Just 75 Years

Autumn unfolds along McGee Creek, in the upper West Fork Hood River valley

Autumn unfolds along McGee Creek, in the upper West Fork valley

This scene in the headwaters of the West Fork of the Hood River was captured a few weeks ago, as early autumn colors began to sweep through the forest. This particular stream is McGee Creek, one of the larger tributaries that feeds the West Fork. Most hikers know McGee Creek from its alpine origins, where it tumbles from the wildflower meadows that sprawl below popular McNeil Point. But the creek soon enters lush forest on its way to joining the West Fork.

The surprise is that none of this existed just 75 years ago, when massive railroad logging operations had leveled the virgin forests of the West Fork. Look closely at the following image, captured in 1933 from high above the West Fork valley; the methodical clearing of the forests on the valley floor is nearly complete, and the steam plume from a log train headed back to the old mill town of Dee can also be seen:

By 1933, railroad logging had nearly cleared the West Fork valley

The steam engine in this old photo is at roughly the same spot as the autumn scene in the upper photo, illustrating the remarkable resilience of our forests. In about the span of an average lifetime — just 75 years — the forest along this stretch of McGee Creek has recovered from complete destruction, largely on its own. This is good news for other areas of Mount Hood and the Gorge that still show the scars of logging and road building. Given time and some modest restoration efforts, even the most damaged ecosystems will recover.

The autumn scene on McGee Creek also holds some lessons for restoration that may not be immediately obvious. The large log lying along the right side of the creek, for example, was carefully placed there by biologists, just a few years ago. This was in recognition that a century of logging has deprived our streams of large woody debris that turns out to be an essential ingredient for healthy fisheries.

Perhaps most importantly, the white-trunked alders that line McGee Creek show that the forest here is recovering through natural succession. These pioneering trees provide quick cover and their dense root systems help prevent soil erosion.

Red alders are short-lived, adding their fallen debris to the rich duff layer they help build in recovering areas. Amazingly, they actually fix nitrogen in the soil through their roots, enriching it for the big conifers that will follow. Finally, the light canopy they provide allows for a complex understory of plants to develop in tandem with the alder groves, ensuring that forest diversity is re-established during the recovery cycle.

A typical red alder grove pioneering the recovery along an old road

A typical red alder grove pioneering the recovery along an old road

When McGee Creek was logged, the natural recovery that followed was mostly accidental — early timber operations viewed the forests as limitless, and logged areas were mostly ignored once the trees had been cut. The shift to cultivated tree farms didn’t begin until the late 1940s and the era of road-based logging.

In these more recently logged areas, the pioneer, non-commercial hardwoods like red alder were usually killed with herbicides in order to promote the quick growth of commercial timber species, especially Douglas fir. This practice has led to the thickets of crowded fir trees that we see today. These unnatural stands are vulnerable to disease and fire, and have almost no understory to provide for bio-diversity and wildlife habitat.

Sadly, it will take decades to thin these misguided plantations and decommission the failing logging roads that threaten streams and slopes. But though the task of forest recovery and restoration is a tall one, the good news is that the lessons of natural succession from places like McGee Creek have worked their way into forest management. Our scientists are now learning to work with nature, not control it — by letting the red alders grow.

As we continue to turn the page on past practices and begin a new era of restoration for the forests of Mount Hood, we can take some degree of consolation in knowing that a complete recovery is well within our reach. By watching and learning from the forest ecosystem, we now realize that the natural processes that have renewed our forests for millennia must be allowed to follow their ancient course, once again.

We have to choose?

Crown Point from Women's Forum State Park - a threatened view?

Crown Point from Women's Forum State Park - a threatened view?

According to the Columbia Gorge Commission website, the Vital Signs Indicators Project is “identifying several measures to assess changes in the scenic quality of the Gorge over time.” Translated, this means that the Gorge Commission has set up a web survey to poll the most popular Gorge vistas among the traveling public. The survey allows “up to three” favorite vistas for each of Interstate 84, Highway 14 and the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Wait..! Just three? Do we really have to choose? Well, yes. And according to the Commission, “the views with the most votes for each roadway will be included in the list of key Gorge views that will be monitored in the future by the Commission.” So, your votes matter, at least for this effort. The good news is that this project is intended to help the Commission cope with man-made eyesores that mar scenic vistas, as well as “vegetation management”, so that views like the classic scene from Women’s Forum Park (above) aren’t blocked over time.

