Hiking Cascadia

Reflections from the trails of beautiful Cascadia

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Monkeywrenching: A Call To Action!

“Oppose. Oppose the destruction of our homeland by these alien forces from Houston, Tokyo, Manhattan, Washington DC, and the Pentagon. And if opposition is not enough, we must resist, and if resistance is not enough, then subvert.”
-Edward Abbey speaking at an Earth First! protest.

In the “Forward!” to Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, Edward Abbey makes a clear, concise argument for environmental sabotage, or monkeywrenching as he coined it: “if the wilderness is our true home, and if it is threatened with invasion, pillage and destruction—as it certainly is—then we have the right to defend that home, as we would our private rooms, by whatever means are necessary.” The defensive means described in the book include spiking trees doomed to the clear-cut, spiking and damaging superfluous and destructive roads, undoing the work of surveyors necessary for planning any development, ruining the engines and moving parts of all manner of heavy machinery, and, most importantly, how to do all this without getting caught. Radical as all this seems, in many ways Ecodefense was a follow-up to Abbey’s popular novel The Monkeywrench Gang in which a group of friends become determined to halt the expansion of human domination and greed into the desert they love. They used the techniques of eco-sabotage to fight back against the invasion of wilderness. Abbey made an effort to describe the gang’s monkeywrenching exploits in enough detail that anyone inspired would have a pretty good idea of where to start.

It turns out many were inspired by The Monkeywrench Gang, including the environmental advocacy group Earth First! which was responsible for Ecodefense. Since then monkeywrenching has been controversial to say the least. Some critics, including the US government, label it terrorism despite its commitment to nonviolent action. Others criticize it for putting a bad face on environmentalism and making it harder for “legitimate” conservationists to progress in the courtroom or statehouse. At its core, however, monkeywrenching, and direct action in general, is about defense. When legal and political means fail, then every citizen has a choice: move aside and allow the industrial machine to slowly advance over the land we love, or to stand in defiance, wrench in hand, ready to jam the gears and halt the destruction.


Practical Monkeywrenching

The most strategic form of monkeywrenching aims to increase the operating costs on industrial projects that invade the wild by damaging their property. Many of these endeavors are already financially marginal—the cheap land to exploit was used up long ago—and so by destroying or spiking enough roads, by forcing the replacement of enough bulldozers, or by ruining enough sawmill blades with tree spikes, one can persuade a corporation to leave the wild land to the wild people. Or at least that’s the theory. In practice, many of these projects are still quite profitable, especially as the prices of resources like continue to rise, and therefore can absorb the losses. However, as more and more destructive and invasive projects are required to meet demand for resources, profits begin to shrink, gobbled up by operating costs. Fracking is an example; it is a very complex and expensive process, not to mention incredibly destructive to life and land. Recently, many fracking operations have gone bust after the price of oil dropped, driving their already small margins into the red. Likewise, if a strategic monkeywrencher can inflict enough financial loss, a particular well may be forced to close down. Further, if a fracking operator comes to expect a certain amount of loss, they may choose not to continue with a project that was already financial marginal.

For this type of sabotage to be effective, however, the work must be decentralized and dispersed. There can be no leaders or organizational structure as this is too easy to target and destroy. Monkeywrenchers must operate independently or in small groups. It is also important that the work is dispersed across a wilderness, state, nation, or planet; a target can’t know where or when the next hit will come if multiple groups are acting independently and in different regions. Additionally, any new development will know that they could become a target too and may second guess their plans. Finally, it is important to recognize that monkeywrenching alone is likely not enough to institute any large-scale change. It is in conjunction with other forms of activism—legal, political, and protest—that monkeywrenching can be most effective. (In those cases where legal and political action alone are adequate, monkeywrenching should not be applied at all.) For example, giving the more “moderate” activists a common enemy with the corporations and government can put them in a better negotiating position. Also it allows them to move towards a more hard-line position while still appearing “reasonable” by comparison.Monkeywrenching

The Environmental Movement Today

Since the 80s and 90s, monkeywrenching, and all forms of direct action, seems to have become much less prevalent, likely due to the government crackdown on so-called “eco-terrorism” and a shift in favor of more traditional and safe forms of activism, mainly litigation. So, the question is: are we better off without it? In a 1982 interview, Abbey was asked about the future of environmentalism: “I think it has a very good future, the worse the environment gets the more popular environmentalism becomes.” Well, the environment has undoubtedly gotten worse over the past 35 years, but has environmentalism become more popular? Is it a more powerful and present force in our society and our lives? In some ways, yes, especially with the general acceptance of climate change (at least among intelligent folks) many more people would identify as an environmentalist or are at least concerned about the environment. They’re concerned enough to buy a hybrid or electric car, or maybe donate to an established charity. Additionally, more people than ever are pursuing outdoor hobbies like hiking or skiing or fishing, surely these folks must see the importance of defending nature. However, while it’s true that protests, mostly against oil and gas interests, have become more frequent as of late, a sufficiently large grassroots movement has failed to materialize. Meanwhile, established environmental nonprofits work almost exclusively in the legal realm, trying to enforce existing laws and lobbying to place new land under federal protection. This is important work but it is highly specialized, inaccessible to all but legal experts, and expensive. These charities are able to raise money from small donations given by regular folks, but to cover their costs, most of them must rely on wealthy benefactors for their continued existence and effectiveness.

David Bonderman, for example, is a venture capitalist and billionaire who founded TPG Capital, a global investment firm with large, sometimes majority stakes in many corporations, including Burger King, Continental Airlines, Caesars Entertainment (a casino corporation based in the gluttonous and greedy garbage pile of a city called Vegas), Neiman Marcus, Texas Genco Holdings, Inc. (which owns and operates fossil-fueled power generation facilities), Energy Future Holdings (which owns or leases coal, nuclear, and natural gas-fueled power generation facilities), Denbury Resources (another oil company), and Belden & Blake Corporation (who earn their living through the acquisition, exploitation, development, production, and operation of oil properties). In 2010, TNG even launched its own oil company, Petro Harvester Oil & Gas, a company dedicated to the acquisition and development of oil properties in North America. Mr. Bonderman, it’s safe to say, has done pretty well with these investments; for his 70th birthday, he threw a private party with special guests Paul McCartney, John Fogerty, and Robin Williams performing (for a substantial fee of course). This has become a tradition for Mr. Bonderman. According to the New York Times, “it was Mr. Bonderman, known to friends and colleagues as Bondo, who set the standard for these blowouts a decade ago. For his 60th birthday party at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, he hired the Rolling Stones and John Mellencamp to perform.” (article) Yet, while Bondo certainly knows how to throw a party; he also cares—about the environment if you can believe it! He sits on the boards of The Grand Canyon Trust, The World Wildlife Fund, and The Wilderness Society.

Bondo’s not the alone either. The Wilderness Society board also includes billionaire investment banker, and husband to Senator Dianne Feinstein, Richard C. Blum and venture capitalist Kevin Luzak who also happens to be CEO of the timber company Coastal Forest Resources. On the boards of both The Wilderness Society and The Grand Canyon Trust is Hansjörg Wyss, the Swiss billionaire. Roger W. Sant, billionaire co-founder of the energy giant AES which relies on coal and oil energy, and Wang Shi, founder of China Vanke, the largest residential real estate developer in the world, sit on the WWF board. WWF in particular has also taken many donations from corporations such as Coke-a-Cola, Shell, and Monsanto and has a secret group of wealthy benefactors known as The 1001: A Nature Trust which includes many high profile, and controversial, businesspeople and politicians (source). These particular organizations are representative of the mainstream environmental movement in general, and it’s understandable; to maintain a top-notch legal team and to work cases through the system is expensive. Without wealthy benefactors, it is unlikely they could continue this important work. However, this fact also affects the goals and ideology of conservation nonprofits; they must stay in line with the check-writers or risk irrelevancy. I personally will refrain from using phrases like “hush money,” or “bribery” or, optimistically, “guilt money” though others have made a case for such unsavory accusations.

It does seem that many of these wealthy “green-capitalists” maintain a scientific utopian ideal that that technology and innovation will rescue us from the brink and, conveniently, no sacrifice will be necessary! It’s true that technology has led to some “greener” alternatives but thus far these have had little effect on our planet. Have global temperatures or extinction rates declined? Has development in sensitive habitats ceased? Have destructive mining and logging practices become obsolete? Technology alone won’t rescue us, we need to change the way we live and the way we think. At the risk of devaluing the work these organizations do, which is certainly not my intention, I must say that, at least to some extent, the environmental movement has been hijacked by wealthy benefactors with their own priorities. I’m sure most of these men and women have good intentions, but they also have their own priorities; priorities which begin with their continued wealth and success (greed) and which probably blind them to the most insidious enemy of nature: capitalism (the rationalization of greed).


Nature’s True Foes: Targets of the Wrench!

