Last Chance Adventure

Can you see the forest through the trees? Join a bittersweet trek through an old-growth wilderness in its final days.

The sun was a half-hour shy of the western horizon when I followed an elk into a grove on a mountainside above Lemolo Lake, in southern Oregon's Umpqua National Forest. A few steps from the road, the forest dimmed to a cathedral-like murkiness as the canopy, held aloft by tremendous columns of pine, filtered out the angled sunlight. I picked my way through thickets of rhododendron and scrambled over hurdles of blown-down trees whose trunks and limbs, although long dead, dripped with lush life.

I lost the elk just as I came across a perfect camping spot, a flat shelf at the base of a tremendous Douglas fir. Its crown was lost in the darkness above, but its 7-foot-diameter trunk established it as a grand-elder in a forest of old-timers. At this altitude--about 4,500 feet--a Douglas fir needs at least 500 years to get this big. Of course, the only way to verify its age would be to count its rings; an undertaking that would, in the very near future, become all too feasible.

I had come to this grove, at the headwaters of the North Umpqua River, to document the final days of a doomed old-growth forest. I was directed here by Francis Eatherington of Umpqua Watersheds, an environmental group that had pursued lawsuits, advocacy, and lobbying to save this stand of trees. But now, the final appeals have been exhausted; the logging roads have been built; the perimeters have been surveyed; and the trees have been marked for cutting.

Within weeks or even days (perhaps even as I write these words), the ground will shake as one of the richest--and rarest--forests on Earth falls in an operation foresters call a "regeneration harvest." Realistically, it is a clearcut, with only eight to 12 so-called "legacy trees" left per acre. These survivors will stand alone on a barren, eroding mountainside that will eventually be replanted as a tree farm.

To loggers, the forests of southwest Oregon and northern California are the most productive on the continent, a treasure chest of board-feet, jobs, and building materials for America's ongoing housing boom. To biologists, these forests are among the most biodiverse and wildlife-rich temperate woodlands on Earth. To backpackers, paddlers, hunters, and anglers, this area is a wilderness paradise, a rough landscape of serrated mountains, darkly wooded ridges, and the highest concentration of Wild and Scenic Rivers in the country.

Although the citizens of the United States ostensibly own the federal forests, the USDA Forest Service sold the right to log this mountainside to a company called Roseburg Forest Products. To the buyer and seller, this particular grove is identified as Unit 5 of the Jigsaw Timber Sale. It appears on my Forest Service map along with nearby sales labeled Peanuts, Whitebird, and Pigout, all of which contain precious old growth. Closer to the California border, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has proposed old-growth logging in the 46,000-acre Zane Grey Roadless Area. In the Siskiyou National Forest, where protests halted ancient-forest logging in the early 1980s, crews are now moving into a fragile, formerly roadless swath of forest affected by the 2002 Biscuit Fire, in a "salvage" operation that has become one of the largest logging projects in the history of the Forest Service. In fact, there are now at least 188 pending sales of mature and old-growth trees on federal land in the Pacific Northwest.

But wait a minute: Aren't old-growth logging and clearcuts on federal land a thing of the past? Didn't conservationists camp in trees and lock arms in front of bulldozers in a successful campaign that pressured lawmakers to protect ancient forests? And don't polls show that the majority of Americans--even those in timber-rich states such as Oregon--consider old-growth logging to be socially unacceptable?

In conservation, it is said, there are no permanent victories. The case of the Northwest's old-growth forests is a model of just how tenuous environmental protections can be, and how the changing winds of politics can fetch seeds of destruction to America's remaining wild places. The source of these particular winds can be found by following the money, back to the presidential campaign of 2000. In that election, the timber industry handed over at least $3.4 million in direct contributions (which excludes things like issue advertisements) to the Bush-Cheney campaign and the Republican National Committee.

Environmentalists say that the payback began shortly after incoming president George W. Bush stepped off the inaugural podium on January 20, 2001. On his first day in office, Bush suspended the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a Clinton initiative that had placed about one-third of the national forest system off-limits to virtually all roadbuilding and logging.

