Learning to say no… to ourselves?

The Riverside Fire shortly after it exploded into a major conflagration in September 2021 (USFS)

In the aftermath of the 49,000-acre Eagle Creek Fire in 2017, we learned the following essential facts:

  • The fire was human-caused by a careless teenager throwing fireworks over a cliff along the Eagle Creek Trail on a crowded Labor Day weekend with extreme fire conditions. 176 hikers had to be rescued after the fire exploded. The teenager was later sentenced to extensive community service working with forest crews
  • No human life and minimal loss of structures occurred, despite the close proximity to the town of Cascade Locks and hundreds of homes built in the forest fringes adjacent to the national forest
  • Though human-caused, the scale and timing of the fire was completely in line with historic large fires in the Gorge, occurring roughly every century. The last major fire on the Oregon side was also centered on the Eagle Creek and Tanner Creek areas, in the late 1800s. The massive Yacolt Burn on the Washington side occurred in 1902
  • The forest recovery following the fire was immediate, reassuring, and continues without human intervention (in the form of replanting)
  • The extreme weather conditions and risk for fire was forecast in advance by the National Weather Service, yet this information was not enough to persuade the U.S. Forest Service or the Oregon Parks and Recreation Division to reconsider public access to the Gorge that fateful Labor Day weekend.

Powerful easterly winds drove the massive Riverside Fire west, toward the Willamette Valley (USFS)

Flash forward to 2020, and we have a repeat of the Eagle Creek Fire in the form of the 138,000-acre Riverside Fire, which burned much of the Clackamas and Molalla River watersheds after it started the day after Labor Day:

  • Like the Eagle Creek Fire, the Riverside Fire was human-caused, as was the 36 Pit Fire that had previously burned 5,500 acres in the lower Clackamas River canyon in September 2014
  • Like the Eagle Creek Fire in the Gorge, the extreme weather conditions that made the Riverside Fire so explosive were well-predicted and nearly certain to unfold as forecast. We were warned that high winds would blow hot desert air over the Cascade passes in Oregon and Washington, turning mountain canyons into wind tunnels of hot, exceptionally dry air all the way to the Willamette Valley
  • Like the Eagle Creek Fire, the Riverside burned an area that was probably overdue for fire, as measured by the approximately 100-200 year intervals between large fires on the west slopes of the Cascades. Unlike the Gorge, the Clackamas and Molalla basins had been heavily logged by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the private timber corporations for 70 years, so much of the burn consisted of crowded clear-cut plantations that turned out to be especially vulnerable to fire
  • Unlike the Eagle Creek Fire, thousands of acres of private, previously logged-over plantations burned, and the timber corporations have been aggressively “salvaging” burned trees in the months since the fire occurred – a practice that has been shown to be especially damaging to forest recovery
  • Like the Eagle Creek Fire, towns like Estacada and Molalla were spared, though the fire burned frighteningly close to Estacada. But unlike the Eagle Creek Fire, the Riverside fire destroyed 139 homes and outbuildings and injured four people in its path along the west slope of the Cascades.
  • Like the Eagle Creek Fire, the Riverside turned skies in the Portland metropolitan area orange for days, raining ash on some of the suburbs, and awakening the urban population to the health and economic impacts that large fires have always had on rural communities.

Memaloose Road after the Riverside Fire (USFS)

When it was over, the Riverside fire had burned nearly three times the area of Eagle Creek Fire. The scale of the fire is still sinking in, since the burn area is largely closed to the public, indefinitely. But the few photos the Forest Service has provided show scenes similar to the Eagle Creek Fire, from severely burned areas where the forest canopy was completely killed to areas of “mosaic” burns, a beneficial fire pattern where intensely burned areas are intermixed with less burned forest, where the tree canopy is likely to survive the fire. Early analysis of the first suggests that it was generally more severe than the Eagle Creek fire, with large areas of the Clackamas River watershed severely burned.

The lower Clackamas River canyon has now burned three times in the past 20 years, first with the Bowl Fire in 2002 that burned 339 acres, then the 36 Pit Fire in 2014, and now the massive Riverside Fire. In this recent article [https://wyeastblog.org/tag/clackamas-river/] I described a forest recovery that was already underway when the Riverside Fire swept the through the lower Clackamas River canyon last fall, and we don’t yet know how much of this recovering forest was burned.

Adjusting to our new reality…

While the Eagle Creek and Riverside fires have much in common, and the fires aren’t necessarily outliers compared to historic fires in the area, there are some important takeaways from both fires that are concerning. They underscore the reality that climate change and increased human presence in our forests are accelerating the pace of major forest fires in the Pacific Northwest.