I believe it should be clear to any dedicated and honest defender of nature that our greatest enemy is the capitalist system and mindset. Capitalism demands constant growth and expansion while viewing resources, and the planet itself, as a commodity, profit ready to be made. Abbey, who identified as an anarchist and was skeptical of any centralized control, be it in the Capital or a boardroom, and whose father was a socialist with the IWW, was no stranger to critiques of capitalism. In his posthumously published work A Voice Crying in the Wilderness, Abbey says of capitalism: “nothing so mean could be right. Greed is the ugliest of the capital sins.” When asked by an interviewer in 1982 about the major environmental problems of today, Abbey responded that it was “progress, development, growth, industry. Everything that the politicians and the chamber of commerce loves, I’m against”

Capitalism is the machine of growth, and once its engine starts turning it is very hard to stop. High demand necessitates high supply which requires high demand, all of which produces more and more profit and more and more growth. Endless growth and development, across the prairies and forests and down the rivers. Additionally, the fact that the vast majority of the profit ends up in the hands of a lucky few means those with the most power, financial and therefore political, also have the strongest interest in maintaining the status quo of unceasing expansion. As we have seen, these powerful folks already have a tremendous amount of say in how the the environmental movement should operate; namely, it should operate in a way that benefits them and their interests. So capitalism today has at least two major problems with regard to the environmental ethic (and any ethic worth ascribing to). First, is the incessant demand for more—more growth, more people, more production, more resources—despite the obvious and catastrophic impact on the planet. Second, is the funneling of money into the hands of a privileged few who are, through their oh-so-generous donations, allowed an outsized opinion on how the environment should be protected.

Simply rallying against capitalistic excess, however, will not be enough. It will likely be a losing fight for the hearts and minds of the average person who is not interested in such radical change. First, we must change the way we, as a society, view conservation. We must change our view of nature and our place in it. We must see ourselves as part of the Earth, not merely existing on it. John Muir, Rachel Carson, Ed Abbey and just about any conservationist worth their salt saw this as the ultimate goal. Aldo Leopold called it the Land Ethic saying in his forward to A Sand County Almanac, “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” If we as a society can learn to extend our love and respect to the animals, trees, flowers, ferns, mosses, mountains, deserts, rivers, oceans, air, rocks, and dirt; then conservationism will have finally won.Monkeywrenching


Suddenly, the fight for nature has become much larger and complicated. If success inside the environmental movement is to be more than just sporadic victories in a wash of losing battles, we will need sweeping change in both our economic system and our national mindset. It is safe to say a movement like this will receive little support from the millionaire or billionaire classes. A true grassroots movement will be necessary; no millionaires required. An example of how a grassroots movement can draw attention and change minds is Black Lives Matter. Until the Black Lives Matter movement began pressuring for change, the protests and civil disobedience that had been so crucial to ending segregation had mostly disappeared from civil rights activism. The fight had moved into the courtroom, an important arena, but one with a narrow scope. Since the direct action taken by Black Lives Matter, focus in the civil rights movement has shifted away from litigating decades old civil rights legislation and towards the idea of broad, systemic change. A grassroots environmental movement can do something similar; pressure people into regarding our planet with love and respect and arguing in favor of radical action to protect that planet. Additionally, we should be grateful that the environmental movement has many potential allies. Capitalism and greed have been disastrous to more than just the environment; workers, many of whom hunt, fish, hike and boat in wild places, can be natural allies in the fight against the greed of corporations. Segments of the civil rights movement have long been critical of corporate pollution and institutionalized greed generally. Cooperation among different grassroots movements with similar goals could create a truly large ground swell of the kind that can bring real change. A reform movement that is greater than yet inclusive of the conservationist’s goals.

Of course, participating in a grassroots movement doesn’t require sabotage or breaking the law, just commitment and determination. Protest, write, speak, do whatever you can to make your voice heard and your presence felt. Work smart and strategically. If an organized protest or boycott can help bring attention or support, then start organizing. If a legal defense is needed, make sure your friendly local or global environmental nonprofit is in the loop. If sabotage can be effective, and you’re feeling adventurous and brave, then grab your wrench! Start small. Here’s a strategy: pick a roadless area of significant size in your region and claim it as wilderness; then keep it that way. Call your congressman. Call the President. Call The Wilderness Society. Write an open letter. Organize. Protest. Pull up survey stakes. Spike any new roads. Wreck a ‘dozer. Resist. Fight. And don’t forget to go outside! Hike and sleep on the ground; know the land you’re fighting for.

“Direct action gets the goods,” goes an old IWW saying. The threat of internal sabotage, strikes, marches, and slow-downs in the factory could certainly pressure management, but what can it really do in defense of wilderness? Will it end the absurd notion of constant and necessary growth through destruction and exploitation? Probably not on its own, but it can draw attention and support and change minds. “My job is to save the fucking wilderness,” said George Hayduke, the foul-mouthed, beer-swilling hero of The Monkeywrench Gang. Hayduke wasn’t a lawyer or writer or philanthropist, but when his home was invaded he fought back the only way he knew how. Hayduke’s fictional exploits have inspired many to do the same—to resist the assaults on our planet by whatever means are necessary; and when politics and civil disobedience aren’t enough then  maybe direct action, with a socket wrench and sand, with a spike and a hammer, with a chainsaw and an axe, can get the goods. Yes, it is radical, but we could use a lot more radicals. Moderates have led the environmental movement to where it is now: desperately trying to litigate decades old legislation while standing by, either helpless or blind, as the slow march of the enormous, profit-driven machine marches onward killing, burning, and paving its way from coast to coast and across our planet. Standing firm against the corporate oligarchs who view our shared home—the wilderness, nature, Earth—as expendable and exploitable requires no apology. “Wilderness requires no defense, only more defenders,” said Abbey. Complacency and apathy and capitulation can not be tolerated; your membership in the Sierra Club is not enough. “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul,” said Abbey. Agitate. Toss a wrench into the machine. Let the bastards know we’re here. “There’s work to do,” says Hayduke.


A Breif Eulogy to “Calochortus indecorus”

Calochortus indecorus, superfluously named Sexton Mountain mariposa lily as it was seen and recognized by very few people, was a perennial herb in the lily family, Liliaceae, that is only known to have grown in Southern Oregon on Sexton Mountain, 10 or 15 miles north of Grants Pass, at the northern reaches of the Klamath Mountains. Botanists collected this lovely little endemic flower once on May 20, 1948 establishing the taxonomy of the species and introducing it to modern science. Unfortunately, all subsequent efforts to locate the flower were unsuccessful and it is now believed the flower’s very limited population was destroyed by human expansion, in particular the construction of Interstate-5, a major disturbance event occurring at the base of Sexton Mountain (source). Finding this plant anywhere else is highly unlikely. Only the original specimens at the Oregon State University Herbarium, remain as a dry and flattened reminder of a plant none of us will ever see.

Calochortus elegans

Calochortus elegans

I must admit to some favoritism in singling out this particular extinct plant for remembranceunfortunately there is no shortage of species to choose from—as Calochortus (“beautiful grass” in Greek) is one of my favorite genera. It is a North American genus occurring mostly in the West and its flowers are consistently beautiful, both striking in their color and delicate yet simple in their form. Calochortus contains about 70 species, each has showy flowers with three petals, often hairy, colored white, yellow, blue, or violet, and with three distinct sepals. C. indecorus grew 3-5 inches tall with flowers in groups of two or three with mostly hairless bright lavender-blue petals and green sepals. It grew from a bulb each spring and was said to have bloomed in May, forming a winged-capsule fruit after being pollinated.

C. indecorus grew in a very unique habitat: the Klamath Mountains Ecoregion in the Southwest and Northwest corners of Oregon and California respectively. The ecoregion encompasses the Klamath and Siskiyou Mountain ranges and the surrounding foothills. This area is home to one of the most biodiverse floras in North America. 30 species of coniferous trees grow here, seven of which are endemic (including the beautiful Port Orford Cedar, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana). In total, at least 3,500 plant species exist in this relatively small area, many are found nowhere else. There are many reasons for this diversity, the highly divergent rainfall totals for example, and the fact that several different bioregions converge in this area, including the Coast Range, the Cascades, California’s Central Valley, the Sierra Nevada, and the Great Basin, each bringing unique species into this melting pot of a biological community (source).

The region’s complex geology, however, is perhaps most important in developing the many endemic plant species found here, especially the serpentine soil, which is rich in the heavy metals nickel and chromium, is lacking in several micronutrients important for plant growth including potassium and phosphorus, and has a very low calcium to magnesium ratio (source). Plants must evolve attributes which allow them to thrive in these stressful conditions. This also limits their range to narrow bands of similar soil which, in combination with narrow environmental bands, leads to the evolution of plants found nowhere else on earth including many found only in a single watershed or even on a single mountain. In fact, many species of Calochortus specifically, still grow in endemic communities in the greater Klamath bioregion including: C. umpquaensis (listed as vulnerable), C. persistens (listed as imperiled), C. nudus (vulnerable), C. howellii (vulnerable), C. greenei (vulnerable), and one, C. monanthus, which is also believed to be extinct.

Calochortus ambiguus

Calochortus ambiguus

Overgrazing of cattle, construction of roads and developments, invasive weeds, logging, poaching, fire suppression, and strip mining for nickel and other rare metals all pose significant threats to the endemic and threatened species of the Klamath and Siskiyou mountains. Fortunately, there are wilderness and protected areas in the region including the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the recently expanded Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, the first monument specifically designated to protect biodiversity (source). Yet there is still a need for vigilance. There are many in government and industry who would prefer to exploit this unique land rather than conserve it. We can learn an invaluable lesson from C. indecorus and other extinct plant species from the Klamath Region: disturbances which may seem small compared to the large scales typically considered in ecological protection—opening a single strip mine, allowing cattle to graze a new parcel of land, or Interstate construction, can have devastating effects on small, endemic populations. This area, more than most, needs defending. When an entire species can be lost in a single disturbance event, it is imperative that we not give an inch.


Wildflowers and Public Land

Iris tenax

Iris tenax displaying white nectar guides.