Next, the administration began staffing those federal agencies in charge of forest policy with friends of the timber industry. Mark Rey, who spent two decades lobbying for timber interests, was appointed undersecretary for natural resources and environment at the Department of Agriculture. Mark Rutzick, the industry's lead attorney, was appointed senior adviser to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with responsibility for endangered Pacific salmon. Allan Fitzsimmons, a scientist who had once said that the loss of all of the 1,200 species now classified as threatened or endangered "would be a disconcerting loss but would not constitute a crisis," was asked to coordinate the Interior Department's wildfire suppression programs.

With industry insiders in key policymaking positions, the timber industry delivered its wish list of proposals to increase the cut dramatically via a combination of low-profile regulatory revisions and secretive litigation settlements. The first target was the Northwest Forest Plan, a legal framework that governs the management of 24 million acres of public land in Washington, Oregon, and northern California. Derisively labeled the "Clinton Forest Plan" by the logging industry, the 1994 plan had shifted forest-policy objectives away from pure timber production toward a scientifically based ecosystem approach. As a result of the focus on habitat protection, logging harvests on federal lands dropped by nearly 80 percent in the late 1990s.

Documents released in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the public-interest law firm Earthjustice show that timber industry lobbyists and administration officials corresponded and met in person to work out a series of "fixes" to the plan that would enable the industry to expand production. In January of 2004, seemingly ignoring water quality, wildlife, and fisheries issues, the administration announced an overhaul of the Aquatic Conservation Strategy and eliminated so-called "Survey and Manage" provisions--two sets of guidelines that often served as the basis of environmentalists' lawsuits. Loggers no longer needed to avoid locations that harbored rare plants and animals, or to comply with existing water-quality standards.

After the 2004 election, the Bush administration continued to dismantle the web of forest protections it had inherited from previous administrations. In December of 2004, a rewritten National Forest Management Act was implemented. The new regulations mirrored industry recommendations, eliminating many environmental reviews and restricting public participation. A so-called Healthy Forests Initiative--a name loaded with as much unintended irony as the Clear Skies Initiative--allowed for increased backcountry logging, far from homes, under the guise of protecting communities from forest fires.

Thus far, logging output on federal lands in Oregon has risen by 32 percent from 2000 to 2004, with about 80 percent of that increase coming from forests at least 80 years old.

"But the cumulative effects of these administrative changes are only now starting to gain momentum," says Rolf Sklar of the Siskiyou Wild Rivers Campaign. "When they take hold, we will see a dramatic rise in logging on federal land."

If some members of Congress have their way, the outlook for forests and wildlife may get even more bleak. This fall, a coalition of 30 U.S. representatives are setting their sights on the Endangered Species Act, the landmark statute that helped save species such as the manatee, the bald eagle, and the Florida panther. Introduced by Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-CA), a replacement law would make it easier for developers to exempt property from critical habitat designation, and would add more weight to economic considerations.

To get a sense of what was to become of my old-growth campsite, I visited a recent regeneration harvest on BLM land with Lesley Adams of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, photographer Andrew Geiger, and photo assistant Jonah Sutherland. To get there, we drove along a logging road that tunneled through thick forest. Suddenly, we rounded a corner and the trees fell away, revealing a panorama of checkerboard mountainsides. As far as we could see, patches of dark-green forest alternated with parcels of stubbly brown mange.

Up close, the stubble was actually just stumps, some as big as 7 feet in diameter. Among the stumps in the intense sunlight, invasive plants had already taken root in the disturbed ground rutted by the steel tracks of bulldozers and skidders and the forces of erosion.

Birds and other noisemaking creatures were absent, leaving only the sound of the wind scratching at the remains of the fallen forest. We picked our way silently across the brown mountainside, stepping over the limbs of dead trees lying in the ashes of burned-off slash.

"I feel like I'm walking through a war zone," Sutherland told me in a low voice, as if the ghosts of those trees might be disturbed by normal conversation. I, too, was startled by the intensity of feelings this place evoked. The desolation reminded me, more than anything, of massacre sites I had visited in Rwanda. But here it was the landscape itself that had been cut down, dismembered, slashed, and burned.

