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The blue mountains: forest out of control.

I never saw anything more beautiful, the river winding about rough the ravines, the forests so different. The country all rough is burnt over so often there is not the least underbrush, but the grass grows thick and beautiful.

So recorded Rebecca Ketcham in 1853 as she camped in a stand of ponderosa pines on the Oregon Trail. She was one of 300,000 or more pioneers who, with "blood, sweat and muscle," trekked 2,000 miles from Missouri to Oregon's Willamette Valley.

What a land it was, especially around today's La Grande, Oregon (pop. 11,350). The Grande Ronde, a breathtaking mountain valley, was the quintessential capsule of contentment: streams cold and pure. Billowing grass six feet high. In the surrounding mountains, stalwart western larches and thick-butted ponderosas 200 feet tall in this rain-shy land. And fire.

Regularly set by both Indians and lightning, fire was the forest's friend. It scoured the understory, removed brush and competing firs and spruces, and promoted that deep grass (which acted to evenly distribute the next ground fires) and thus protected those magnificent ponderosas.

My trek this spring day was considerably easier than Rebecca's had been. My wife and I were hurtling northwestward on Interstate 84 from Baker City, Oregon, she at the wheel of our Nissan pickup, I matching Oregon Trail maps with contemporary photos in a fine new book, Powerful Rockey. Occasionally we could spot original, bonafide covered-wagon tracks coming straight down a grassy hill.

La Grande, we found, is still mighty visual. It's a fish-eye panorama of pea-green pastureland, brown hills, and greenish-blue timber serrating the bold skyline. The forested gorge that swallowed Rebecca Ketcham just west of La Grande? It's still here. 1-84 swirls right up it.

Sad to say, La Grande is also where you come to learn about a forest tragedy of immense proportions. Four Oregon national forests--the Malheur, Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman, and Ochoco--and adjacent privately owned forestlands are reeling from a combined invasion of somewhere between three and 6.5 million acres by western spruce budworms, tussock moths, pine bark beetles, root diseases, and nutrient-sapping mistletoes.

This debilitating scourge sprawls alarmingly across a 250-mile-long swath as the region enters its seventh straight year of tree-weakening drought.

"The worst I've seen it in 70 years," a local logger told me.

"Massively destructive," admits the Forest Service.

"Some people feel the ecosystem has collapsed," says the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Timber and lumbering jobs are at stake. Indians are clamoring for cool (meaning unlogged) streams for salmon. The Forest Service is "a football being kicked all over the country, its hands politically tied," as a cattleman put it. Why? A seemingly endless stream of required analyses, appeals, and lawsuits delay urgent dead-tree-removal sales for months, even years, as that fire fuel sits there.

Private forestland owners meanwhile are "looking at their options," and aggressively cutting timber before their lands are locked up by endangered-species protection plans, like those western Oregon has experienced with the spotted owl. Some privately call that logging a "feeding frenzy."

"If they don't get out the timber, it's their kids' college education that may get cut," confided a pioneer's great-granddaughter.

At the Blue Mountains Natural Resources Institute in La Grande, leaders representing a broad cross-section of interests are diligently, if not desperately, working to achieve common understanding on what, if anything, can be done to gain control at this point.

U.S. Forest Service officials are cautiously using relatively small prescribed burns to clear some of the fuel on national forests, remembering the perils of runaway wildfire at Yellowstone four years ago. And they're trying--with opposition from some environmentalists--to spray for budworms to slow the spread of the pestilence.


Arleigh Isley, a peppery Extension agent in little Joseph in the northeast corner of the state, scowls about the Forest Service's slowness in meeting the crisis.

"I'm bitter," he says. "The [forest-related] bureaucrats suffer from policy paralysis. They can't do anything within a reasonable time. Sometimes I get so mad I just go out and dig postholes, chop firewood, and break wild horses to get rid of my frustration."

Despite continuing heavy pressure by the forest industry and Congress to get out the cut, managers on these national forests now acknowledge that a broader approach--not commodity production--is the long-term answer to forest health.

As the Forest Servic's Debbie Croswell says, "The forest-health problems are not simple, and they can't be solved rapidly. But slowly, with an ecosystem approach, long-term forest health will be achieved."

Earle Rother, public-affairs officer on the Urnattila National Forest, adds, "We're reidentifying strategies, relooking at all projects." Meanwhile, huge quantities of bugkilled timber, which must be harvested within a year or two before they decay, are torches waiting to burn.

Forest Service regional fire officers in Portand are, in fact, laying plans for a possible 500,000-acre wildfire event this summer.

"The fires could be a crematorium," volunteered a Boise Cascade timber manager.

One small example: a recreational mecca at the head of Wallowa Lake, immediately below 10,000-foot Mt. Matterhom in the awesome Eagle Cap Wilderness. Here sits an incredibly heavy matting of dead and dying timber ("fuel load" in the firefighter's vernacular), a bustling state park, and 10,000 summertime tourists-with only one narrow road out and the nearest fire engine six miles away.

