VEXATION OF THE SPIRIT
Politics and Precipitation in the Coast Range
STORY & PHOTOS BY JAMES JOHNSTON
I grew up in the Coast Range, and I rarely go back. I have written 61 outdoor columns for Eugene Weekly since 2002, featuring hikes from all over the state. Just two of those hikes were located in the Coast Range.
The Oregon Coast Range is the most heavily logged ecosystem in the world. Logging is the only thing that has ever paid. The soils are too thin for farming. There is no mineral wealth. The terrain is ridiculously rugged, too steep for decent roads to bring raw materials to industry and deliver finished products to market.
Millions of people have driven from their homes in the Willamette Valley to the coast, barely noticing the Coast Range. The highways aim for the low bumps between mountains and wind down the big river valleys. You cannot go anywhere else in the Coast Range without tremendous effort, without negotiating miles and miles of gravel logging roads, hundreds of hairpin turns. James Kim is just the most recent tenderfoot to enter the maze and not return.
The state of Oregon spends millions trying to keep the highways open, but the terrain frequently gets the better of technology. Highway 101 was closed for three months in 2000 by a slide that transportation officials said could not be moved until the rains let up.
The fate of the Coast Range is sealed by location: Halfway between the North Pole and the equator and right next to the Pacific Ocean, which sends rain clouds in huge numbers ashore each winter. The moist, temperate climate has birthed the world’s greatest forest, home to the oldest, largest trees on Earth, with more biomass per acre than any other terrestrial ecosystem.
The first trees felled were shipped to the gold fields of California to shore up mine shafts. The massive Sitka spruce that hugged the foggy coastline were made into thousands of fighter planes for the first big war.
After the second big war, the Coast Range was the breadbasket of the baby boomer building binge. In its heyday, the Coast Range supplied almost a quarter of all the dimension lumber consumed in the entire United States.
When I was a kid, we fed chicken guts to a small brown owl in the evening underneath the towering trees up the hill from our house. One adult called it a “wood owl.” Another called it a “pootie owl.” The final, definitive, opinion was “spotted owl.”
I was fascinated by the utterly alien features of the bird, the enormous, chocolate eyes, delicate plumage, turret head and vicious looking talons that whisked the slimy guts out of my hands without touching me, soundlessly.
I’ve heard people say that the northern spotted owl has been acclimated to humans by hordes of biologists bearing lab mice as bait. It isn’t true. That owl was completely unafraid of humans long before it got famous. No one ever goes to the Coast Range forest. In millions of years of evolution, the owl has never needed to fear humans because we’ve never lived in the lightless, rain-drenched, impenetrable jungle it calls home.
My parents still live in the same house, but there are no spotted owls anywhere within 20 miles. Every single bit of old growth has been converted to forestry’s version of the cornfield, the ubiquitous Coast Range tree farm.
Just about every thing I remember about the Coast Range is gone. Not a single forest I remember, not one, is still standing. The steelhead pooled up above Siletz Falls are gone. Every single thing in that valley is gone. Even the town that was there is gone.
Here’s the story of Valzetz, the boomtown of the Coast Range: It set records for rain (50 inches in one month) and for logging (all of it). The land beneath the town, the town itself, and all the land everywhere around belonged to Boise Cascade. When Boise was done with the timber, it was done with the town. Everyone had a month to get out, and then the school, the post office, the stores and everyone’s home got just like the slash after a big logging show: Bulldozed, piled and burned.
Many of my childhood friends were refugees from Valsetz. Drug abuse, domestic violence, poverty, unemployment: That’s why we’ve got to log the Coast Range, the timber industry tells us. To fund social services.
The timber industry isn’t going to solve the problem. They caused the problem, long before anyone had ever heard of the spotted owl.
Boise didn’t burn out the town from sheer heartlessness. No, the town had to go because Boise needed to bury a bunch of industrial waste left over from the mill and didn’t want people around drinking the water.
The old town site, there’s your first stop on the Coast Range tour. Just head west out of Falls City (30 miles west of Salem). There’s only one road. Drive it for an hour or so, if you dare. You’ll know you’re there, if you’re not swallowed by the maze, by big signs that read:
WARNING: THIS AREAIS HAZARDOUS. OLD VALSETZ LAKE BED CONTAINS HIDDEN VOIDS, UNSTABLE SOILS AND
UNDERGROUND SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION FIRES
I used to camp out on Phanno Ridge, off to the east. On hot summer days, sure enough, there’d be a dull BANG! and a white flash down in the valley. Acetylene or propane or something even worse left over the mill, dumped in a shallow grave, igniting in the heat. Everything else is gone.
The rain still comes in the winter. The rain and the logging are the gift that keeps on giving in the Coast Range. In 1996, in Douglas County, four people were killed when a landslide roaring off an 80 percent slope that had been stripped of trees struck their house. Witnesses said the sound of the mudflow striking the house was like a bomb going off. In Myrtle Creek a clear cut gave way and swallowed five homes. On Highway 38 a debris avalanche struck three motorists, killing one of them. When the driver of a tractor-trailer swerved to avoid a slide he knocked a car with a mother and her two children inside into a river turned brown from sediment, where they drowned.
