2020 MHNP Campaign Calendar!

2020 MHNP Campaign Calendar Cover

The coming year marks the 16th annual scenic calendar that I’ve assembled for the Mount Hood National Park Campaign, with each calendar drawing from photos from the previous year of Mount Hood country. In the beginning, the proceeds helped defray the costs of the campaign website and (beginning in 2008) the WyEast Blog. But for the past several years, all proceeds have gone to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), our premier trail stewards and advocates in Oregon (more on that toward the end of this article).

Looking back, the early calendars were more than a bit rough, especially given the clunky on-demand printing options in those early days of the internet and the emerging state of digital cameras, too! This is the “homey” inaugural cover that featured Elk Cove as it appeared way back in 2004:

The first calendar! Way back in 2004… a bit rough…

Over the years, the calendar has evolved, and on-demand printing quality has become downright exceptional. Each year I set aside my favorite photos over the course of the year, typically a few dozen by the time calendar season rolls around. Then the hard part begins: picking just 13 images to tell the story of Mount Hood and the Gorge. And as in years passed, this blog article tells a bit of the backstory behind images in the new calendar and includes a few photos that didn’t make the calendar.

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For 2020, the cover image is from a favorite spot on Middle Mountain, the rambling series of forested buttes that separate the upper and lower portions of the Hood River Valley. The sylvan view of Mount Hood from here is hard to match:

The stunning view of the Upper Hood River Valley frm Middle Mountain

But the story of Middle Mountain is a bit less idyllic. Though most of the mountain is owned by Hood River County, the agency still hasn’t gotten the memo on modern, sustainable forestry and continues to aggressively log these public lands with old-school clearcuts. 

This makes for low (or at least lower) taxes for Hood River County residents, but at the expense of future sustainability of the forest — which means future generations in Hood River are really paying the tab. This rather large clearcut (below) appeared this year, just east of the spot where the cover image for the calendar was captured, on a climate-vulnerable south-facing slope. 

Still doing 1950s forestry practices in Hood River County…

Will the forest recover here once again, as it always has before? Probably. But Pacific Northwest forest scientists are warning Oregonians not to take our low-elevation Douglas fir forests for granted, as they may not return, especially on hot south and west-facing slopes. Consider that just uphill from this spot some slopes on Middle Mountain are already too dry to support conifers, and are home to a few scattered Oregon white oak trees. Now would be a good time for Hood River County to adopt a longer view of its forests, and begin planning for more selective, sustainable harvests that don’t put the survival of their forests at risk.

For the January calendar image, I chose a close-up of the Sandy Headwall, which forms Mount Hood’s towering west face. This is a favorite spot for me after the first big snowfall of the year, when the mountain is suddenly transformed into a glowing white pyramid:

January features the Sandy Headwall on Mount Hood’s west face

I have a little secret to share about this view, too. It turns out I’m not much of an “alpenglow” fan, which is downright sacrilegious for a photographer to admit! So, you’re unlikely to see one in the annual calendar. I just prefer the long shadows and shades of blue and ivory that light up in the hour beforesunset that are featured in the January image.

If you’re not familiar, alpenglow is that rosy cast that often appears at or just after sunset, and pictured on waytoo many postcards and calendars — at least for my taste! But my other little secret is that I still capture plenty of alpenglow photos, too. Who knows, maybe my tastes will change someday? 

The following image didn’t make the calendar, but it shows the transformation from the above view that unfolded over the course of 30 minutes or as sun dropped over the horizon that cold, October evening:

Some people really like Alpenglow… apparently…

February also features another snow scene, this time along the White River, when the stream nearly disappeared under ten feet of snow last winter:

February features the White River smothered in winter snow

But the White River photo came courtesy of an aborted snowshoe trip that day at nearby Pocket Creek. My plan was to hike up to a view of Mount Hood and Elk Mountain from the north slopes of Gunsight Ridge. I had made the trip about ten years ago and liked the sense of depth that having Elk Mountain in front of Mount Hood created from this angle. Instead, here’s what I found when I reached the viewpoint:

Erm… what happened to my view..!?

This isn’t the first viewpoint that has disappeared behind growing forests in my years of exploring Mount Hood, nor am I sad that the view went away. After all, this one came courtesy of a 1980s Forest Service clearcut, and while the view was nice, a recovered forest is even better. And besides, I still have this photo from 2009 to remind me of view that once existed here:

The view in 2009 was a bit more expansive!

So, I returned to the trailhead that day and headed over to the White River for a short snowshoe trip in the evening light. While I picked a photo of the river and mountain for the calendar, there were some very pretty views unfolding behind me, too. These images capture the last rays of winter sun lighting up the crests of Bonney Butte and Barlow Butte. They may not be calendar-worthy, but are lovely scenes, nonetheless:

The frosted crest of Bonney Butte lights up as the sun goes down
Snowy Barlow Butte at sunset

For the March calendar image, I picked a scene from Rowena Plateau, a spot famous for its spectacular displays of yellow Balsamroot and blue Lupine. The calendar view looks north across the Columbia River to the Washington community of Lyle, a town that nests seamlessly into the Gorge landscape, thanks in large part to the protections of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area:

March features the annual flower spectacle on the Rowena Plateau

But the view behind me that day was pretty nice, too, though it didn’t make it into the calendar. This image (below) looks south toward McCall Point from the same vantage point, with still more drifts of wildflowers spreading across the terraced slopes:

Wildflower drifts on the slopes of McCall Point

For April, I chose a popular scene along the Old Salmon River Trail on Mount Hood’s southwest side just as the bright greens of spring were exploding in this rainforest. Here, a grove of 600-year old Western red cedar and Douglas fir somehow avoided several cycles of logging in the 1800s and 1900s to survive as the closest ancient forest to Portland:

April features ancient rainforests along the Old Salmon River Trail

How big is that Western red cedar on left? I’ve been asked that question a few times, and short of actually measuring it, I stepped in front of the camera to serve as a human yardstick (well, two yards, as I’m exactly six feet tall). Subtract a few inches for my hat, and I’d estimate the trunk to be about 15 feet across at the base and about 10 feet thick a bit further up. 

What do you think?

Ancient hiker among the forest ancients…

One thing is for sure, we’re so fortunate that these old sentinels have survived to give us a glimpse into what many of our rainforest valleys used to look like. 

Further down the trail, I also captured this scene (below) of a pair of leaning giants that mark the spot of an ancient nurse log, long since rotted away and revealing the roots that once anchored these trees to the nurse log when they were youngsters. Someday, they will fall and become nurse logs, too, repeating the rainforest cycle.

Nurse log babies a century later…

This unique pair of trees is easy to find if you’re exploring the Old Salmon River Trail. They’re located right along the river (below), at a scenic spot just off the trail where there are plenty of boulders for picnics and even a tiny beach in summer. It’s just beyond one of the rustic footbridges along the trail, and downstream from the ancient tree grove.

The Salmon River along the Old Salmon River Trail… alas, this photo didn’t make the calendar!

For May, I chose another photo from the Rowena Plateau, partly because it was such a good bloom this year, but also for the gnarled Oregon white oak that grows on this little knoll (below).

May features White oaks at Rowena surrounded by bouquets of Balsamroot and Lupine

After exploring Rowena that day, I crossed the river and spent the evening over at Columbia Hills State Park, in Washington. While this sprawling preserve is certainly no secret these days, you can still count on it being pretty lonely once you hike into the vast meadows along the park’s trails. 

This is the scene looking back toward The Dalles and Mount Hood as the sun dropped over the horizon on that lovely spring day:

Vast wildflower meadows sweep toward the Columbia River and Mount Hood at Columbia Hills State Park

For June, I selected an old standby, the understated but elegant Upper Butte Creek Falls (below), located in the Santiam State Forest. I visit Butte Creek at least twice each year, just because the area is so delightful, and also because it’s a showcase of what Oregon’s state forests could be.

The Oregon Department of Forestry has gradually expanded recreation opportunities throughout the state forest system over the past couple of decades, in recognition of growing demand for trails in our state. It’s an uphill battle, as state forests have generally been viewed by our state and local governments as a cash register, thanks to 1930s era laws that have traditionally been interpreted as promoting logging above all else. 

June features lovely Upper Butte Creek Falls in the Santiam State Forest

Today, a group of Oregon counties are actually suing the state for “retroactive” payments based on this interpretation, though it’s an absurd and misguided case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. If successful, the “state” (that’s you and me) could pay over $1 billion to a handful of counties (possibly you, possibly me) to right this purported wrong. This power play further underscores the need to radically rethink how we manage our state forests in an era of climate change and changing values among the public.

While the area along the Butte Creek trail remains a verdant rainforest, it’s really just an island, with much of the surrounding public forest logged in the past, and planned for more logging. Adjacent private timberlands are faring even worse, with companies like Weyerhaeuser liquidating their holdings with massive clear cuts in the lower Butte Creek canyon.

The changing climate is starting to take its toll here, too. This view of Butte Creek Falls was taken on the same visit as the June calendar image, but as the photo shows, the creek is running at perhaps a third of its “normal” June flow after dry spring this year, with much of the falls already running dry. We’re learning that “normal” is no longer as drought years continue to become the new normal.