Why is all this happening?

The straightest shot I heard in 24 interviews came from John Evans, author of the aforementioned book, Powerful Rockey.

"We're facing the results of 80 years of well-intentioned mismanagement," he sighed.


My own 620-mile trek through this crisis began just east of La Grande, where I learned that the fire danger was real indeed. Three miles up Glass Hill Road on private land, Ann Eskridge, recently arrived from the East, was showing us her place--the little cabin with the finely fitted logs, the tall trees, the little spring that bubbles out of the hill, the absence of electricity or plumbing.

And then reality.

"The loggers have been all around, and I don't understand,"she said. "They're cutting all these trees and stacking all this stuff [meaning slash] right along the road. It could burn!"

Yes it could, I told her. Bug-killed trees are dry indeed.

And then I thought of the hundreds of isolated cabins, ranch houses, and other homes spread across these rattling-dry mountains, most of them hunkered right down in the trees.

I also thought of the scores of little towns that could easily fall prey to wildfire "spotting," a process by which firebrands shoot high into the air and then land--still burning--to start countless new fires. I fervently hoped Ann's Buzzard Roost and the fire-prone towns in the Blue Mountains would somehow be okay.


Next morning I had breakfast down in La Grande with two Indians, who had their minds not on Blue Mountains bugs but on weather and water.

"I've never seen a winter like this last one," Umatilla/Cayuse Indian Mike Farrow told me. "We had just one snowy day on the res [reservation]. It's going to be very, very dry this summer."

I found it a little curious that Mike, who is natural-resources director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, seemed more interested in water than in bug infestation.

Later, as we drove through privately owned Vey Meadow along the Upper Grande Ronde River above La Grande, Mike sighed and said, "This is where I learned to hook salmon when I was a boy. Now there are none. My boys are the first generation not to know how to hook them--we haven't fished here in a decade."

"You see, it's not just a bug problem," explained Rick George, the tribe's environmental planning manager. "We should be looking at water quality, wildlife, riparian conditions, lands, watersheds. We should be looking at ecosystems rather than timber-sales objectives."

"The upper Grande Ronde (located on privately owned and Wallowa-Whitman National Forest lands), has lost 70 percent of its salmon pool habitat in the past 45 years," Mike lamented. "In the 1950s we had 15,000 spring chinooks up here. Last year we had 300. This place is a zone of death for them." One cause: warm water.

Early loggers, in their frenzy to produce mine timbers and railroad ties, built "splash dams" to impound huge quantifies of logs. Then they blasted the dams open to flush the logs downstream, and torrents of water and logs scoured the banks clean of water-cooling cottonwoods and other trees.

Later, more streamside trees were felled so that railroads could hug river corridors. The same went for roads, including 1-84, which sits precisely over a portion of the original Grande Ronde River bed.

"The roads took out the riparian corridors, the meanders, the pools, the cottonwood trees that hold stream banks and transpire water," Mike explained. "We monitor our drinking water for quality daily, but we don't monitor it for fish at all. Forest health? It hasn't yet been addressed by the Forest Service. They need to comply with their own management plan."


The Forest Service is the major timber holder in these parts, but private loggers, too, have a big stake in what's happening. The biggest player on that side, Boise Cascade (which owns 300,000 acres of timberlands up here), shared a different perspective.

Robert Messinger, the corporation's region timberlands manager, explained, "We're better off fire-wise on our own lands than on federal forests, from which we get 75 percent of our timber. On our lands we have sprayed and aggressively harvested, and we do precommercial thinning.

"Yes, the exclusion of fire has created the situation we're fading today, by allowing the buildup of understory fuels. But we can't let the forest go back to Mother Nature. We're not willing to let thousands of acres burn, with all the environmental damage [meaning loss of timber, sterilized soil, blinding smoke]. By the way, waist-deep grass carries fire; the cattle that graze in these woods help control those ground-fuels."

What about using planned, prescribed burrung to control those fuels?

"The smoke would be intolerable to the people, and we have such a narrow window of time for safe burning," he asserted.

As for salvaging the mountains of dead timber on national forest lands, Messinger claimed, "The Forest Service tells us they can't get the sales ready for five months."

Despite all this, Boise Cascade is sufficiently confident of its land-management practices to allow myriad recreational uses on its holdings, and the company touts its 3,000-acre Catherine Creek outdoor laboratory, where subjects for serious study include drought, infestations, the needs of goshawks, and the best tree species to encourage.

Later that day, Bob Moody, editor of the La Grande Observer, seemed to side with Boise Cascade and "common sense": "We can't just let the forest burn. Man is here, and man has to figure into the equation. There's lawsuit after lawsuit, appeal after appeal on timber [salvage] sales. You just have to wonder where it's going to end."


While I was wondering if these and other disparate players were talking to each other, perhaps planning some kind of a solution, lightning struck.

