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How the Naked Hiker Saved the Forest

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I recently wrote about the building of the Opal Creek trail and its crucial part in the successful effort to save the area and Ancient Forests, in general.  That effort followed an earlier one that also prevented massive Ancient Forest logging and jump-started the Ancient Forest Protection Movement.

Back in 1977, a group of under-30 idealistic communitarians attained an old hot springs resort in the Oregon Cascades with the intent of restoring it and its being the means of support for their Intentional Community. Breitenbush Hot Springs had been closed for eleven years and was slowly rotting away. The group began a seven year restoration project – 110 buildings, a water and a sewage system, a hydroelectric plant, water treatment…all a small town needed and now it is a world-class Retreat Center – a forest-bathing mecca.

A Citizen Forest Protection Movement Begins

During the time the resort was off-line, the Forest Service began a major Old Growth Liquidation logging scheme in the area. The Detroit Ranger District became the top timber-cutting District in the 48 states. It led the way throughout the 70s, 80s and early 90s, cutting over 125 million board feet per year out of the forest. (A board foot = a piece of wood one foot by one foot by one inch thick.) By 1977, the logging was on the doorstep of the springs.

Community member Dinah Ross started researching just what was going on. She found that the original resort had seven major trail leading out into the untouched at the time forest and pack-guiding people on them was part of the business. By the time of the new incarnation, all seven trails were no more, either abandoned or roaded over – one is now a void where a major gravel quarry was carved out of a mountain to build the many logging roads.

Ross started perusing maps that detailed existing clearcuts and future ones. She started hiking the areas to check on what was at risk. She was appalled and she and David Rath filed the first ever old growth Appeal of a timber sale in 1979….those trees still stand today. She started recruiting like-minded folks and began tours of the proposed logging sites. She became Breitenbush’s representative to the Oregon Wilderness Coalition.

Soon, Dinah had a vision of restoring the trails. In 1984, a group of us began talking with the Forest Service about it. Ray Crist, an old-school Smokey-the-Bear Ranger (always in uniform) first noted: “Well, you guys opposing timber sales means we don’t get the K-V Funds (Knutson/Vanderberg) we’d get from the sales to work on trails.”

“Well, Ray. How about if you need help on trails you just call us and we arrange volunteers?”

Despite that philosophical difference, Ray was into promoting recreation, so he agreed that we could reopen the abandoned Breitenbush Gorge Trail. Every place we’d ever go to in the forest, Ray had been there before. We relied on Ray for tips and danger warnings.

After searching for old blaze marks and cut-thru fallen logs, we had a good idea where the trail once was. It required a new footbridge across the North Breitenbush River – Ray had us submit plans.

Finally, Scott Johnson, Lou Howe and I headed up a work party on the bridge and the clearing the old trail and building new sections where fallen trees had obliterated any chance of using the old tread. Soon, hiking the trail was a major a part of the Breitenbush experience. Ram Dass, Wavy Gravy and I started taking large groups out into the forest on the trail during the many retreats they held at Breitenbush in the 80s and 90s.

breitenbush1

Me, in gray cap, Ram Dass, in white cap, and folks in the Ancient Forest at the South Breitenbush Gorge —1986

Hikers from Breitenbush soon discovered the old, abandoned Devils Ridge Trail. This steep trail rises three miles from Breitenbush to a majestic view of Pahtoo (Mt Jefferson) at the top. To get to the trailhead, one had to hike thru the adjacent Summer Homes Tract. The owners of these 71 cabins mostly never warmed up to us, as one of them once testified, “naked hippie voodoo cultists” that had “taken over the hot springs and cut them off from wholesome family enjoyment.”

One day, Ray called and said, “Can you guys tell your guests to stop walking thru the summer homes to the Devils Ridge Trail?”

“Ray. It’s public land and a public road.”

“Yes. But it’s a major impact on people just trying to relax at their cabins. And that trail is abandoned.”