Low water in June at Butte Creek Falls

The warning signs of the changing climate are already showing up on the rocky viewpoint above Butte Creek Falls, where several Douglas fir (below) finally succumbed to the stress of summer droughts this year on the thin, exposed soils of this outcropping. 

Early victims of climate change above Butte Creek

This is how climate change is beginning to make its mark throughout our forests, with trees growing in poor or thin soils lacking the groundwater moisture to make it through summer droughts. These trees are often further weakened and eventually killed by insects and diseases that attack drought-stressed forests. 

The good news is that a new generation of forest scientists is sounding the alarm and as we’ve seen, a new generation of young people are made climate change their rallying cry. So, while we’re very late in taking action, I’m optimistic that Oregon will emerge as a leader in tackling climate change, starting with our magnificent forests.

For July, I chose another waterfall scene, this time in the sagebrush deserts east of Mount Hood, where the White River crashes over a string of three waterfalls on its way into the Deschutes River canyon (below).

July features thundering White River Falls

Most people hike the paved trail into the rugged canyon, which begins an impressive, but partly obscured view of the dramatic upper falls. But few follow the fenced canyon rim upstream to this nice profile (below), just a short distance off the paved route. From here, the basalt buttes and mesas of Tygh Valley fill the horizon and remnants from the early 1900s power plant that once hummed here are visible on a side channel, below. 

A different take on White River Falls

In 2011, I posted this article with a proposal for expanding tiny White River Falls State Park to save it from the kind of development it had just dodged at the time. Hopefully, we’ll eventually see White River Falls better protected and some of its history restored and preserved!

The August image in the new calendar is from my beloved Owl Point, a spot on the north side of Mount Hood that I visit several times each year as a volunteer for Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO). In this view (below), evening shadows were starting to reach across the talus slopes below Owl Point, where low mats of purple Davidson’s penstemon painted the summer scene. 

August features Owl Point in the Mount Hood Wilderness… of course!

I was alone that day, scouting the trail for an upcoming TKO volunteer work party, so I had the luxury of spending a lot of time just watching the evening unfold through my camera. For photographers, clouds are always the unpredictable frosting that can make (or break) a photo, and the lovely wisps in the calendar image floated in from nowhere to frame the mountain while I sat soaking in the view. 

I joined a TKO trail crew the next weekend for our second year of “officially” caring for the Old Vista Ridge Trail to Owl Point since TKO formally adopted the trail from the Forest Service in 2018. We had a great turnout, with crews clearing several logs with crosscut saws and doing some major rock work (below) where TKO will be realigning a confusing switchback along the trail.

TKO volunteers doing some serious rock work on the Old Vista Ridge Trail
TKO crews at Owl Point in August, celebrated a day of successful trail stewardship

For September, something a little different for the calendar: Sawmill Falls on the Little North Fork of the Santiam River (below). This is a well-known spot on the Opal Creek trail, but the surprise is that I’d somehow never hiked this trail, despite growing up in Portland and having spent a lot of time exploring nearby Henline Creek over the past several years. But my explanation is fairly simple: this has been among the most notoriously crowded trails in Oregon for many years, and I’ve always just shied away.

September features Sawmill Falls in the Opal Creek Wilderness

Then my friend Jeff e-mailed to remind me that we were way overdue for a hike, and so we picked Opal Creek as one that neither of us had checked the box on before. It turned out to be a lovely day on a very pretty trail, and because we had picked a weekday, it was surprisingly quiet, too.

The photo of Sawmill Falls gives a better sense of the weather that day — lots of sun, and so this image is among a very few long-exposure waterfall scenes I’ve attempted in full sun. It’s also a blended image from three separate exposures, which is a lot of work to capture an scene! One benefit of shooting in the sun was the opportunity to include some puffy clouds and blue sky as a backdrop, making this a very “summery” image.

Here’s a secret about my good friend Jeff: he’s the founder of TKO!

The conditions were more forgiving that day when we reached the bridge above Opal Pool, as a nice bank of clouds floated over and provided the kind of overcast that I’m normally looking for with long-exposure waterfall photos. Here’s a view (below) of Opal Creek taken from the footbridge that didn’t make the calendar:

Opal Creek cascade from the bridge above Opal Pool

The October image in the new calendar is from a roadside pullout that nobody seems to stop at, and yet it provides a very nice view of Mount Hood and the East Fork Hood River (below). This spot is on a rise along Highway 35, just south of the Highway Department maintenance yard. 

October features the East Fork Hood River and Mount Hood after an early snowfall

If you stop here in mid-October, you’ll enjoy quite a show, with brilliant Cottonwood lighting up the valley floor in shades of bright yellow and gold and Oregon white oak in the foreground providing orange and red accents. And if you pick a clear day after the first snowfall, Mount Hood will light up the horizon with a bright new jacket of white. 

How bright are the fall colors? Here’s the exact scene a few months earlier, for comparison:

The East Fork overlook as it appears for most of the spring and summer…

Like the earlier scene near Bennett Pass, this viewpoint is gradually becoming obscured, too. You can see the difference in the two Ponderosa pines on the left side of the photo. The larger, more distant tree (at the edge of the photo) hasn’t changed as visibly, but the younger Ponderosa (second from left) is quickly blocking the view of the river. 

For comparison, here’s a photo from 2008 showing just how much the younger pine has grown, along with the Oregon white oak in the right foreground:

…and the East Fork overlook in 2008, when the trees were much smaller!

In this case, however, the East Fork Hood River is on the side of tourists and photographers. The river is famously volatile, thanks to its glacial origins on Mount Hood, and periodically undercuts the steep banks here, taking whole trees in the process. This is a scene of almost constant change, and I won’t be surprised if the younger Ponderosa nearest the river eventually becomes driftwood on its way downriver!

The October image is also from the Hood River Valley, and also a roadside view. This well-known scene is located on Laurance Lake Drive, just off Clear Creek Road, near Parkdale. Thanks in no small part to Oregon’s statewide planning laws, this remains an operating farm more than a 170 years after the area was first cleared by white settlers.

November features Mount Hood from the road to Laurance Lake

The patch of Cottonwoods at the center of the field that provide the fall color show have been growing there for some time, too — or at least they are descendants from an earlier grove. This view (below) from the 1940s shows how the area appeared when most of the roads were still gravel and twenty years before the reservoir we know as Laurance Lake was even constructed. This image is from the Oregon State Archives, and staged for tourism ads, as you might guess!

1940s tourism stock photo from the same spot as the November calendar image!

Here’s a tip if you’re exploring the Hood River Valley in October and the Cottonwoods have turned. At about the same time the Western larch along the upper stretches of the East Fork and east slopes of Mount Hood area also turning to their fall shades of yellow and gold.

In fact, the November calendar photo was just a stop on the way for me as I headed up to the mountain to take in the Western larch colors. These photos feature the east side of Mount Hood and its many groves of Larch as viewed from the slopes of Lookout Mountain, and are among those that didn’t make the calendar this year.

Western larch lighting up the east slopes of Mount Hood
Mount Hood framed by golden Western Larch on the slopes of Lookout Mountain

For December, I chose another scene along the East Fork Hood River, albeit lesser known. This spot (below) is near the confluence of the East Fork with Polallie Creek, and was captured after a couple days of freezing fog in the upper Hood River Valley:

December features this frosty scene along the East Fork Hood River

This is one of my favorite times to be in the forest, though it can be a bit treacherous! The unmatched scenery makes the slippery trip worth it, as the frosted forests combine with the fog to create a truly magical scene. 

Here are a couple more images from that day in the freezing fog that didn’t make the calendar:

East Fork Hood River freezing fog event
Frost-flocked Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine on the slopes above the East Fork

Since switching to Zazzle to produce the annual calendars, I’ve had a back page to work with, and I have used this space to feature a few wildflower photos from the past year (below).

Nine wildflower shots from hikes throughout Mount Hood country this year fill in the back cover of the calendar

Each wildflower image has a story behind it, and among the most memorable is the Buckwheat in the lower right corner. This little plant was growing at the summit of Lookout Mountain (below), in the Badger Creek Wilderness, east of Mount Hood. 

Buckwheat adding color to the rocky summit of Lookout Mountain

Buckwheat is a tough, low-growing, drought tolerant wildflower that thrives in the rocky soils there, but what made the spot memorable were the thousands (millions?) of Ladybugs swarming on the summit that day. Entomologists tell us that several inspect species migrate to ridges and mountains from adjacent valleys to mate, keeping their gene pool stable and healthy in the process, but I’m thinking they might just enjoy the mountain views, too? 

Hard to photograph, but picture this on every surface on the summit of Lookout Mountain!

The Wild rose in the top row is also in foreground of this image of Crown Point and the Columbia River Gorge (below). I considered this image for the calendar, but skipped it until I can capture a more prolific flower display in the foreground… maybe next year!

Gorgeous Gorge! But the Wild rose blooms..? Meh…

Finally, the white Mockorange in the center of the bottom row was captured at this somewhat obscure spot along Butcher Knife Ridge (below), in the West Fork Hood Valley. This was another also-ran as a calendar image, but watch for some exciting news in a future blog story about this corner of Mount Hood country!

Mount Hood rising above the West Fork valley and framed by Mockorange blossoms

If you’d like a calendar, they’re easy to order online for $25 from Zazzle. Just follow this link:

2020 Mount Hood National Park Campaign Calendar

They’re beautifully printed by Zazzle, ship quickly and make nice gifts! And I’ll also be donating all proceeds to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO).

