Fire Forests of the Cascades

The Gnarl Fire of 2008 shocked Portlanders by racing across the east slopes of Mount Hood, and nearly destroying the historic buildings at Cloud Cap and Tilly Jane. But as an east side fire, the Gnarl burn was relatively small, and part of what has become an annual ritual for rural communities of fighting intense blazes along the east slope of the Cascades.

The 2008 Gnarl Fire, viewed in August from Dufur Mill Road

The 2008 Gnarl Fire, viewed in August from Dufur Mill Road

The cause for the intensity of these fires is well-known and well-documented. We know that a century of fire suppression, promotion of even-aged stands of second growth in logged areas and a changing climate are forces conspiring to burn the east side forests on a scale not seen in recent decades.

But not all of the east side fires are catastrophic, even with the fuel build-up from our history of fire suppression. The 2006 fire at Bluegrass Ridge was a glimpse into what was once a routine occurrence along the east side of the Cascades. The Bluegrass Fire began as a lightning strike in the dry season, and soon spread along the east face of the ridge in a mosaic pattern: some parts of the forest were completely killed, while others were a mix, where pockets of forest survived among the burned trees.

The aftermath of the 2006 Bluegrass Fire ranged from total destruction in areas like this, to mosaic patterns where less crowded forests existed

The aftermath of the 2006 Bluegrass Fire ranged from total destruction in areas like this, to mosaic patterns where less crowded forests existed

Most significantly, the larger, fire-resistant species like western larch and ponderosa pine often survive fires in these mosaic areas, and this was the case in the Bluegrass Fire. We will know in a year or two whether the extensive larch population in the Gnarl Fire area were similarly resistant.

The survival of these big trees is the key to the natural ecosystem that defines east side forests. Forest ecologists are now calling these east side regimes “fire forests”, as a counterpoint to the west side rain forests, where abundant rainfall is the operative element in defining the forests.

The “fire forest” name is apt, since we now know that a number of tree species in this dry forest system depend on fire for natural succession that creates mature forests. In the Mount Hood area, these east side trees are Douglas fir, western larch and ponderosa pine. All three have thick, fire-resistant bark that helps them survive moderate fires, and benefit from periodic clearing of undergrowth that competes for moisture and soil nutrients. Fires, in turn, release nutrients for the big trees, further enhancing the growth of fire-resistant species.

Western larch light up the eastside forests in autumn. Larch are among the fire-resistant species that require periodic burns for their long-term health

Western larch light up the eastside forests in autumn. Larch are among the fire-resistant species that require periodic burns for their long-term health

The question for the east side forest is not whether they will continue to burn — they have evolved with fire, after all — but rather, how we will learn to live with the fires. We now know that we cannot simply extinguish them. A century of fire suppression has created mammoth fires that we simply cannot control.

We also know that we cannot prevent forest fires from starting, since the large majority begin from lighting strikes. And we know that many more catastrophic burns will occur before the east side forests return to a more sustainable condition that mimics the natural ecosystem that once thrived.

Most ominous is the recent discovery — from tree-ring research — that the Western states are coming off an unusually wet century, and that the decades ahead are likely to carry more drought, not less. So it is imperative to help the east side forests stabilize before conditions make that proposition still more difficult.

These mature, healthy forests of western larch, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir along Bluegrass Ridge survived the fire

These mature, healthy forests of western larch, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir along Bluegrass Ridge survived the fire

A first step is continuing to thin tree plantations on logged lands to help prevent still more crowded, bug-infested forests like those that are currently driving the fire epidemic. The second step is more difficult: letting fires burn. This policy will be most difficult in the many areas where rural development has encroached on forest boundaries, but it is a necessary step. Both of these steps will require a new mindset about fire, not the least of which will be a public education shift away from Smokey Bear and fire suppression and toward a modern understanding of fire.

