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Forests, Fire and Recovery

by MICHAEL DONNELLY

August 15, a group of us gathered to celebrate our buddy, Earth First! co-founder and Lowbagger King Mike Roselle’s 50th Birthday. Of course, we went to an outdoor setting–not a Wilderness; that would be an unacceptable place for such a gathering. So, we settled on a Scenic Area we’ve all come to love.

As, more and more campsites, and even hiking trails, become “pay to play,” we looked for one of the few remaining, free lakeside campsites in the national forest. Monon Lake is one of the 35 named lakes and 200 ponds in the Olallie Scenic Area, 12,000 acres of high elevation (5000′ and up) protected land along the Cascades Crest in Oregon’s Mt. Hood National Forest, two hours drive from Portland. Far-sighted Forest Service personnel administratively set the area aside decades ago. With a small rustic resort on 250-acre Olallie Lake and numerous campgrounds, the area is a laid-back hidden gem.

People from around the nation (Montanans, Alabamians, Californians…) came over the course of the weekend. Forest activists aged 20 to 60 arrived. And, a fine time was had by all. But, what I really want to comment upon is what we found there, not the festivities themselves.

Internal Combustion Free Recreation

The Scenic Area is literally right on the crest. The Pacific Crest National Recreational Trail (PCT) bisects the area. Another 35 miles of trails branch off to the many lakes and peaks. A few spectacular lakes can only be reached by hiking cross-country. The area has three divides and flows to three major river basins–east to the Deschutes, north to the Clackamas and west to the Breitenbush. One scenic lake right on the crest, Gibson Lake, even overflows two ways at high water.

Olallie comes from the native word for huckleberries. And, were they ever prevalent and ripe. I ate so many while climbing 6000′ Double Peak that I couldn’t even eat the fine birthday dinner prepared back at the camp. The next day a few of us climbed up 7215′ Olallie Butte, which ironically had no huckleberries and on the 90 degree day with a 2500′ elevation gain we sure would have welcomed them.

Back at Monon, folks canoed and swam the 90-acre lake. Amazingly, no motor boats are allowed in the Scenic Area–not even electric ones. It’s so nice to see a quiet lake with nothing but the occasional canoe or small sailboat. Of course, the hike-in lakes don’t even have that. With swim mask on, I could see 30 feet into the clear waters, which is deeper than most of the eight lakes I visited. Occasionally, I would dive as far as I could to get out a beer can, golf ball or lost fish lure. But, mostly, the lakes have been respected and are litter free. Being inaccessible eight months of the year has a lot to do with that. The ban on motors also extends to any area not on the minimal road–just one bumpy gravel road enters the area. No off-road vehicle use is allowed. Even horses are banned on some trails.

Living and Thriving with Fire

But, the most interesting thing of all is the area was burned by an August 2001 forest fire. Most of the 5500-acre blaze occurred on the adjacent Warm Springs Nation. But, the fire started in an Olallie Lake Campground; scorched Monon Lake’s 30-acre Fantasy Bay and then did most of its burning to the east on the Reservation, where eight beautiful lakes were completely burned over, including four sacred lakes off-limits to non-tribal members.

As a number of us have been going there for years, the fire hit us hard back in 2001. In the hottest areas, not a tree survived, the soils became ash and, as a bonus, with no brush or grass all the bottles and cans carelessly discarded became visible and we were able to clean them up. The Forest Service put straw barriers along the hiking trail and at other critical points to control run-off. That worked well and the lakes’ clarity has remained superb and fish, eagles, osprey and amphibians seem to have been unaffected.

A friend and I snuck in while the fire was still smoking and took photos. We’ve gone back each year to the same sites taking photos again each time. Each year more greenery returns. This third year saw massive blooms of beautiful white Bear Grass. Spirea, Fireweed, Pearly Everlasting and, my favorite, Gentian were in peak blossom. Foot-and-a-half tall lodgepole pines are scattered about. And, of course, small huckleberry bushes are everywhere. Native people used to set fires just to get the new huckleberry patches going.

The standing dead trees have mostly lost the charred bark and the smoky smell that permeated the area for two years. The bark falls and provides insect habitat. It decomposes and provides new soil. It’s quite a resurrection in progress.

These are fire forests. This is what has been happening for millennia up on the crest. And, because it is a Scenic Area and because the scorched trees are of species with little commercial value, the area has been left to recover on its own.

The Burnt Biscuit

Another area of the state burned two years ago. The Biscuit Fire on the Siskiyou National Forest burned 500,000 acres–some hot like at Monon and many areas only partially burned–the classic mosaic effect.

Now, the area is ground zero for post-fire logging schemes with the biggest timber sale in history planned and already underway. Unlike the Olallie Scenic Area, the Biscuit area is mostly unprotected from logging. And even some areas that were thought to be logging-free zones are on the auction block. Forest activists from around the world have descended on this Southern Oregon treasure of biodiversity and are resisting the logging proposals and seeking a natural recovery like that at Olallie. The local grassroots group Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (<www.kswild.org>) is leading the opposition.

I went to Babyfoot Lake in the Biscuit burned area in May. Already, salvage logging along the roads was well underway, right up to the Wilderness boundary at the lake trailhead. Also underway was the recovery in the areas not salvaged. Profuse wildflowers were everywhere. The difference between the “salvaged” area and that with big, still standing charred trees was palpable.

The Choice

So, the choice is: do we let areas recover naturally or mug the burn victim and remove the biomass that facilitates that recovery? Pretty simple choice. Pretty obvious results. Scientists have noted the much quicker recovery for areas left to naturally return. I sincerely hope that efforts to stop the Biscuit Post-Fire Logging plans will succeed and twenty years from now, I can revisit Babyfoot and Monon Lakes and both will be well along their way to natural recovery.

Mike Roselle once looked over the logging devastated, stump-strewn, eroded Middle Santiam River basin–the site of the greatest forest ever on Earth in terms of sheer biomass–and said, “Well. A thousand years from now, nobody will be able to tell the difference.”

If we succeed in ending post-fire logging, Mike’s timeframe will be shrunken by a factor of 20 and by his next 50th a few remaining snags in a thriving diverse forest at Monon and in the Siskiyous will be but ghostly reminders that we once came to our senses and fought for future forests by defending the “dead” ones.

MICHAEL DONNELLY of Salem, OR is a longtime forest activist. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s new book on the 2004 elections, A Dime’s Worth of Difference. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com

 

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MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com

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