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If you’ve followed the WyEast blog for a while, you probably noticed that things look a bit different around here, as of this month. It’s true, a mere eleven years after I made this first post…

You know, that first article was just weird..!

…I’ve changed the WordPress theme for the blog. But I do admit that I didn’t have much choice. My most recent posts were having serious formatting problems, as in my last post (below) where the column text and photos were out of alignment. Other less obvious problems were popping up when publishing new posts, making what for a very cumbersome process.

Alert! Formatting unraveling! Abort! Abort!

In digging through pages of tedious WordPress documentation to figure out what was up, I finally came across this unwelcome message:

Aargh!!

What? My theme is retired? Since when..?  And who says! 

Ah, the pace of progress. So, recognizing that things would only get worse, I’ve spent the past couple weeks customizing a “modern” theme called “Hemingway” to retain as much of the look and readability of the blog as I can. I’ll probably need to continue tweaking the settings, so thanks in advance for your patience!

If you’re wondering about the new banner, the backstory is that I originally created banner below. However, it didn’t work well with the new theme, which resizes the banner for whatever device the user is viewing, and decapitated Mount Hood in the process! Aargh!

Sigh… the one that didn’t work out…

So, I opted to continue the “misty forest” look from the original banner, which was from a scene captured in 2008 near Horsetail Creek in the Gorge. The new banner draws from image captured of Horsetail Creek, Katanai Rock, located in Ainsworth State Park.

The original Katanai Rock image was taken several years ago, on a spring day as storm clouds were just clearing from the walls of the Gorge, creating a mystical scene that Tolkien might have dreamed up:

Mists on Katanai Rock as a storm clears…

To create the banner, I converted the original image to sepia and did some toning to soften the shadows a bit:

…and the sepia version…

[click here for the large view of Katanai Rock]

Look closely at the large view and there’s a wispy waterfall floating down the west side of Katanai Rock and lots of massive old trees wrapped in mist… it’s Rivendell!

Finally, the new banner incorporates just the top of Katanai Rock in a crop that allows it to adjust to anything from an iPhone to a 27″ monitor like the one I’m working on, right now:

…which becomes the new banner!

So, that’s how the new look came about! And as with each of the previous 11 years on the blog, I’m looking forward to another year of articles. I’ve got lots of topics in the hopper, and hopefully some that you will enjoy and find worth reading.

Thank you for stopping by over the past year, and thank you for being a friend of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge!

I’ll see you on the trail in 2020!

Tom KlosterWyEast Blog

13 things to know… before you stand under the Mistletoe!

Douglas fir east of Mount Hood engulfed in Dwarf Mistletoe

“Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe
Help to make the season bright…”

Did you know that we have an unlikely cousin to the holiday mistletoe growing prolifically across Mount Hood country? Unlike the species you’re likely to find hanging over a doorway (known as Leafy mistletoe of the genus Phoradendron) or even from our Willamette Valley white oak stands, this cousin is the lesser known Dwarf mistletoe, of the genus Arceuthobium. And unlike the holiday version, this humble Mistletoe is hard to spot, though signs of its presence in our forests are very obvious. 

Familiar Leafy Mistletoe growing on an Oregon white oak in the Willamette Valley (OSU Extension)

Like their holiday cousins, Dwarf mistletoe are parasitic plants that require a living host to survive, and in our corner of the world their hosts are mostly the big conifers. Dwarf mistletoe grow by extending root-like structures known as “haustoria” into the growing tissue of their host, and producing shoots outside the bark of their host where flowers and fruit form, and where their seeds spread to other hosts. 

Sound a little creepy? Perhaps, given how we humans tend to view parasites. But these plants are also quite fascinating, and historically they have had a bad reputation, thanks to the timber industry and its enduring reluctance to see the forest for more than the saw logs they might produce.

So, here are some things to know (and maybe even love?) about Dwarf mistletoe next time you venture out among these humble parasites:

1. They are commonly called Witches Broom.This is self-explanatory, as an infected tree (especially Douglas fir) tends to grow dense masses of branches in response to an infection that can hang down like brooms. This is the easiest way to spot Dwarf mistletoe in the forest.

“Witches broom” on a Douglas fir
Typical Dwarf Mistletoe infection on a Douglas Fir

2. They are gendered.Mistletoes occur in male and female forms, with the male plants producing pollen and the family plants producing fruits and seed. Both the male and female forms can reside in the same host — and a single host can have multiple active Mistletoe infections.

3. Their berries pack some heat!Ripe Mistletoe berries are designed to explode in late summer, shooting seeds as much as 50 feet in the air (!) to land on nearby, potential host trees. Their seeds are sticky and adhere to whatever they land on, and this feature also means that birds and small animals help disperse the seed when they visit host trees with ripe Mistletoe fruit and carry the seeds to other trees on their fur or feathers. While this firepower allows Mistletoe to spread to nearby hosts and to the understory below, it also allows the plant to move upward in its host tree, as much as one foot per year.

Mistletoe fruit emerging from a true fir (Wikimedia)
Dwarf Mistletoe infections gradually moving up toward the healthy part of a large Douglas fir

4. They like their hosts on the softer side. With seeds shooting in all directions at high velocity, Dwarf mistletoe might seem somewhat indiscriminate in their reproduction. But it turns out they are playing the odds, as sprouting seeds usually invade host tissue that is less than five years old. This is why young trees in the understory beneath a large, infected tree are so vulnerable. However, Mistletoe typically does not infect trees younger than 10 years, for reasons yet unknown.

5. They’re early — and prolific — bloomers.For the first couple of years after a Dwarf mistletoe seedling has attached to a new host, the young plant quietly sends its haustoria into the tree’s living tissues, feeding on water and nutrients from the host as the Mistletoe grows. After a couple years, the site of the infection swells and over the next few years the new Mistletoe begins producing aerial shoots, flowering and eventually producing fruit. Within five years, a new Mistletoe plant has gone from seed to what can be many successive cycles of fruiting from a single infected site on a tree.

This big Douglas fir is marked by dozens of Dwarf mistletoe infections positioned to spread seeds far and wide in the surrounding forest

6. They like the East side.Dwarf mistletoe species grow throughout Oregon, but in Mount Hood country they are most prolific on the dry east side of the mountain. This isn’t because they have an aversion to wet weather, but instead, because…

7. ….they are host-species specific!There are many species of Dwarf mistletoe, and most specific to just one or two host species, Many of these preferred host species also happen to grow on the east slope of the Cascades. Here are the most common Dwarf mistletoes in Mount Hood Country, most named for their hosts:

• Douglas-fir dwarf mistletoe

• Western larch dwarf mistletoe

• Western dwarf mistletoe (host is Ponderosa pine)

• Lodgepole pine dwarf mistletoe

• Western white pine dwarf mistletoe

• True fir dwarf mistletoe (hosts are White fir and Grand fir)

• Western hemlock dwarf mistletoe (also infects some true firs)

• Mountain hemlock dwarf mistletoe

The effects of these Dwarf mistletoe species on their hosts vary widely. Douglas fir is most affected by its species of Dwarf mistletoe, often producing very large brooms. Western larch can also be heavily affected when their brittle limbs give way to the weight of brooms. By comparison, Hemlocks less than 120 years in age are typically not affected by the infestations and other hosts show very little effect from infections. This is why we’re unlikely to even notice many of the Mistletoe-hosting trees in our forests.

Dwarf mistletoe probably infected the declining tree on the left first, then spread to infected tree on the right that still retains much of its foliage

8. They can eventually kill their hosts.Heavily infected trees can eventually lose so much foliage from having their living tissue invaded by multiple Dwarf mistletoe infections that they can no longer survive. This is common among Douglas firs, where its accompanying Mistletoe species significantly disrupts growth and produces very large brooms. But the Mistletoe infestation is often simply the gateway to other invaders that are often more fatal to the host tree. These include bark beetles, rusts and other fungi that invade trees affected by Mistletoe. Heavily affected trees typically die 10-15 years from their first Dwarf mistletoe infection.

This young Douglas fir is slowly dying from its Dwarf mistletoe infection

9. They favor stressed trees.Trees growing in poor soils or affected by drought are more susceptible to infestations. This could be why Douglas fir on the dry east side of the Cascades are more likely to host Dwarf Mistletoe. But this is also an example of the role that this parasite plays in forest succession and, over millennia, the evolution of its host species. By preying on the weakest among their hosts, Mistletoe mimic so many examples in nature where predation on sick or frail helps improve the gene pool of the prey species. 

10. They love fire suppression. We have been learning our lesson from a century of forest fire prevention the hard way in recent years with the string of long-overdue, catastrophic fires that have swept through Mount Hood country. This is especially true on the east side forests, where regular, low intensity fires are an important part of forest healthy. Fire suppression since the 1920s has left us with stressed, unhealthy forests with enormous fuel buildups that will take decades to restore to health. But this is good news if you’re Dwarf mistletoe, as the parasite thrives in these forests, spreading quickly among the stressed hosts.