“It’s on Public land and anyone can hike there, even camp there if they like. It’s even still on maps.”

“Yeah. But there are lots of other places to go that don’t bother anyone else.”

“OK. It’s quite a privilege they have even having cabins on Public Land. But, I can see their point about privacy. How about we build a connector trail around the Summer Homes and people can go that way?”

“Naw. We can’t have you building trails all over the place.”

After a few weeks, I got another call from Ray Crist.

“Michael. You now that trail you guys wanted to build around the Summer Homes?”

“Sure.:

“Well. How soon can you guys flag your proposed route? We’ll come out and readjust if needed and you can build it.”

“Damn. Sure. We’re on it.”

So, we all started figuring out the route. We already knew how to get to devils Creek upstream from the summer cabins and could figure out a bridge site. But, we did not know how to get up the knob and connect with the trail. Finally, Mahogany found what is now the Tree Trail segment and the Squirrel Monkey found what is now the Cliff Trail segment. We flagged them out and Ray approved.

A Momentous Visitation

We called it the Spotted Owl Trail and the outcrop it circumnavigated Spotted Owl Knob before we even did anything. We had just found our that the owls were declared the Indicator Specie for the health of the entire Ancient Forest ecosystem. We new very little of the owls and none of us had ever seen one.

breitowl

We found a family of Northern Spotted Owls (or they found us) the very day we built the trail. (Jennifer Eastman, me, Mahogany and friend) 1985

While I as running a chainsaw cutting thru a fallen tree, I and the two guys helping me move the huge chucks of wood cut out, looked up and saw a male and female owl on a branch above. The female was ripping apart a rodent and feeding it to the two downy owlets that were lined up between the adults.

Shocked, I immediately turned off the saw. We watched them as they watched us. One of the guys went and got the thirteen other folks working on the trail up ahead. We all lay down in the moss and just sat there in silence amazed. Soon the male started talking to us. Mahogany memorized its call and soon they were calling back and forth.

After awhile, we quietly left. The male owl followed us down the fresh path. He kept swooping over our heads and landing in front of us.

The trail traversed thru an area that was sold for logging. Timber Sale Boundary markers were stapled to many trees. A roadway survey (p=line) was in place, as well. The entire area would soon be clearcut if we couldn’t stop it. So, we hastily informed the Forest Service of the owls’ presence. A couple days later a biologist came and the owls came in again. That eventually stopped 147 acres of proposed clearcuts. (The owls made appearances for numerous media folks and politicians over the year, as well.)

The area protected went from the original 147 acres to 300 acres; to 1000; to 3000 and is now part of a 49,00)-acres Late Successional Reserve (LSR.) It is one of the top Spotted Owl habitats in Oregon.

Naked Got the Goods

It wasn’t until a couple years later that Ray Crist told us why the Forest Service had relented and let us build the trail. Seems a guy hiked naked thru the Summer Homes to the old trailhead and back. No one knows who. No one has ever stepped up and claimed credit.

The Gorge Trail is now the South Breitenbush Gorge National Recreation Trail – one of but three trails so-designated in the entire Willamette National Forest. The Spotted Owl Trail has been connected to the Gorge Trail and makes up the 4.5 mile Emerald Forest Loop Trail. Tens of thousands of folks hike the trails every year. All three roads thru the Summer Homes have spur trails, including the original disputed one, that connect to the Loop. A lot of the summer cabins have change hands and many are now owned by people who want to be near the current incarnation of the naked hippie operation next door. I have one of the cabins and am the president of the Summer Homes Association!

Dinah Ross tragically passed away from a car accident in 1983 and never lived to see the effort she started come to fruition. She succeed in saving 9,000 acres before she died. The movement she began saved millions more.

Breitenbush is an international treasure. Close to 100 work and live there. Tens of thousands visit each year. It’s one of the world’s best paces for forest-bathing – Shinrin Yoku – and mushrooming. Book well in advance, if you wish to visit.

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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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