Among the more grotesque of the thousands of clear cuts that sprawl across the Mount Hood National Forest is a nearly 800-acre complex along the west shoulder of Vista Ridge called the Boundary clear cut.
The Boundary cut is remarkable in that it quite literally defines the boundary of the Mount Hood Wilderness for nearly two miles, following an painfully straight line right over the lakes, streams and canyons that stood in its way.
The surgical precision of following such an arbitrary slice across the terrain betrays an astonishing degree of defiance and disregard for the management directive that comes with wilderness designations. The Forest Service planners who sold this timber in the late 1980s and early 90s were clearly carving off whatever could be rationalized under the narrowest interpretation of environmental law — if this was a lawful timber sale, at all. After all, how could cutting a pristine forest to the edge of wilderness have anything but a harmful effect on the adjacent wilderness value?
The price of this recklessness is substantial. The impact to the forest and watershed are the subject of this two-part article. This part focuses on the broken mindset that led to the devastation, and how it illustrates a fundamental flaw in the U.S. Forest Service mission: that this agency is simultaneously tasked with both protecting and exploiting the resources under its management.
The first flaw in agency mindset that led to this environmental tragedy is the notion that high-elevations forest can be farmed like so many rows of corn. At an elevation of 4,800 feet, the forest here consists almost entirely of slow-growing noble fir. In this zone, “sustainable” logging becomes tree mining, as it will be decades before these forests recover, and centuries before they regain their former stature as a mature ecosystem.
Consider the fallen noble fir pictured at left, found on a nearby hiking trail. Though measuring just over a foot in diameter, this tree is 170 years old. This should come as no surprise, given that nobles live in a zone that sees a winter snowpack of 6-12 feet in winter, and as few as four or five months when snow doesn’t cover the ground.
The second flaw in the Forest Service mindset is the notion that clear cuts and the associated network of logging roads are sustainable by any measure. Neither are, and only now has the agency begun to acknowledge this fundamental reality — more than three decades after the scientific community had debunked both practices as part of sound forest management.
Today, the tangle of deteriorating roads in the Boundary clearcut are gradually being decommissioned at taxpayer expense, to prevent further degradation of water supplies and fish habitat, and to discourage lawless behavior from off-highway thrill-riders.
The third flaw in Forest Service thinking that allowed the Boundary clear cut to happen is the assumption that timber harvest trumps all, and that steering the public away from logging operations somehow mitigates the lost recreational and scenic resources. Indeed, most trails that once threaded through the surrounding Vista Ridge area were dropped from Mount Hood National Forest maps in the 1950s and 60s, in preparation for the coming storm of industrial logging.
Sadly, this area held some of the most scenic spots found on the mountain, but the value of saw timber here trumped recreation in the Forest Service math, as was the case in much of the Mount Hood National Forest. The good news is that volunteers have recently re-opened one such trail on Vista Ridge (see the Portland Hikers Field Guide trip to Owl Point) There are also opportunities to reconnect some of the old, lost routes destroyed by logging by simply ducking inside the wilderness boundary, where the forests are still pristine and scenic.
It’s tempting to believe that the U.S. Forest Service can be reformed, and actually carry forward the restoration work needed to undo the damage that we see in places like the Boundary Clear Cut. This has been the agency message in recent years, and many well-meaning employees within the agency are working to change its course.
But the reality is that the Forest Service mission forever exposes the agency to the same political and economic winds that left us with the current logging aftermath. Only by moving Mount Hood’s battered lands into National Park Service stewardship can true restoration — and future protection from similar abuses — be truly guaranteed.