inside the snake’s body, and radio telemetry allowed them to follow the snakes’ movements and study their behavior.
“We did a lot of surveys throughout their historic range,” Rudolph says. Relatively quickly, they located three isolated populations in Texas—Boykin Springs on the Angelina National Forest, Foxhunter’s Hill in the Sabine National Forest, and Scrappin’ Valley on private timber company land. Then their luck ran out. “After the first few years, we never found any new populations.”
The radio tracking studies revealed one reason why the snakes had been so hard to spot—they live underground. “They spend most of their time in close association with pocket gopher burrows. It’s where they hibernate, where they shelter, and where they forage. And it’s how they escape from fire,” Rudolph says.
Although most people don’t give the world underneath the ground much thought, a subterranean ecosystem exists there. Pocket gophers create extensive burrow systems that provide shelter for dozens of species, from frogs to tortoises to salamanders to insects. The gophers eat roots and tubers, and, when necessary, try to escape from what Rudolph found was their most formidable predator, the Louisiana pine snake. The snakes play an important ecological role. They occasionally eat moles, turtle eggs and other small rodents, and as the subterranean-living reptiles slither underground, they keep abandoned gopher burrows open, which in turn provide habitat for other creatures.
This connection between Louisiana pine snakes and pocket gophers provided a major clue about the snakes’ decline. Wildfires once regularly scorched the forest, but decades of fire suppression caused an ecological domino effect. Pine forests became overgrown with brush and lost herbaceous groundcover, causing pocket gopher numbers to plummet, and in turn affecting Louisiana pine snakes. That situation remained until a court case in the late 1980s forced the Forest Service to better manage fire and controlled burns in national forests for endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, which incidentally improved habitat for gophers and Louisiana pine snakes.
Although the Fish & Wildlife Service has not yet listed the Louisiana pine snake as endangered, they developed a Candidate Conservation Agreement, a collaborative effort that allows every impacted entity to help protect the species in the meantime. “The basic idea is to get different partners to do beneficial actions to reduce the threats and improve its conservation status,” explains Fish and Wildlife biologist Ben Thatcher. The Forest Service is also involved in a captive breeding program, though capturing enough snakes to breed has been challenging. They wanted to start the program with fifteen pairs; during the past year and a half they’ve caught just five males and one female. “At this rate it will take us thirty years to catch fifteen females,” Rudolph says.
Those concerned about the snake’s future must address serious issues before the species has any chance of recovering: drastic losses of historic longleaf pine forest habitat, decades of wildfire suppression, roadkills, fragmentation of remaining forest and the problems caused by the physical isolation of the handful of small populations from one another. And a new threat has arisen: timber companies managing longleaf pine forests in Louisiana, which have the largest populations of the snakes, have switched to intensive silviculture including herbicide to eliminate all groundcover. Removing fire once again from the forest does not bode well for the snakes or the ecosystem.
Louisiana pine snakes are rare under the best of conditions because of their biology – a female will lay around four eggs and it takes the snakes many years to reach maturity. Recovering one of the most imperiled snakes in North America will be no easy feat, whether it gets listed as a federally endangered species or not. “The biology of the species and its habitat management needs are reasonably well understood,” says Rudolph. “It is now a question of agencies, private landowners and biologists cooperating in the restoration of landscapes that can support the recovery of Louisiana Pine Snakes.”
Award-winning freelance writer Wendee Holtcamp writes about science and the environment from Houston for National Wildlife, Scientific American, Miller-McCune and other magazines.
The trees turned red. I first thought was that it wasn’t so terrible. It added another color to the landscape and there were interesting vistas from a distance. Then I got closer. It looked bad. Dry and twisted and dead. (click photo above to animate)
The magnitude of the problem became evident. It is unlike anything that I’ve seen before. At a highpoint point, a sea of dead trees stretch away as far as I can see. It takes my breath away.
Above and right, Arapahoe National Recreation Area, Colorado
Many attribute the condition to a dry landscape and warm weather, both aspects of climate change. Our climate has always changed, but this change might be more drastic than what we are used to. For the western forests, it could mean conditions that are drier and warmer than those that existed when the forests developed. The changes may not be welcome. Or pretty. We’ve grown to love our pine and aspen forests just the way they are.
The changes make me apprehensive. I don’t know how they will affect the landscape and the services it provides.
