An Indispensable Asset

Let’s not sell the Elliott State Forest

How do we assign value to a forest? Is it in board feet of timber? Is it in jobs? Is it in its ability to re-grow trees?

Is it in the size of the trees? Is it in tourism? Is it in waterfalls and boulder runs? Is it in elk and deer to hunt? Is it in salmon to fish? Is it in habitat for ravens, bald eagles, osprey, northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets, belted kingfishers, juncos and chickadees? Is it in foraging for chanterelles, thimbleberries, fiddle heads and stinging nettle?

Is it for peace and sanity, allowing the lungs to breathe in heaps of oxygen while decompressing from boxed-in life? Is it in its ability to sequester hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year? Is it in offsetting the footprint of human mass-consumption? Is it in summoning clouds with its trees reaching up like tendrils to gather in moisture, even during the warm summer mornings? Is it in its water storage, buffering and filtration? Is it in the filaments of mycelium running as a nervous system connecting the diversity of life and reminding us that intelligence can exist without a brain?

Is it an old-growth fir who has fallen on her side, transforming into a nursery for young and vibrant hemlocks to sprout from her decomposing body, teaching us a universal rule that rebirth follows death? Is it in soil building and nutrient accumulation? Is it in whispering secrets of an elegant universe by providing the window into a microcosm of a perfect system? Is it for funding schools? Or is it in preservation, so that our children can experience the revelation that life is brilliant, complex and woven into the fabric of space and time? Surely the value is some combination of all of the above, and depending on who you are, the forest may in fact be priceless.

Let us step away from the human perspective. Instead, let us define the amount of board feet of timber in a forest as board feet of future soil. By removing the future soil (the trees), the current soil has nothing to hold it in place and washes down mountainside ravines in torrential winter weather.

Often this results in landslides of cascading nutrient-dense mudflows towards the Pacific Ocean. And this cycle of cutting, replanting, and erosion has been repeated up to four times in some areas, each time demonstrating that subsequent iterations of a “forest” can only be a lesser version of its previous self. How many cycles can this persist? Do we wish to find out the hard way, as humans have a propensity to do? 

And while this has made few men very rich, it has also made many men dependent on perpetual and consistent timber cultivation that our soil simply cannot support in the long-term. As environmentalists shoulder much of the blame for the decline in jobs, as well as ire from generational logging families struggling to make ends meet, the truth is that the industry, like many others, has been altered by mechanization and machinery. The human labor necessary to cut and transport a forest has been replaced by specialized machines, in some cases with only a single man able to cut and stack 80 acres of trees in two weeks. 

There have also been more common-sense approaches to federal forests that don’t lay entire hillsides barren and soil exposed to erosion. Despite environmentalism being blamed for disrupting the breakneck pace of cutting forests, these are similar monoculture harvesting techniques that gave rise to the dust bowl. Albeit, our forestry practices are gradual in their change, on an elongated timeline, larger in scale, and slower in its counteraction; which is difficult for humans to comprehend. Nevertheless, our great-grandchildren will likely look upon our shortsightedness with the disdain we have for those whose monumental mistakes seem all too obvious in retrospect.  

Inches of topsoil can take thousands of years to accumulate. The forest tilth was perfected over millions of years and is perpetually building within a healthy forest. Mycorrhizal mycelium penetrates hard stone, breaks down its minerals, and transports nutrients throughout the forest. Deciduous trees and much of the understory have its foliage die off in the fall and winter, creating a yearly compost layer for the forest floor. The trees breathe in carbon from the air and their roots plunge deep into the soil–alive with worms, burrowing insects, and nematodes — accumulating, water, nitrogen and minerals. With these ingredients, the tree then uses the sun’s energy to create sugars via photosynthesis. Extra sugar is dispersed through the mycorrhizal networks to feed the fungus as well as fledgling trees in need of a boost. The biggest and healthiest become known as Mother Trees and they form families of younger relatives with which not only is excess energy distributed, but also information, via chemical signatures transported through these mycorrhizal highways. 

As the Mother Trees near death, they are able to disperse their energy to their kin while eventually returning their body to the forest floor as saprophytic fungi breaks down and transforms the carbon material into the rich humus new trees need to begin their life. And this cyclical system will function into perpetuity as long as the climate is not altered and matter is not removed (hint, hint).

Water is slowed and filtered as it moves through a healthy forest. Fallen trees, thick duff and abundant soil soak in water like a sponge. In heavy winter rains, water must traverse dense layers of healthy forest before it reaches the rivers, and conversely, in the summer water leaches from these dense sponge-like elements, feeding perennial springs and trickling creeks. Healthy forests decrease the turbidity in streams, giving people higher quality drinking water, and creating optimal habitat for salmon spawning.   

Meanwhile, salmon mirror the symmetry of the forest’s cycle: She is born in a forest stream, travels towards the sea, accumulates nutrition in her body from years in the ocean, returns full-sized to her birthplace, lays her eggs and dies; her body donated to hungry critters and eventually back to the forest for one of its consistent and essential inputs of nutrition and matter. 

A regular salmon run is indicative of a healthy functioning forest, and for the native people, a harbinger of vibrant life. In that respect, maintaining a healthy salmon run, and forest was tantamount to survival. Native civilizations thrived with the bounty the forests provided, never taking so much that they disturbed the perpetual cycle. Salmon, food, shelter, tools and clothing were gifted by the forest, and in return the native people were gentle in their impact.