True to BLM regulations, six or seven legacy trees had been left standing on each acre. Many of these survivors were severely damaged, their low bark stripped away by skidders, cables, and other machinery that had enabled a crew of a half-dozen workers to dismantle the living surface of this hillside in a matter of days.

According to a Forest Service employee (who asked not to be named), legacy trees are more susceptible to disease and blowdown, since they lack sheltering forest around them. "Leaving them there is an insult," he said. "Everyone knows the only reason we do it is so we can say we don't clearcut."

My visit to this clearcut--pardon me, regeneration harvest--might have been less disturbing if I hadn't personally financed it. As is the case with almost all timber sales on BLM or national forest land, these trees were sold for less than what the agency spent to prepare the sale. The watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense reports that more than $1 billion in public funds per year subsidizes private logging companies that harvest federal forests. The Umpqua National Forest is among the top 10 money losers, but in 105 of 111 national forests, revenue from timber sales falls short of the costs of administration and roadbuilding, and other outlays.

Not included in these statistics are the costs of damage to fisheries, lost recreation opportunities, and the incalculable loss in value of fresh air, wildlife, and aesthetics. Annually, timber production adds roughly $4 billion per year to the U.S. economy, while recreation, fish and wildlife, and water catchment on federal lands provide a total of $224 billion. According to the Forest Service's own data, recreation in national forests accounts for more than 30 times the amount of revenue and jobs created by timber sales.

About the best thing one can say about regeneration logging on federal land is that it's not as bad as it would be if there were no rules at all. On nearby lands that are privately owned by logging companies, there are no legacy trees and no buffer zones; the entire biological community is bulldozed right down to the streams. The accelerated erosion in the aftermath of these logging projects feeds tons of fine sediment into rivers, smothering trout and salmon eggs.

Walking among the wreckage of the forest, I was hit with a gulping sense of frustration and impotence, as well as a curiously personal sense of failure. What happened here? Were the forces of greed that enabled this destruction so much more clever, so much more powerful, so much better connected than those who fought to stop it?

Conservationists like Adams and Eatherington are committed, hardworking, and earnest. But there is no denying that in the past 5 years they and the rest of the environmental community have been outgunned and outflanked by the extractive industries. In the absence of fresh strategies--and the right people in the right places--many conservationists are still playing the same cards in a game that has changed dramatically since the 1990s.

A case in point is the Northwest Old-Growth Campaign's Web site, where an "action alert" urges citizens to contact U.S. environmental-policy advisor James Connaughton to demand that the administration halt old-growth cutting. Connaughton, you may recall, is the former oil and coal lobbyist who helped delete references to global warming in Environmental Protection Agency reports. He's also the guy who directed the EPA to rewrite press releases about Ground Zero air quality to "add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones."

The campaign's Web site contends that "Your action makes a BIG difference!" Sure. When 221 scientists wrote the administration calling for a halt to commercial logging in national forests, they were ignored. When nearly 4 million citizens wrote in support of the Roadless Rule (the most public comments ever received on any issue in U.S. history), the rule was deleted anyway. But if I write to Jim and tell him how pissed off I am about this mountain, he'll surely get right on it.

"One of the penalties of an ecological education," Aldo Leopold noted, "is that one lives alone in a world of wounds." On the other hand, Henry David Thoreau maintained that "he who hears the rippling of rivers in these degenerate days will not utterly despair."

Two days before I made my camp in the Umpqua National Forest, I found myself 60 miles to the southwest, slip-sliding down a hillside toward the east fork of Kelsey Creek, with Adams and her coworker, Joseph Vaile. Part of the Rogue River watershed, Kelsey Creek is located in the Zane Grey Roadless Area, a 46,000-acre forest that is one of the most biologically diverse intact forest ecosystems in America.

