Along Oregon’s southern coast is a massive 130-square mile chunk of land that is basically unknown to the larger public. The area is known as the Elliot State Forest Lands, or “Elliott” for short. It is located near Reedsport. I wanted to know more about this place so I joined a group of curious folks for a weekend visit. What I found is a land that is ground zero for contentious issues surrounding aerial spraying, clearcutting, and conservation efforts.
Our group camped at a BLM campground on the northern shore of Loon Lake (shown with the red dot). The lake is 7 miles south of Hwy 38. We made day trips into the Elliott.
This Google map shows the 1.5-mile long Loon Lake (the campground location is also displayed with a red dot) and the general region where we explored. The patches of dark green, light green, and tan shades are sections of forests, tree plantations and clearcuts.
To visit, it’s helpful to have a local navigate the spaghetti works of logging roads, accessible parcels, and trails that crisscross the region. Our guides were from the Coast Range Forest Watch, a grassroots group concerned about the health of forests and watersheds in the Pacific Northwest.
We made a caravan into the forest on the Elliott’s extensive and well-maintained system of roads; we drove over ridges, into valleys, through deep forests, and along barren mountainsides.
After a 45-minute drive we parked near a creek and unpacked ourselves from our cars. I was stunned by the crispness of the air in the forest. Looking up, the trees were long and straight – up to 180-feet tall – like giant infantry pikes lancing the sky.
We visited a Grandmother Tree, an immense giant with a width at breast height of 7-feet. The tree was well over 200-feet tall! The naturalist in the group thought it was between 300-400 years old. Seen another way, this tree is 15-20 human generations old!
Around the Grandmother tree the air was moist, the ground spongy, and the forest floor vibrant with moss and plants. There were signs of elk and bear scat nearby. The temperature was a cool 65 degrees. Sadly though, even this far into the woods, there were signs of discarded beer cans hidden in the bushes.
We visited a large clearcut that had been harvested about 5-6 years earlier. Here the open mountainside was dry, the temperature was in the low-80’s and the ground was hard. It was not a pleasant place.
Here is a panoramic view of the clearcut, Robin from Cascadia Wildlands is shown.
The Elliott is being turned into a giant patchwork of tree plantations, where sections of forest are clearcut, replanted, and then harvested again roughly 40 years later. After a harvest the forest industry wants to protect desired tree species and prevent other species from growing. To do this a toxic cocktail of insecticides and herbicides are sprayed. This happens generally with a helicopter. The mixture is so potent that often only several applications are needed. Current state law states that a 60-foot buffer be maintained, but the law is vague and spraying has been attributed to water quality issues downstream, degradation of salmon habitat, and human health issues.
The left photo shows the composition of the forest floor near the old growth Grandmother Tree; while the right shows the composition of the ground in a clearcut.
Sometime we had to bushwhack and cross ravines.
I was glad to return to Loon Lake where the air was cool, moist, and the forest was vibrant. Also, there was lots of food! The image shows part of our campsite.
We had visited Loon Lake at the end of the season and the campground was still very full. I talked to a ranger who said the area is very busy during the summer, which underscores a point – a lot of people like to visit this region, but only a small percentage of land is targeted for recreation. Recreation could be really big as a revenue generator, but are people open to the idea?
I had an opportunity to measure this during one of the outings. Coming down the path were 2 camouflaged men, they had been bow hunting and looked like they just stepped out of a Cabelas advertisement. Everyone said hello as people do when they see someone on the trail. The hunters were returning empty-handed and they were a bit perplexed by our presence. Our guide quickly explained that he wants to keep the lands in the public domain so that he and the hunters could keep returning. The men raised an eyebrow when “public” was mentioned; however, they wanted to keep the Elliott a place where they could also visit, hunt, and spend time with their families. The encounter was an interesting exchange and hinted at a grand relationship that might just keep this land protected in such a way that allows multiple parties to profit, not just one industry.
Why is the Elliott a hot zone for so many interests? It’s complicated. Back in the early 1970s Oregon passed the “Oregon Forest Practices Act,” a law that provided protection for soil, air, water, fish, wildlife and forest resources. The law has changed little in 40 years, yet the scientific understanding and economics of timber have evolved. Surrounding states have enacted laws that provide for a longer-term vision of forests, the idea being that forests should provide jobs, resources, and recreation for today, and for our children. In the meantime, Oregon’s private companies have fought hard to prevent any changes to this outdated law, including working hard to affect public perceptions about logging. Further complicating matters are taxation dollars, received from timber harvests, which are tied to the general education fund.
Timber businesses in the Elliott (and their investors) see clearcuts as an effective method to maximize the return on a business model. They don’t want government interference because it can be slow, costly, and a headache – I get that. But, timber companies are not being their Brother’s Keeper. When neighbors are unable to make a living because of water pollution, when salmon habitat that supports the local fishing industry is significantly diminished by sediment runoff, and when communities are impacted because of spraying, something is wrong.
The issue in the Elliott is not about harvesting trees; our society needs trees to build homes and schools, and to use in trade. The issue is not about loggers; loggers are hard-working people putting food on the table for their families. It’s not just about hunters who hunt on the land, or anglers that fish in the streams, or those who want to conserve old growth and this amazing ecosystem. On the contrary, it’s about all of these things working together. The Elliott is a vibrant location with a rich natural heritage that should be honored with protection while allowing businesses with a long-term vision to both profit and support local communities.
As someone who advocates for the outdoors I would love to revisit the Elliott for camping, hiking, even backpacking. The Elliott is home to some giant-sized trees, some much larger than the Grandmother tree shown in this article. I would love to see those trees, and would be happy to spend my recreation dollars in this region.
Find Out More:
If you’re interested in visiting the Elliott with your group, or want additional information, contact the Coast Range Forest Watch for more information.
City Club of Eugene. “What Fate For The Elliott State Forest” (1 hour)
Background on the Issue:
Pacific Rivers. “Behind the Emerald Curtain”
See what’s happening on Oregon’s private timberlands, and how it’s harming our rivers, water, air, and communities.
An Oregon Wild map showing the old-growth forests in the Elliott:
Aerial spraying issues-
The Oregonian. “How average Oregonians challenged the timber industry – and lost”
Different viewpoints on aerial spraying-
One last view of the Grandmother Tree-