Recently, I spent a sunny spring afternoon strolling around my grandfather’s few acres of oak woodland near Roseburg, OR. There, under the generously spaced oaks and madrones, wildflowers were flourishing. Oregon iris (Iris tenax) was abundant, it’s deep purple petals marked with white, yellow, and ultraviolet nectar guides leading bees to an abundance of sugary fuel. The iris flower has been designed through millennia of evolution to function as a very efficient pollen distribution system. Bees travel down one of three runways between two stacked petals towards their nectar reward, simultaneously rubbing against the anther on the pedal above them which deposits pollen onto the bee. This pollen is then transferred to a stigma positioned at the entrance to the runway of the next flower it visits. Irises even arrange their stigma to face outwards, so that a bee entering will deposit pollen from another flower, but is unlikely to deposit pollen from that flower on its own stigma when backing out, thereby preventing self-pollination.

Dodecatheon hendersonii

Dodecatheon hendersonii

Nearby is another flower with an interesting pollination method, Dodecatheon hendersonii, a species of shooting star. This is a very easy genus to recognize, it has a perianth that curves backward while the reproductive parts of the flower point out and down, resembling a shooting star. The stamen form a tube surrounding the threadlike, protruding stigma. Dodecatheon offers no nectar reward and so bees visit to collect pollen alone, a food source for them. In order to get the pollen from the stamen, however, the bee must grab onto the stamen and “buzz,” vibrating their body very quickly to shake loose the pollen, a technique known as buzz pollination. Meanwhile, the protruding stigma contacts the bee’s body and picks up pollen from the last flower the bee has been buzzing. Not all bees can manage this pollination style, which requires quickly moving the muscles associated with flying but without actually flapping their wings and flying away. Introduced European honey bees are incapable of this feat and so the pollination of Dodecatheon relies mostly on native bumble bees who evolved the ability to use their flight muscles independently of flight in order to increase their body temperature, allowing them to be active during those cold spring mornings when the honey bees are still tucked in their warm hive.

Calochortus elegans

Calochortus elegans

One plant I was very happy to see was Calochortus elegans, known as cat’s ear. It is one of my favorite plants and Calochortus is definitely my favorite genus (at least at the moment). It is so strange and delicate, with fine hairs growing on the bright white petals and the subtle pink and purple highlights along the anthers and stigma and base of the corolla. I am always excited to see a Calochortus, and the cat’s ear is especially lovely! And, to wrap up this botany party, I can’t not mention seeing plentiful Delphinium menziesii. Another beautiful plant from a beautiful genus—a member of the highly variable buttercup family, Ranunculaceae—Delphinium is ubiquitous in the western US. Also known as larkspur, it has a raceme of flowers with long nectar spurs used to attract bees. Some of the other flowers included: blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium idahoense), a Silene species, Dichelostemma capitatum (unfortunately named blue dicks), a desert parsley, woodland star (Lithophragma tenellum), sea blush (Plectritis congesta), Sanicula bipinnatifida (purple sanicle), and some white flower I couldn’t manage to identify, not to mention the grasses, stately Oregon white oaks, and the beautiful and exotic-looking madrone (Arbutus menziesii) with its sprays of small white flowers and strange, constantly peeling bark. This a beautiful spot and proved to be a fine way to spend an afternoon.

Blue-eyed grass

Blue-eyed grass

These fascinating and beautiful flowers and trees are abundant in this woodland not by chance. Nearby habitat, where one would expect to see a similar community, is lost under Himalayan blackberry, crowded out by lawn grasses, or covered with downed wood. This particular patch of open woodland contains a rich diversity of wildflowers because of the efforts of my grandfather. By removing undesirable or invasive species as they appear, native wildflowers have the opportunity to grow undisturbed as they once did through much of the Willamette Valley. Additionally, by clearing dead timber to use as firewood and preventing new trees from growing when they will overcrowd the woods, something resembling the fire regime that was once so important to oak woodland and savanna is restored. This not only keeps the floor clear for grasses and forbs but also keeps the canopy open or semi-open allowing light to penetrate down to the small plants below. Oak woodlands and savannah alike are vastly underrepresented in Cascadia compared to the vast swatches that one time covered much of the Willamette Valley and the area between the Coast Range and Cascades of Southern Oregon. Once essential for grazing animals and their predators, much of this land has been lost under farmland and development. By tending to the land this way, my grandfather can help a native ecosystem—complete with a thriving community of flowers, a healthy population of pollinators, plentiful grasses, and deer to graze them—can thrive.

Dichelostemma capitatum

Dichelostemma capitatum

This small piece of land in Southern Oregon is a model for private stewardship. There’s no doubt, however, that other people aren’t able to keep up as well with the demands of land stewardship. It can be expensive and time consuming. Encouraging private owners to improve their land, by removing noxious weeds for instance, or planting native species, or clearing understory litter would be a worthwhile endeavor for state or local governments. In situations where exceedingly large tracts of land or particularly significant land is involved, however, I don’t believe private ownership is sufficient. The costs in both labor and administration required are to great and private ownership consistently cuts corners in the name of savings. Also, there is the problem of who will be able to afford the land and the maintenance costs associated with it. As much as people like Cliven Bundy like to complain about paying for grazing licenses, it’s very unlikely any family-run enterprise would be able to own their own grazing land. The land would instead end up in the hands of the very wealthy and corporations.

Clearing downed wood to burn

Clearing downed wood to burn

It also must be said that publicly owned land is meant to be a land of many uses. Giving free range to ranchers would take away from those who are invested in maintaining a natural landscape which can be greatly damaged by unrestricted cattle. The land of many uses concept, however, doesn’t seem to strike a chord for Cliven Bundy, or his son Ammon Bundy for that matter. During the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary meant to protect migrating birds, Ammon Bundy and his followers: removed fence designed to keep cattle out of the refuge to allow free range grazing across the refuge which would undoubtedly do great damage to the bird habitat, used a bulldozer to make a new road straight through a fenced off American Indian archaeological site because there was “just a goat trail before” and “people were slipping and falling,” expanded the parking lot (why?), and dug an open trench which they then filled with their feces. These are not people who respect the land. They have no concern for those of use us who care about migratory birds, or American Indian culture, or basic sanitation. To them these lands are for cattle and damn all the rest. Luckily, our nation has long history of seeing things differently.

Madrone's peeling bark

Madrone’s peeling bark

On my grandfather’s relatively small piece of land, private stewardship is working. Still, strolling around, looking for cat’s ear, and watching bees bounce from flower to flower, my opinion was not changed. While many landowners take pride in their land and do a fine job in caring for it, these tend to be small, manageable plots or land controlled by well-to-do conservationists or charities. Privately owned, natural landscapes are still defined by clear cuts and slash piles, oil rigs and strip mines, over-grazed pastures and creeks trampled into mud pits. Private land ownership is good at doing one thing: profiting off that land, often to the point of over-exploitation and usually to the detriment of all other uses, including other profit-driven interests—try grazing your cattle on timber company property. Public ownership, with the goal of maintaining the long term health of the land while still allowing its owners, the public, to use it, not just for capitalistic motives, such as raising cattle, but for recreation, wildlife habitat, and beauty is the only practical and fair solution. Public lands grant all of us access to the places we enjoy and love. They allow us all to be stewards and to take pride in the land, as my grandfather does with his few acres. Finally, public lands allow us to maintain irreplaceable landscapes for future generations. Private lands have their place and some are well managed, but owners change, interests change, values change, their protections are fickle and their future unreliable. When it comes to the forests, deserts, grasslands, and mountains I care about, I’d rather trust them to the people.

oak woodlands


Forest Park and Wilderness Politics (Part 2)

Welcome to the second and final installment of Forest Park and Wilderness Politics. You certainly don’t need to read part 1 to enjoy this, but why not read it? I think you’ll like it!

P.S. Most of the Forest Park information is in part 1.


“In wilderness is the preservation of the world”
-Henry David Thoreau

We have made many positive advances in protecting this land’s natural heritage. More than that, voices like Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, John Muir, Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, Thoreau, Emerson, and so many others have inspired many to keep wilderness close to their heart, and to fight for the preservation of wild places and the health of ecosystems around the globe. Why, then, is it so important to continue pushing for more reform, for more preserves, for more awareness of our planetary health? We live in a society that necessarily puts these concerns second. A society in which unrestricted capitalism has been allowed to run amok and trample the delicate ecosystems so many of us hold dear. Capitalism, at its core, is about exploitation—exploitation of workers and exploitation of resources—because profits come first. Humans have always used the earth’s resources, farming uses land and water, hunting uses wildlife, yet since the time of industrialization and the capitalist economy that accompanied it, the use of our planet’s resources has grown at an exponential rate to monumental proportions that have become completely unsustainable. Carbon stored deep within the earth for millions of years is systematically pumped to the surface, burned, and then released as a gas back into the atmosphere to power our cars and create electricity for our always increasing energy demands. Even when fossil fuels are not burned for electricity, mighty rivers such as the Columbia are dammed, over and over, to meet our society’s electricity needs. The once fast-flowing Columbia, dotted with rapids and falls and filled with salmon, possibly the largest salmon runs on earth and enough to sustain one of the densest populations of American Indians in the United States, has been tamed, controlled, and its salmon runs reduced to a trickle. Since the birth of the conservation movement, global temperatures have risen drastically, deforestation and habitat loss have continued at an alarming rate, industrial pollution of our water and air persists, and extinctions have continued to pile up. Things have gotten worse, not better, since our collective consciousness was supposed to have been raised. This is because we live in a society designed to profit a few on the backs of many by exploiting the planet. Needless to say, as long as this system is allowed to continue unchecked, any step forward for conservation is merely a bright star in a dark sky.