Fire-scorched Fish Creek Campground (USFS)

First, the recent sequence of fires in the lower Clackamas River Canyon is troubling, as we are now seeing fires burn through the same forests in rapid succession. This means that surviving forest patches from the 2002 Bowl Fire also had to contend with the 2014 16 PIt Fire, and later, the 2020 Riverside Fire to continue the benefits of a “mosaic” burn to the lower canyon. While we don’t yet know, we almost certainly lost some (or perhaps all) of these surviving forests from earlier fires. These are the beneficial mosaic survivors that ensure a rapid forest recovery. Without them, we can expect a much slower forest recovery, and more erosion and earth movement will result.

Second, the Forest Service has shown an inability (or unwillingness) to simply close down recreation areas when extreme fire conditions are forecast. Their position is understandable: closing down the Gorge after the Eagle Creek Fire caused much controversy, so we can only imagine the outrage had that been done before that Labor Day in 2017, though we would almost certainly have prevented the catastrophic fire that resulted. Conversely, prevention is rarely credited in our society, so the likely public relations firestorm of closing the forest on Labor Day weekend to avoid a real firestorm in the forest would have been a truly thankless decision for the Forest Service.

Fish Creek drainage after the fire showing a mosaic burn pattern (USFS)

The same holds for the 2020 Riverside Fire. Closing down the Clackamas River recreation corridor to campers, boaters and hikers on Labor Day weekend would surely have set off a major controversy for the Forest Service, and only in hindsight can we know that it would have prevented a catastrophic fire needlessly caused by humans.

I visited the corridor on a busy weekend just before Labor Day, and I was saddened to see “dispersed” campsites all along the Clackamas with campfires burning, despite a ban on fires at the time. These unofficial campsites have a long history and tradition in our national forests, and they have been mushrooming in new places all around WyEast Country in recent years as campers seek to avoid the fees (and rules) of developed campgrounds. As a result, they are increasingly becoming havens for lawless activity, including tree cutting, dumping and illegal fires.

Mobbed “dispersed” campsite in the Clackamas corridor with multiple campfires burning a few days before the Riverside Fire

The Forest Service simply doesn’t have the capacity to meaningfully enforce fire restrictions in the growing number of dispersed sites, and it’s time we view them as the hazard to our forests that they have become. The agency has begun to close some of these sites, but if we learn that the Riverside Fire was ignited by an illegal campfire in a dispersed campsite, then we’ll have a strong case for completely banning them – everywhere.

Would that cause an outcry? Absolutely. But many tough decisions lie ahead if we hope to save our forests from our own bad behavior during a time of unprecedented environmental change.

Forest Service fire patrol attempting to monitor dispersed campers

Parking overload at a dispersed campsite in the Clackamas Corridor a few days before the Riverside Fire

Private utilities saw the fire situation differently last September. Portland General Electric (PGE) opted to shut down its powerlines in the heavily populated Mount Hood corridor and its three powerhouses and adjoining powerlines in the Clackamas River canyon in anticipation of the wind event, for fear of their power system igniting the forest.

Looking back, there’s no way to know if that would have happened, but the recent fires caused by powerlines in California (and resulting lawsuits against the utilities) surely weighed on PGE’s decision. In that light, the frustration of several thousand customers seemed a fair tradeoff to PGE, especially when you consider that the nearby Beachie Creek Fire and other fires that burned throughout Oregon during that weather event were caused by downed powerlines from the extreme wind.

Crowded clear-cut plantations like this fared poorly in the Riverside Fire (USFS)

Another important take-way is that our forests are becoming increasingly stressed by climate change. Our summers are hotter and longer, our snowpack is retreating to higher elevations and is less abundant. This makes our forests much more vulnerable to fire, especially at the end of our summer drought season in late August and into September. Little is known about how global climate change will ultimately affect our forests, but it’s becoming clear that the fire risk is only increasing and scale and frequency, and our forests on the west slope of the Cascades didn’t evolve for that.

As we move forward into this unsettling future, the real question isn’t whether we can make sound judgments about fire danger based on science and observation. We know we can, and the science is getting better and more reliable all the time. Instead, the question is whether we are willing to follow science to make the tough calls?

For this, we need only look to the global COVID-19 pandemic that we are riding out right now. The science behind basic, simple steps to prevent the transmission of the virus is solid and tested. In many societies, science alone has been persuasive enough to encourage mass compliance with prevention efforts. Not so in our country, of course, where putting on a simple face mask devolved into a debate about individual liberties, even as hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from the coronavirus.

