Visiting the Dark Grove – Devils’ Staircase Wilderness 2016

Trip Report:
Date: June 12, 2016
Duration: 1 Day
Participants: 10
Group: Obsidians: This was a fist-visit to a very remote location, for safety I enlisted the help of Oregon Wild to introduce us to the area.
Hiking 5 miles (1,000 foot elevation loss/gain)
Type: Day Hike

The proposed Devil’s Staircase Wilderness is one of the most remote and inaccessible regions of rainforest left in the Coast Range. This impenetrable area has limited hiking trails or roads and is visited by only a few hundred people a year. Yet it remains unprotected despite the efforts of conservation groups and Oregon’s congressional delegation. To find out more about this compelling landscape, eleven Obsidians joined Chandra LeGue, the Western Oregon Field Coordinator at Oregon Wild, for a day of hiking to the Dark Grove. The Dark Grove has never been logged, and is home to ancient trees that are 400-500 years old.

Our caravan of cars departed Eugene and meandered on back roads through the coast range. At one point, the green surroundings were cleaved from our sight as we drove through a wasteland of cut and darkened stumps: one member in the car likened the lifeless land to the desolated area at Mount St. Helens just after its eruption. This sight was a stark contrast to the lush biomass that we would encounter later that day.

About 15 miles northeast of Reedsport, we pulled off the pavement and slowly traveled up a single laned, overgrown backroad. Salmonberries grew in abundance here and scratched the sides of the car.

IMG_4548We parked at a junction and walked down an old logging road that was being reclaimed by the forest. Then we disappeared into the bushes, venturing down an elk trail. Posted on a tree was a sign that told us this was not the path to the Devil’s Staircase waterfall and unless you’re prepared to stay the night, and have Search and Rescue to look for you, to turn back. Fortunately, we had a guide for our inaugural visit.

The so-called “trail” was on loose soil and maintained a direct angle downward at 45-50 degrees. For the next hour and a half, we carefully descended 1,000 feet. Roots frequently caught our feet as we clamored over fallen logs and beneath large trees that had crashed across ravines and splintered. Ferns grew in abundance and they and helped us balance ourselves with their solid fronds. We quickly learned that ferns were our friends.

The weather that day was pleasant and sunny, though had our schedule been a day or two off, our visit might have been plagued with slippery trails.

Finally the trail leveled out and we enjoyed lunch in an amphitheater-like area of fallen logs surrounded by a carpet of greenery. We saw a shadow over the canopy as a turkey vulture circled far overhead, no doubt curious to see if the humans had lost their way.

IMG_4571A forest of Salmonberries obstructed our path, so we made a trail straight up a ridge, then down into a forest of sword ferns. The ferns stood at five to six feet in height, so they engulfed us all and many of the shorter members traveled with their arms raised straight overhead. These tranquil glens often hid downed logs and it was easy to twist ankles or slam shins.

IMG_4577A fallen giant became our catwalk above the salmonberries, foxgloves, and ferns. We crossed a creek, but could barely see the water because of the thick undergrowth. Scampering down the side of the massive tree, we squatted and crawled through a small jungle, then emerged at the root base of the fallen giant – it was 25 feet tall!

IMG_4592In front of us was the Dark Grove, a cathedral of 8-foot wide Douglas Fir trees. The trees were dark in appearance, the result of a fire about 150 years earlier. Touching the bark a charcoal residue was imprinted on fingers. The tree model is Becky Lipton.

blog-2016-06-dark-groveCrossing back across the fallen giant, we stood at the base of one of the largest trees we saw that day. Eight people stood at its base, arms outstretched and hands grasped. They counted one, two, three… their calls became muffled as they rounded the opposite side…the voices returned and the loop stopped – at seven and a half people! This immense tree was somewhere between 35 to 40 feet in circumference! Several Obsidians mentioned they felt like kids in a giant outdoor playground.

We continued through the ferns and back again along the ridge (which was unmarked on the Forest Service map). We lost the trail several times but finally found what we were looking for: a small rocky outcrop along Wasson Creek where the channeled water made a small waterfall for us to enjoy. We rested for half an hour in the sun.

The rest of the afternoon was spent returning via the same trail that we had descended earlier, which was a workout! At about 4pm, we returned to our cars and started our two-hour drive back to Eugene.

This hike was a rugged and demanding off-trail experience, and all of us got scratched and dirty, some of us stung by insects, and one person had a fall (fortunately the ground was padded by an abundance of moss and there was no injury)! I understand why people get lost in this wilderness; even with directions, I could never have found this remote location. The sheer scale of the forest is very disorienting, but experiencing this place at ground level provides clarity as to why it needs to be protected.