Trapper Creek Wilderness.

Trapper Creek Wilderness, Washington.

Capitalism and profits are so entrenched in our society that even conservation has had to appeal to the almighty dollar just to be noticed. The current trend of “ecosystem services” argues that ecosystems and natural areas are not just important in their own right, but because they have some dollar-figure based on a service they provide to our society. For example, wetlands are often cited as being important in cleaning water and in flood prevention by holding large amounts of water during a flood that might otherwise be diverted elsewhere. This is undoubtedly true, but wetlands are also beautiful, a trait which is much harder to ascribe a dollar figure. To quote Bob Marshall: “the most important values of forest recreation are not susceptible of measurement in monetary terms. They are concerned with such intangible considerations as inspiration, aesthetic enjoyment, and a gain in understanding.” There could be positives from this money-focused approach, mainly pushing people to consider themselves as part of the ecosystem instead of separated from it, yet I find monetizing nature unnecessary, incomplete, and wrong. For one thing, many ecosystems do not provide as many benefits as wetlands. Grasslands, even easier targets for developers than wetlands, are vanishing across the globe. I’m sure these areas do provide some ecosystem services, but I’m guessing they are much less valuable than wetlands in this respect. I, however, do not see grasslands as any less valuable. They are just as beautiful and contain just as many wonderful species of plants and animals. Are we as a society supposed to allow the tearing up of our native grasslands while protecting our wetlands simply because wetlands provide flood protection? Beyond this practical reason, there is something I find disturbing about introducing capitalism into conservation that is harder for me to express. It just feels wrong, like the desperate last stand or groveling to an enemy. I think we can do much more; now is not the time to grovel or compromise. I’ll stand with Aldo Leopold who expressed his land ethic as: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise,” and stated that “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” (A Sand County Almanac). These biotic communities deserve protection regardless of the financial savings they may provide. They deserve protection and respect because they are our fellow species, and have every right to exist that we do. We ought to be able to protect them on that basis alone.

I believe what conservation needs to make serious progress is more democracy. That is to say, the people should have a much more direct say in how their communities and the environments that surround them are managed. Our current capitalistic society, where wealth reigns supreme, is actually quite undemocratic. How many people truly feel as if they have a say in how their community is run, in how land is used? Currently, developers and corporations must only comply with laws passed by politicians decades ago and often without the knowledge or support of the voters, laws often meant to pacify one business interest or another. It is no wonder people feel voiceless. I believe these developers and corporations should also comply with the community. In this way, we can check the powerful and begin to release the grip capitalism has on our lives and government while simultaneously empowering the people—all the people—to choose how they want their country or society to function. When land is being converted from its natural or historic state into strip malls or condominiums, the people, not developers, should have a say in whether or not that is the right thing for their community. Critics refer to this as “social planning,” inferring some overpowered government controlling our lives and robbing us of our “freedom” and “liberty.” What these people forget to mention is that social planning is occurring all the time in capitalism; the distinction is who is doing the planning. In an unrestrained capitalist society, it is the powerful. Imagine a corporation that can make more money dumping their chemical waste into a river or releasing their pollutants into the air. The choice of whether that should be done is left to the incredibly wealthy corporate leaders who choose profits over societal well-being. This is social planning from the top down. A more democratic system will leave these decisions to the people who will actually be affected by the choices, not wealthy men living in hermetically-sealed and gated communities. The United States has done this to varying degrees; laws such as the Clean Water or Clean Air Acts, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, these are steps in the right direction, yet looking at the state of our planet’s ecosystems, it should be clear that there is much work to do. What we are skating around here is democratic socialism, a concept supported by many of this nation’s great thinkers, environmental or otherwise. Essentially, democratic socialism is about justice—social justice, economic justice, and environmental justice—which is why so many advocates for the poor, labor leaders, civil rights advocates, and conservationists have embraced its principles. Democratic socialism is a large term with widespread implications and I will not delve too deeply into all of them, though there are many resources available. Instead I am focusing on the conservation and environmental implications. In this system, society, whether on the local, state, or national level, would be granted a say in how the natural world is managed, allowing a hands-off approach for wilderness areas and a more involved approach to managing our global health. Business interests must answer to us.

Diamond Peak Wilderness, Oregon.

Diamond Peak Wilderness, Oregon.

Let’s look for a moment at fossil fuels. It has been accepted in the scientific community for decades that releasing million-year-old carbon back into our atmosphere will have catastrophic effects on our global climate. It has already caused a tremendous amount of damage; glaciers and icecaps are disappearing at an alarming rate, species such as migratory birds are forced to reckon with the changes to our seasons, global weather has become more unpredictable and severe, ocean levels and temperatures are rising, and yet atmospheric carbon continues to increase at an alarming rate. So why do we continue to use this dangerous and outdated energy source? Why is the next “green energy” technology always a few years away, only to never fully materialize? Fossil fuels are very profitable. That is what it comes down to. It’s not that the rewards are greater than the risks, it’s that the risks are irrelevant to those reaping the rewards. Introducing democracy into this system means that society has a say in how our energy is created and how fossil fuels are used. If, as a society, we decide that the continued exploitation of ancient carbon to power our homes, businesses, and cars is unacceptable, that the risk to our families, our fellow humans, and our planet is simply too great, then we can decide to put serious restrictions on those corporations who currently burn fossil fuels with relative impunity while also rewarding those using, improving, and inventing alternative methods. In this way, we give people a choice in how the environment we all live in, learn from, and enjoy is treated. This will, I believe, drastically change how we approach conservation on a large scale. Society will be permitted to make changes that will benefit our society and environment, not only profit-margins. We could, for example, agree to rely more on food and products produced locally, instead of burning huge amounts of fuel shipping these things across the oceans, often multiple times. Yet, on the small scale, for example the choices of an individual business which is not necessarily hemmed in by a broader law, a more practical solution than society-wide democracy is required. This could be accomplished by allowing workers a democratic say in how their businesses conduct themselves. In the previous example, corporate leaders, given the choice between polluting the water or air to increase profits or making a sacrifice for the public good, chose profits. If, however, decisions were not left to a few rulers at the top, but instead democratically distributed to all workers, we can imagine a very different outcome. Workers given the choice between more profit and polluting the air their children breathe or the rivers on which they swim, boat, or fish may reach a very different conclusion than corporate leaders who can afford to insulate themselves from these effects. Again, democracy, this time in the workplace, can be used to protect our shared environment.

There are requirements, however, for democracy to work effectively. First, voter restrictions must be abolished. There are far too many ways to deny citizens the right to vote. Voter suppression is a very real concern in modern America and needs to be addressed before any expansion of democracy can occur. Additionally, the population must be informed and connected to the issues. This is the job of our education system and media, which, unfortunately, are a far cry from what is required, as seen in the large percentages of Americans claiming to be “skeptical” of such accepted scientific theories as climate change and evolution. Science education in this country lags behind much of the industrial world and thus scientific literacy is very low. This is important because while there is certainly an aspect to appreciating nature that is beyond scientific knowledge, residing in the realms of beauty and wonder, having an understanding of ecosystems adds great depth to the experience. I believe that it is no coincidence that our nation’s great conservationists, Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Henry David Thoreau, Jane Goodall, Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, John Muir, and many more were all fluent in ecology and science more generally. It is essential to understand how these systems function to truly appreciate their beauty and their significance. We therefore place a tremendous amount of importance on our education system, and there is no doubt it needs to be reformed to ensure all students, no matter where they live or where they come from, are given the gift of a scientific education. However, this is much too large a topic, and one I am quite ignorant about, so let’s stop here before I embarrass myself and turn to another very important tool for informing a democratic public: the media.

Mt. Adams Wilderness, Washington

Mt. Adams Wilderness, Washington

For a system with more democracy to be successful, the voting public must be well-informed and engaged, both of which fall to our woeful media. Science coverage in the popular media is essentially non-existent and when it does crop up it is either a manufactured scare-piece about black holes being formed in Switzerland, or a piece of research being presented only as an oddity—behold: glow-in-the-dark mice! Significant research is rarely presented. Additionally, environmental coverage is almost exclusively about the politics or the “debate” and rarely about the issue itself. The Keystone Pipeline is often discussed, but is almost always portrayed as a debate with one head on each side of a split screen promoting their own “truths.” Facts about the pipeline, such as how many permanent jobs it will actually create, the true risks of spills, where the oil will actually go, are often relegated to soundbites, slung between lobbyists or lawyers, or think-tank representatives. It is no wonder voter-engagement is so low. This, along with education, is a subject I will leave to someone more informed but I will say that I believe that by changing the capitalist system on which our society, including our media, is based we can change the media too. There is no doubt in my mind that when profits are deemphasized, the quality of the media will increase. If corporate owners no longer dictate choices, then journalists will be allowed to apply the ethics they are taught in journalism school.