This appears to be “safety” logging by ODOT, not post-fire salvage logging — an increasingly discredited practice (USFS)

However, elected leaders in our corner of the country have been willing to follow the science (and face the angry wrath of a vocal few), and the public has overwhelmingly followed orders to keep our distance, shut down places where people gather and hunker down in our homes during this crisis. As loud as the dissenters are, the vast majority of Oregonians (and Washingtonians) have accepted that there are no good options in this crisis, only “least worst” options. Have we now reached a point with human-caused forest fires in our region that the public is similarly ready (or at least resigned) to accept restrictions based on our collective memory of recent, catastrophic fires?

This brings me back to the notorious month of September in WyEast, the time of year when some of our worst human-caused fires have occurred. It’s pretty clear now that the Forest Service isn’t able (or willing) to pre-emptively shut down forest access during the kind of extreme weather conditions to prevent human-caused fires that allowed the Eagle Creek and Riverside fires to explode. We saw yet another reminder of that fact a few weeks ago, when the Forest Service abruptly and unceremoniously re-opened the Eagle Creek Trail and other areas closed by the Eagle Creek Fire in the middle of the holiday vacation, and social media quickly responded, sending a crush of hikers to the trail.

Whale Creek near Indian Henry Campground after the fire (USFS)

Whale Creek before the fire

With this move, the Forest Service squandered a “reset” on access and crowd management the agency had long promised about since the closure began. Worse, the reopening of the Eagle Creek and other Gorge trails was completely at odds with warnings of COVID-19 spreading rampantly over the holidays. The risk of spreading the virus was exponentially higher in December than it had been in March 2020, when the Forest Service DID shut down trails in the Gorge. After a month of hikers crowding the reopened trail — where it is impossible to observe basic COVID precautions — Mother Nature unleashed a “Pineapple Express” deluge of rain in late January that washed out several sections of trail, closing it once again, though only “temporarily”, according to the Forest Service.

Somebody call the Governor..?

Given what we’ve learned about the inability of the Forest Service bureaucracy to act on solid science from these recent events, and especially given that climate change and our own behavior is only ramping up the fire risk, what if our state and local elected leaders were to step in? Could they make these decisions for the Forest Service in the name of public health and safety? Should they?

Mosaic burn along a section of the Clackamas showing some big trees that survived the fire while the clear-cut plantation in the distance was decimated (USFS)

The answer to the first question is yes, they probably could – especially the Governor. Last spring, the Forest Service closed most of the national forests in the Pacific Northwest in response to the broader COVID-19 shutdowns, and in their official words, did so “in consultation with state and local governments and tribes”. This probably means the national forest shutdown in Oregon and Washington occurred because the two governors had ordered a broader shutdown, as opposed to a president who was denying the pandemic at the time. So, while the governors may not have direct authority over federal lands, they appear to have functional authority (and if there are legal experts out there reading this who can answer this question more definitively, I welcome your thoughts!)

But should our elected leaders step up and make this call? The answer to this question is easy. Yes, of course they should. The pandemic has redefined the boundaries for elected leadership, at least for now. And besides, for most of us, it would be an inconvenience to stay home on Labor Day weekend out of an abundance of caution. For those who lost their homes (or the lives of loved ones) in the Oregon fires last September, it’s an especially easy call. If the pandemic has taught Americans anything, we’ve learned that much of what we do in our daily lives can be adjusted to meet needs greater than our own. As Americans, we reserve the right to complain, of course!

Aerial view of the Oak Grove area of the Clackamas basin showing a mosaic burn pattern and the untouched Roaring River Wilderness and Mount Hood, beyond (USFS)

Finally, how urgent is the need to assert some authority over the Forest Service in making the call for public closures during extreme fire conditions? It’s tempting to think the Gorge is immune from big fires for another century, now that much of the Oregon side was burned in the 2017 fire. But three fires in less than 20 years in the lower Clackamas River corridor tells us otherwise. We’re in a new fire reality, now, and the renewal of our forest depends on our ability to prevent further escalation of the fire cycle due to our own behavior.

Next time… Mount Hood?

And then there’s Mount Hood. The north and east sides burned in a series of three fires from 2005 to 2011, but much of the forest on these flanks of the mountain remains unburned, and is ripe for human caused fire by the throngs of hikers and backpackers who visit the mountain in the summer months.

1933 view of Mount Hood and burned-over Zigzag Mountain from burned-over Devils Peak. Everything in this view except for Mount Hood is now reforested. While large fires are not new to the western Cascades, they are becoming more frequent

More ominously, the south and west sides of the mountain haven’t seen major fires in more than a century. The extensive Kinzel and Sherar fires completely burned off several square miles of the forest, from near Timothy Lake all the way north to Lolo Pass, and from the community of Zigzag east to Bennett Pass. Few people lived near the mountain when these fires burned.