This area goes by many names: the Klamath-Siskiyou ecoregion, the Klamath Knot, the State of Jefferson (after a local secession movement popularized in 1941), and, of course, Bigfoot Country. Zane Grey, who erected a still-standing cabin along the Rogue, called it "a mountain stronghold such as I had never before looked into...the ragged country of sharp peaks, black timbered ridges, green range on range, blue canyons, staggered me with its wildness and vastness."

As we descended deeper into the notch cut by the creek, though, the sensation was one of intimacy rather than immensity. We walked through silent galleries of giant conifers--there are more varieties here than anywhere on Earth--marveling at the array of green, beige, purple, and magenta bark, much of which was covered by fuzzy pale-green lichen drooping from trees like tufts of Santa's beard.

Until the 1970s, forestry instructors described old-growth areas like this as "wastelands," due to the messy understory and abundance of dead snags. Now, biologists know that these forests are among our most biologically rich environments, essential habitats for a host of threatened species, including the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet. For these and many other animals, the Klamath-Siskiyou region is a key migration corridor, its east-west mountain chain connecting the Cascades and the Coastal Range.

This area has been discussed as a designated wilderness area, a national monument, even a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. But the BLM, which administers it, has other plans; the agency recently proposed that the ancient, roadless forest on both sides of the river be logged. North of the river, trees have already been marked for cutting in the Kelsey Whisky timber sale, which includes 513 acres of old-growth.

Oregon is the only state in which the BLM manages forest lands, due to a complex history of unscrupulous 19th-century land deals involving railroads, timber companies, and an eventual seizure by the federal government.

"Despite all the complaining we do about the Forest Service," said Vaile, "they look almost green compared to the BLM, which goes after old-growth and roadless areas as if their lives depended on it." A serious 30-year-old, Vaile had worked as a wildlife surveyor at the BLM's Medford office until 1998, when he became disillusioned. "There were so many times when I knew that I would be the last person to walk through an ancient grove."

Flushing a grouse, we scrambled over a large hemlock trunk and reached the creek, then sat down on boulders strewn around a cool, misty clearing. Next to us, the stream tumbled down over mossy rocks, generating an air-conditioned microclimate of ferns and climbing vines. On the forest floor, the deep greens were speckled with Solomon's seal, yellow iris, and bright red saprophytes, which sprouted from the ground as if Dr. Seuss himself had thought them up.

"The sound of this creek is like a shiatsu treatment," Adams said. She leaned back against a mossy rock and closed her eyes. A few seconds later, she opened them. "I'd say we have a 50-50 chance to save it," she said. A coalition of environmental groups is gearing up for a hard fight, but because of the government's recent "settlement" of a timber-industry lawsuit that had had little chance of success, the environmental community has lost much of its legal footing.

Adams, 28, is upbeat and seemingly unflappable, a Californian who stopped in southern Oregon on her way back home from Seattle, and never left. She says she's an advocate for direct actions such as a temporary "forest rescue station" that Greenpeace set up earlier this year, to call attention to the Kelsey Whisky sale.

In the early 1980s, this region was the birthplace of the ancient-forest protection movement. After conventional advocacy tactics failed to halt old-growth logging in the Siskiyou National Forest, environmentalists turned to nonviolent civil disobedience. The tree-sits and roadblocks sparked campaigns throughout the area and elsewhere, capturing media attention and turning public opinion against old-growth logging. Now, as legal remedies and other traditional tactics are frustrated, there are indications that direct action may reemerge as a primary tactic. "We've already had 60 arrests at the Biscuit [timber sale]," said Adams, "including one 72-year-old woman who parked her lawn chair on a bridge to defend the forest."

Downstream, Kelsey Creek spills into the Rogue, a famously scenic river that bisects the Zane Grey Roadless Area. On the previous day, Adams and I had walked part of the 40-mile Rogue River National Recreation Trail, which zigzags along the boulder-strewn riverbank. More than 25,000 people either walk or raft here each year, infusing some $13 million into the local economy while getting a glimpse of what is perhaps the largest concentration of unspoiled, unfragmented land on the West Coast. After a short hike downriver from Grave Creek, we stopped at Rainy Falls to watch the salmon jump. The Rogue is one of the last self-sustaining salmon rivers on the continent; near here, an angler landed the world-record fly-caught chinook.