A significant barrier to conservation being created directly by corporate interests and eaten up by the media are the massive misinformation campaigns which are currently being waged, largely in the United States. The most egregious example of this is the climate change denial campaign funded by oils companies such as Exxon-Mobile. Drawing from the lessons of the tobacco industry’s campaign looking to create doubt about the link between cancer and smoking (even going so far as to hire the same corrupt scientists), the oil industry has funded countless scientists with questionable credentials and even more questionable ethics, to cast doubt over the accepted scientific consensus of human-caused global climate change. Think tanks and other front groups with absurd and somewhat frighteningly Orwellian names such as Friends of Science (no seriously), funded mostly by the oil industry, pay scientists to pump out articles, papers, and books meant to spread doubt, often being published by the think tanks themselves and thus dodging the accepted practice of publishing in peer-reviewed journals. A famous example of the kind of misinformation being spread is the unfortunately named Oregon Petition, an often-cited document claiming to present signatures from 31,000 scientists who are skeptical of anthropogenic climate change. This is meant to cast doubt on the science by showing that there is a controversy in the scientific community. Aside from the fact that science is not a democratic system—the number of detractors does not change the facts or evidence—it turns out many, if not most, of these signatures were fraudulent. Nearly all of the signatures are unverifiable, and sometimes illegible. Signatories were asked to sign their name (no need to print it) check the box showing their level of education, and then write in their academic field. That was all the information they were asked give. There are many fake signatures, duplicates, and some joke signatures (Perry Mason is a climate change denialist?) Those few that did seem to be from actual Ph.D.’s were mostly from largely unrelated fields such as engineering. None of this, however, has stopped climate change deniers using the Oregon Petition as evidence of a nonexistent controversy.

Meanwhile, these same think-tanks and scientists do their best to portray the environmental movement as alarmist, radical, and dangerous. They claim moving away from fossil fuels will devastate our economy and cost us countless jobs. They of course forget to mention that any new energy sources will also require many employees, or that jobs on oil rigs or in coal mines are not exactly high on the desirability scale. The goal is not to win the argument, it is to keep the controversy alive. An infamous tobacco industry memo issued in 1969 read: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy… If we are successful in establishing a controversy at the public level, then there is an opportunity to put across the real facts about smoking and health. Doubt is also the limit of our product.” This is essentially the same strategy pursued by the oil industry today. By creating doubt, they can continue to pump our society full of a product that is extremely harmful to everyone. The “real facts” about smoking and health are the same as the “real facts” about fossil fuels and climate change, they have been well established by the scientific community and in both cases should no longer be in doubt. This misinformation campaign, based on greed, has the potential to do tremendous and irreversible damage to our planet; in fact, it already has. The United States has continued to drag its feet and refused to make substantial changes. Half of our politicians either believe the “real facts” being spread by the think-tanks, or are in the same fossil fuel industry pockets as the think tanks themselves. The phony controversy needs to be stopped by better science education and a responsible media who is not willing to continue promoting the “controversy” based on “fairness.” Allowing oil industry schills to spread their pseudoscientific nonsense is not fair or balanced, it is allowing oneself to become a mouthpiece for corporate greed. It should not be tolerated. Finally, by loosening the grip of capitalism and limiting corporate power, the motivation to continue these campaigns will disappear.

Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold

All this aside, I still believe the most important and effective way to protect our wilderness is to get people into it. Experiencing nature first hand is undoubtedly the first step in creating a new conservationist. This is why places like Forest Park are so important; urban natural areas allow anyone to experience nature firsthand. This should be promoted to all the citizens of our cities. To quote the Olmsted Report on Portland Parks, “a liberal provision of parks in a city is one of the surest manifestations of the intelligence, degree of civilization and progressiveness of its citizens.” Allowing people to explore nature sparks curiosity, the first step in successful education and hopefully in engagement and activism. Any way we can bring people together for a shared cause is a step in the right direction. Changing our nation’s current approach to environmental issues will take the support of the majority and to do this we need a lot more nature-lovers, environmentalists, and conservationists. We need to promote equal access to parks and encourage our fellow citizens to take advantage of the opportunities places like Forest Park provide. Additionally, wilderness areas, like those created by the Wilderness Act, are essential, and should be experienced by many more people. Currently, when hiking in a wilderness area you are likely to encounter many people from one sect of society: largely white, middle-class, often college educated people and their families. There are many reasons for this unequal access, the love of nature is often passed on from parent to child, it can be difficult and time consuming to reach these more remote wilderness areas, and there is the expensive and seemingly exclusionary REI culture that often surrounds outdoor recreation. I believe strongly that these barriers can and should be removed. Wilderness shouldn’t be a privilege. The more people we can get into the woods, mountains, deserts, or coasts of this country, the more allies conservation will find. I also think that there exists a natural partnership between conservationists and those advocating for other forms of social change which all could benefit from. Whether pushing for worker’s rights, civil rights, or environmental rights, we can find common cause and a shared objective. Standing united, there are many more of us than them.

Many of the changes we need in our society are linked. Changing our economic system, changing workers relationship to their businesses, opening up opportunities to all, and giving every citizen a voice in social planning can benefit our society not only by providing social and economic justice, but also by building a coalition with the desire and the power to enact environmental reform. I believe this is our greatest hope as a country and as a planet to rescue our damaged and disappearing ecosystems and preserve wilderness for the ages. Bob Marshall recognized this, one of the heroes of American conservation, he was also a strong critic of American capitalism. He stood with workers, even being arrested in a united front demonstration, worked to start a program that would allow low-income workers a chance to more easily explore wild places, and worked to remove barriers that kept minority groups out of wilderness areas. Despite being independently wealthy, he continued to perform difficult and physical work until his sudden death at the age of 38 after which he gave his remaining fortune, about $1.5 million in 1939, to three causes: first, a fund to promote “the theory of production for use and not profit,” second, to promote the continuation of civil liberties, and finally to preserve wilderness. Bob Marshall, needless to say, was a true American hero and one with which many more people should be familiar.

Bob Marshall.

Bob Marshall.

Make no mistake, this would be a radical change from our current political system. We are talking about giving the poor and downtrodden an equal voice in how our society and environment is managed. This kind of change will not come easily. However, with the current state of American capitalism—the racial and economic injustices which have always existed laid bare—with the looming threat of global climate change, the shocking loss of wilderness and species, and the degradation of our oceans, this is undoubtedly an extremely important time in the history of our planet. Maybe now we can join together to demand change. If we are to be successful, we will need a mass movement; a revolution of the people to demand a government and economic system that works for us and the environment. It won’t be easy. This system has been entrenched for centuries and closely watched over by the vanguard of the powerful. They will demonize and smear groups and leaders, they will attempt to divide the mass into factions which can be more easily dealt with and pitted against each other, they will call for small changes designed to placate without sacrificing their own power. This has all been done before. It is going on now. In order to be successful, we must stand together in solidarity, not allow ourselves to be divided, and think big, not permit ourselves to be persuaded, bought, or duped by half-measures and phony concessions. With so much at stake, we must succeed where others have failed. It is time to stand up to the abuses of our capitalistic system and reclaim this land for all the people, not just those with money. Our shared environment affects all of us and our nation’s wilderness can inspire and bring us together. To quote Walt Whitman, “Democracy, with its myriad personalities and increasing sophistication must be fibred and vitalized by regular contact with outdoor growths—animals, trees, sun warmth and free skies—or it will dwindle and pale.” Maybe in wilderness we can find the strength to stand together and fight for that vital democracy this nation has promised us; maybe in saving wilderness we can save ourselves.


Forest Park and Wilderness Politics (Part 1)

“In wilderness is the preservation of the world”
-Henry David Thoreau

Trillium (Trillium ovatum) and wood violets (Viola sempervirens) bloom under a canopy of second-growth Douglas-fir. Nearby, three species of fern—sword (Polystichum munitum), bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), and maidenhair (Adiantum aleuticum)—cover the ground under a spreading bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), its massive leaves, a foot across, blocking out the sun on this spring day. In the branches of the maple, near lichens and mosses and singing birds grows the epiphytic licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza). It often spends its whole life on a tree branch and is particularly fond of bigleaf maple. It is not a parasite, but lives on whatever water and nutrients can be captured from the air and whatever happens to land in the moss into which its roots grow. The common name comes from the licorice flavor of its roots, which were chewed by many native tribes. Ferns represent an early stage in the evolution of land plants. They have developed vascular tissue, allowing them to grow much taller than mosses, hornworts, and liverworts, yet they still reproduce via spores as ferns predated the evolution of flowering plants by around 200 million years. Aside from these ferns, much of the ground cover here is provided by dull-Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa) with its holly-like leaves and racemes of yellow flowers turning to chalky-blue berries in summer. The closely related state flower of Oregon, Mahonia aquifolium, or tall-Oregon grape, is, well, taller. Around a bend in the trail, where a bit more light can penetrate, a tangle of thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), a close relative of raspberry and blackberry, shows off its large white flower, a tempting reminder of the delicious fruit soon to come.

Wood violet in Forest Park.

Wood violet in Forest Park.

