On the Road to 50: Stitching the Northwest back together

The past, present and future of the West, and HCN’s coverage of the region.


“On the Road to 50” is an ongoing series of the publisher's notes to our readers, as he travels the region and plans for our 50th anniversary – through community gatherings, individual meetings, and other listening sessions.

On a cloudy morning in early May, I hopped out of Paul Engelmeyer’s pickup and into the middle of a logging project on Oregon’s Siuslaw National Forest. I was on another leg of High Country News’ “On the Road to 50” tour of the West, which aims to learn about our readers’ concerns as this organization hits the half-century mark.

Ecosystem advocate Paul Engelmeyer makes his point in front of a massive red alder tree on Oregon’s Siuslaw National Forest.
Paul Larmer/ High Country News

For Engelmeyer, this thinning project ranked high. Compared to the Weyerhaeuser clear-cuts we’d just driven through, it looked pretty good: Above piles of slash, a smattering of youngish Douglas fir still stood. The trees remain because of the Northwest Forest Plan, inked by President Bill Clinton in 1994 after a nasty legal battle over the declining northern spotted owl. Guided by the owl’s occupied habitat, it preserved the last old-growth forests on public lands in Northern California, Oregon and Washington. High Country News cut its teeth on the Northwest with that story, hiring our first field editor, Pat Ford, to do a special issue. We have covered this region ever since.

Engelmeyer, who came to Oregon in the 1970s to plant trees behind clear-cuts, told me that the plan allows young stands like this to be thinned, letting them mature into more old-growth forest. It’s a solid long-term strategy, but given the surge in private-land cutting in coastal forests, Engelmeyer believes it’s not happening fast enough, especially for imperiled species. “The Northwest Forest Plan is the best landscape plan ever written on the planet,” says Engelmeyer, who chairs the Mid-Coast Watershed Council, a nonprofit focused on habitat restoration. “But is it enough? No. We know a lot more today than we did then.”

We know more about the marbled murrelet, for one, a robin-sized seabird that can swim 200 feet underwater after small fish. Females lay a single egg every other year, preferably on the thick horizontal branch of a tree more than 200 years old. The bird was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1992, and since then, it has continued to decline. Perhaps 15,000 live in the entire Pacific Northwest, Oregon State University researcher Kim Nelson told us. New studies point to a more nuanced threat: The blackberries and other broad-leafed plants that spring up in heavily thinned forests are attracting blue jays, crows and other corvids, which in turn dine on murrelet eggs and young birds. Predation rates can reach 70%.

The threatened marbled murrelet nests in old-growth trees up to 50 miles inland from its ocean feeding grounds.
Kim Nelson/Oregon State University

Engelmeyer wants the Forest Service to leave more trees standing after the harvest to reduce shrubby growth and predation; corvids avoid deep forests and the other predators — including owls — that lurk there. But ratcheting down harvesting levels is not in the interests of the still-powerful timber industry, which has resisted efforts to increase the size of no-cut zones along streams and regulate aerial herbicide spraying — a story HCN broke in 2014.

As we wound our way down dirt roads toward the coast, moss-covered Sitka spruce and western cedar towered above us. Gnarly red alder lined Beaver Creek, and Engelmeyer pointed out where the Forest Service has placed large logs into the creekbed to create more nooks and crannies for coho salmon. Hundreds of thousands once swam up this drainage to spawn, but now just a tenth of that make it. They are stymied by a multitude of obstacles, including erosion from timber harvesting that silts up the gravels where they lay eggs, clogged culverts that block their passage, tree-less pastures where water temperatures get dangerously high, and changing ocean conditions.

Engelmeyer’s Mid-Coast Watershed Council is one of 80 that have sprung up in the state in response. We passed private properties where the council has planted trees to shade the creek, and, just shy of Ona Beach, we stopped at Brian Booth State Park, a 364-acre tract of recovering forest and wetlands cobbled together from private landowners. We didn’t see any murrelets, but at the visitor center a pileated woodpecker swooped out of a spruce, blaring its staccato call.

Later, at the overlook at Cape Perpetua, we discussed the connections between forest and ocean over the din of crashing surf. It all starts with the California Current, which flows south along the continent from Alaska to California. Summer winds from the north nudge waters away from shore, allowing the current’s cold nutrient-rich waters to surface. In the presence of sunlight, they catalyze massive blooms of phytoplankton, which form the base of a food-web smorgasbord that feeds everything from sardines and rockfish to whales and salmon. “It’s like adding Miracle-Gro,” Francis Chan, an ocean scientist at Oregon State University, told me the day before. The cold water also creates the fog that blankets the forests with critical moisture during dry summer months.

And then, of course, there are species like murrelets and salmon that need both terrestrial and aquatic habitat to survive. Engelmeyer and I ended our day at the Salmon River just north of Lincoln City, where the Forest Service is restoring an entire estuary. Manager Kami Ellingson described how the agency had removed the tide gates and levees built to dry out the landscape for grazing and development. Today, she said, young salmon smolts are using the expanding tidal waters to fatten up before they head to the ocean.

As we left, Engelmeyer sounded undaunted, still eager about all the work ahead. “We have a long way to go, but it’s working,” he said. “We’re stitching back together a whole ecosystem.”  

Paul Larmer is executive director/publisher of High Country News.


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