What’s Up with Oregon’s Elliott State Forest?

blog-2015-10-10-img-05Along 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.

blog-2015-10-10-img-14Our 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.

blog-2015-10-10-img-07This 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.

blog-2015-10-10-img-08To 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.

blog-2015-10-10-img-13We 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!

elliott_01Around 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.
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Here is a panoramic view of the clearcut, Robin from Cascadia Wildlands is shown.
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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.

blog-2015-10-10-img-09The 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.

blog-2015-10-10-img-15Sometime 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.

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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:

Visit-
If you’re interested in visiting the Elliott with your group, or want additional information, contact the Coast Range Forest Watch for more information.
CoastRangeForestWatch.org

Audiocast-
City Club of Eugene. “What Fate For The Elliott State Forest” (1 hour)
http://klcc.org/post/what-fate-elliott-state-forest-city-club-eugene

Background on the Issue:
Cascadia Wildlands
https://www.cascwild.org/campaigns/protecting-forests-and-wild-places/save-the-elliot-rainforest/

Movie Preview-
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.

Old-growth map-
An Oregon Wild map showing the old-growth forests in the Elliott:
http://www.oregonwild.org/sites/default/files/pdf-files/ElliotStateForest10.22.14.pdf

Aerial spraying issues-
The Oregonian. “How average Oregonians challenged the timber industry – and lost”
http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2015/04/how_average_oregonians_challen.html

Different viewpoints on aerial spraying-
http://www.beyondtoxics.org/wp-content/uploads/AerialSprayingArticle_1859-OregonsMag_Sept-Oct2015_BEST.pdf

Map source-
Lawsuit Launched to Protect Threatened Marbled Murrelets From Clearcutting in Oregon State Forests

One last view of the Grandmother Tree-
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Oregon’s Timber Industry and the Art of Persuasion

Big timber wants you to believe that clearcutting, spraying toxic chemicals, and shipping logs overseas are good for the state. The industry manipulates public perceptions to get around voters who want clean water, healthy forests, and a long-term economic vision. This is done through the art of persuasion.

Here’s one example. The book is the Oregon Forest Protection Laws: An Illustrated Manual, it is published by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute (OFRI). The book is an easy to use, visual instructional guide and is “the standard reference for those planning and executing timber harvests.”* OFRI is an organization that receives its funding from a volume-based harvest tax paid by timber companies. Critics have said that OFRI is a mouthpiece for the timber industry; supporters say they are just communicating the rules about the Oregon Forest Practices Act. **

Take a look for yourself. Spend a minute really looking at the manual’s front and back covers, the back cover is seen on the left.

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What do you see?
What do they want you to see?
How do you feel?

The heavy machinery is easy to spot. Did you notice the helicopter, or the clearcut being replanted as a monocrop? What about the cute forest animals hidden among the tress? The aerial perspective reveals a landscape where nature appears to be assisted by human activities.

This manual is more than simply communicating timber rules with cute artwork, it’s a high-dollar marketing publication that includes vibrant colors, professional layouts, and extensively uses hand drawn images. There’s a reason why these simple designs, accentuated with a watercolor technique, in a three-dimensional birds-eye-view, pictorial map are used on this manual. The artwork is the hook. The artwork suggests: authenticity, simplicity, good character, beauty, freshness, wholesomeness, and it even whispers about adventure. This imagery implies the message is genuine.

People relax and let their guard down when they believe something is genuine. Tourist boards use this style of artwork on visitor maps for towns and cities to comfort people so they feel safe and will spend money. Disney also uses this style of artwork on their location maps. Disney’s marketers are unparalleled masters of generating revenue by perpetuating a fantasy experience; this is done with functionality while weaving in elements of excitement, novelty, and escapism.

It’s no accident that big timber uses imagery refined by the tourism and entertainment industries. Influencing the public is about crafting a feeling in the heart, and what the heart believes the mind follows – perception becomes reality.

The Oregon Forest Protection Laws: An Illustrated Manual was created to influence and perpetuate public perceptions that big timber is a genuine steward of the land. The public is less likely to want answers about clean water, aerial spraying, or ask why all the forests are gone when their feelings have already been quietly influenced through the art of persuasion.

References-
* Oregon Forest Protection Laws: An Illustrated Manual
** Willamette Week. “Logrolling: The timber industry is mighty in Oregon—thanks to tax dollars it spends on ads.” http://www.wweek.com/portland/article-25348-logrolling.html

What’s in Your Water Bottle – Trip Report March, 2015

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Trip Report
Leader: Mark Hougardy
Group: Obsidians
Date: March 13, 2015
Participants: 15
Hiking: 2 Miles
Type: Day Hike

We have all turned on the kitchen tap and filled up a bottle in preparation for a hike, but have you ever wondered what was in your bottle? Think about it – we all live downstream from somebody.