It’s not hard to imagine that red forest ablaze. That image is galvanizing, making me want to do something, anything. However, the science is complicated on this issue. Fire is more likely to start at the early, ‘red needle’ stage, but after those needles fall, it is less likely to be carried from tree to tree. In a green forest, that’s the kind of fire that most people are afraid of.
And what about the animals that inhabit the forest? With the vegetation changing how do they adjust? Do they move? What comes next? Will there be different plants and animals?
Another apprehension is water. In the West we depend on precipitation that falls in the mountains for a majority of our water. We are used to having most of that precipitation fall as snow. The rate of snowfall and snowmelt may be changing due to climate change. Less snowfall and quicker snowmelt will be problematic.
One response to the beetle epidemic is to remove dead trees at use areas, along roads and trails and utility lines and wherever else falling trees are a direct threat to health and safety. Another response would be to decrease the risk of fire by falling and removing those dead trees.
Willow Creek Pass looking toward the Never Summer Mountains, Colorado
The scale of the changing forest is immense, however, and measures to lessen the hazard cannot be implemented everywhere. Affected areas have different owners and managers, as well as different designations—wilderness areas for example—where activities are circumscribed. Some have slopes that are too steep or surfaces too rocky for safe operations. Removal is also expensive. Some operations pay for themselves, but the vast majority cost money and resources are not unlimited. Nature will take its course for the vast majority of the landscape.
Spraying offers some protection—90 percent of sprayed trees will live to see another year. However, the simple math is sobering. If forests are sprayed every year and 10 percent of the trees are lost, the group of sprayed trees will slowly succumb. Spraying is costly and there is no logical stopping point as long as bugs are swarming. And that option does not factor in the environmental repercussions of spray in the landscape.
Biologic controls may be effective. Pheromones may also be useful, however they may have unintended effects.
For much of the land, the most appropriate technique is to cut and remove the dead trees that are hazardous. This means many, many clear-cuts.
The forest cover will regenerate in those clear-cut areas. Conditions have not changed so drastically that so far the vegetative species that have historically been present cannot return. That natural regeneration is fine for most places. For some places however, that natural process will not happen fast enough and can be hastened by planting.
Some scientists think that this epidemic is on the wane, that in some regions, the bugs have peaked and are in decline. They’ve literally eaten themselves out of house and home. Before we can find much comfort in that thought comes another one hard on its heels: the climate is indeed changing and will continue to do so for the coming years, and that change could have repercussions as disquieting and more severe as the current insect epidemic. Whatever the future, the landscape is reacting to change and may be morphing into something different.
Before & During Insect Epidemic
Fraser Valley, Middle Fork, CO
Rocky Mountain National Park, left; Winter Park Ski Area, right
One of the jewels of the Chattahoochee National Forest, the geographic crown of North Georgia, is Anna Ruby Falls, an unusual double waterfall that draws 160,000 visitors annually, more than any other forest facility in Georgia. At Anna Ruby Falls Recreation Area, paths and streams wind through second growth stands of white pine and poplar interspersed with rhododendron and mountain laurel, and short trails guide recreationists to the base of the spectacular falls.
The water for the falls originates on top of Tray Mountain, Georgia’s sixth highest peak and once a part of the Cherokee Indian territory. York and Curtis Creeks tumble over a rock ledge and fall 50 and 153 feet, respectively. At the base of the falls, they combine to form Smith Creek, which meanders down to Unicoi Lake and eventually flows into the Chattahoochee River. From there it joins the Appalachicola River in Florida and runs more than 500 miles until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
The trail from the visitor’s center to the falls, designated as a National Recreation Trail, is an easy to moderate climb. Bridges cross Smith Creek, and wooden observation decks partway up offer excellent views of both waterfalls. The Lion’s Eye Trail sponsored by the Lion’s Club originates at the visitor center and follows along Smith Creek. A handrail and signs in Braille border this shorter and easier interpretive route.
The falls were originally in private ownership. Colonel John H. Nichols purchased the land after the Civil War and named the waterfalls after his daughter. When the federal government purchased the land in the 1920s, it combined it with the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee. In 1937, the area became the Chattahoochee National Forest. Despite the lure of the falls’ natural beauty, the area has not always been accessible to visitors. The U.S. Forest Service managed the facilities until the 1980s, when cutbacks in funding forced them to close. A nonprofit group reopened the falls to visitors around 1987, but that organization went out of business in 2005. In 2007, the agency selected another nonprofit group, Cradle of Forestry Interpretative Association to manage the facilities.