But a third step is most difficult of all: setting fires in prescribed locations to help restore forest balance. While the rash of east side fires in recent years has made this part of restoring forest balance less urgent, it will still be necessary — and controversial. Federal agencies have already begun employing this tool, but in cases where a controlled burn becomes a wildfire, the public is not prepared to understand why that risk is necessary — and perfectly natural. Still more public outreach and education will be needed.

The good news is that the scientists are winning this debate, and even the Forest Service has gradually begun to embrace fire ecology as part of their management philosophy. The Park Service is much further long, having successfully weathered the early criticism of their prescient decision to let the huge Yellowstone fires of the mid-1980s burn.

The remarkable resilience and recovery of Yellowstone in the intervening years has not only been vindication for that bold decision, but also an invaluable lesson to land agencies across the west who are responsible for managing “fire forests”. The time to embrace fires in our forests has arrived.

Phoca Rock

An early 1900s postcard shows a steam ship passing Phoca Rock

An early 1900s postcard shows a steam ship passing Phoca Rock

Anyone who has made a few trips through the Columbia Gorge has noticed the small monolith that pokes out of the center of the river near Cape Horn. This is Phoca Rock, and its distinction lies partly in the fact that it is one of the few landmarks in the Gorge that carries the name given by Lewis and Clark on their 1805-06 Corps of Discovery journey.

Lewis and Clark didn’t actually name the rock until they were camped on the Oregon Coast, and compiled their journals while suffering through a dank Northwest winter. William Clark named the rock for the abundant harbor seals spotted in the river – phoca vitulina.

Harbor seals basking in Alaska's Tracy Arm

Harbor seals basking in Alaska's Tracy Arm

Harbor seals are still native to the lower Columbia River, although in smaller numbers than when Lewis and Clark paddled through. Government bounties in Oregon and Washington killed more than 20,000 Harbor seals in the two states from the 1920s through 1972, when hunting was finally banned.

The Harbor seal population has since rebounded from fewer than 7,000 seals at the time of the ban to more than 17,000 today. Still, biologists in both states must monitor the seals for health and impacts from commercial fisheries.

Phoca Rock continues to serve as a river beacon today, marking the edge of shipping lanes on the Columbia. The rock marks the edge of two-foot shallows along Oregon’s Sand Island and the 45-foot deep Candiana Channel that separates Phoca Rock from Cape Horn, on the Washington side.

Phoca Rock today, as seen from Bridal Veil State Park

Phoca Rock today, as seen from Bridal Veil State Park

Clark estimated the rock to be 100 feet tall, but today we know it to be just 30 feet. Its prominence lies in its isolation, and early names for the rock underscored this point: beginning in the mid-1800s, Phoca was alternately called “Hermit’s Islet”, “Lone Rock” and “Sentinel Rock” before the federal government finally restored the original name given by Lewis and Clark, in the early 1900s.

This 1911 map shows Phoca Rock with its restored name

This 1911 map shows Phoca Rock with its restored name

So, why is Phoca Rock sitting alone, in the middle of the Columbia River? Chances are the rock isn’t a tiny cousin to nearby Beacon Rock, the exposed, solid core of an ancient volcano. Phoca is more likely an outcrop of the Grande Ronde basalt flows that produced the cliffs of Cape Horn, to the north, and the Pillars of Hercules, along the Oregon shore.

One of many old postcard views that show "Sentinel Rock", one of the itinerant names for Phoca Rock

Diminutive Phoca Rock is as tough as it is tiny. The rock survived multiple Missoula Floods, after all, and thousands of years of parting the waters of the Columbia River. And left alone, Phoca Rock will continue to weather the elements for millennia with little change, long after the ribbons of asphalt and steel that line the Gorge have vanished.

Unfinished work at Tumala

Most of us grew up using the word “squaw” as the counterpoint to “brave” in our one-dimensional, Hollywood version of Indian culture. But historians and Native Americans always knew this word to be derogatory and offensive in its original use, so the current national efforts to remove “squaw” from maps and places is long overdue.