Today’s Mount Hood corridor travels through the middle of this largely recovered burn, and the highway is now lined with thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses and resorts. While PGE’s decision to shut down their powerlines in the Mount Hood corridor last September may well have prevented a fire being ignited from electrical lines, but it’s sheer luck that a human-caused fire didn’t occur.

The escalation of west-side fires calls to question the wisdom of continuing to build homes on the forest fringes, too. While most of these are on private land, they drive public policy, with developers and the real estate industry pushing the idea that forest fires can somehow be prevented in perpetuity. Elected officials have been wary to disagree, despite the science being on their side.

Early 1900s view of Government Camp when the south slopes of Mount Hood were still recovering from the last major fire to sweep through the area

In this emerging era of extreme weather and forests stressed by climate change, catastrophic, human-caused fires are quickly becoming an annual concern, even along the temperate west slope of the Cascades. When extreme fire conditions emerge again next summer, and with the Gorge and Riverside fires in our recent memory, are we finally ready and willing to say “no” to ourselves?

Before the COVID pandemic descended upon us last year, I would have been tempted to say “no” to that question, simply because American culture has struggled in recent years with the idea of the collective interest outweighing the individual. But the pandemic has renewed my optimism that we’re turning a page toward an era more like the 1930s and 40s, when a collective consensus emerged toward facing the dual challenges of economic despair and world war.

Despite our divisive domestic politics of the past few years, a working majority in this country has nevertheless emerged on the side of finally addressing climate change. That’s encouraging! After all, climate change is singularly a global threat that demands our collective effort. With restoring forests as one of the most important tools in combatting climate change, this could be the key to rethinking how we can prevent human-caused fires.


…and to end this article on an even more optimistic note, watch this blog for big news on the future of WyEast Country in the coming days! That’s a teaser, by the way…

As always, thanks for stopping by!

_______________

Tom Kloster • February 2021

Mount Hood’s Pint-sized Glaciers

Two of Mount Hood’s pint-sized glaciers are hidden in plain sight in this sunset view from the Mazama Trail

Officially, Mount Hood has twelve glaciers, though two — the Langille on the north side and Palmer on the south side — seem to have slowed to permanent snowfield status. The distinction comes from downward movement, which typically results in cracks, or crevasses, in the moving ice. Crevasses are the telltale sign of a living glacier.

Living glaciers are conveyor belts for mountain ice, capturing and compacting snowfall into ice at the top of the glacier, which then begins to flow downhill from the sheer weight of the accumulation. This downward movement becomes river of ice that carries immense amounts of rock and debris captured in the ice, eventually carving U-shaped valleys in the mountain.

Mount Hood’s largest glaciers carved the huge canyons we see radiating in all directions from the mountain today. These canyons were made when the glaciers were much larger, during the Pleistocene ice age that ended several thousand years ago. The ice on Mount Hood has since retreated, though today’s much smaller glaciers continue their excavating high on the mountain.

The dramatic retreat of the Eliot Glacier on Mount Hood over the past century is captured in these photo comparisons from 1901 and 2012 (Glacier Rephoto Database)

The smallest glaciers on Mount Hood are the Coalman Glacier, located high in the volcano’s crater, and the Glisan Glacier, located on the northwest shoulder of the mountain. They are tiny compared to the impressive Eliot, Ladd, Coe and Sandy glaciers, but these tiny glaciers are still moving, have well-developed crevasses and both are clearly separate from the larger glaciers. Thus, they were recognized as living glaciers in their own right when Mount Hood was being mapped more than a century ago.

Another tiny glacier is without a formal name, and would have been Mount Hood’s thirteenth glacier had it been mapped with the others in the early 1900s. Known informally as the Little Sandy Glacier, this small body of ice is perched on the rocky shoulder of Cathedral Ridge, near the Glisan Glacier. The Little Sandy hangs on cliffs high above the sprawling Sandy Glacier, which it drains into.

The map below shows each of Mount Hood’s glaciers, from the tiny Glisan to the massive Eliot, largest on the mountain:

[click here for a larger version of the map]

This article takes a closer look at these lesser-known, tiny glaciers. While small, all three have been surprisingly resilient in the era of climate change, when our glaciers are rapidly shrinking. Their tiny size and survival (so far) makes them helpful indicators of the long-term effects of global warming on Mount Hood, and a visual reminder of just how fragile our alpine ecosystems are as the planet continues to heat up.