Where’d all the trees from the Siletz Valley get to? Maybe the next stop of this tour should be the suburbs of Tokyo. Check out the wood in the new homes: Tight grained fir from the Oregon Coast Range. Curtis LeMay’s B-29s leveled every city in the country, and the Japanese didn’t rebuild with local materials. The fourth Tokugawa Shogun (not exactly the East Coast liberal politician type) banned logging on Japan’s steep coastal mountains in 1666 — because landslides were burying too many of the peasants.
I once took the ferry across Japan’s Yokohama Bay, one of the world’s great harbors. This was in 1988, the highwater mark of Coast Range logging. A field of 7-foot thick Douglas firs a mile wide and 5 miles long bobbed gently in the still water. I don’t know how much money changed hands to send an entire forest across the Pacific, but it had to be a lot, and not a dime of it stuck to the town I grew up in.
My favorite old-growth stump in the Coast Range is about 8 miles east of Alsea. I watched a broken down old feller named Freddy saw through that tree with an 8-foot long chainsaw under the watchful eyes of a pair of Shinto monks in 1992. The tree was to replace a 2,000-year old beam in a shrine south of Tokyo. After Freddy dropped the tree, the oldest of the monks placed his forehead against the giant trunk for 15 minutes, humming softly. A light rain began to fall. Freddy put in a chaw and said “Well, I guess that’s the last fuckin’ one of them!”
Do you hear me? No one goes to the Coast Range. The hiking trails are few and far between. Drive to the coast. Drive to Florence and buy some saltwater taffy. What would happen to you if you stopped at the top of the pass on the way there and tried and tried to hike somewhere? It is nothing but clearcuts on impossibly steep slopes as far as the eye can see. I have hiked those clearcuts, but not for fun. First I was planting trees for International Paper, then doing stocking surveys for Roseburg Forest Products after IP sold out. Me and a couple of rotten-toothed powder cases from Mapleton, making “Baaa-aaa!” noises at one another as we humped up the slopes (because we were mountain goats).
That’s the people I grew up with. They kind of remind me a lot of landscape itself: Mostly unseen and extravagantly damaged. They aren’t stupid; it’s just that they only get to choose from a pack of lies what they’re going to believe in. There are no friends, family, newspaper reporters or politicians who have ever offered up any truth.
Conflict is the norm for the Coast Range. A valley near where I grew up is named Socialist Valley after a radical IWW agitator who was murdered for trying to organize in the logging camps. It’s as good a place to get shot at because of your politics now as it was then.
I’ve been involved in the Coast Range timber wars since before I could vote. I’m from the Coast Range. I’ve hiked the forest with congressional staff, reporters and foresters, too. The conservation group I founded, the Cascadia Wildlands Project, proposed a plan to triple logging in the Coast Range by thinning the second growth forest that are pretty much all that’s left instead of logging the last of the old growth. That proposal would probably be law today if it weren’t for the Bush administration.
The Bush administration’s lovely parting gift to Oregon, the just released Western Oregon Plan Revision (WOPR), opens up the old-growth forests set aside for spotted owls in the Coast Range for logging — the few, scattered islands of old growth awash in a sea of clearcuts. The plan, says Curry County Commissioner Georgia Nowlin, “meets all requirements of the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.”
Jim Frick, chairman of the Southern Oregon Resource Alliance, one of a dozen or so “grassroots groups” (with no members and funded exclusively by timber dollars) that’s sprouted up to push the WOPR, says, “The Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act were put into the equation.”
These folks are reading from a small card handed to them by the timber industry hatchet men. They may believe their lines, for all I know.
The plan isn’t legal, and it wasn’t intended to be legal. Spotted owl populations continue to decline, the owl’s habitat continues to decline and logging more of their habitat will lead populations to decline still further. Duh.
This from the Associated Press: “The Bush administration’s plans for saving the northern spotted owl from extinction have flunked a peer review by scientists. Under a contract with the administration, the Society for Conservation Biology and the American Ornithologists’ Union said the government did not consider all the best available science, a requirement of the Endangered Species Act, before making room for more logging in old-growth forests.”
Court injunctions against logging spotted owl habitat are so predictable, the papers can explain the legal arguments before the lawsuits even get filed.
I know the timber wars inside and and out. Mostly, though, I know the Coast Range. A “vexation of the spirit,” that’s what Ken Kesey said about it. Sometimes I think the place is a wound that’s got no hope of healing.
The Bush plan may actually lead to some more old-growth logging, just enough to kill a few more spotted owls but not enough to bring a bit more prosperity to the people living there. I know the Coast Range. The WOPR was meant to fail, to whip the yahoo base of the Republican Party in this state into a frenzy just in time for ’08. To bleed Barack a little bit, to remind Rudy who he works for.
Your last stop on the Coast Range tour is an upscale restaurant on K-Street in Washington, D.C., where a guy in a suit quietly pushes a check across the table. Sound too cynical? Another guy in a suit smiles and lifts it off the table, soundlessly. The conversation turns to something else. Welcome to the Coast Range.
The WOPR is open to public comment until November (at www.blm.gov/or/plans/wopr/).It’ll be raining by then.