This recently thinned plantation shows widespread Dwarf mistletoe in the “healthy” trees left standing

11. They love forest plantations. There are so many reasons why mono-culture tree plantations in logged areas of our forests are a bad idea, and susceptibility to Mistletoe infestations is just one more, since these parasites are host-species parasites. This is especially true for Douglas fir plantations, the timber industry favorite, and also a species that is more significantly affected by Mistletoe infections than most other conifers. Dwarf mistletoe can spread especially quickly in these overgrown, same-species plantations.

12. They create valuable habitat! Yes, they are parasites that can kill their host, but Dwarf mistletoe have been part of our forest ecosystem for millennia and are just as natural as the forest itself. The brooms they create high in the crowns of conifers might be unsightly to us, but they provide habitat for birds and small mammals for nesting and feeding, and chipmunks feed on their stems and seeds. Large brooms also provide protected resting sites under infected trees for deer and elk. 

Killed treetops of infected trees also provide perches and nesting sites for raptors and owls. Decayed areas in standing trees resulting from fungi invading Mistletoe-infected sites can serve as essential habitat for cavity-nesting birds and small mammals, too.

Treetops killed by Dwarf mistletoe create roosts for raptors and owls

13. They are good for forests!Really? Yes, because in a healthy, balanced ecosystem, the effect of Dwarf mistletoe in selectively killing trees is beneficial to the forest by creating canopy gaps and standing snags that are known to increase plant and animal diversity. Likewise, healthy, multi-story forests are also less vulnerable to severe Dwarf mistletoe infections, which (of course!) is how this ecological balance has evolved in our forests.

These recently killed Douglas fir will become wildlife trees as snags, and create a healthy opening in this mature forest

That last point underscores that the “solution” to the widespread Mistletoe infections we see in many of today’s east side forests is really to recognize the abundance of Mistletoe as a symptom, not the problem. Restoring today’s stressed, logged-over forests and clear-cut plantations to the mixed conifer stands that once thrived across Mount Hood country is the simplest answer. It’s also the only sustainable answer.

The good news is that the Forest Service is gradually moving in this direction with gradual plantation thinning starting to take hold in the Mount Hood area and even the occasional use of fire as a management tool in other parts of Oregon. Not everyone agrees with plantation thinning, but so far, the results appear to support continuing this practice, at least until the most overgrown plantations have been thinned to a semblance of a natural forest.

Dead witches broom skeleton cascades down a large (and still living) Douglas fir near Mount Hood

Unfortunately, the current Forest Plan guiding these decisions for Mount Hood is nearly 30 years old, and the plantation thinning being done under this plan is not being done with a vision or bringing natural forests back, but rather, to simply prepare the remaining forest for more timber harvests. 

This is yet another reason why a new plan and long-term vision of forest health is desperately needed for Mount Hood, one that centers on sustainable uses like recreation, native fish recovery and clean drinking water for our growing region, not just meeting timber harvest quotas. I’m confident that we’re gradually moving in that direction, if very slowly.

In the meantime, take a second look next time you’re out in the forest to appreciate this lesser-known parasite… when you find yourself standing under the Mistletoe!

Kohnstamm Memorial Trail?

Entering the Kohnstamm Memorial Wilderness

When President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 into law on March 30, 2009, more than a dozen new pocket wilderness areas and additions to existing wilderness were created around Mount Hood and in the Clackamas watershed. 

Among these, the Richard L. Kohnstamm Memorial Area expanded the Mount Hood Wilderness to the east of Timberline Lodge to encompass the White River canyon, extending from Mount Hood’s crater to about the 5,000 foot level, including a segment of the Timberline Trail and Pacific Crest Trail that traverses the canyon. This wilderness addition was created to “recognize the balance between wild and developed areas in the national public lands system and to create a tribute to the man who saved Timberline Lodge.”

The wilder side of the Timberline area is now the Kohnstamm Memorial Area, an extension of the Mount Hood Wilderness just east of the lodge

Richard Kohnstamm was the longtime force behind the RLK Company, operators of the Timberline Resort, which has a permit to operate the historic Timberline Lodge, which in turn is owned by the American public. 

After his duty as a gunner during World War II, Kohnstamm returned home to earn his masters degree in social work from Columbia University. After college, he moved to Portland to take a job at a local social services non-profit. Soon after arriving here, he made a visit to Timberline Lodge, where he was immediately taken with the beauty of the massive building. 

Richard Kohnstamm at Timberline in 1957 (Oregon Encyclopedia)

But Kohnstamm saw a tarnished jewel, as the lodge had quickly fallen into disrepair following its construction by the Works Progress Administration in 1937. The Forest Service had revoked the operating permit for the lodge and was looking for a new operator, and so began the Kohnstamm era at Timberline. By all accounts, he did, indeed, save the lodge. 

Kohnstamm soon teamed with John Mills to found the Friends of Timberline, a non-profit dedicated to preservation of the history, art and architecture of the remarkable building. The unique partnership between the Forest Service, Friends of Timberline and the RLK Company to preserve the lodge in perpetuity continues to this day, and is known as the Timberline Triumvirate. 

Today, the lodge continues to thrive, and summer resort operations have now expanded to include a controversial bike park centered on the Jeff Flood chairlift. After years of legal challenges, the RLK Company build miles of bicycle trails descending from main lodge to the base of the lift, where cyclists can load themselves and their bikes for a quick ride back to the top. 

The Timberline Resort’s new bike park opened this summer (photo: Timberline)

It’s a high-adrenaline activity made easy, with no hills to climb. But the development of this new attraction underscored the fact that the Timberline resort operators and Forest Service have done little over the decades to enhance the hiking experience around the lodge, despite plenty of demand. 

The reason is pretty obvious: hikers don’t buy lift tickets. Yes, some hikers help fill the hotel rooms in summer, and still more stop by to support the restaurants in the lodge, but filling ski lifts continues to the focus at Timberline.

Bikes riding the Jeff Flood lift back to the lodge (photo: Timberline)

Today, hikers at Timberline are limited to walking along the Timberline Trail or hiking the Mountaineer Trail, a semi-loop that climbs to a lift terminal, where it dead-ends at a dirt service road. Hikers usually follow the steep, dusty road back to lodge to complete a loop.

But perhaps the Richard L Kohnstamm Memorial Area could be inspiration for the Forest Service and RLK Company to bring new trails to the area, and a create a more welcoming trailhead for visitors who aren’t staying at the lodging or paying to ride the resort lifts? In that spirit, the following is a concept for a new trail that would be an instant classic on the mountain, rivaled only by the popular Cooper Spur Trail on Mount Hood’s north side for elevation and close-up looks into an active glacier.

Proposal: Kohnstamm Glacier View Trail

The proposed Glacier View Trail would climb the broad ridge that separates the White River and Salmon River canyons, just east of Timberline Lodge. The new trail would begin just across the Salmon River from the lodge, at a junction along the Timberline Trail, and end at Glacier View, a scenic high point on the ridge between the Palmer and White River glaciers. 

This viewpoint is already visited by a few intrepid explorers each year for its spectacular views into Mount Hood’s crater and the rugged crevasses of the White River Glacier. The schematic below shows how the new route would appear from Timberline Lodge:

(click image to enlarge)

Another perspective (below) of the proposed trail shows the route as it would appear from further east along the Timberline Trail, where it travels along the rim of White River canyon. This angle also shows the tumbling descent of the White River Glacier and the steep west wall of the canyon that would provide several overlooks from the new trail:

(click image to enlarge)

Thanks to the gentle, open terrain, the new trail would climb in broad, graded switchbacks, eventually reaching an elevation of 8,200 feet. This is just shy of the elevation of Cooper Spur, and would make the Kohnstamm Glacier View Trail the second-highest trail on the mountain.

The viewpoint at Glacier View (below) is already marked by a stone windbreak built by hikers that complements several handy boulders (below) to make this a fine spot for relaxing and taking in the view.

End of the trail at Glacier View (photo: Google)

From the Glacier View viewpoint, Mount Hood’s crater and the upper reaches of the White River Glacier (below) are surprisingly rugged and impressive, given the generally gentle terrain of Mount Hood’s south side. From this perspective, the Steel Cliffs and Crater Rock dominate the view as they tower over the glacier.

Mount Hood’s crater and the upper reach of the White River Glacier from Glacier View (photo: Google)
White River Glacier from Glacier View (photo: Google)

But the scene-stealer is the White River Glacier, which stair-steps down a series of icefalls directly in front of Glacier View (below), providing a close-up look into the workings of an active glacier. Lucky hikers might even hear the glacier occasionally moving from this close-up perspective as it grinds its way down the mountain.

Crevasses in the White River Glacier below Glacier View (photo: Google)

The view to the south from Glacier View (below) features the long, crevasse-fractured lower reaches of the White River Glacier, and below, the maze of sandy ravines which make up the sprawling White River Canyon. The deserts of Eastern Oregon are on the east (left) horizon from this perspective, and the Oregon Cascades spread out to the south.

The view down the White River Canyon from Glacier View (photo: Google)

The hike to Glacier View from Timberilne Lodge on the proposed Kohnstamm Trail would be about 2.5 miles long, climbing about 2,300 feet along the way, and would undoubtedly become a marquee hike on the mountain, if similar trails like Cooper Spur and McNeil Point are any gauge. But the backlog of trail needs at Timberline extend beyond having a marquee viewpoint hike like this. 