Two former Forest Service employees, David Carswell and Parker Hollifield, now co-manage the visitor center and recreation area. The arrangement works well for everyone: the agency receives a fee from the Interpretive Association, which in turn collects visitor fees and handles the day-to-day maintenance and operations. Carswell and Hollifield provide staff for a gift shop, which offers original paintings, fine pottery, and Appalachian Mountain crafts, and earnings from these sales support interpretive programs and forest conservation projects. The Forest Service provides capital improvements and infrastructure, such as a project that used federal stimulus funds to complete the paving of a section of trail. But best of all, the area remains open to visitors.
The Devil’s Staircase Wilderness bill, which protects 30,000 old-growth forest acres in Oregon's Coast Range, is included in a package of public lands legislation introduced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The America’s Great Outdoors Act of 2010 would also add to Washington's Alpine Lakes Wilderness and designate 240,000 acres of New Mexico wilderness lands. The wilderness bills were introduced separately, had hearings, and were voted favorably upon by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Supporters should call their state's senators at the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 to encourage them to support the America's Great Outdoors Act of 2010. A vote on this measure may happen before Christmas or by January 5, 2011.
Through-hikers heading north on the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire will eventually encounter what is called “the toughest mile,” a stretch of rocky ascents that pave the way toward the Maine border. As the trail cuts through a patchwork of alpine bogs and rocky ledges, jaw-dropping views of distant peaks blanketed in deep green fir and spruce alternate with glimpses of heavily logged forest tracts.
This is the wild and remote Mahoosuc Range, one of the most rugged areas in northern New England. On November 2, the National Park Service purchased nearly 4,800 acres of the range for its protection, a behemoth $2.48 million acquisition that was three years in the making.
“It’s one of those success projects that you only get a few of in your career,” said Hawk Metheny, the New England director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. His group worked with several conservation and hiking groups, political leaders and local residents to facilitate the sale, which protects an eight-mile stretch of the trail along its northern boundary. “This was something that the majority of the community wanted to see happen.”
Parts of the tract are known locally as Success Woods. Its cols and peaks are home to black bear, moose, marten, bobcat, Bicknell’s thrush and grouse, as well as three 3,000 foot-plus peaks and a handful of streams that feed the nearby Androscoggin River. The land will eventually be managed by the White Mountain National Forest, which will work to ensure wildlife habitat preservation as well as access to hiking and fishing.
“It’s one of the wildest and most difficult section of [the Appalachain] trail in terms of straight-up and exposed ridge, and has one of the most spectacular vistas from anywhere along the trail,” said Nancy Bell, Vermont director for the Conservation Fund, and a leader of the effort.
Though the Mahoosucs lie in the symbolic shadow of the area’s better-known White Mountains, strenuous efforts to preserve them began in 2006. At the time, T.R. Dillon Logging, the company that has now sold it to the government for preservation, was harvesting timber in the area. T.R. Dillon is a Maine-based ‘lumber liquidator’ that purchases, logs and resells various stretches of northern New England’s forest. Ironically, Metheny thinks that the logging probably worked in the favor of the purchase. “In some ways, it helped us build community support for the land,” he says.
Yet cognizant of the role of the local wood-based economy—in the North Country, outdoor recreation coexists alongside logging and milling—those working on the Mahoosuc Initiative discussed how to protect the area from further development while also maintaining options for harvest.
“In the larger scheme of things, we’re looking at the whole landscape surrounding the parcel to make sure the local economy is addressed and that the working forest is preserved,” says Bell, who stressed that the sale from T.R. Dillon to the government went smoothly.
What eventually came to be known as the Mahoosuc Gateway Project snowballed to include everyone from trail hikers to New Hampshire’s U.S. senators Judd Gregg and Jeanne Shaheen, both of whom had a hand in securing money for the sale. The purchase included the heads of several side trails, including the Carlo Col, Success and Goose Eye trails, as well as preserved a 1,200-acre conservation easement around Shelburne, New Hampshire, as working forest.
Coalition members are now focusing on two larger tracts to north of the recent purchase, and hoping for the eventual acquisition of 29,000 acres of contiguous land in the range, some of it also owned by T.R. Dillon
The sand dunes on Oregon’s coast are eons old. After the seismic activity that created the Cascade and Coast Ranges ceased around seven million years ago, glaciers formed in the mountains. The torpid movement of the glaciers crushed large rocks into smaller boulders, which washed down rivers in streams, grinding into smaller and smaller rocks until only sand and pebbles were deposited into the coastal waters. Waves carried the sand onto the beach and onshore winds then blew the sand into the dunes.