The Coalman Glacier

The Coalman Glacier is located in Mount Hood’s crater, high above the White River Glacier

This glacier is known to few, and yet is probably the most visited on Mount Hood. The Coalman Glacier fills the crater of Mount Hood, extending from below the summit to Crater Rock, and is crossed by thousands of climbers following the popular south side route to the summit each year. Along their climb, they follow a ridge of ice along the glacier called “The Hogsback” to the Coalman Glacier’s “bergschrund”, the name given to a crevasse that typically forms near the top of most glaciers, and a common feature to many glaciers on Mount Hood. For climbers on Mount Hood, the bergschrund on the Coalman Glacier is simply called “The Bergschrund”, and it is the main technical obstacle on the south side route to the summit.

The entire Coalman Glacier lies above 10,000 feet, and as a result, this tiny glacier is well-situated to survive a warming climate. Historic photos (shown later in this article) suggest the Coalman Glacier was once connected to the White River Glacier, located immediately below, as recently as the late 1800s.

Mount Hood’s summit lookout in the 1920s

The Coalman Glacier was named for Elijah “Lige” Coalman, the legendary mountain guide who manned the former fire lookout on the summit of Mount Hood from 1915 to 1933. Lige Coalman climbed Mount Hood nearly 600 times in his lifetime, sometimes making multiple climbs in one day to carry 100 pound loads of supplies to the summit lookout. In Jack Grauer’s classic Mount Hood: A Complete History, he describes Lige Coalman’s legendary stamina:

“…The great vitality of Coleman was demonstrated by one day he spent in 1910. He and a climbing client ate breakfast at the hotel in Government Camp. They then climbed to the summit of Mount Hood and down to Cloud Cap Inn where the client wanted to go. After lunch at Cloud Cap, Lige climbed back over the summit and arrived for dinner at Government Camp at 5:00 p.m.”

The Coalman Glacier was formally recognized as a separate body of ice from the nearby White River and Zigzag glaciers in the 1930s. However, this tiny glacier went unnamed until Lige Coalman died in 1970, and the Oregon Geographic Names Board named the small glacier he had navigated hundreds of times in his memory. Fittingly, Lige Coalman’s ashes were spread on Mount Hood’s summit.

Lige Coalman (left) on the first summit lookout on Mount Hood in 1915 (from “Mount Hood: A Complete History” by Jack Grauer)

Though the south side route is considered the easiest way to the summit of Mount Hood, every route on the mountain is dangerous. Many tragedies have unfolded over the decades on the Coalman Glacier, when climbers have fallen into The Bergschrund crevasse or slid into the steaming volcanic vents in the crater. Perhaps most notorious was the May 2002 climbing disaster, when three climbers were killed and four injured by a disastrous fall into The Bergschrund.

1920s climbers on the Hogsback on the Coalman Glacier. The wide crevasse known as The Bergschrund lies ahead as they make their way toward the summit (USFS)

While the 2002 accident was tragic enough, it was the rescue operation that made the incident infamous when an Air Force helicopter suddenly crashed onto the Coalman Glacier, rolling several times before coming to a rest below the Hogsback. News cameras hovering above the scene broadcast the event in real-time, and the sensational footage was seen around the world. Though several Air Force crew were injured, nobody was killed in the helicopter crash.

The Glisan Glacier

The Glisan is Mount Hood’s smallest named glacier, tucked against Cathedral Ridge on the northwest side of the mountain. This tiny glacier is hidden in plain sight, located directly above popular Cairn Basin and McNeil Point, where thousands of hikers pass by on the Timberline Trail every year. It was named for Rodney Lawrence Glisan Jr. by the Oregon Geographic Names Board in 1938. The name was proposed by the Mazamas, Mount Hood’s iconic climbing club, following an expedition to the northwest side of the mountain in 1937.

Rodney Glisan Jr. in the late 1800s (Mazama Library and Historical Collections)

Glisan was a prominent Portland lawyer and civic leader in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and son of one of the founding fathers of the city. He served on the Portland City Council and in the Oregon Legislature, as well as other civic roles. But his passion was for the outdoors, and as a Mazama, Rodney Glisan climbed most of the major Cascade and Sierra peaks during his eventful life.

The glacier that carries Rodney Glisan’s name was once much larger, and its outflow carved a steep canyon lined with vertical cliffs that now form the shoulder of the lower ramparts of Cathedral Ridge. Today, this rugged canyon is without trails and unknown to most who visit the mountain.

Most hikers visiting McNeil Ridge wouldn’t know they’re looking at the Glisan Glacier as they make the final climb above the tree line, but the glacier’s outflow is a popular stop along the way. This beautiful stream flows through some of the finest wildflower meadows on the mountain (pictured above).