How does river water become the tap water we drink and how is wastewater made safe for wildlife and others downstream? To learn more, I organized a trip with The Obsidians (A fantastic outdoor club in Eugene, Oregon), to the local water intake and the wastewater facilities.

Our first visit was to the Hayden Bridge Water Filtration Plant, located adjacent to the McKenzie River, in Springfield. The facility is no small operation; it serves the needs of 200,000 people on a daily basis by removing water directly from the river, treating it, and finally delivering it to our taps.

Here are some observations from the visit:

  • The facility is very high-tech and water quality is measured at all stages of the process both by computer and by human with hourly lab checks.
  • Security is a paramount; the plant is gated with a security fence/gate, cameras are everywhere.
  • Our local water system has about two days of water reserves if there is a calamity.
  • On the day we visited the facility had processed and was sending out 16 million gallons (24 Olympic sized swimming pools) of water to the surrounding community.

Next, we traveled to the Eugene/Springfield Water Pollution Control Facility in Eugene. This is where all of the waste materials that go down the drain/flushed from our households and businesses in the greater Eugene metropolitan area (a quarter of a million people) are processed. The plant is located adjacent to the Willamette River. Our hour and a half visit was very informative:

  • More than 99% of what arrives at the facility is water; less than 1% are solid materials that need to be either removed or turned into bio-solids.
  • Most of the odoriferous gases are collected and used to power a generator that supplies 50-60% of the energy needs of the facility.
  • Waste materials can take up to 10 hours, once they leave your home, until it reaches the wastewater facility; then wastewater can take another 10 hours to be processed. In short, waste materials take less than 24 hours until that water is returned to the river.
  • The amount of water being cleaned and being returned to the Willamette River that day was about 15 million gallons (roughly 23 Olympic swimming pools).
  • During the summer, the plant can process up to 70 million gallons per day (106 Olympic swimming pools) of wastewater!

I was fascinated to learn that on the Willamette River in Oregon there are about 25 wastewater treatment stations, and that does not include communities on the tributaries that flow into the Willamette! Just think about that…for every wastewater plant there is likely a water intake facility that supplies drinking water for the next community downstream. If you live downstream you really want to know that the people upstream are taking care of your water – the water you drink, use for bathing, and for recreation.

If you’re curious about the water that goes into your water bottle start asking questions. Most water intake and wastewater plants are happy to host tours for small groups. Let them know you are interested in visiting.

Behind us is a 2-million gallons of water; the tank is actually a settling basin for any particulate matter.
Water Filtration Plant: Behind us is a 2-million gallon settling basin. This is used to settle any particulate matter in the water. This water was recently pulled from the McKenzie River.
A view an empty 2-million gallon setting tank.
Water Filtration Plant: A view an empty 2-million gallon setting basin.
Wastewater Treatment Facility: It looks like a really bad root-beer float, it is actually air being passed through the wastewater, this allows bacteria to better digest the waste.
Water Pollution Control Facility: It looks like a really bad root-beer float, it is actually air being passed through the wastewater, this allows bacteria to better digest the waste.
Treated water that is almost ready to be returned to the Willamette River.
Water Pollution Control Facility: Treated water that is almost ready to be returned to the Willamette River.

What about when the water is returned to the Willamette River? Find out more, read my post, Rafting the Upper Willamette River with the McKenzie River Trust; the majority of the photos were taken only a few miles downstream from Eugene’s wastewater treatment facility.

Rafting the Upper Willamette River with the McKenzie River Trust

Living near the Willamette River in Eugene, Oregon, offers some fun opportunities to be outside, yet after living in the area for two years I am surprised that I don’t know my local section of the river better. When the opportunity arose to experience 12+ miles of the upper Willamette (from Eugene downstream to Marshall Island) by raft and learn about important conservation work taking place, I could not refuse.

The morning of our departure, my family and I, along with about fifteen others were greeted by staff members of the McKenzie River Trust who had organized the event, and the Eugene Recreation Center who supplied the rafts, equipment and river guides. An interpretive river ranger from Oregon State Parks also joined our trio of rafts.

We were treated to hearing stories about river-lore, discovering the natural history, and learning about the McKenzie River Trust’s restoration work of 1,100-acres on Green Island. A highlight of the afternoon was a visit to the island where everyone enjoyed a fabulous lunch provided by the guides.

On the river that day we saw beaver signs of gnawed tree limbs, cranes stealthily stalking along the shore, and ospreys calling from overhead, though we ourselves were often under the watchful eyes of eagles.

There were many “take-aways” from the trip, lessons that stay with you after the trip is over. The big take-away for me was that once we left Eugene how quickly the river became more of what I needed it to be: open and wild. I want to experience more.

Here are some pictures of the river-

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Learn more about Green Island and the work of the McKenzie River Trust visit:

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