The Kohnstamm trail concept therefore includes other trail improvements in the Timberline area that would round out the trail system here. The following schematic (below) include building a new 1.4 mile trail from the upper stub of the Mountaineer Trail to Timberline Lodge, allowing hikers to complete the popular loop without walking the dusty, somewhat miserable service road below Silcox hut, often dodging resort vehicles along the way.

(click image to enlarge)

The broader Kohnstamm trail concept also calls for using the east parking area as a day-hiking hub in the summer months, with clearly marked trailheads that would consolidate the maze of confusing user trails that are increasingly carving up the wildflower meadows here. The new hub would also include restrooms, interpretive displays, picnic tables and other hiker amenities that would make for a better hiking experience.

Time for a makeover? Abandoned lift terminal at the proposed trail hub

A more ambitious element of the concept is to convert the neglected bones of an abandoned lodge structure (above) at the east parking area to become a hiker’s hut where visitors could relax after a hike, fill water bottles or learn about hiking options from Mount Hood’s volunteer trail ambassadors. 

This element might even tempt the Timberline resort operators to help make these trail concepts a reality if it offered an opportunity to provide concessions to hikers. After all, hiking is the fastest growing activity on the mountain (and on public lands), not skiing (or even mountain biking). Creating a hiking hub could be an opportunity for the Timberline operators to evolve their future vision for the resort to better match what people are coming to the mountain for.

What would it take?

Trail building is typically heavy work that involves clearing vegetation and building a smooth tread where rocks and roots are the rule. But the proposed Kohnstamm Trail would be very different, as the entire route is above the tree line and would be on the loose volcanic debris that makes up the smooth south side of Mount Hood. Trail building here would be much simpler, from the ease of surveying without trees and vegetation to get in the way, to actual trail construction in the soft soil surface. For these reasons, much of this work would be ideal for volunteers to help with.

In reality, the greatest obstacles to realizing this concept would likely be regulatory. Convincing the Forest Service to permit a new trail would be a tall hurdle, in itself. But if the Timberline resort operators were behind the idea, it would almost certainly be approved, especially if the resort embraced building and maintaining the trail hub improvements. Who knows, maybe they will even spot this article..?

Author’s Confessions…

As a postscript, I thought I’d post a few confessions from days of yore. I grew up in Portland and began skiing at Timberline Lodge as a tiny tot. I continued to avidly ski at the Mount Hood resorts for many years until giving up alpine skiing in the early 90s, largely in response to the expansion of the Meadows resort into lovely Heather Canyon, a deal-breaker for me. I loved the sport, but saw the beauty of the mountain under continual threat from the resort operations — and still do. Today, I make due with snow shoes and occasional trips on Nordic skis, though I do miss the thrill of alpine skiing!

The author skiing Timberline in 1978

An earlier awakening for me came in 1978, with the construction of the Palmer Lift at Timberline. This lift completed Richard Kohnstamm’s vision for year-round skiing on the mountain. But it was the first lift on Mount Hood to climb that far above the tree line, and was an immediate eyesore. Sadly, the conversion of the Palmer Glacier to become plowed rectangle of salted snow (see “Stop Salting the Palmer Glacier!”) that can be seen for miles completed the travesty.

That Palmer Lift debacle was soon followed by an even more egregious lift at Mount Bachelor, one that I wrote about 37 years ago in this (ahem!) riveting bit of self-righteous student journalism! (below)

(click image to enlarge)

When I stumbled across this old clipping from my days as a columnist at the Oregon State University student newspaper, I initially winced at the creative flourishes (…hey, I was 20 years old!). But my sentiments about these lifts — and the Heather Canyon lift at Meadows — remain unchanged. They were a step too far, and represented a real failure of the Forest Service to protect the mountain from over-development.

That said, I do believe the ski resorts can be managed in a more sustainable way that doesn’t harm the mountain. We’re certainly not there yet, and because all three of the major resorts (Timberline, Ski Bowl and Meadows) all sit on public land, I believe we all have a right to help determine that more sustainable future. 

In this article, I’ve made a case for accommodating more than just lift ticket purchasers in the recreation vision at Timberline Lodge. In future articles I’ll make the case for rounding out the mission for the other resorts in a way that meets the broader interests of those of us who own the land.

After the Fire: What Recovery Looks Like

PCTA trail volunteers at Tunnel Falls in July (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Rock-star trail volunteer (and friend of the WyEast Blog!) Nate Zaremskiy has shared another update on the forest recovery in the upper Eagle Creek canyon, at the heart of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge (see Nate’s first batch of images in this earlier blog article). Nate captured these images in July as part of a Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) trail stewardship effort to continue restoring the Eagle Creek trail.

We’ll start with a visual rundown of some of the waterfalls that draw hikers to Eagle Creek from around the world. First up is Sevenmile Falls, a lesser-known falls at the head of the series of cascades on Eagle Creek. The fire was less intense here, with some of the forest canopy and intact and riparian zone along Eagle Creek rebounding quickly (below).

Fire recovery at Sevenmile Falls (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Moving downstream, the area around spectacular Twister Falls is recovering more slowly. The fire burned intensely on the rocky slopes flanking the falls, though many trees in the riparian strip upstream from the falls survived the fire (as seen in the distance in the photo, below).

Fire recovery at Twister Falls (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tunnel Falls (opening photo) appears almost as if there had never been a fire, with the cliffs around the falls green and verdant. But a wider view of this spot would show an intensely burned forest above the falls that is only beginning to recover, as we saw in Nate’s earlier photos.

Continuing downstream, the next waterfall in the series is Grand Union Falls, a thundering just below the confluence of the East and main forks of Eagle Creek. The forest here largely dodged the fire, with many big conifers surviving along the stream corridor (below).

Restored “basalt ledge” trail section above Grand Union Falls (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

The handiwork of the PCTA crews can be seen in the above view of the infamous “basalt ledge”, where the Eagle Creek Trail is blasted uncomfortably through solid basalt columns along a sheer cliff face. The fire triggered a cliff collapse here, burying the trail in tons of rock. Over the past several months, PCTA volunteers meticulously cleared this section of trail, tipping huge boulders over the edge on at a time.

Nate’s photo update of the upper waterfalls ends here, but his new images also reveal an encouraging recovery underway in the burned forests of the upper Eagle Creek canyon. In moist side canyons the understory is rebounding in abundance, with familiar forest plants like Devils club, Sword fern and Lady fern covering the once-burned ground (below).

Lush understory recovery in a moist side canyon on the upper Eagle Creek Trail (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Along other, drier canyon slopes Fireweed (or “Firestar”? See “A Rose by any other name” on this blog) has exploded on the landscape, blanketing the burned soil as would be expected from this ultimate pioneer in forest fire recovery. Nate and his volunteers were sometimes shoulder-deep in Fireweed as they hiked along the upper sections of the Eagle Creek Trail (below).

Fireweed leading the recovery on the upper Eagle Creek Trail (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Shoulder-high Fireweed on the upper Eagle Creek Trail (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

In other parts of the burn, the unburned roots and stems of the understory that survived the fire underground are now pushing new growth above the burned soil. Even in areas where no trees survived the flames, understory survivors like Vine Maple, Thimbleberry and Oregon grape can be seen in abundance in views like this (below):

Recovering understory in a heavily burned section of the upper Eagle Creek canyon (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Even the most intensely burned areas in the upper reaches of the Eagle Creek canyon are showing signs of life, with Oregon Grape, Salal and Ocean Spray emerging from roots that survived beneath the ashes (below).

Recovery is slower in the most intensely burned areas, but is still underway (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

The forest recovery in the Eagle Creek burn is just beginning a cycle that has played out countless times before in Western Oregon forests, especially in the steep, thin-soiled country of the Columbia River Gorge. So, what can we expect as the recover continues to unfold? It turns out we have a good preview of things to come with a pair of recent burns in the Clackamas River canyon, fifty miles to the south, where the forests and terrain are very similar to the Gorge.

What’s next? Learning from the Clackamas Fires

Two recent fires have swept through the steep-walled canyon of the lower Clackamas River. In 2014, the 36 Pit Fire burned 5,524-acres in the canyon. This was a scary September blaze that drew required 1,000 fire fighters to contain the fire from burning utility lines and toward homes near the town of Estacada. The 36 Pit Fire burned much of the South Fork Clackamas River canyon, a newly designated wilderness area, as well as several miles of the main Clackamas River canyon.

Forest recovery following the 36 Pit Fire the Clackamas River Canyon

Like Eagle Creek, the 36 Pit Fire burn was the result of careless teenagers, in this case started by illegal target shooters. Five years later, this gives us a look at what the Eagle Creek burn will look like in another 3-4 years. The view below is typical of the 36 Pit Fire, with broadleaf understory species quickly recovering in the burned canyon.

In this view (below) a trio of maples — Bigleaf maple, Douglas maple and Vine maple — dominate the recovery along a canyon slops. Most are growing from the surviving roots of trees whose tops were killed in the fire. This ability to recover from surviving roots gives broadleaf trees a leg up over conifers like Douglas fir.

Five years of slope recovery after the 36 Pit Fire

Another scene (below) from the canyon floor shows how areas with more ground moisture have fared five years after the 36 Pit Fire. Here, the conifer overstory largely survived the fire, and even some of the broadleaf trees have survived, in part because the were less drought-stressed than trees higher up the slopes when the fire swept through. This is typical of burns and can be seen throughout the Eagle Creek burn, as well, with well-hydrated trees in moist areas better able to withstand the intense heat of the fire.