Oddly enough, this glacial stream is unnamed, though it’s much larger than many named streams on the mountain. In fact, it’s the only glacial outflow on the mountain that is unnamed. Thus, on my growing list of planned submissions to the Oregon Geographic Names Board is to simply name this pretty stream “Glisan Creek”, since it’s a prominent and helpful landmark along the Timberline Trail. Naming the creek might bring a bit more awareness and appreciation for the tiny Glisan Glacier, too!

As Mount Hood’s glaciers go, the Glisan isn’t much to look at today. The glacier is much smaller than when it was named in the 1930s, judging by topographic maps (below) that show a lower portion of the glacier that has since become a series of permanent snowfields that are no longer part of the glacier.

The Glisan Glacier also has an odd shape, wider than it is long. Presumably, this is due to both shrinking over the past century and possibly winter wind patterns affecting snow accumulation on this little body of ice. But it is moving, with a prominent series of crevasses opening up every summer on its crest. It’s also surprisingly resilient in its modern, shortened state, bucking the trend (for now) of shrinking glaciers throughout the Cascades.

Topographic maps created in the mid-1900s show the former extent of the Glisan Glacier

Topographic maps still show the former extent of the Glisan Glacier in the mid-1900s, when it extended to nearly 6,000 feet in elevation. Today, the glacier has retreated to about the 7,000-foot level.

The position of the Glisan Glacier on northwest side of the mountain could also be part of the explanation for its resilience. The glacier flows from the north side of Cathedral Ridge, where it is protected from the hottest late summer sun, and it also benefits from being in the direct path of winter storms that slam the west face of the mountain with heavy snowfall. Will the Glisan Glacier continue to survive? Possibly, thanks to its protected position and having already retreated to the 7,000-foot elevation. Time will tell.

The Little Sandy Glacier

This little glacier should have been Mount Hood’s thirteenth named glacier, but it has the misfortune of lying very close to the much larger Sandy Glacier and was passed over when the first topographic maps were created in the early 1900s. And yet, it was called out in Forest Conditions in the Cascade Range, the seminal 1902 original survey of the (then) “Cascade Forest Reserve”, the precursor to the national forests that now stretch the length of the Oregon Cascades:

It was tiny then, at just 80 acres. But at the time of the 1902 survey, the Reid, Langille, Palmer and Coalman glaciers had yet to be named, so this will be my argument in adding the Little Sandy Glacier to my (still!) growing list of name proposals for the Oregon Board of Geographic Names to consider.

Why is a name important for this tiny glacier? In part, because without names we tend to not pay attention to important features on our public lands, usually to their detriment. But in the case of the Little Sandy Glacier, there are some good public safety arguments, since the glacier is adjacent to a couple of the climbing routes used on the mountain. Formalizing its name could help search and rescue efforts compared to the informal use of the name today.

The Little Sandy Glacier is a heavily-crevassed body of ice perched on the cliffs of Cathedral Ridge, high above the much larger Sandy Glacier

Like the nearby Glisan Glacier, the Little Sandy is oddly shaped. Wider than it is long, it hangs seemingly precariously on a massive cliff and is heavily fractured with crevasses. In summer, meltwater from the Little Sandy cascades over long cliff and down a talus slope where it then flows under the Sandy Glacier, joining other meltwater streams there.

What does the future hold for the Little Sandy Glacier? Like the Glisan Glacier, it benefits from heavy snow accumulation where winter storms pound the west face of the mountain. Yet, unlike the Glisan, the Little Sandy Glacier hangs on a southwest-facing wall and is exposed to direct afternoon sun in summer.

Surprisngly, this doesn’t seem to have dramatically affected the size of the glacier over the years, perhaps because it sits so high on the mountain. The base of the glacier is at an elevation of about 8,400 feet (higher than Mt. St. Helens) and the upper extent of the glacier begins just above 9,000 feet. This combination of high elevation and heavy winter snowpack suggest the Little Sandy Glacier will continue to survive for some time to come, even as global warming continues to shrink Mount Hood’s glaciers.

Tracking Mount Hood’s Changing Glaciers

Mount Hood’s Eliot Glacier is impressive, but in truth is a fraction of its size just a few decades ago.

Who is tracking the changes in Mount Hood’s glaciers? The answer is a collection of federal and state agencies, university researchers and non-profits concerned with the rapid changes unfolding on the mountain.

The U.S. Geological Survey has the most comprehensive monitoring program for Mount Hood, though it is mainly focused on volcanic hazards presented by the mountain. From this perspective, the glaciers and permanent snowfields on Mount Hood represent a disaster risk in the event of renewed volcanic activity, as past eruptions have triggered massive mudflows when snow and ice were abruptly melted by steam and hot ash.