In Oregon, the list of places using this name numbers 172, but nowhere was there such a concentration as in the Roaring River high country, where no less than four features — plus a road — were named “squaw”.

Acting on a legislative directive, the Clackamas County Commission began the work of changing the names of “Squaw” mountain, meadows, lakes and creek to “Tumala” in 2007, and the Oregon Geographic Names Board completed the work in early 2008. Tumala is a Chinook word meaning tomorrow, or afterlife, and is as good a name as you might wish for in this lovely mountain blend of craggy peaks, big trees and sunny meadows.

Beautiful Tumala Lakes and Meadows in the Roaring River backcountry

Beautiful Tumala Lakes and Meadows in the Roaring River backcountry

But the work here has only begun. Tumala Mountain and the surrounding country are rich with Native American and early pioneer history, yet little has been done to simply preserve the legacy, much less celebrate it.

Native Americans hunted and foraged along the high ridges of Tumala Mountain area for centuries, and likely set fires to keep the huckleberry slopes productive.

In the autumn of 1855, a 22-year old U.S. Army lieutenant named Henry Abbot and his 18-year old Indian guide, Sam-ax-shat, led a survey party across the Cascades. They followed the high divide between the Salmon and Roaring rivers, and passed through the Tumala Lakes basin, a protected refuge with water and grazing along the high ridge top.

Abbot’s journey lent his name to the early Forest Service road that would later be built along this route, in the 1920s. A string of fire lookouts, guard stations and a network of trails soon followed in this corridor. The lookout on Tumala Mountain was rebuilt at least twice, before it was finally removed in the 1960s, when the Forest Service burned hundreds of old lookout structures that were no longer in use.

Stairway to the past, these steps once led to the lookout atop Tumala Mountain

Stairway to the past, these steps once led to the lookout atop Tumala Mountain

Today, the old road to the Tumala Mountain lookout site still exists, but serves mainly to deliver motorcycles and OHVs to the fragile mountain summit. The Abbot Road, itself, has become a sad, dangerous shooting gallery overrun by OHVs and target hunters. Tumala Meadows and Lakes are also within reach of the OHVs, despite efforts to keep them out of this remarkable basin.

The original lookout on Tumala Mountain, pictured in 1916 (USFS photo)

The original lookout on Tumala Mountain, pictured in 1916 (USFS photo)

So the name change is a starting point, but the work here is unfinished. At Tumala Mountain, the solution is simple: the area must be managed for activities that build on the natural and cultural legacy, and help preserve the traces that still remain.

The first step in making this transition is to remove the shooters and OHVers from the area. Until they are gone, hikers, picnickers, cyclists and equestrians are unlikely to feel safe visiting the area, and the area will continue to suffer the abuse that is so evident today.

A message from the builders of the old lookout awaits hikers who discover the stairsteps that still remain

A message from the builders of the old lookout awaits hikers who discover the stairsteps that still remain

Unfortunately, the Forest Service is on the path to do just the opposite: the so-called “Mount Hood Travel Plan” currently underway has proposed that this area simply be written off as an OHV playground. This is unacceptable, and another reminder that the USFS agency mission simply does not allow it to behave as a responsible steward for the land.

But beyond the OHV problem, the second part of the puzzle is how to make the area more inviting for quiet recreation? There is no lack of scenery or interesting destination, after all. Indeed, this would most involve simple measures like better road and trail signs and improving lost campgrounds like those at Lookout Springs and Twin Springs — both would be excellent base camps for equestrians or cyclists. With a few improvements and the promise of finally solving the OHV and shooting problems, the area would become a prime outdoor destination.

This unfinished work can start now, by simply weighing in against the foolish, shortsighted OHV plan with the Forest Service. This would at least stop the bleeding.

But in the longer term, the unfinished work at Tamala — “tomorrow” — Mountain would be better managed by the National Park Service. Tumala is yet another reminder that the Forest Service cannot be trusted to protect and celebrate the natural and cultural legacy of Mount Hood.