Logging anywhere within the Rogue watershed will certainly affect its fisheries, but because the Rogue was designated a Wild and Scenic River, the BLM must leave an unlogged "beauty strip" along the main stem of the river, even if it liquidates the surrounding forests.

"It's a grand public deception," said Adams. "And it will probably work. Even now, whenever I tell rafters about the logging project, the first question they ask is, 'Will I be able to see it from the river?'"

Rafting and kayaking have become so popular on the Lower Rogue that the BLM had to institute a lottery to issue permits from among some 6,000 applications per year. Sure enough, we saw our first raft before we saw our first jumping fish. The group of six pulled over to scout the falls and, in a pattern that would repeat itself several times, I asked one of the rafters if he had heard about the proposed logging project, just over the ridgeline.

"You're kidding me," he said. "I didn't think they could still cut old-growth." He squinted at the mountains, in the direction of the impending cut. "You won't be able to see it from the river, will you?"

There is, of course, another side to all of this, which any logger is glad to share. Timber, they say, is a renewable resource that brings jobs to the area and wood to the nation.

Chris West of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber-industry advocacy group, denies that old-growth harvesting is on the rise, except in the service of fire salvage and fire suppression. (Under the recent federal changes, logging in forests of just about any age or composition could fall into these categories.)

"We can't continue to just say 'not in my backyard,'" says West. "If we are not going to manage our forests, where will we get the wood? As a result of the way the environmental community continues to play the game, 40 percent of our domestic consumption of wood products is coming from foreign soils. Is that good environmental responsibility?"

The implication in West's statement is that, as consumers, we are all part of the problem. I, for one, certainly am. I live in a wood-frame house, and I recently bought enough western red cedar to build a backyard shed. Each year I consume mounds of newspapers, magazines, firewood, Post-it Notes, and toothpicks. As long as I keep buying wood products, someone is going to keep chopping trees down.

But within the polarities of the debate about timber management there's plenty of middle ground. For instance, I have yet to find a conservationist who wants to ban logging outright. And I've spoken to only one logging advocate who believes every tree should be fair prey for his chain saw.

Jack E. Williams is a former Siskiyou National Forest supervisor who is now a senior scientist with Trout Unlimited. "When I was a forest supervisor," Williams says, "I signed quite a few timber sales that I thought were very good. Those are tree harvests that weren't harvesting really large trees or going into roadless areas. Some things they're doing now seem almost designed to generate controversy."

Polls show that about 70 percent of Americans (even in timber-dependent areas) are against old-growth logging, and do-it-yourself retailers are phasing out old-growth wood due to public pressure. KB Home, one of the country's largest homebuilding companies, sent a letter to the Forest Service saying that the homebuilding industry does not need lumber from roadless areas. Meanwhile, there is a tremendous backlog of existing second-growth stands on public lands that needs to be thinned to improve fire safety and forest health.

Considering the opposition to old-growth cutting and all the alternatives, why not focus on uncontroversial, environmentally sensitive logging and leave the old growth alone?

West, the timber industry advocate, dismisses the notion. "There's always going to be controversy. For a portion of the environmental community, the only way they can justify their fundraising is to create a controversy."

Many in that community believe the industry's real agenda is to maximize the conversion of federal old-growth reserves into tree plantations. "That way," maintains the Wilderness Society's Bob Freimark, "the land can never be designated wilderness or roadless. When you convert an unmanaged forest into a managed forest, you can harvest it again and again."

Freimark says he had been "doing penance for the last 19 years for my former job with the Forest Service, when I was basically paid to help the loggers chop down the forest as fast as they could."

Rex Holloway is still on the federal payroll, as spokesperson for the Forest Service's Western Pacific Northwest region. During the course of a long conversation, Holloway defends the agency's logging policy with carefully worded precision. The Aquatic Conservation Strategy wasn't "dumped"; it was "amended." Watershed analyses are still being done, but on a "broader scale." The species formerly protected by Survey and Manage provisions have been "moved over to other programs." Cutting in old-growth forests actually "improves them," by reducing fuels and "providing diversity."