This scene can be found in many forests of the Pacific Northwest. It just so happens that this scene took place within the city limits of one of its largest cities, Portland, Oregon. Forest Park is over 5,100 acres and contains around 70 miles of hiking trails making it one of the largest, if not the largest, forested urban parks in the country. Additionally, hundreds of species of native plants, as well as a few notable non-native ones, fill this forest escape. Animals, including black-tailed deer, bobcats, bats, several owls, and woodpeckers are a few of the dozens of animals that inhabit the park, even including the large and wide-roaming Roosevelt elk. While it is an urban park, its size means it stretches to the outer edges of the city limits and it is easy to find yourself relatively alone in the woods while still within a moderately large city. The idea for Forest Park stretches back well over a hundred years. It was one of the central park proposals within the Olmsted Portland Park Plan, first proposed to the city in 1903 by the Olmsted Brothers architectural firm. The plan laid out numerous areas of the city that should be purchased and set aside as green spaces, including Forest Park, Mt Tabor Park, Sellwood Park, and Ross Island. The report also details the value inherent in setting aside public green space: “parks not only add to the beauty of a city and to the pleasure of living in it, but are exceedingly important factors in developing the healthfulness, morality, intelligence, and business prosperity of its residents.” They even went as far as to say that, “a liberal provision of parks in a city is one of the surest manifestations of the intelligence, degree of civilization and progressiveness of its citizens.” One cannot help but wonder what current city leaders, who seem more than happy to let every lot in Portland, vacant or otherwise, be filled with expensive, ultra-modern condominiums, would make of this report. If a liberal provision of parks denotes an intelligent and progressive population, what does a liberal provision of exclusionary condos say?

Thimbleberry flower.

Thimbleberry flower.

The Olmsted report also called for parks which showcased the natural beauty already present in the land, saying, “enormous advantages are gained by locating parks and parkways so as to take advantage of beautiful natural scenery.” Located atop the northwest hills above downtown Portland, called the Tualatin Mountains by local American Indians, this is something Forest Park certainly has. Beautiful vistas provide views stretching across the city and beyond to the Cascade Mountains. In 1903, however, the city owned little of this land. It was necessary they purchased it quickly to avoid what had happened in many other cities in places that could create beautiful parks; as the Olmsteds described: “people built with the backs of their houses upon the rivers and lakes, thus not only excluding the public from continuous access to them but ruining their beauty.” John C. Olmsted believed that where land that contained local beauty could “be fairly well spared from the commercial uses, public squares, parks, and parkways should be located,” and so, seeing the slow pace at which Portland was buying up land, commented that ‘Portland is not awake to her opportunities.” Portland did, however, implement many of Olmstead’s plans, including Forest Park, though it happened decades after the initial proposal. After acquiring the land piece by piece, the city finally dedicated 4,200 acres of land as Forest Park in 1948, and continued to expand it by another 1,000 acres or so to create today’s park.

The value of natural urban parks to humans is obvious to those of us lucky enough to live in a city with access to these places. They represent a refuge of quiet and beauty in our backyards, an escape from the cars and buses. There are few treatments for stress or anxiety better than a walk in the woods. It is obvious urban parks provide an escape for humans, but an interesting question, is what do they do for wildlife? These spaces cannot be called wilderness, yet they do provide a home for many species who would otherwise be pushed out by development. The value of natural urban areas depends, for one, on the species. It is much easier for smaller species to find refuge, as well as animals able to safely travel through urban space to find the park. Thus, we find that for migratory birds and small mammals, these natural spaces can be very beneficial. This leads to another important factor: the size of the park. Forest Park is large enough to hold a decent population of deer, yet the elk seen there are only passing through. Elk herds need a very large space to roam and so cannot be contained in the park. Forest Park just happens to be near enough natural space, both public and private, that elk can travel through it. There are also animals that simply cannot live with large amounts of human disturbance. Northern spotted owls, those beautiful endangered birds who have done as much for Northwest forests as just about any human, need undisturbed forests to thrive. Disturbance levels in preserved lands are determined by edge effects, meaning that the edges of natural areas are more exposed to human activity such as roads and buildings and general development and thus uninhabitable for many of these sensitive species. Urban spaces, even those as large as Forest Park, are essentially all edge, at least for sensitive species such as spotted owls or mountain lions.

Anemone flower, Forest Park.

Anemone flower, Forest Park.

Where these urban natural areas truly show their value, however, is in giving people easy access to nature, including those who wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to wild things. Anyone can hike and explore without having to invest time and money in traveling to a distant or remote preserve. Parents in Portland and Seattle and many other cities can take their kids into the woods without driving through hours of sprawl and farmland. They can walk or bike or ride the bus to the edge of these natural areas and find bright yellow banana slugs moving across the trail, watch a woodpecker search for insects under the bark of Douglas-fir, watch a bumblebee bouncing from flower to flower, collecting pollen as it goes. The love for nature can be discovered in our own backyards. Additionally, backpacking isn’t for everyone, it often involves long drives and time off work or away from home and is physically demanding, but anyone can visit Forest Park, anyone can see native plants and animals and listen to the birds instead of the cars. To fight for nature, to stand up to those who would let it slip away in the name of profits or progress or apathetic procrastination, one must first experience nature. This is the greatest gift urban green spaces can give us. Not only are they important for “developing the healthfulness, morality, intelligence, and business prosperity of its residents,” they are also important in developing a sense of the significance, scope, and beauty of the natural world and hopefully strengthening our will to protect it.

Gifford Pinchot

Gifford Pinchot

Conservation has a relatively long history in the United States. The first large-scale effort to protect lands was our National Forest system. Beginning in 1891, the Forest Reserve Act allowed Presidents to declare lands as forest reserves. This was done by several Presidents, but when Theodore Roosevelt became President in 1901, conservation reached new heights. Along with Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the United States Forest Service and close friend of Teddy, Roosevelt placed 230,000,000 acres of land into the hands of the federal government. Today, the Forest Service controls about 193,000,000 acres. An important question, however, is just how are those lands managed? It is true that these lands are far more protected under the federal government than they would be if they were left to the free-market, this is made obvious by the extreme resistance to the Forest Service by industrialists and the very wealthy of the time who stood to make a lot of money exploiting forest resources. However, these are not preserves in the strictest sense. Pinchot saw forest management as “the art of producing from the forest whatever it can yield for the service of man.” (The Training of a Forester). To Pinchot and Roosevelt, conserving a forest was not the same as preserving it. Preservation meant setting it aside and sparing it from all destructive human practices, something Pinchot and Roosevelt had neither the will nor the ability to do. In fact, it was this idea which led to a rift between Pinchot and his wilderness mentor John Muir. Where Pinchot was practical, a wealthy politician well-versed in compromise, who believed the land should work for the people, Muir was idealistic and saw the land as sacred and best when left alone. This came to a head in Muir’s beloved Yosemite National Park. San Francisco wanted to dam the Tuolumne River, flooding the beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley, near the comparably beautiful Yosemite Valley, to provide more water for its growing population. Pinchot supported the plan while Muir vehemently opposed it. In 1923, after Muir’s death, the dam was completed and the valley flooded, soon to be joined by Glen Canyon, over the protests of fellow conservation idealist Edward Abbey, on the list of beautiful canyons lost to the world under reservoirs. This aside, however, we as a nation owe Roosevelt and Pinchot a tremendous amount of gratitude for the lands they saved, something Muir himself realized before his death, as his Sierra Club dedicated a giant sequoia to Pinchot in the Muir redwoods. It is fair to say that the American populist conservation movement can be traced back to these men.

John Muir

John Muir

In addition to the National Forest Service, the National Park Service was established in 1916, formalizing the preservation of land as National Parks that had begun with Yellowstone National Park in 1872. While they do not control as much land as the Forest Service, National Parks are much more focused on preservation than National Forests, which still allow some logging and other industrial and agricultural practices. None of that is allowed in National Parks, though tourism certainly is. These parks receive millions of visitors each year, many of whom remain in their vehicles for most of their tour, watching vistas and animals framed through a car window, before returning to their cozy hotels at night. Edward Abbey took pity on these tourists: “They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while.” National Parks contain some of the most extraordinary wilderness in the world, however, one cannot truly experience this from a car, a road, or a hotel. I spent two summers working in Yellowstone National Park, and the times I remember most dearly were not peering over tourists at Old Faithful or standing among crowds at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, they were on a trail, away from the roads and the hum of cars, in wilderness, true and untamed. National Parks are an undoubtedly great idea and have introduced many, myself included, to nature. Yet they often fall short when it comes to sparking that love and reverence for the natural world that the conservation movement needs. There could be many ways to change this, but I’ll let Edward Abbey give his proposal as only he can: “No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs–anything–but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places. An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly.” (Desert Solitaire).

Aldo Leoplod and fellow conservationist Olaus Murie.

Aldo Leoplod (left) and fellow conservationist Olaus Murie.

A major step forward in American conservation was the Wilderness Act of 1964. Signed by President Lyndon Johnson, this monumental legislation created a mechanism for designating formal wilderness areas. Currently, nearly 110,000 acres of land are protected as wilderness. The Act defines “wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Also, it must retain “its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions” It also declares that “there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.” This act gave us the true wilderness that was lacking from the Forest Service and National Park Service. Here we have lands truly wild and free, where we can enjoy them, and then leave them as they are for future generations to do the same. The best hikes I have ever taken were in these wonderful places, far from roads or cars or buildings, surrounded by nothing but nature. The primary mover and advocates of the Wilderness Act was the Wilderness Society, a group founded by some of our nation’s greatest conservationists: Aldo Leopold, Benton MacKay (the “Father of the Appalachian Trail”), Bernard Frank, Robert Sterling Yard, Harvey Broome, and Bob Marshal, who was independently wealthy and thus funded the Society in its early years. Through political advocacy and public persuasion, the group was able to successfully promote wilderness as an essential American right, a place to escape from civilization and to be alone with nature. We owe these men, and many other advocates a great debt.

Hetch Hetchy Valley before the dam.

Hetch Hetchy Valley before the dam.

Well,  there is part 1 of this long entry. In the second and final installment, we explore the politics of wilderness and what we as a society must do to ensure the protection of wilderness and our global environment. Stay tuned to find out!