Here, Bigleaf maples on either side of the view are sprouting new growth from midway up their partially burned trunks. These damaged trunks of these trees may not survive over the long term, but most are also sprouting new shoots from their base — an insurance policy in their effort to survive. The understory throughout this part of the canyon floor is exploding with new growth from roots that largely survived the fire and benefit from the moisture here in their recovery. Thimbleberry (in the foreground) is especially prolific here.

Understory growth has exploded along the moist canyon floor

The following scene (below) is also typical of the 36 Pit Fire at five years, with the conifer overstory mostly surviving the fire on this low slope, and the understory rejuvenated by the burn. When scientists describe a “beneficial” fire, this is an example of the benefits. Beneath the surviving conifers in this view, the white, skeletal trunks of burned Vine Maple and Red alder rise above vibrant new growth emerging from the roots of these trees. This lush new growth provides browse for deer, elk and other species, and new habitat for small wildlife, while also protecting the steep forest soils from erosion.

Vine maple emerging from surviving roots of tops killed by the 36 Pit Fire

In September 2002, the much smaller Bowl Fire swept through 339 acres of mature forest along the west end of the Clackamas River Trail, just upstream from Fish Creek. Like the Eagle Creek and 36 Pit fires, the relatively small Bowl Fire was human-caused, with the ignition point along the Clackamas River Trail, likely by a hiker. More than 300 firefighters were called out to fight this blaze.

Fifteen years of recovery has transformed the canyon slopes burned in the Bowl Fire from black to lush green

Today, The Bowl Fire provides a look 15 years into the future for the Eagle Creek burn, and the rate of recovery here is striking. These views (above and below) from the heart of the Bowl Fire show 20-25 foot Bigleaf maple and Red alder thriving among the surviving conifers and burned snags. Vine maple, Douglas maple, Elderberry and even a few young Western red cedar complete this vibrant scene of forest rejuvenated by fire.

The forest recovery from the Bowl Fire give us a glimpse of what the burned areas of the Gorge will look like in another 10-12 years

Growing up in Oregon, I was taught that many of these broadleaf tree species that are leading the fire recovery in the Clackamas River canyon and at Eagle Creek were “trash trees”, good for firewood and little more. But as our society continues our crash course in the folly of fire suppression and ecological benefits of fire, these species are emerging as hard-working heroes in post-fire forest recovery.

The Unsung Heroes of Fire Recovery

It’s worth getting to know these trees as more than “trash trees”. Here are five of the most prominent heroes, beginning with Bigleaf maple (below). These impressive trees are iconic in the Pacific Northwest, and highly adaptable. They thrive as towering giants in rainforest canyons, where they are coated in moss and Licorice fern, but can also eke out a living in shaded pockets among the basalt cliffs of the dry deserts of the eastern Columbia River Gorge. Their secret is an ability to grow in sun or shade and endure our summer droughts.

Forest recovery hero: Bigleaf Maple

As we’ve seen in the Gorge and Clackamas River canyon burns, Bigleaf maple roots are quite resistant to fire. Throughout the Bowl Fire and 36 Pit Fire, roots of thousands of burned Bigleaf maple have produced vigorous new shoots from their base, some of which will grow to become the multi-trunked Bigleaf maple that are so familiar to us (and providing some insight into how some of those multi-trunked trees got their start!). Their surviving roots and rapid recovery not only holds the forest soil together, their huge leaves also begin the process of rebuilding the forest duff layer that usually burns away in forest fires, another critical role these trees play in the fire cycle.

Vine maple (below) are perhaps the next most prominent tree emerging in the understory of the Bowl Fire and 36 Pit Fire. Like Bigleaf maple, they emerge from surviving roots of burned trees, but Vine maple have the added advantage of a sprawling growth habit (thus their name) when growing in shady forest settings, and these vine-like limbs often form roots wherever they touch the forest floor. When the exposed limbs are burned away by fire, each of these surviving, rooted sections can emerge as a new tree, forming several trees where one existed before the fire. Vine maples are abundant in the forest understory throughout the Cascades, so their survival and rapid recovery after fire is especially important in stabilizing burned slopes.

Forest recovery hero: Vine maple

Douglas maple (below) is a close cousin to Vine maple and also fairly common in the Clackamas River canyon and Columbia River Gorge. What they lack in sheer number they make up for in strategic location, as these maples thrive in drier, sunnier locations than Vine maple, and these areas are often the slowest to recover after fire. Douglas maple emerging from the roots of burned trees on dry slopes can play an important niche role in stabilizing slopes and helping spur the recovery of the forest understory.

Forest recovery hero: Douglas Maple

Red elderberry (below) are a shrub or small tree that is a common companion to the trio of maples in the recovering understory of the Clackamas River canyon. Like the maples, they often emerge from the surviving roots after fire. Elderberry also thrive in disturbed areas, so this species is also likely emerge as seedlings in a burn zone, as well.

Forest recovery hero: Elderberry

This is probably as good a place as any to point out that the red berries of Red elderberry are not safe to eat. They contain an acid that can lead to cyanide poisoning in humans (did that get your attention?). However, the berries and leaves are an important food source for birds and wildlife, another important function of this species in a recovering forest.

One of the most prolific species emerging in the Clackamas River burn zone is Thimbleberry (below), a dense, woody shrub related to blackberries and another important food source for birds and wildlife after a fire. Their soft, fuzzy berries are also edible for humans, as most hikers know. Thimbleberry also appear in many of the recovery photos of the upper Eagle Creek canyon that Nate Zaremskiy shared.

Forest recovery hero: Thimbleberry

Finally, a less welcome “hero” in the post-fire forest recovery (to us humans, at least) is Poison oak. This amazingly adaptable, rather handsome shrub (and vine — it can grow in both forms) is found throughout the Columbia River Gorge as well as the lower Clackamas River canyon. In this view (below), Poison oak is emerging in the Clackamas burn zone alongside Thimbleberry, shiny with the oil that causes so much havoc in humans.

Like the other pioneers of the recovery, Poison oak grows from surviving roots and seems to benefit from fire with renewed growth and vigor. Poison oak also likes filtered sun in forest margins, so a tree canopy thinned by fire can create a perfect habit for this species. Like Thimbleberry and Elderberry, Poison oak is (surprisingly) an important browse for deer in recovering forests.

Forest recovery (gulp!) “hero”..? Poison oak!

Many other woody plants and hardy perennials also play an important role in the recovery of the forest understory, including Ocean spray, Oregon grape, Fireweed, ferns, and native grasses. These fast-growing, broad leafed plants are critical in quickly stabilized burned slopes, rebuilding a protective duff layer and providing shade and cover for wildlife to return.

So, if forests are so good at recovering from fire, can they recover from logging in much the same way? Read on.

Learning to be Part of the Fire Cycle?

If logged-over forests were left to their own recovery process, they would follow much sequence as a burned forest, with the understory rebounding quickly. However, fire usually leaves both surviving overstory trees and standing dead wood that are critical in the recovery by helping regenerate the forest with seedlings from the surviving trees, habitat in the form of standing snags and by providing nutrients from fallen, decaying dead wood. But even with the overstory cut and hauled away as saw logs, a clearcut could still recover quickly if the understory… if it were simply allowed to regenerate this way.

“It became necessary to destroy the forest in order to save it..?”

And therein lies the rub. Time is money to the logging industry, and they still view the broadleaf species that lead our forest recovery as “trash trees”, something to be piled up and burned in slash piles. So, the standard practice today is to shortcut the natural recovery process our forests have evolved to do, and simply kill the understory before it can even grow.

This is done by repeated helicopter spraying of clearcuts with massive amounts of herbicide after a forest has been cut, typically a year or two after the logging operation. This produces the brown dead zone that we are sadly familiar with in Oregon. Having killed the entire understory, cloned plantation conifers are then planted among the stumps with the goal of growing another round of marketable conifers in as short a period as possible. Time is money and trees are a “farm” not a forest to the logging industry.

These Douglas fir cultivars were bred for rapid growth and planted to shortcut a necessary stage in the recovery process, which is great for the corporate timber shareholders but very bad for forest health.

It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that shortcutting the natural recovery process after logging also shortchanges the health of the forest over the long term, robbing the soil of nutrients that would normally be replaced in the recovery process and exposing the logged area to erosion and the introduction of invasive species (a rampant problem in clearcuts). Destroying the understory also robs a recovering clearcut of its ability to provide browse and cover for wildlife — ironically, one of the selling points the logging industry likes to use in its mass marketing defense of current logging practices.

In Oregon, this approach to fast-tracking forests is completely legal, though it is clearly very bad for our forests, streams and wildlife. As Oregon’s economy continues to diversify and become less reliant on the number of raw logs we can cut and export to other countries to actually mill (also a common practice in Oregon), cracks are beginning to form in the public tolerance for this practice. Most notably, private logging corporations are increasingly being held accountable for their herbicides entering streams and drifting into residential areas.

The understory in the uncut forest bordering this corporate logging operation shows what should be growing among the stumps, here. Instead, tiny first seedlings were planted after herbicides were used to kill everything else on this slope directly above the West Fork Hood River. This is standard forest practice in Oregon, sadly.