Adams and Vaile had told me that environmentalists often have some sympathy for Forest Service employees. "Usually," said Adams, "they're good people who are carrying out bad policy. If they had different bosses, they wouldn't be doing what they're doing."

Indeed, as I listen to Holloway, I sense a certain weary cynicism in his voice. A Forest Service veteran of 28 years, he has watched the political weathervane circle around several times. Does he ever find himself at odds with policies that come down from the top?

"I got over that a long time ago," he says. "We are directed by the executive branch, and funded by Congress. We have a whole lot of landowners out there, and they all have different ideas of how things should be managed. There are a lot of people who might be appalled by what's happening, but apparently it's not important enough that they go out and elect officials that have a certain bent. That's the way our form of government works. If this was a big enough and important enough issue, we would have elected officials that would change policy. But apparently, it's not."

On my way up to the Jigsaw campsite, I stopped at the Lemolo Lake Resort, which Scott Lamb purchased 3 years ago. A storm had just swept through, and as Lamb and I watched a double rainbow arc over the lake, he told me that the Forest Service had recently sent him notice that it is planning to log a section of forest on Bunker Hill, just across the lake. Lamb said he supports the project. "It might affect the view, but it would look far worse if it burned," he said. "I just can't see how any kind of logging around here causes any problems. But I can see how all the uproar about logging is causing all kinds of problems. For one thing, I've got to pay $14 for a sheet of plywood, because of all the money they have to spend on lawsuits." (Industry analysts say lawsuits raise the cost of wood to some degree, but that prices are largely driven by supply and demand.) "The environmentalists," said Lamb, "will tell you that the old growth is almost all gone. But there's still plenty of forest out there."

It sure seemed that way when British explorer David Douglas landed in Oregon in the 1820s, and walked through what he described as "the greatest forests on Earth." For 8,000 years before his arrival, a vast cloak of virgin woodland had blanketed the Pacific Northwest. It took less than two centuries for 80 percent of those forests to be cleared or paved over. And now, nearly all that is left is concentrated on federal lands, a reserve of ancient heirlooms that will either be passed down to the next generation, or sold into oblivion by ours.

The conifer that was eventually named after Douglas is the continent's second largest tree, and its primary source of raw lumber. The specimen under which I pitched my tent would have stood in this spot when the explorer arrived. In fact, it was probably a seedling when Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to reach India. It might have been a juvenile when Cortés defeated the Aztecs; entered middle age when Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag. It had become a parent and a grandparent many times over by the time settlers arrived at this forest's threshold and began cutting down the easy-to-reach trees near the coast.

Given more time in its mountain stronghold, this tree would get even taller and fatter. But that is not going to happen. What took 500 years to grow will take about 20 minutes to bring down. Then, its limbs will be cut off, and its trunk will be sawed into transportable pieces and trucked away. The animals who made their home in and near it will scatter, some in time to escape the fires that loggers will set once the green chlorophyll has drained from the slash. And when the last of the logging trucks has pulled away, what we Americans will be left with is a vastly depreciated asset.

The sunset brought darkness quickly to the forest, but I stayed outside the tent, reluctant to go inside as one might be reluctant to leave the side of a friend on the verge of his last breath. Standing in the small clearing, I turned around slowly, surveying the stalactites of dim light that hung down between the tree trunks, detaching myself from the forest's fate. I stood there silently to take in the moment, a moment in which this forest, my forest, was not doomed, but intact and timeless. This, I told myself, is how I will remember it.

Finally, I went inside the tent. As I zipped into my sleeping bag, I was jolted nearly out of my skin by the metal-on-metal screech of a cougar, somewhere on the mountain above me. The cougar snarled twice more as it moved through the forest, traversing the slope from west to east. Its voice was the last thing I remembered hearing until morning, when I was awakened by another sound, fainter but no less jarring. It was the sound, distant but wholly unmistakable, of a chain saw.