Mount Hood’s glaciers, as recognized by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

The late 1700s eruptions that created today’s Crater Rock and the smooth south side that Timberline Lodge sits on also sent mudflows down the Sandy River to its confluence with the Columbia River. The delta of mud and volcanic ash at the confluence gave the river its name, when the Lewis and Clark Expedition reached the scene just a few years after the event, calling it the “quick sand river”. The potential reach of future mudflows is why the USGS continues to monitor Mount Hood’s glaciers.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and other water resource and fisheries agencies are also tracking the glaciers from the perspective of downstream water supplies and quality. Mount Hood’s glaciers not only provide critical irrigation and drinking water for those who live and farm around the mountain, they also ensure cool water temperatures in summer that are critical for endangered salmon and steelhead survival.

In academia, Portland State University geologist Andrew Fountain has been a leading local voice in tracking change in our glaciers, collaborating with federal agencies to monitor glaciers across the American West. Several PSU students have completed graduate theses on Mount Hood’s glaciers under Dr. Fountain, including glaciologist Keith Jackson’s excellent research on the Eliot Glacier.

The once-mighty White River Glacier on Mount Hood has receded dramatically over the past century (Glacier RePhoto Databse)

Dr. Fountain’s research features photo pairing where historic images of Mount Hood’s glaciers have been recreated to show a century of change on the mountain. These images (above and at the top of the article) of the White River and Eliot glaciers are examples, and show the power of these comparisons in understanding the scale and pace of change.

The following is a shorter-term comparison of my own images of the Eliot Glacier, taken in 2002 and 2019 at about the same time of year (in late summer). Look closely, and the changes are profound even in this 17-year timeframe. Geologists call the boundary on a glacier where melting exceeds accumulation the “firn line”. Typically, glaciers appear as mostly ice and snow above the firn line compared to much more rock and glacial till below the firn line, where the ice is melting away and leaving debris behind.

In 2002, the firn line on the Eliot Glacier had risen the lower icefall as the glacier receded, as shown in the image pair, above. The 2002 firn line is indicated by the white and blue ice still dominating the lower icefall. But by 2019, the firn line had moved partway up the lower icefall, as shown in the second image. Over time, scientists expect the glaciers on Mount continue to gradually retreat in this way as they increasingly losing more ice than they gain each year in our warming climate.

What Lies Ahead?

Will Mount Hood’s glaciers completely disappear? Perhaps, someday, if global warming goes unchecked. If climate change can be slowed, we may see the glaciers stabilize as smaller versions of what we see today. While the few remaining glaciers in the Rockies are already very small and on the brink of disappearing, glaciers on the big volcanoes of the Cascades of Oregon and Washington are still large and active. They have advantage of a very wet and cool winter climate that ensures heavy snowfall at the highest elevations, even as the climate warms.

One way to preview the future of Mount Hood’s glaciers is to look south to California’s Mount Shasta, at the lower end of the Cascade Range. At just over 14,000 feet, Shasta is tall enough to have seven named glaciers, even in a much warmer climate — though only four seem to still be active. Compare that to Mount Rainier, in Washington, which is also a 14,000-foot volcano, but has 26 glaciers, with several very large, active glaciers that dwarf anything found on Mount Shasta or Mount Hood.

Despite its height, Mount Shasta’s glaciers only survive above 10,000 feet due to the mountain’s southern latitude in the Cascade Range

The difference is latitude, of course. Climate change is having the effect if sliding us gradually toward the warmer climate we see to the south today, at Mount Shasta, where glaciers are smaller, but still survive above the 10,000-foot level. If Shasta is an indicator, then glaciers will continue to flow for some time at the upper elevations of Mount Hood and the other big volcanoes in northern Oregon and Washington for some time to come, perhaps even surviving if climate change remains unchecked.

In the meantime, the changes on Mount Hood are just one more reminder of how climate change is impacting almost every aspect of our lives and our natural legacy, and why changing the human behavior that is driving climate change is the existential challenge of our time. Though time is short, we can still ensure that future generations will see spectacular glaciers flowing down Mount Hood’s slopes in the next century.

Restoring forests, one community at a time

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar set the Pacific Northwest forest recovery effort back on track in July when he reversed the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Western Oregon Plan Revisions (the WOPR, a brilliantly unintentional blunder as acronyms go, as it became known as “The Whopper”). This represented a major step back from scientifically corrupt policies intended to enrich timber corporations at great cost to our public lands.

In this recent opinion piece in The Oregonian, Dominick DellaSala and Randi Spivak respond to Salazar’s move, and provide an excellent framework for how we should move forward to restore our public forests. Their prescription: emphasize needed thinning of the sickly, biologically sterile tree plantations left from the logging heyday of past decades, and embrace the value that our restored forests will have in the global effort to reduce carbon emissions.