So, there’s some hope that the logging industry can someday evolve to embracing a natural recovery strategy, if only because they may not be able to afford the legal liability of pouring herbicides on our forests over the long term. Who knows, maybe the industry will eventually move to selective harvests and away from the practices of clearcutting if herbicides are either banned or simply too expensive to continue using?

The recent fires in the Columbia River Gorge, Mount Hood Wilderness and Clackamas River canyon may already be helping change industry our logging industry practices, too. These fires have all unfolded on greater Portland’s doorstep and have engulfed some of the most visited public lands in the Pacific Northwest.

While the initial public reaction was shock at seeing these forests burn, we are now seeing a broad public education and realization of the benefits of fire in our forests, with both surprise and awe in how quickly the forests are recovering.

Skeletons from the 1991 Multnomah Falls fire rise above recovering forests in this scene taken before the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, when part of this forest burned again to continue the fire and recovery cycle in the Gorge.

That’s good news, because a public that understands how forests really work is a good check against the corporate interests who fund the steady stream of print and broadcast media propaganda telling us how great industrial logging really is for everyone.

Are we at a tipping point where science and the public interest will finally govern how the logging industry operates in Oregon? Maybe. But there’s certainly no downside to the heightened public awareness and appreciation of the role of fires in our forests. We do seem to have turned that corner…

Mountain Beaver? 13 Things to Know!

Mountain Beaver happy to be stuffed (?) in the Longmire Museum (Wikimedia)

While you may be a regular visitor to our forests, you might not know what a Mountain Beaver is, or that they exist in abundance on the west side of the Cascades. Most people don’t, as these are shy and seldom seen creatures. But if you are a hiker, you’ve almost certainly cursed their treacherous dens that show up along trails that pass through their mountain habitat.

Look out! Mountain Beaver burrow along the Timberline Trail (WyEast Blog)

This article is a brief introduction to this humble species. And while Mountain Beaver may not be the flashiest creature in our forests, they make up for it in uniqueness. Here are 13 surprising things to know about this unusual animal:

1. They’re not really beavers..? Not even close, though they do belong to the enormous Rodentia order that includes porcupine, beaver, squirrels, chipmunks and dozens of mice species. Mountain Beaver belong to the Aplodontiidae family and are its sole species in North America, Aplodontia rufa, meaning red-haired or tawny. Like true beavers, (and all rodents), Mountain Beaver are defined by their large incisors, which they also use to chew through limbs and small trees. Unlike beavers, they have short, furry tails and are much smaller, weighing around three pounds, where North American Beaver can weigh anywhere from 35 to 65 pounds.

Mountain Beaver (University of Michigan)

2. They are ancient! The species, that is. While a typical Mountain Beaver lives just 6-10 years, the species dates back in its current form to the Miocene, a geologic era that stretches from about 5 million years ago to 25 million years ago. Thus, they are considered a living fossil, with bone structures that predate that found in all other North American rodents.

This means Mountain Beaver existed pretty much as we find them today at a time when sabre-tooth cats, three-toed horses and oreodonts were roaming Oregon, and early humans were just about to split off from the Chimpanzee family tree in eastern Africa. The Cascade Mountains that now define their range had yet to form. They are survivors!

Todays Mountain Beaver lived alongside thousands of now-extinct Miocene mammals (Wikimedia)

3. They only live here..? Mountain Beaver are found only in a narrow band between the west slopes of the Cascades and the Pacific coast, stretching from northern California through coastal British Columbia. But while their range is small, they are abundant here, and not considered to be a species at risk. There are seven recognized subspecies of Mountain Beaver, and one subspecies called the Point Arena Mountain Beaver is listed as an endangered species. These rare, endangered relatives live in a small area on the Mendocino Coast in California, south of the main Mountain Beaver range. There were only about 200 to 500 members of this subspecies estimated to be surviving when they were listed in 1998.

Within their range, Mountain Beaver thrive in moist deciduous mountain forests and wooded foothills. They prefer deciduous forests, so at higher elevations, this often means in steep avalanche chutes lined with Red alder and lush understory where conifers dominate most of the forest. This is also where hikers are most likely to encounter their dens – watch your step when you cross through Red alder stands in the mountains!

4. They live alone. Like many in the large Rodentia order, Mountain Beaver live alone. This is most surprising when you encounter their extensive burrow systems, which can occupy a quarter acre and suggest the work of a colony (like prairie dogs). Though their burrows often interconnect, they defend their burrows against their neighbors. Vacant burrows are quickly occupied by other Mountain Beaver and reused.

Simplified schematic of a Mountain Beaver burrow system (WDFW)

5. They’re mostly underground… nowadays. Mountain Beaver venture out to gather food, but don’t travel far far, and otherwise live much of their life in the expansive tunnels they dig. Their tunnels are highly organized, with multiple entrances and dedicated rooms for nesting, storing food, toilet and “earth balls” — round rocks or hard clay that are believed to serve as plugs within their tunnel systems and upon which Mountain Beaver sharpen their incisors.

However, they can also climb trees and swim short distances, a vestige from when scientists think their Miocene ancestors were tree dwellers.

Tiny eyes and big diggers for feet make for a fine a life underground! (Northwest Wildlife Online)

6. They work the night shift. Mountain Beaver rarely emerge from their dens during the day, preferring to gather food at night when the outside world is as dark as their burrows, and predators are less likely to spot them. While they have poor hearing and eyesight, their sense of smell and touch is excellent, making them well suited for the night shift. It’s unknown whether they are able to wear uniforms, perform security detail or eat stale donuts, however…

7. They can whistle! While they are mostly quiet animals, Mountain Beavers can issue a sharp whistle or squeal to defend their burrows. They can also be heard grinding or clicking their teeth while in their burrows or foraging for food or as a defense. But while they can whistle, they apparently cannot carry a tune… at least according to scientists.

Mountain Beaver are cute as infants… right? (PAWS Wildlife)

8. They have secret love lives..? Little is known about their love lives, except that they seem to reproduce at two years of age. Mountain Beaver mating has never been observed, perhaps because it occurs during the winter months when they are underground. They produce litters of 2-3 young in early spring, and these young soon venture out to find their own solitary plots to make their homes. Unlike humans, grown Mountain Beaver offspring do not return to their parent’s home after college to live in the extra burrow, rent-free, however.

9. They eat their food twice! It’s gross to us, but true: they eat their poop pellets after the first time thru to further digest any remaining nutrients (hey, so do rabbits, so not so weird!). But they keep their dens tidy and store the twice-digested poops in dedicated toilet chambers in their dens. And really, is a Mountain Beaver poop pellet that much more disgusting than a mystery McNugget stamped out at a chicken rendering plant..? “Food” for thought…

Collected Mounted Beaver greens outside a burrow (USFS)

10. They have cast-iron stomachs! Their diet consists largely of Sword fern and Bracken fern leaves, which makes Mountain Beaver unique, as Bracken fern is poisonous to most herbivores. They also consume Red alder leaves, another common species in the open, deciduous forests they prefer. Their short tails and slightly opposable thumbs allow them sit up while eating, holding food between their front feet. Their agile thumbs also reportedly come in handy for operating a TV remote or texting other Mountain Beaver.

Adult Mountain Beaver (USFS)

11. They don’t hibernate. Mountain Beaver don’t hibernate, though they are rarely seen in winter, when their burrows are often under a blanket of snow at higher elevations in their habitat. Instead, they spend the winter underground, living on stored food they have gathered and catching up on social media.

12. They’re a favorite entree! Not surprisingly, Mountain Beaver are a favorite and filling snack for our larger carnivores, including bobcat, cougar, coyotes and even large raptors, including hawks, eagles and owls. Increasingly, humans are becoming a predator of Mountain Beaver, not for food, but because they have begun to colonize areas where their digging and habit of topping young saplings marks them as a pest.

Sadly, they are still kill-trapped and poisoned for this reason on corporate timberlands. Fortunately, pubic awareness of the value of these animals is gradually increasing, especially in the Puget Sound region, where land owners are encouraged to relocate animals or simply learn to live with them (after all, they were clearly here first!).

13. Clark the Mountain Beaver has a book out..! Oh, you didn’t know there was a celebrity Mountain Beaver? Well, it turns out that Washington author Karen B. Shea has written a wonderful children’s book about a resident Mountain Beaver in her yard who goes by the name of Clark. If you have little hikers in your family, this would be a nice way to introduce them to an animal they might otherwise never learn to appreciate.

Mountain Beaver happy to be stuffed (?) in the Longmire Museum (Wikimedia)

You can support this local author and pick up a copy of Karen’s book (beautifully illustrated by Kelly Halpin) at Clark the Mountain Beaver’s website. Here, you’ll also find an accompanying coloring book and links to Clark’s YouTube channel (yes, you read that right):

Clark the Mountain Beaver

So, next time you stumble across one of their cavernous dens, you can smile knowing it was dug by a prehistoric survivor that hasn’t changed all that much in 50 million years. Clearly, the Mountain Beaver lives by the credo “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

And as always, we can learn something from even the humblest of species. Just watch your step in the process…

Restore the Metlako Viewpoint?