The forest began to change when the values of the white settlers misaligned with the natural value of this particular landscape, one that was as foreign to them as they were to it. For the natives, the preservation of salmon runs and sustainable forest stewardship was intrinsic; something they had been eased into over thousands of years of hunting and gathering. They were a functioning part of the forest whole. But to the newcomers traveling great distances in search of the next great American frontier, the bounty they came upon was a pot of gold at the end of a long rainbow. Humans have a propensity to alter landscapes dramatically without regard to future ramifications. Salmon numbers began decreasing as splash dam dynamite logging and commercial fishing to hold. As this keystone species of forest health dwindled, so did the health of the native tribes. And here’s where our accounting of value first shows its subjective nature.

Native tribes were pried away from their home forests concurrent to the forest being eroded from their lives. A once priceless segment of one group’s identity underwent a valuation by another set of people, and it became clear: in order to turn trees and salmon into money, they needed to strip the human identity from the forest. Dollar signs became the new standard bearer of value instead of the forest itself. The bountiful embrace the forest bestowed upon all its symbiotic inhabitants, was disregarded in favor of mass-capitalization by a new tenant, hopelessly unaware of their (self-)destructive nature. 

The natives were conned into giving up their land-base and food source. They received last chance at the salmon runs after the commercial fisheries and white settlers took their share. All along the coast range, away from their tribal bases of knowledge and identity, the first nations people who had survived disease and violent attacks were corralled into the Siletz and Grand Ronde Reservations where language, tradition and a life of sustainability degenerated into the acquiescence of another man’s paradigm. And as the new white settlers looked down upon their native counterparts as some primitive culture, they also looked down upon the forest, and all its components, as their God-given dominion. 

This story starts to rhyme with other tales where man’s greed, ignorance and apathy turned lush growing regions into deserts, thereby thrusting future generations into hardship and calamity. Following the thread of this exploitative stewardship to today, most of the forests have been converted into tree farms leaving behind a smattering of original growth forests squeezed between the scars of human activity. Salmon runs are sparse and need significant human intervention to simply maintain their numbers. 

Meanwhile the industry spends millions of dollars to create misleading ad campaigns about the nature of their forest stewardship (no, tree farms are not forests). They fund university science and scientists whose findings align with the industry prerogative. They suppress scientific studies that portray negative forestry impacts. They donate big bucks to state and federal campaigns and have a heavy hand in creating favorable industry legislation. 

They have transformed forests into billions of dollars while Oregon’s rural communities remain poor and hungry for work. And the people who gain the most financial benefit continue to disregard that they are operating on stolen land. While none of these men proclaim out loud, “Manifest Destiny!” their actions echo this antiquated and suicidal sentiment. 

And if you don’t think our reign of exploitation around this planet is suicidal, remind yourself of these facts: The last time the Earth’s atmosphere had this much carbon dioxide, the sea level was one hundred feet higher. One hundred fifty species go extinct each day. One hundred million sharks are killed each year by humans. One fifth of the Amazon rain forest is gone. Twenty percent of plant species are threatened with extinction.  

So where do we go from here? First, we must broaden our definition of value to include more than just monetary value. Cultural value, environmental value, habitat value, educational value, sustenance value, tourism value are all factors that get lost when our minds are hyper-focused on revenue. We must find balance with how we take and how much we take. Wood products have a place in society, but cutting 35 year old trees, pulping them, sending the pulp to China, only to have paper products returned to fill shelves at OfficeMax is wholly unnecessary and a product of scraping the bottom of the barrel in order to squeeze every cent out of a diminishing resource. 

We must find wisdom in how the original people of this land revered the forest and integrate that process into a new model of thought. We must be creative in finding ways to generate revenue by using the natural allure of the forest as our neighbors to the south have done with the Redwood forests. We must reconnect and empathize with the forest and treat her with great respect; no longer apathetic to the gashes inflicted on her body. We must visit her, and thank her and revel in her.

The more time one spends in an original forest the wiser one gets. As John Muir came to realize, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” A forest typifies that sentiment. With a healthy and functioning forest, we can educate our children about respect, interconnectedness, sustainability, survival, compassion, synergy, cycles, parasitism, community, sacrifice, health, life, struggle, death and birth. 

What we should not do is take one of Oregon’s most widely cherished forests and sell it off for good to a private company known for the aerial spraying of herbicides, clear-cutting swaths of land and employing one-man cutting operations when applicable. That $220 million will run out much faster than the lessons and benefits a healthy forest will provide into perpetuity. What we should not do is lose sight of how essential the processes of forests are for our communities and for the planet. As salmon are a keystone species for forest health, the forest is a keystone organism for societal and planetary health. As goes the forest, so goes humanity.

I support Governor Kate Brown’s plan to buy out the Common School Fund from the Elliott State Forest using bond money. I support the governor’s plan to responsibly log parts of the forest. And I support her plan for public and tribal ownership. I urge the Cow Creek tribe to back out of a partnership with Lone Rock Timber whose practices convert forests into mono-crop tree farms, bleed soil from our mountains, desecrate the quality of our water, deny their role in climate change, and continue the decimation of salmon. There’s a sad irony within this partnership, but there’s also fault also within the environmentalist community whose message has neglected to include the Native People whom were once eradicated from the forests we so wish to protect. I urge environmental leaders to proactively reach out to tribal leaders and seek an alliance born out of preservation, common ground, and retribution. And I urge Treasurer Read to listen to the people whom put him in office and reverse his shortsighted vote. Save the Elliott State Forest!