There is a subscription form at the bottom of the parge if you would like an email update when part 2 is posted.

Or, follow me on Twitter for updates and some mostly relevant nature stuff! @hikingcascadia

Finally,  let me know what you think. How has wilderness affected your life? How do you see the the pros and cons of our various forms of federal land protection? What have you seen while exploring Forest Park?


Finding Inspiration Along the Oregon Coast

Backpacking in the middle of winter requires some extra consideration, especially in the Pacific Northwest. The days are short, the mountains are locked in snow, and the low elevations are swamped with rain almost daily. With some preparation, however, it can be a rewarding and unique experience. A mid-January trip along the Oregon Coast gave two friends and myself rain, mud, wonderful ocean scenery, and a greatly appreciated campfire. We walked from Manzanita to Seaside along the Oregon Coast Trail. We passed over beautiful bluffs covered in windswept trees and crossed long stretches of lovely, wide beaches. This could not properly be called a wilderness trip, as towns and roads were never far away, however the scenery was striking and the trails largely empty. Just after Manzanita, we crossed Oswald West State Park, with views towards the foreboding Tillamook Head Lighthouse, understandably known as Terrible Tilly, isolated on a rock 1.2 miles off the shore. The lighthouse was operated from 1881 to 1957 by four keepers at a time who often spent months straight on this small rock in the violent Pacific Ocean.

Terrible Tilly on Oregon coast

Terrible Tilly

The coast of Cascadia is typically less populated than coastlines elsewhere in the lower-48 states. A major factor has got to be the weather—there’s about a week of nonconsecutive days suitable for sunbathing every year. Additionally, the Oregon Beach Bill, passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Tom McCall in 1967 after a grand showing of public support, guaranteed public ownership of Oregon’s beaches. It was the first of its kind in the nation and let the beaches stay in public hands instead of opening them up to developers, allowing them to remain in a relatively natural state. Today, wild coastlines are quite rare. The prospects for development are often too alluring to be ignored. One exception is the stretch of wild coast on the Olympic Peninsula, now protected by Olympic National Park; an incredibly important piece of this region’s wild heritage that remains on my hiking to-do-list. The scenery on that stretch of Oregon coast between Manzanita and Seaside, however, was quite beautiful as well, even if homes and towns occasionally dotted the lands above the sand. The offshore rocks functioning as seabird colonies, including iconic Haystack Rock, seemed to appear randomly, demonstrating the power of the ocean to erode. Then there was the rhythmic crashing of ocean waves with their meditative quality. Like watching the flickering of a campfire or the cascades of a waterfall, they are mesmerizing and seem to lead people to internal places. There is deep mystery out there—a vast and largely unexplored expansive of our planet lies just beyond those waves, just below the ocean’s desert-like surface. Perhaps, then, watching ocean waves is closer to the feeling of gazing up at the stars on a clear, moonless night, away from the city lights, when the Milky Way itself can be seen as a dense swath across the sky. Its vastness and mystery and the unanswerable questions it raises lends to the meditative feeling. The grandness of nature, as it so often does, turns us inside ourselves.

Oregon coast fog

As the fog rolls in at Oswold West.

As we enter the forest, salal, Gaultheria shallon, provides much of the ground cover, with huckleberry bushes dotting the forest floor. It is too early for flowers and the maples and other deciduous trees have not yet leafed out, but the forest is a vibrant green. This is largely due to three conifers which dominate the forests that hang above the beaches here in the Northwest. The first, Sitka spruce, Picea sitchensis, is found close to the Pacific Ocean from Southwestern Alaska to Northern California. It typically does not reach over the Coast Range. It can grow to be quite large, and the largest, by volume, is purported to exist in Washington, near Lake Quinault, reaching over 190 ft tall and almost 55.5 ft in circumference, though other skinnier specimens can be much taller. It has sharp needles, painful to the touch, which differentiates it from other local conifers. Those needles lie on top of distinct woody pegs protruding from its branches and twigs. Its cones are a couple inches long and papery in texture.

Growing near these spruce trees is Pinus contorta, known here as shore pine. These pines, with needles in bunches of two, often grow in wind-twisted and stunted forms—hence the specific epithet contorta. This species can also be found far to the east, on the dry side of the Cascades and out to the Rocky Mountains, though in a very different form. Pinus contorta is the tree that dominates Yellowstone National Park, though there and in central Oregon it is known as lodgepole pine. It grows straight and tall, often occurring in monocultures that look very different from the stunted and contorted pines growing in those mixed coastal forests. In the east it is referred to as the subspecies P. contorta latifolia, while the coastal variety is P. contorta contorta. This fascinating tree leads to an interesting question on what constitutes a species: why do lodgepole and shore pine share the latin name Pinus contorta? One way to frame this question is to look at how genetics and environment plays into the growth form of these trees, effectively nature vs. nurture. If the two growth habits are due mostly to the environment, then the genetic differences between the two trees must be minimal, lending credence to the argument these are actually the same species. This can be done with a simple experiment known as reciprocal transplant. Seeds from the east are planted on the coast, and seeds from the coast are planted in the east. If the trees match their neighbors, that strongly suggests that the differences are created by the environment while if they retain the characteristics of their origin, then genetics must be responsible for the differences. These experiments, as far as I can tell, often end up somewhere in the middle. Unsurprisingly, nature and nurture play important roles.

While in this case the consensus is that the physical and genetic differences between these two populations are great enough to be considered subspecies but not enough to be separate species, this leads to a larger debate in the world of systematics. That is, should our phylogenies, evolutionary histories and relationships of groups of organisms, include more or less species? Should similar taxa, such as species or genera, be lumped together or split apart? This debate between lumpers and splitters is ongoing. The definition of species most used today is the biological species concept. Not surprisingly, it relies heavily on the foundation of modern biology—evolution. If two populations can freely and successfully interbreed, then when those two populations meet the differences between them will fade. Their distinctiveness will eventually be leveled and the two groups will consist of one species. If, however, these two populations cannot successfully interbreed, either because no offspring is formed or the offspring cannot reproduce or survive, then they will remain distinct groups and are likely to continue to evolve apart. Therefore, the inability of two populations to create viable offspring is what defines a species. As evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr framed it: “species are groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other groups.” In the case of these two subspecies of pine, for example, they could potentially produce viable offspring, yet they will not interbreed as their populations are divided by hundreds of miles and at least one mountain range. They are reproductively isolated geographically, and not interbreeding. A dedicated splitter, therefore, could argue that these are separate species due to their isolation. However, the two populations’ ability to form viable hybrids if the geographic barrier were to vanish lends credibility to the notion that they are both still P. contorta.

Oregon coast haystack rock

Haystack Rock

One thing that is certain, however, is that the longer these populations remain reproductively isolated, the more likely they are to evolve into distinct species, unable to interbreed at all. The two environments they live in are very different. The coast has mild weather, more than sufficient rain, and salty air. The interior is much drier, and must deal with very cold winters and frequent wildfires in the summer. This means the selective pressures on each group are vastly different and as they continue to evolve to better exploit these environments, they will continue to move apart. Additionally, genetic drift, the random change in allele frequency occurring only by chance, dictates that they will differentiate themselves regardless of selection, simply by being isolated. For example, one form of a gene, let’s call it allele A, in the coast population might become ubiquitous not because it is important for survival, but simply because of chance. Likewise, the B allele form of the same gene might become ubiquitous in the inland population also because of random chance. In this way isolated populations will diverge genetically simple because they are isolated. Both of these factors are very important in the process of speciation.

The third conifer is Douglas-fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii. Doug-fir dominates the skies of the Northwest. It is pervasive in most of our forests and to many has become the symbol of Cascadia. In its common name is a bit of a misnomer as it is actually not a true fir, the genus Abies, but instead it is in its own genus Pseudotsuga. Additionally, the latin name honors the Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies who first described the tree in 1790, while the common name honors his fellow Scottish botanist David Douglas who was the first Westerner to recognize its importance as a timber commodity and to send seeds back to be grown in Europe. Both of these Scots must have been amazed by the sheer size this tree reaches. It is the second tallest tree on earth, only surpassed by the coast redwood of Northern California. The tallest known surviving specimen is in Coos County, Oregon and is 327 ft tall! Reports of past giants reach well over 400 ft tall, rivaling and possibly even equaling the redwood. These reports are very likely true, though unconfirmed, as most of the largest trees were felled by loggers in the early 20th century.

Oregon coast

Giant Douglas-fir logged in B.C. 1895 Source

There is a limit to the height of these trees, however, determined by the fascinating process used to bring water from deep within the earth up to 400 or more feet in the air. This process, used by all vascular plants, is known as the cohesion-adhesion or cohesion-tension theory and it allows these giant trees to transport water up to their highest leaves without needing to expend any energy. It is a passive process relying only on the chemical properties of water. In vascular plants, the conductive tissue known as xylem, what we call wood in trees, functions basically as a giant straw, or a bundle of many small straws, made of cells called tracheids; elongated, dead cells into which water enters from the roots and is pulled all the way to the highest leaves. This pulling force is created in the leaves, where small holes on the leaf surface called stomata are opened to allow for gas exchange. This allows in CO2 which is needed for photosynthesis. Inevitable, some water is also lost in this process due to evaporation. Because water is a polar molecule it can readily form hydrogen bonds. These bonds allow water to stick together, as in a drop of water on a table. Because of this stickiness, as water evaporates through the leaf it also pulls on its closest molecular neighbor, and so on down the column of straws. This chain of water molecules reaches all the way down to the soil. At a certain point though, the pressure becomes strong enough to break these bonds. This is likely what determines the height limits of trees which seems to be around 450 feet for Douglas-fir. I love this process, the idea of these trees exploiting the molecular qualities of water to achieve their aim, beautifully illustrates how evolution can create solutions to truly difficult problems.