In the 1930s, European beach grass was introduced to provide stable foundations for buildings and towns. The invasive beach grass has thrived and is now taking over the unique landscape. The thick and resilient grass has piled together with sand to form a 20-foot-high barrier 30 yards from the shore, blocking the flow of beach sand that is normally blown onto dunes. Because of this wall of grass and sand, a flatland of fresh water and vegetation has formed that is quickly moving east and will eventually swallow up the hills of sand. What took 100,000 years to form could be destroyed in a century.
But until then, the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area in the Siuslaw National Forest remains a prized area for recreation, and among the users, conflicts are arising over the largest expanse of uninterrupted dunes in the country. Off-road vehicle enthusiasts use the area as a playground, riding through the sand at high speeds, flying off hills and descending down slopes. Those in favor of quiet recreation would like to be able to hike and enjoy the solitude of the dunes without the roar of motors.
In April, 2009, the U.S. Forest Service authorized the construction of a trail from the newly created Riley Ranch campground to the southern half of the recreation area. The trail will appease ORV riders, who want more opportunities to enjoy the dunes. However, environmentalists are suing the Forest Service to stop construction of the trail they believe will “exacerbate existing problems with unlawful ORV riding within the dunes’ unique and highly sensitive habitats.” The public land managers charged with oversight of the area are smack in the middle.
Jody Phillips accelerates his black Yamaha Raptor ATV up a 75-degree incline of sand, launching into a state of suspension, his engine humming and wheels spinning in mid-air, and then lands on a massive 60-foot dune. The entire north section of the recreation area is visible from the top. Looking west, a sandy desert of open dunes leads to a plain, where fresh water, vegetation, and trees have taken root, and then the plain leads to blue and white turbulent waters of the Pacific Ocean. Looking east, the largest dunes fall off into a natural forest of pines, the dark green reflecting in the clear lakes. To the north and south, sand stretches for miles, scarred from tracks made by rubber wheels and dotted with islands of stubborn trees.
This area is designated 10C by the Forest Service, which means that riding is only allowed on designated trails. In this 10C area, though, there are no designated trails, so enforcement on the riders is difficult to achieve because there is no area that they should be riding on. Phillips mounts his ATV and speeds through a pool of fresh water a few inches deep. Small waves splash up on the side of the wheels. He spins around and transverses up the hill. “This land isn’t old growth forest,” he says. “The vegetation has only been here for around 50 years.” The forest is actually very new growth. The grassy sand barrier created by European beach grass has provided a haven for water to gather, leading to trees and plant-life to take root in the sand over the last few decades.
As Phillips speeds back up the hill, he runs over deer tracks imprinted deep into the sand. Earlier he came so close to running over a sand beetle that the bug flipped over on his back, its six legs kicking weakly in the air. Sometimes when he stops to take a break, frogs can be heard croaking in the distance. The forest might not be old growth, but wildlife has clearly moved in.
Phillips rides out of the trails to a long, thin patch of open dunes. He reaches maximum velocity and lifts up on his two back wheels, riding a wheelie for about 50 yards and hollering in delight.
“It is all about balance,” he says about dune management. He doesn’t want to take over the dunes; he just wants his fair share. He wants more involvement by the Forest Service so the dunes can be managed safely. Phillips has been riding the dunes for decades and he hopes every other ORV enthusiast can enjoy them like he does.
Josh Laughlin of Cascadia Wildlands is a lot like Phillips. A smile lights his face when he talks about the dunes. He wants to be out there in the sand smelling the distant scent of the sea and enjoying what the recreation area has to offer, but in a far different way than Phillips. “I think there is a real, growing interest in quiet recreation,” says Laughlin while sitting in his second floor office looking out onto Willamette Street in downtown Eugene, Oregon. “People can check out from the chaos from everyday life of computers, automobiles, and noise.”
Laughlin is a self-taught environmentalist. He moved from Massachusetts in the early 1990s to attend the University of Oregon. After seeing trees older than the United States fall to chainsaws, he knew he wanted to fight for the environment.