Thus, hard as it might be to choose, you should take a moment to visit their website and take the survey. It will take you 10 minutes, or so, and you’ll be helping the Gorge in a small way. The survey runs through December 5, 2008, and after that, you’ll have to settle for reading the results. Here’s the link to the Gorge Commission website.

Reid Glacier

Soft evening light on Reid Glacier and Illumination Rock

Soft evening light on Reid Glacier and Illumination Rock

Reid Glacier, on Mount Hood’s rugged west flank, is one of the most interesting of the mountain’s 12 glaciers. This tumbling body of ice flows between the towering walls of Yocum Ridge and Hawkins cliffs, with the tall spire of Illumination Rock soaring above its deep crevasses. Oddly, Reid Glacier is the source of the Sandy River, whereas the Sandy Glacier gives birth to the Muddy Fork – some confusion on the part of early cartographers, perhaps? And while the Reid is among the most visible of Hood’s glaciers from Portland, few hikers actually make the long climb to the high meadows of Yocum Ridge for a close-up view of the glacier.

USGS view of the Reid Glacier

USGS view of the Reid Glacier

Reid Glacier is also unique as the only one of Mount Hood’s glaciers that wasn’t named for a local pioneer, or simply given a descriptive name. Instead, this secluded river of ice was named to honor Harry Fielding Reid, the eminent geophysicist who is considered to be the father of modern thinking on faults and tectonic forces.

Harry Fielding Reid (1859-1944)

Harry Fielding Reid (1859-1944)

Reid never actually visited the glacier, though he was an avid mountaineer and did study the White River Glacier extensively. The Mazamas honored Reid by naming the glacier for him at a campfire ceremony held on the mountain on July 16, 1901.

Harry Fielding Reid’s research took him around the world, and his groundbreaking work at Glacier Bay in Alaska was recognized by the naming of yet another Reid Glacier for the scientist. The Alaska glacier by the same name is much larger, of course, and is a tidewater glacier flowing into the Reid Inlet in Glacier Bay. Thus, the smaller Reid Glacier on Mount Hood lives in the shadow of its larger sibling in Alaska, with few biographies of Harry Reid making mention of the more diminutive Mount Hood namesake.

Today, the Seismological Society of America awards its top honor, the Harry Field Reid Medal, for outstanding contributions to the fields of seismology and earthquake engineering.

Just Two Dead Trees

The two snags and Mount Hood in September 2008

The two snags and Mount Hood in September 2008

For many years, I’ve stopped at a favorite vantage point along Dufur Mill Road to photograph the massive east face of Mount Hood, framed by a trio of big ponderosa pines. In the beginning, two were living, and the third was a bleached, dead snag that stood between them. Then another died just a few years ago (the tree on the left in the photo), creating a new snag.

Each year, the two snags in this trio have become more weathered, with the remaining bits bark dropping from the silver wood of the older snag, and a few more branches dropping from the younger skeleton. I watched this evolving scene with interest, but also took for granted. I was thus surprised — and saddened — to discover that these two, old sentinels had been cut down sometime this fall.

They were left simply lying on the ground, in the ravine far below the road, and it’s unclear why they were cut. When I was there, a pair of grizzled men were cutting firewood along the road, a sanctioned activity permitted by the Forest Service. Yet, these two great snags were far enough below the road to represent a real chore to recover as firewood. Indeed, the men were working the uphill side of the road, where logs could simply be rolled down to their truck. More to the point, there is plenty of downed timber for woodcutting in the area, so it was unnecessary to cut any snags, much less these two giants.

But somebody felled them, and this is just one price of the casual culture of tree cutting that reduces every standing tree on U.S. Forest Service land, dead or alive, to a dollar value in board feed of lumber, or cords of firewood or cardboard boxes. What a waste.

Two more fortunate snags live on as wildlife trees near Lost Lake

Two more fortunate snags live on as wildlife trees near Lost Lake

So this story remains a puzzle to me. I doubt many noticed these two old snags, but they surely added to the scene in ways both aesthetic — they were majestic and photogenic — and functional, since big snags are an important part of a diverse wildlife habitat in our forests. I’d often seen crows, and even a couple of hawks, sitting in these old snags over the years, and there were probably dozens of other creatures that lived in these old skeletons, or relied on them for survival.

They might have lasted for decades as bleached monuments, too. Mount Hood is dotted with century-old snags left from fires that occurred in the early 1900s, after all, since big trees like these have remarkable resistance to the elements as snags. But this pair will only remain standing in my imagination, and I’m thankful that I captured them in a few photographs over the years as a reminder of their beauty and value.