The eastside forests spreading out below Lookout Mountain look healthy enough from a distance, but in reality are in dire need of a bold new restoration strategy.

The eastside forests spreading out below Lookout Mountain look healthy enough from a distance, but in reality are in dire need of a bold new restoration strategy.

As described in their article, the Siuslaw National Forest has already begun to embrace this new approach, and other public forest managers are beginning to take notice. But a truly comprehensive restoration effort must be more aggressive, and should also focus on stabilizing the forest-based communities that were left to die when the big timber operations pulled out in the 1980s and 90s

Traditional thinning offers a couple of opportunities for local communities: the timber operations involve most of the same logging skills that were once the mainstay of rural Oregon. In addition, the harvested wood from thinning offers not only traditional saw logs for small mills, but also a new economic niche in the smaller woody debris that was once discarded or burned on site in the forests. New uses for small woody debris include engineered wood products and even energy production as biomass.

A closer view of typical second-growth forests near Lookout Mountain reveals a dying, overcrowded ecosystem under great biological stress.

A closer view of typical second-growth forests near Lookout Mountain reveals a dying, overcrowded ecosystem under great biological stress.

One practical challenge in reaching this new approach will be the scaled-back network of logging roads, since the over-built system constructed in the second half of the 1900s is rapidly crumbling and infeasible to maintain for the long term. One strategy is to tie road decommissioning to forest thinning and restoration efforts, pulling out obsolete roads after forests have been largely restored. Another could be aerial operations, perhaps even balloon logging. Still another could be roadless logging with light equipment or even horses — a practice well established on small, private woodlots in Oregon.

The key to finding this new balance in sustainable forest restoration a role of direct stewardship among the forest communities — to view them as the keepers of the forest, as opposed to the “forest dependent” mindset of the industrial logging era. This means establishing an ongoing relationship between community-based forest management organizations and the federal agencies that govern most of our public forest land. These new organizations could follow the lead of watershed councils and farm bureaus, using formal governance coupled with direct management responsibilities as forest recovery agents.

A bright spot in the restoration of the eastside forests near lookout mountain, this thinned plantation is beginning to resemble a natural forest, with multi-aged stands and a recovering understory.

A bright spot in the restoration of the eastside forests near lookout mountain, this thinned plantation is beginning to resemble a natural forest, with multi-aged stands and a recovering understory.

How would the economics of community-based stewardship work? In a commodity-based model of selling products recovered from thinning, the objective is straightforward — but unlikely to be profitable as a private enterprise.

Instead, the public will likely need to provide some level of subsidy for the restoration work involved, with commodity proceeds offsetting public costs. The advantage of a public subsidy is that it provides an ongoing public interest in the health and viability of the forest communities, themselves, and could help avoid the volatility that private timber harvesting brought to these communities in their first century.

A few stands of late succession ponderosa and Western larch forest still exist on the slopes of Lookout Mountain, providing a glimpse of what a restoration policy must aim for.

A few stands of late succession ponderosa and Western larch forest still exist on the slopes of Lookout Mountain, providing a glimpse of what a restoration policy must aim for.

But the more interesting idea is to create a long-term financial model for stewardship communities based on carbon sequestration as part of global efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Carbon credits would be sold as offsets to carbon polluters, and providing a permanent incentive to bring the northwest forests back to health.

The credits could be managed as a community trust, or managed through a public-private corporation. Under this paradigm, there would be little incentive to harvest large trees, since they would exist primarily as carbon storage units under the new carbon-based economic framework.

Of course, we also know that big trees and mature forests also provide a much wider array of ecological and social benefits, but these costs have never factored in to the short-term price for raw logs in the old timber harvesting paradigm. As DellaSala and Spivak point out in their article, the Pacific Northwest is uniquely capable of storing carbon in our living forests, and to a degree nearly unmatched in the world. If this potential is given a value, then we may well seen an end to the destruction of our mature forests for saw logs and pulp that could just as easily be manufactured from private plantation materials.

The concept of community-based stewardship in carrying out forest restoration is attainable, as evidenced by the many successful public-private partnerships that exist today. But it’s unclear if the Forest Service and BLM bureaucracies are flexible or willing enough to embrace the idea.

Instead, a new conservation-based form of administration may be needed — broader than the National Park Service in scope, but borrowing from the Park Service ethic of conservation and sustainability. The Cascade Forest Preserve, perhaps, extending from the Sierras to the Canadian border? Given the grave implications of climate change, it is impossible to think too big or boldly as we search for a way forward.