He enjoys hiking in the dunes, and viewing wildlife like the endangered snowy plovers that can only be found at river mouths next to the sand. “The big thing is the noise pollution,” says Laughlin. “The impact on people’s solitude is huge.”
Cascadia Wildlands, along with four other groups, is suing the Forest Service for not properly enforcing laws that keep vehicles off protected land. Right now, the dunes area is split, with equal lands for riders and quiet recreation, and the land distribution won’t change if the trail was to be built. But the trail will provide easier access to the dunes, and Laughlin believes this will lead to increased riding in sensitive areas. But that is only assuming that ORV riders will ride on unmarked trails. Laughlin, like Phillips, says that more enforcement by the Forest Service is needed. “We need to figure out how to ultimately strike a balance that works for both parties.”
The uniqueness of the area makes it an important part of the Cascadia region, a region that Laughlin thinks is worth fighting for. “The lakes are in the sand,” Laughlin says. “It’s pretty surreal with all sort of vegetative life. They’re really unique habitats that you don’t find anywhere else.” These micro-ecosystems are found nowhere else in the world. A written testimony by William Cooper to establish the dunes as a National Recreation area states “[The Oregon dunes] are by far the finest coastal sand dunes in North America, and have few rivals in the world. So far as possible, they should be preserved in their natural state.”
Laughlin agrees. “When you’re out there on the dunes,” he says, “try to imagine what it would be like without roads. That’s how it should be.”
At the Riley Ranch campground, Michael Harvey, a recreation supervisor on the Siuslaw National Forest, walks through the site of the proposed ORV trail.
Once a ranch, the area has been reclaimed by nature. Bright green grass and twigs fill the old road, making it almost unnoticeable. A cranberry bog has been taken over by olive green grass that has grown so high that the stems fold over like the ears of a Basset hound.
Harvey understands the quarrel in front of him and the Forest Service. He knows that the ORV enthusiasts ride on 10C land and that the environmentalists are mad about it. “The dunes already have the most enforcement of any forest area,” says Harvey. “But we could always use more.”
Following the barely existing trail, Harvey spots raccoon tracks and picks up an empty soda can. He explains that the Forest Service does not own the Riley Ranch area and that the trail was not their idea. Coos County owns the area and proposed the trail to try to boost the area’s tourism in hopes of bringing some money to the struggling town. Originally a mill town, Coos Bay has lost the logging industry and is looking for anything to keep the community alive.
Reaching the open dunes, Harvey points south to where the trail will enter the area. Three splintered dead trees twist out of the sand like spires of the underworld; remnants of a submerged tree island and evidence of the constant shifting of powerful sands. The landscape is void of animals or people and the only sound to be heard is the wind scrapping against the sand. A stark blue sky is almost completely clear; only wisps of cirrus clouds float up so high they seem to touch the sun. Harvey looks out toward the ocean and sighs; the grassy-sand barrier is barely visible in the distance. Harvey explains how the Forest Service sometimes works in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers to improve the area: When the Army needs to train soldiers with heavy equipment, they have them remove sections of beach grass in the dunes, but Harvey says that the training is too infrequent to eradicate the invasive species.
Starting back toward the SUV, he talks about the serene power of the dunes. He enjoys the dunes as a quiet recreationist like Laughlin, but believes riders like Phillips are entitled to enjoy the dunes as well. The area is public land and neither group has the right to exclusive use of it. Reaching the edge where the sand meets the forest, Harvey looks one last time at the piles of sand and then continues back onto the trail, his forest service boots teetering in between ATV tracks and the paw prints of a wandering raccoon.
Being a hiking guidebook author has its perks. Aside from researching popular trails in well-loved and well-known locales, I literally go out of my way to find trails and places passed over or over looked by other guidebook writers. I seek—with homage to Robert Frost—the trail less taken.
One such place is the West Fork Humptulips River and Moonlight Dome roadless area in the rain-saturated southwest corner of the Olympic National Forest.
Never heard of it? I thought so! A lightly traveled trail runs along the upper West Fork Humptulips River valley, crossing the river eight times. Most of the year, the trail is impassable to all but the hardiest of hikers, but even during the dry months of August and September there’s no guarantee that the river isn’t swollen—for here in the temperate Olympic rainforest, where annual rainfall exceeds 120 inches, dry is a relative term.