Craaack. It hit somewhere near, and I was grateful it hadn't contacted the 38-mile-long fence I was touching.

I was at the 25,000-acre Starkey Project near La Grande (for details of this project, see American Forests, September/October 1987), opening the gate for Tom Quigley, Ph.D., who is surely at the epicenter of what's happening in the Blue Mountains. He's manager of the Blue Mountains Natural Resources Institute, a 1 1/2-year-old collection of 70 intensely interested organizations that want the Blues to recover.

The elk-deer-cattle containment area called Starkey, run jointly as a research operation by the Forest Service and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, also provides a front-row seat for viewing the bug-induced tree mortality. On one slope I saw 80 to 90 percent of the conifers wearing deathly browns and grays.

"The Institute is into the communication process, the scientific dimension," Quigley explained in his methodical, paced style.

"We have six major thrusts this year developing a flamework for studying forest-health problems, pulling information together and sharing it, deciding what resources and values should be monitored through time, building a computerized data base, operating a learning center, and facilitating ideas and discussion."

Quigley works for the Forest Service, but never wears his uniform or drives Forest Service rigs. Reason: He would just as soon deemphasize his connection with the agency, and stress cooperative action among logging, livestock, environmentalist, Indian, Forest Service, state forestry, and other representatives of the Institute.

Lightning rods all, they appear to feel the heat of the crisis.

"We need to practice adaptive management as a process on the ground," Quigley said with some urgency. "We've got to determine a new way to involve interested publics; they need to be a part of the process."

Added Shirley Muse, Institute board member and chairperson of the Umatilla Forest Resource Council, "It will take all of us--agency, industry, citizens--to restore the forests health."

But I was troubled. Will all this study, analysis, and getting-together actually produce some solutions on the ground?


A 70-mile drive into the far northeastern corner of Oregon brought us to little Enterprise, where Wallowa County Commissioner/cattleman/lumberman Pat Wortman sat in his ranch house, his back to the stove, lamenting.

"When we quit letting fires burn in 1910, we thought we were doing the best job possible. But white and grand firs started sprouting in the duff, and now we're terribly overstocked. Our main fear is that fire will devastate our water quality, our soil.

"For goodness sakes, let's get together; this is everybody's problem," he pleaded. "Let's just make our forests healthy again and not worry about the ASQs [allowable sales quantities] ."

A friend nodded approval. He should know. Logger-cattleman Mike Wiedeman's clothes and half his beard burned as he fought a wildfire near here a few years back.


It's easy to play the blame game, and the Forest Service is surely the largest target in the Blue Mountains dilemma. In my ramblings through the region, many locals told me they felt the agency has failed to understand the essential role of fire ecology in these mountains, has placed timber production above forest health under strong industry and political pressure, and has concentrated on trees largely at the expense of water, soil, and wildlife needs.

Though a Forest Service information sheet says, "The Blue Mountains are on the road to recovery," I found little or no evidence on the ground to support that statement, sad to say.

At the same time, there's a strong sentiment here that the more vocal environmentalists have been more critical than cooperative, and have thwarted legitimate Forest Service activities--i.e., reducing the fuel load by salvaging dead trees, and spraying the bugs to slow their spread.

And there's a growing awareness--not readily admitted in this country--that loggers, miners, road and railroad builders, and livestock people have played a part in altering the magnificent ecosystem described in Rebecca Ketcham's journal. But potshots at convenient targets are not answers. Not solutions. And hence the crucial role of the Blue Mountains Institute to draw the people together and somehow quickly transfer its learnings into something substantial that happens on the ground. If that fails, who knows? On some hot and windy day when dry lightning strikes several hundred spots across this immense land, nature could indeed prevail, for the resulting fire might well be largely uncontrollable. One such admonishment-by-fire might indeed cleanse White Man's tarnished signature here in the Blue Mountains. AF


In late July, as this magazine was heading for the printer, a special panel convened in May released its recommendations for restoring health to the beleaguered forests of the Blue Mountains. Among the panel's findings was that five of 19 river basins there are "far outside" a naturally sustainable range of health and are in urgent need of restoration.

Gathered by Regional Forester John Lowe, the panel identified seven long-term health objectives:

* Reduce the risk of catastrophic fire,

* Bring all surface waters to conditions that meet state water-quality standards,

* Provide high-quality riparrian vegetation,

* Emphasize restoration and enhancement of aquatic habitat, especially for threatened or endangered fish species,

* Reduce the risk of epidemic insect outbreaks,

* Provide cover habitat for big-game species within the scope of restoration activities, and

* Identify and address community needs in designing ecosystem restoration.

* The panel's work, based on an ecosystem approach, will be used as a foundation for a multi-year program aimed at restoring the health of and reducing the wildfire risk in the Umatilla, Malbeur, and Wallowa-Whitman national forests.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles; La Grande, Oregon
Author:McLean, Herbert E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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