Amateur essayists walk a changing forest

  • Jim Furnish

    Scott Stouder photo
  • Essayists tour the Siuslaw National Forest

    Scott Stouder photo

HART'S COVE, Ore. - In the Siuslaw National Forest, the contrast in viewpoints among those on the trail is as stark as night and day.

"They're amazing," says Mary Collins, shaking her head in wonder as she stares through the rain at the gray-barked, old-growth trees that rise like pillars. Sitka spruce trees - some eight to 10 feet in diameter - tower above our trail across the creek.

"There's a three-log load in that tree," Mickey Bellman says with a grin as he pats a huge spruce.

Collins, who recently moved to Corvallis, Ore., from New York, describes the sight of clear-cuts from a plane as looking like a "rash."

Bellman, a 51-year-old forester from Salem, Ore., calls the reduction in timber harvest on public lands "criminal."

The two found little to agree on as they and six other citizens accompanied Siuslaw Supervisor Jim Furnish to Oregon's central coast. They were winners in an unusual essay contest held last summer on the topic, "Why I value the Siuslaw National Forest."

Their prize: a three-day tour of the Siuslaw Forest. The first day took them hiking along a primitive piece of Oregon's coastline in the Cascade Head Experimental Forest, two-and-a-half miles above the Pacific Ocean

As the group hunkered in the relatively drip-free comfort of a hemlock tree along the trail, Furnish pointed out that what Americans expect from their national forests is changing. He said he wants to use this tour, which he hopes to have annually, to gain insight into what those changes are.

"And during the process," he says, "I hope we can learn from each other."

There was a lot to learn.

At only 640,000 acres, the Siuslaw National Forest is not large. But with a logging history during the heydays of the 1970s and '80s averaging over 300 million board-feet annually, the federal land between Coos Bay and Tillamook earned a reputation as a giant lumber producer.

At the beginning of this century, coastal rivers slicing through Oregon's steep mountains to the Pacific Ocean cradled the richest salmon habitat on the continent. The wet, lush, old-growth forest ecosystem was a genesis of that richness. But after World War II, the coastal mountains in the Siuslaw became tightly focused on tree production.

By 1990, the Siuslaw's timbered flanks were etched with more than 2,600 miles of roads to service 230,000 acres of clear-cuts. The public became alarmed as wildlife species and salmon began disappearing.

In the early 1990s, lawsuits to protect spotted owl habitat forced massive cutbacks in logging. Soon after, research documenting sharp declines in coho salmon and steelhead put even tighter reins on federal trees in the coastal mountains. Today, loggers take about 5 percent of the trees they once did from the public lands west of Corvallis.

Caught in these changing economic and political storms were local timber towns and fishing communities. Overshadowing it all was a burgeoning population in the Willamette Valley with a new awareness of natural systems. These people wanted real forests and wild salmon in the public lands near their homes, not just tree and fish farms.

None of this complexity escapes Furnish, whose reputation for seeing opportunity where others see only obstacles began when he led the Siuslaw through a tumultuous period of staff reduction and budget cuts in the early 1990s.

Furnish hit his stride after huge floods caused massive landslides in Oregon's coastal mountains in 1996. While forest supervisors scrambled for obscurity in the heat of the political battle over public forests, his staff assembled comprehensive research on the detrimental effects of roads and logging on salmon streams.

Today, with the timber money spigot turned off, he's identifying other forest values in addition to timber. And he sees natural areas as key to that equation.

"Naturalness should be one of the core values of national forest management," he says. "We need to protect what naturalness remains and help restore that which has been lost."

A still wild place

Hart's Cove is one of the natural places that remains. Except for the trail, the area is undeveloped. Some of the best views are found only after bushwhacking through chest-high salmonberry and salal brush.

That's just fine with Furnish. He leads the group down to a brushy cliff 300 feet above the protected ocean cove, where the crashing surf mixes with the sounds of barking sea lions. "To me, this is a very special place in the world," he says, as the sea lions surf on the waves below.

A V-formation of pelicans skims the whitecap surf, their white wings cutting the mist like fins in water. A curious peregrine falcon breaks from the cliffs above and hovers in the wet sea wind. Rain sweeps in from the ocean as the group climbs back up the trail. Mary Collins stops to share a laugh with Bellman before they follow the group into the timber.

As for Jim Furnish, he says a few days later that the September weekend proved exhausting - and invaluable.

"I wasn't looking for consensus," he points out, "just everyone's different opinion. We were there to enjoy and celebrate the forest." Furnish says the mixture of people, including two teachers and a forest activist, was yeasty, though always cordial: - 'You better do this again,' they told me."

Scott Stouder writes in Corvallis, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].