The trail traverses the edge of one of the largest roadless areas in the forest. I would say it offers a true wilderness experience, except that the areas that it skirts aren’t technically wilderness—they were left out of the 1984 Washington Wilderness Bill, the last bill designating wilderness in the 660,000-acre Olympic National Forest. Back then, a politically connected timber industry wasn’t keen on scaling back their generous allotments of board footage.
And while the 1984 Washington Wilderness Bill created five wilderness areas within the forest, the areas were small, consisting chiefly of high ridges and rocky mountaintops. The surrounding valleys, which contain some of the largest and oldest trees in the country, were left out. On the Olympic Peninsula’s perpetually misty, cloud-covered western slopes, home to one of the world’s largest biomass reserves, a mere 11,961 acres was withdrawn from the chainsaws. By the mid-1980s, it appeared that the last great stands of old-growth within the forest’s windward slopes were destined to become clearcuts.
In the spring of 1993, President Clinton convened a timber summit in Portland, Oregon, and the remaining ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest were given a reprieve. The culmination of the northern spotted owl imbroglio put a halt to old growth timber harvesting on federal lands.
Then in 1996, cruel irony beset the old growth forests of Olympic National Forest’s Quinault Ridge high above the West Fork of the Humptulips River. Loggers cut down 300-year-old trees thanks to a salvage rider provision introduced by Republican senators and signed by President Clinton in 1995. The salvage cuts were met with widespread protest by conservation groups and citizen activists, to no avail.
Wilderness protection for the last remaining coastal ancient rainforests of Washington wasn’t even considered for the remainder of the Clinton years, nor was it brought up during the eight-year Bush administration. In fact, in the past twenty years, only one Washington wilderness bill was signed into law: the 2008 Wild Sky Wilderness in the central Cascades.
Today, things look more promising for wilderness. A major obstructionist to wilderness bills, Republican Richard Pombo of California, lost his reelection bid in 2006. Democrats now control the House, and with West Virginia Representative Nick J. Rahall II as new House Resources Committee Chair, the prospects for more wilderness are looking up. One of the areas being proposed for wilderness designation is the Moonlight Dome wilderness, but the effort will only succeed if Representative Norm Dicks, the area’s Democratic congressman since 1977, decides to make it part of his agenda.
While Dicks has been a champion of the environment throughout his career, he has never sponsored a wilderness bill. A Moonlight Dome wilderness bill could be Dicks’ legacy to the people of his district, state and nation—a legacy that includes the 4,122-foot Moonlight Dome and, as the area’s centerpiece, some of the oldest and tallest trees on the planet.
With wilderness designation, high quality, unfragmented habitat for resident elk and black bear populations would remain; recovery efforts for threatened and endangered marbled murrelets and northern spotted owls would have a better chance for success; and the headwaters and upper watershed of the West Fork of the Humptulips—a river described by the National Park Service’s nationwide rivers inventory as one of the Pacific Northwest’s most important winter steelhead resources—would be protected from degradation.
Passage of a Moonlight Dome wilderness would also provide a rare and significant tract of coastal temperate rainforest for hiking, camping, hunting and fishing. The designation would not diminish the amount of timber available; the area is currently classified as a Late Successional Inventoried Roadless Area, warranting it ineligible for timber harvesting. And while resource extraction and off-road vehicle encroachment aren’t currently a threat to Moonlight Dome, there is no assurance that these forces might not become one in the future. Only federal wilderness designation can guarantee that Moonlight Dome will remain forever untrammeled by man.
Will Representative Dicks’ legacy to the people of Washington and the United States include permanent protection of an irreplaceable and invaluable part of our natural heritage? The time for him to act is now. For as sure as gray, moisture-laden clouds will continue to blanket the ancient forests of Moonlight Dome and douse them with copious rainfall, a restless American populace will continue to usher changes in Congress—and there’s no guarantee that another wilderness obstructionist won’t again be among its future members.
In the meantime, I’ll continue introducing people to the West Fork of the Humptulips River Valley and to Moonlight Dome. And I’ll continue holding hope that in subsequent editions, wilderness with a capital “W” will appear in Moonlight Dome’s description. —Craig Romano
-Craig Romano is the author of six Washington State guidebooks with Mountaineers Books and is currently penning three more. He holds degrees in Forestry, History, and Education. He lives with his wife Heather in Mount Vernon, WA.
Top photo: View of Stovepipe Mountain in Moonlight Dome area; Jennifer Fairbrother.
Middle Photo: Looking skyward in Moonlight Dome area; James Johnston.