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A view of Metlako Falls from days gone by…

The Eagle Creek canyon is the undisputed jewel of the Columbia River Gorge, thanks to a string of dramatic waterfalls and a precarious, cliff-hugging trail built over 100 years ago by visionary Forest Service pioneers. But starting in late 2016, a series of calamities over the course of just a year reshaped Eagle Creek for the foreseeable future.

The first of these events came in late December 2016, when a huge section of cliff at Metlako Falls calved off, damming Eagle Creek with a massive pile of debris and erasing the iconic viewpoint of the falls (where the above photo was taken in 2013) forever.

Round two was the sprawling Eagle Creek Fire the followed in September 2017, burning all but a few strips of streamside forest in the Eagle Creek draining. Then, sometime in early 2018, another massive cliff collapse occurred at Punchbowl Falls, rerouting the entire creek and forever changing still another iconic view.

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The old viewpoint at Metlako Falls

Changes on this scale are nothing new in the Gorge. In fact, they are the very processes that created the scenery we enjoy today. Without fire, we wouldn’t have cliff top meadows, gnarled Oregon white oak groves and huckleberry fields on the highest ridges that rim the Gorge. Without landslides and cliff collapses, we wouldn’t have vertical basalt canyons and the towering waterfalls within them. In this way, the changes at Eagle Creek have given us a rare look at the natural forces behind the beauty, and a chance to better understand and appreciate the ongoing evolution of this very unique place.

Since the 2017 fire, volunteer trail crews have been working with the Forest Service to restore the Eagle Creek Trail. The fire heavily impacted the trail (see Eagle Creek: One Year After the Fire), and volunteers have invested thousands of hours clearing logs and debris and rebuilding much of the trail tread. For its part, the Forest Service is working to replace several large footbridges that were destroyed by the fire.

With the reopening of the trail imminent (perhaps as early as this year) there remain plenty of questions about how Eagle Creek will be better managed in the future to prevent a recovering ecosystem from being impacted by swarms of visitors. This article focuses on anticipating and managing these impacts at Metlako Falls, where hikers will almost certainly create a cobweb of user trails in search of an alternative to the collapsed viewpoint, especially now that the dense understory that once hid the falls from the trail has burned away in the fire.

Opportunity from calamity..?

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The author trimming brush at the old Metlako Viewpoint in 2013 (Photo: Christopher Alley)

The joy of the old Metlako Falls overlook was in the discovery. A pair of modest spur trails dropped through forest to a sudden and spectacular overlook, where a pair of braided cable railings stood between you and the sheer, 200-foot drop into Eagle Creek.

As iconic as the view up the narrow gorge to Metlako Falls was, it was also tedious to maintain. The cliff top just below the railings was dense with understory, which regularly grew to obscure the view of the falls. Trimming the brush required professional crews equipped to descend the cliff with ropes or volunteers willing to pack a pole pruning saw up the trail. It was an ongoing battle, with the understory winning — and hikers inevitably crawling over the railing for a better look. It’s a miracle that nobody (that I know of) slipped over the side at the old overlook!

In this way, the cliff collapse in 2016 and fire in 2017 offer an opportunity to create a new viewpoint at Metlako Falls that is both easier to maintain and provides less incentive for hikers to explore beyond the trail. I believe such a spot exists and that a spur trail to this new viewpoint could easily be developed by the volunteer crews already working to restore the Eagle Creek Trail. I also believe that without creating a new viewpoint, the crush of hikers who use this trail will seek one out, creating a hazard for hikers and harming the recovering landscape in the process.

Cue the helicopter!

Here’s a not-so-secret scoop: for the past decade or so, daredevil kayakers have been sailing over Metlako Falls as part of the “extreme kayaking” phenomenon of waterfall jumping. These stunts at Metlako Falls have been regularly recorded for social media (of course!) and thus a well-worn user path already descended to a viewpoint directly opposite the falls well before the Eagle Creek Fire swept through the area.

The post-fire absence of forest understory will make this user trail all the more obvious, and thus my confidence that it will become a heavily used boot path when the main trail reopens if a planned alternative isn’t provided. The time to act is now, before hordes of hikers are allowed back into Eagle Creek.

So, where is this not-so-secret user path? The following views from one of the State of Oregon helicopter surveys of the Eagle Creek Burn were taken in 2018, and show the unofficial Metlako Falls viewpoint nicely.

This wide view (below) is looking downstream, with Metlako Falls hidden in trees, but the deep pool created by the 2016 cliff collapse showing up prominently. I’ve marked both the site of the original viewpoint and where the proposed new viewpoint would be, roughly located where the kayaker path now leads:

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This closer view (below) shows more detail of the proposed new viewpoint. Notably, it’s located atop a sheer basalt cliff that would provide a clear view, but could also discourage hikers from venturing beyond the viewpoint. Also notable are the many surviving conifers on the bench that forms the viewpoint that will help stabilize this area in coming years as the understory recovers from the fire.

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What does Metlako Falls look like from this new perspective? It’s a straight on view that resembles a verytall Punch Bowl Falls, based on the many kayaker photos out there. This unattributed social media image shows a kayaker jumping the falls from the not-so-secret viewpoint in about 2015:

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Metlako daredevil as viewed from the proposed viewpoint (Source: Unknown)

This State of Oregon aerial view (below) was taken from almost directly above Eagle Creek as is rushes toward the brink of Metlako Falls and provides another good look at the basalt columns that are the foundation for the proposed new viewpoint:

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This aerial view (below) is from above the proposed viewpoint, looking back at Metlako Falls. From this angle, it really does resemble a very tall Punch Bowl Falls, complete with a deep amphitheater behind the falls and rock fins hemming in the splash pool on the downstream side:

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This wide view (below) is the reverse of the opening State of Oregon aerial, looking upstream toward Metlako Falls. This view shows the debris from the 2016 cliff collapse and the dammed section Eagle Creek above the debris pile.

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But there’s also a surprise next to Metlako Falls in this view. The slender cascade dropping into the opposite side of the Metlako amphitheater is Sorenson Falls, a seldom-seen beauty not visible from the old viewpoint. Could the new viewpoint be designed to allow this beautiful falls to be seen, as well? I think so — and in that way, the new viewpoint might be even more spectacular than the old one!

So, how do we do this?

While the Forest Service has been reluctant to even consider new trails in the Gorge in recent years, the Eagle Creek Fire may have created a window of opportunity for rethinking the status quo. However, the need for a formal environmental assessment is often a Forest Service obstacle to building new trails, even if the agency is open to the idea. But there’s a shorter path for the proposed Metlako Falls viewpoint. The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) calls out “categorical exclusions” for certain activities that exempts them from having to complete an environmental assessment. The proposed viewpoint easily meets this test.

This is because one of the “exclusions” under NEPA are trails negatively impact by natural events (like a fire or cliff collapse) and the Act gives great latitude to the Forest Service when relocating or realigning trails in response to such events. The Forest Service would still need to rely on agency scientists to complete a site evaluation of a proposed spur route for soil stability and other design considerations, but much of the expensive and effort required for a full environmental assessment can be avoided.

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The new spur trail would be very short — only about 100 yards in length and descending about 50 feet in elevation from the existing Eagle Creek Trail (see schematic, above). This not only helps make the case for a categorical exclusion, it also puts the proposed trail within reach for volunteers to both design and construct in cooperation with the Forest Service.

The viewpoint, itself, would likely require the Forest Service to design of some sort of cable railing, perhaps similar to the old viewpoint and the Punch Bowl Falls overlook, or possibly a deck similar to the structure at Panther Creek Falls. But even this detail is within reach for trail volunteers to constructing, with the Forest Service simply providing the design and materials.

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Misty Metlako Falls in the winter of 2014

If some other alternative isn’t provided, hikers will almost certainly follow the kayaker’s user trail to the unofficial Metlako Falls viewpoint when the Eagle Creek Trail is reopened. With volunteer crews already working to reopen the trail, it makes sense to build this viewpoint spur now. My hope is that we can be proactive and create a stable, sustainable way for hikers to view the falls before thousands of boots on poorly aligned user trails force the Forest Service to react.

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Postscript: I probably should have included this when I posted the article, but you can comment directly to the Forest Service in support of this proposal on their website:

Click here for the Forest Service comments page

Farewell, Forest Service Webcams…?

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Moonrise from the Gorge Webcam on September 26, 2014 (USFS)

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.

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Hazy sunset behind Mount Hood from the Gorge Webcam on November 11, 2014 (USFS)

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.

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Sunrise from the Gorge Webcam on October 16, 2015 (USFS)

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:

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The end of the Forest Service Wilderness Webcams..?

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.

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Mount Jefferson floating above the cloud deck from the Hood Webcam on November 24, 2018 (USFS)

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.

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Late snowstorm captured by the Hood Webcam on June 10, 2018 (USFS)

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.

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Sunset from the Gorge Webcam on November 30, 2012 (USFS)

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.

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Twilight reflecting on a calm Columbia River from the Gorge Webcam on September 26, 2016 (USFS)

[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.

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A view of lenticular clouds forming over Mount Hood from the Gorge Webcam on September 7, 2016 (USFS)

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:

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Watercolor sunset captured by the Gorge Webcam on September 29, 2016 (USFS)

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.

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Last rays of daylight captured by the Gorge Webcam on September 16, 2016 (USFS)

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:

Pacific Northwest Region USFS Comments

Please take a moment to weigh in!