Friday, January 16, 2009

Legacy: desecrating the falls

Finally, after years of obstructionism by a single senator (Tom Coburn, R-Okla.), Congress has passed a comprehensive national bill that in Oregon alone will add five new wilderness areas and greatly expand existing areas, including those on Mt. Hood and in the Columbia River Gorge. Even with this bill, the total protected acreage in Oregon is significantly less than in its neighboring states:
Oregon 3.7% in protected wilderness
California 14.0
Washington 11.0
Idaho 7.5
So there's still a lot that remains to be done in Oregon. For example, this state has only one national park (Crater Lake), compared to Washington State's three. Amazingly, not a single national park has been created along Oregon's spectacular coast. While clearcutting has been ravaging privately-owned timberlands across western Oregon in recent years, the BLM has developed, and begun to implement, plans for a massive assault on the state's remaining old-growth forests within its jurisdiction.

In Oregon more than elsewhere on the west coast, there seems to be a lingering premise that forests should be open to clearcutting unless opponents satisfy a heavy burden of proof to the contrary. This premise has a long history. (See here, here, here and here.)

For sixty years, the Angelus Studio in Portland, Oregon, compiled an "extraordinary documentation of the city of Portland, the Lewis & Clark Exposition of 1905, Oregon landmarks, and commercial operations including logging and fish packing." In about 1925, by my estimate, Angelus compiled many photographs of the Columbia River Gorge for the now-defunct Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway. The one below shows Multnomah Falls, the second-highest waterfall in the continental U.S., not too long after the slopes above it had been clearcut:

In fairness, the land above Multnomah Creek was likely owned by timber baron Simon Benson at the time it was logged. It later became part of the Mt. Hood National Forest.

The existing second- or third-growth forest of even-aged trees above the falls is quite healthy despite modern fires that endangered the historic Multnomah Fall Lodge. The trail to the top of the falls is mobbed year-round, but it's easy to find solitude on the upper trail that leads to the top of Larch Mountain. It's unimaginable that clearcutters could've stripped these steep mountainsides of their trees with impunity, even a century ago.

This legacy may no longer be visible on the slopes above Multnomah Falls, but it lingers in the relationship that many Oregonians still have to their landscape. The central contradiction of land-use planning and development still exists: you can degrade the landscape with clearcutting and urban sprawl but, somehow, still attract the large numbers of tourists needed to nourish local economies. Where the vaunted Urban Growth Boundaries have been established, their effectiveness is undermined by two realities: 1) they can be, and have routinely been, expanded; and, 2) urban sprawl is barely regulated within those boundaries.

A place like Switzerland, of course, is far more dependent on tourism than Oregon. It functions on the opposite premise that a heavy burden must fall on any proponent of altering the pristine alpine landscapes. On my many visits to that country, I've never seen a single clearcut (although mechanized tourism, with its cable cars and skilift towers, has produced blemishes of its own).

The rough Swiss equivalent of Multnomah Falls might be the Staubbach Falls (above) in the Bernese Alps, which at 1,000 feet is twice the height of Oregon's highest waterfall. I seriously doubt that it ever occurred to any Swiss to clearcut the lush conifer forests above the Staubbach.

Logging in the Alps is strictly limited, and clearcutting is forbidden. When logging is done at all, tight restrictions are imposed: for example, horses might be used instead of machinery, and soil compaction can be avoided by removing cut trees in the spring, when the snowpack is still deep.

But I don't think this is merely an economic calculation: the Swiss have a different relationship to the land they've occupied for millennia. It's recognized to be a finite and precious resource, a realization that has been late in coming to Oregon and the rest of the U.S. The latest wilderness bill is an incremental step in the right direction.

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