For the past many years, one of my morning rituals has been to check on the Forest Service air quality cameras located above Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood and in the eastern Columbia River Gorge, near Wishram, Washington. The Hood came was pointed south, toward Mount Jefferson and the Gorge cam was pointed west, toward Mount Hood.
I use past tense to describe these cameras because they were abruptly turned off toward the end of the latest shutdown of the federal government. This article focuses on why these cameras were important, why they might have been shut down and why they should be brought back on line.
Wilderness Webcam Program
Like many federal agencies, the Forest Service has maintained an air quality monitoring program for decades in response to the Clean Air Act. Most famously, this includes measuring the acid rain falling on public forests as a result of urban air pollution, a phenomenon that was first documented in eastern forests in the 1970s and 80s. In Oregon, the Forest Service air quality program came to the forefront more recently, when their monitoring of lichens for trace pollutants helped alert state authorities to toxic levels of emissions coming from a glass factory in Portland.
The wilderness webcams help the Forest Service measure air pollution in places like Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge that are in close proximity to major urban areas and vulnerable to growing air toxics and particulate pollution.
Under this program, not all Forest Service lands are created equal. Areas defined as “Class I” by the agency are of critical concern and the Forest Service has been tasked with establishing targets to help monitor and potentially regulate pollution “loads” for these areas. The targets are based on levels of pollution that measurably impact wilderness ecosystems. The Mount Hood Wilderness and Mount Jefferson Wilderness are among the Class I areas in Oregon, as is the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
Given the unprecedented hostility toward environmental protections (and science, itself) by the Trump administration, the Forest Service air quality program seems a likely target by the industry-friendly political appointees who now lead our public land agencies. This was certainly my suspicion when the following message popped up in place of the wilderness webcam page in early February:
The webcams went offline toward the end of the most recent federal government shutdown, when a deal to reopen the government was in sight, which didn’t make sense from a funding or resource argument. This took me back to a more nefarious objective: perhaps the shutdown was a simply a convenient time to kill off the air quality program, when few would notice?
There’s reason for alarm, too. While the webcams are a handy (and often inspiring!) resource for the general public, they also represent a threat to the polluters who are now in league with the Trump administration in their assault on environmental protections. They provide ongoing, measurable documentation on the state of the environment, without which protections can’t really be enacted or enforced.
The webcams are also increasingly important to the Portland region, as we learned during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. While scientists are still debating the potential ecological value of forest fire smoke in late summer (some believe it provides an important cooling effect during the last weeks of our annual drought), the public health effects on humans are decidedly hazardous.
Most forest ecologists believe we have entered a new era of catastrophic fires that will make heavy smoke the norm in Oregon and across the west for decades to come. The webcams not only provide ongoing monitoring of these effects for scientists, they also help the public see (and avoid) the forests when smoke has reached unhealthy levels.
So, why now?
I reached out to the Forest Service with these questions and received a prompt response and a few answers. The agency position is that a tight Forest Service budget is forcing tough decisions, especially for programs involving field equipment that require ongoing operations and maintenance. This explanation aligns with the well-documented reality that a larger and growing share of the USFS budget is channeled into forest fire response each summer, draining other programs of funds.
More concerning in the response is that the decision to shut down the wilderness webcams was apparently made at Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., where a single government contractor had maintained the national network of cameras.
Putting nefarious influences aside (including the dubious motives of former Georgia Governor Sunny Perdue, who unfortunately serves as Secretary of Agriculture and thus is also overseeing the Forest Service), it’s also true that the entire agency has experienced declining funding for basic programs over the past several years because of ballooning forest fire costs and the ongoing dysfunction of Congress and its inability to actually pass a budget.
On a more encouraging note, the Forest Service response did suggest that local forests may adopt the wilderness webcams and operate them on a regional level, noting that the agency was “well aware of the importance of the cameras.” That’s good news, and hopefully, this will come to pass.
While this blog exists to challenge the historic mission of extraction and exploitation by the USFS, the scientists within the organization have long been the conscience of the agency. They have helped gradually steer the agency toward a more sustainable mission, albeit confounded by ongoing Congressional and White House mandates for more logging and less environmental protection.
Cutbacks to tiny programs like air quality monitoring are just another reminder of the conflicted and unsustainable mission the Forest Service has been tasked with, and where science ranks in the political pecking order.
In the meantime, more Gorge Cam memories… and action?
While we wait to learn the fate of the wilderness webcams, here are some images to enjoy from the Gorge webcam that I downloaded in September 2016. Perhaps my favorite in this series is this remarkably peaceful twilight scene that includes an unusually calm Columbia River reflecting the sky. The linked larger version (below) gives a sense of the quality of images that have been gathered from the wilderness cams over the years — large version of all images have been archived in high definition for scientists to use in research… until now, that is.
[Click here for a large image]
This September 7, 2016 evening view from the Gorge webcam shows a series of lenticular clouds forming over Mount Hood on a late summer evening, a surprisingly common phenomenon when Pacific storms are approaching that is often masked by clouds (visible low on the horizon) for Portlanders on the west side of the mountain.
The Gorge webcam also captured dozens of stunning sunsets over the years, like this beautiful display from September 29, 2016 that could easily be mistaken for a watercolor painting:
This subtle scene (below) not only captures the late evening mood of the Gorge as high clouds from a new storm are approaching, it also captures distant lights in The Dalles and beyond that help scientists monitor particulate pollution.
Hopefully, we’ll have more scenes like these to follow in the future. But in the meantime, what can we do to bring back the wilderness webcams and defend the Forest Service air quality program? It’s always worth calling our U.S. Senators and congressional delegation, especially if you’re concerned about the broader hostility the Trump administration shown toward public lands and environmental protection. With the U.S. House back in an oversight role this year, the Democrats in the Oregon delegation are once again powerful allies in pushing back on the Trump agenda.
However, the decision might come down to our regional Forest Service administrators, and it’s easy to comment as a supporter of the Wilderness Webcams and the air quality program. You can find a feedback form over here on the Pacific Northwest Region website:
Please take a moment to weigh in!