To look up at an ancient and massive Doug-fir in a moment of quiet and reflection is to grasp an idea of the age of these ecosystems. This tree was born centuries before me and will endure for centuries after my death. It lets one feel small in the grandest sense of the word. Like looking up at a sky full of stars or the vast expanse of the ocean, it is hard to feel self-important or entitled when surrounded by old-growth Douglas-firs. One cannot help but feel humbled. There are people who find this upsetting or even frightening, yet most lovers of nature find a comfort in it. It illustrates so clearly how foolish our perceived dominance over nature truly is. There is no better way to feel like a part of nature than to look up as it reaches, its greatest heights. The illusion society creates that we are in fact distinct from nature, that ecosystems happen out there, away from our civilization, vanishes in these moments and thus a strange paradox emerges: in being humbled by nature we can realize our own strength to defend it. As John Muir said of nature, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” He found himself deeply moved by the interconnectedness of nature, saw clearly our part in it, and dedicated his life to protecting wild places. He brought people, most famously Teddy Roosevelt, into the Yosemite Valley and Sierra forests in the hope of sparking this feeling in others. Many have found this same drive in ancient forests. Losing the notion of human dominance over and separation from the wild things on our planet is an opportunity to embrace a much more rewarding, not to mention accurate, view of humanity as a part of the cycles and the interconnected webs that make life on Earth so diverse and complicated and endlessly fascinating. So take the time to visit an old-growth forest. Bring a friend. Look up and consider the time and resources it took to create this wonderful organism—the carbon fixed from the air, the water taken from the ground, the nitrogen released by bacteria constantly decomposing the organic material falling to the forest floor. Let yourself feel humbled. It is in this feeling that so many conservationists are born; and we will need conservationists to ensure these rare forests remain and new ones continue to grow and inspire generations to come.

Oregon coast hug point

Sunset near Hug Point

Down from the forests, and after a night at beautiful Hug Point State Park, where we enjoyed a campfire more than any summer backpacker ever could, we continued hiking a long stretch of wide beaches on our way to Seaside. We were lucky enough to find dry patches in the day when we could take off our ponchos and jackets. This was a luxury not afforded to the first European-Americans to spend the winter camping on this coast: Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery. At Fort Clatsop, just up the beach near present-day Astoria, the group found themselves thoroughly depressed by over three months of near-constant rain. After navigating the rapids of the untamed and wild Columbia River (what I wouldn’t give to see that river!) and spotting the Pacific Ocean in early November 1805, two and a half years after they began their journey, the Corps decided to make camp up the modern Lewis and Clark River from Astoria. Using grand fir, Abies grandis, another local conifer, they built a simple fort and settled in until spring when the Bitterroot Mountains could again be crossed. The Fort consisted of two building with seven rooms, three for enlisted men’s quarters, one for the two captains, one for Sacagawea and her family, one as an orderly room, and a smokehouse. A replica of the Fort is maintained by the National Park Service. They built their temporary home in weather described by Clark with his typically colorful drama and creative spellings: “The winds violent. Trees falling in every derection, whorl winds, with gusts of rain Hail & Thunder, this kind of weather lasted all day. Certainly one of the worst days that ever was!” (Lewis and Clark sources: The Lewis and Clark Journals edited by Gary E. Moulton and Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose.)

After the Fort was completed on December 30th, a team made their way to a site just south of modern Seaside, OR to start boiling ocean water to create salt. We passed this site near the end of our trip. In addition to salt, the Corps also took elk and deer—a lot of elk and deer. In over three months they killed 131 elk and 20 deer, effectively all the animals in the surrounding area, and so they had to continue to expand their hunts farther and farther from the Fort (Ambrose, 329). Of course they were not alone, American Indians lived here in relatively high numbers, even though smallpox epidemics from earlier European ships stopping at the mouth of the Columbia had been tragically devastating. Throughout their journey, the Lewis and Clark expedition relied on the kindness of the native peoples for their survival. They surely would have starved on multiple occasions without this help. At Fort Clatsop they traded for roots and fish to supplement their diet and break the monotony of elk. The fish consisted of smoked or dried salmon and the Pacific eulachon which began running at the end of February. The eulachon, or candlefish, which Lewis proclaimed to be “superior to any fish I ever tasted,” is a species of smelt which lives, like salmon, in the ocean for several years before returning to its natal stream to spawn and die. It ranges from Northern California to Alaska. While once an important supplement to the diets of the tribes along the Pacific coast, it has declined greatly in recent years and was recently listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Though larger runs do still sporadically occur, such as several in 2013, the fish is undoubtedly in danger.

Oregon coast camp

Our camp near Hug Point State Park.

During the rainy winter, the captains also traded for cedar bark rain hats. Designed to shed rain they were conic in shape and even had chinstraps. The captains bought hats for themselves and every member of the Corps to help them through. Additionally, Lewis was very impressed by the canoes the locals made, “I have seen the natives near the coast riding waves in these canoes with safety and apparently without concern where I should have thought it impossible for any vessel of the same size to live a minute.” The technologies and knowledge these locals had allowed them to thrive in this environment. As Stephen E. Ambrose puts it, “They had mastered the environment far better than the men of the expedition managed to do. The resources they drew on were renewable, whereas the Americans had shot out all the elk in the vicinity in just three months. With the coming of the spring, the Corps of Discovery had no choice but to move on. The natives stayed, living prosperous lives on the riches of the Pacific northwest, until the white man’s diseases got them.” (Ambrose 341). Twenty years after Lewis and Clark left, an outbreak of malaria did indeed get them, decimating their already depleted populations. By the time white settlers showed up decades later, much of this amazing culture had already been lost, making the detailed observations and ethnographic studies of these people conducted by Meriwether Lewis even more valuable. When not conducting interviews with and observing the native peoples, Lewis spent much of his time at the Fort pursuing his work as a naturalist. Before he left, Thomas Jefferson made sure Lewis spent time with leading zoologists and botanists, so that he could properly record what he found on his journey. During this winter, he discovered and described ten new plant species including the Sitka spruce, which he said, “grows to immense size; very commonly 27 feet in girth six feet above the surface of the earth, and in several instances we have found them as much as 36 feet in the girth or 12 feet diameter perfectly solid and entire. they frequently rise to the height of 230 feet, and one hundred and twenty or 30 of that height without a limb” (February 4, 1806). He also described eleven bird, eleven mammal, and two fish species new to science.

I cannot help but feel a little melancholy reading the journals of Lewis and Clark. They describe a wonderful lost world where salmon ran thick across the free-flowing Columbia, where bison herds of tens of thousands were pursued across the plains by huge packs of wolves. This wild land, untouched by European-American “progress,” is gone forever. Still, we can push to keep what remains, and maybe even to bring some of it back. This does happen—wolves have returned to parts of the west, we do protect some wild places—but we can always do more. By finding pieces of wilderness, like the old-growth forests that still stand tall, we can get a taste for the splendor and vastness of this continent as Lewis and Clark experienced it. Reading about the expedition, makes me long for their world while simultaneously inspiring me to rescue and reconstruct what we can. We’ve lost much since the winter of 1805-6. We cannot afford to lose any more. As the Corps of Discovery left the Pacific coast in late March, Lewis wrote, “the leafing out of the huckleberry reminds us of spring.” On our hike, I knew that in only a couple months, those huckleberries would leaf out again, just as they had each spring for the 209 years since Lewis and Clark left. We must ensure that every future spring is marked by the leafing of huckleberry. And hopefully we are approaching another spring, an awakening when society will realize its deep and inescapable connection to the natural world and when protecting wild places will become a cause we can fight for side by side.

Oregon coast

Approaching Seaside.


Hiking the Columbia Gorge: Botany, Evolution, Vistas

Heading up the very popular Eagle Creek Trail in the Columbia Gorge, it is obvious how close to Portland you are. Still, the beauty of the forests and the roar of waterfalls leaves one with a wonderful feeling of escape. You will see several lovely waterfalls and when going in early spring, a few less people. The dripping leaves of bigleaf maple keep away the fair-weather hikers while adding to the power of the falls. An early spring hike also means one can search for some of fore bringers of spring in our forests. Oemleria cerasiformus, known as Indian plum or osoberry, depending on your thoughts on the word “Indian”, is a small trefoils in the understory of the wet forests of Cascadia. It is the first major native to leaf out, sending out green shoots as early as February, soaking up the early rays of sun before its taller, naked competitors can block them out.

Indian plum, the first major native to bloom.

Indian plum, the first major native to bloom.

It is also the first to flower, sending out delicate clusters of bell shaped flowers. These flowers beckon to sun-starved and soggy hikers. “Could it be? Is spring really here?” Minds fill with visions of backpacking through the mountains, of grand vistas with clear blue skies, of bumble bees bouncing through the air in fields of lupine, of campfires and whiskey, and dangling tired feet in cool streams. Then, of course, comes that pang of disappointment; it’s February. There are still months of grey skies, of rain, of dark dreary mornings, of Googling seasonal affective disorder. Still, to many, those white cluster in the woods are a light at the end of a cold damp tunnel.

Learning to recognize species of plants, like Indian plum, can be difficult, especially at first. Many people, even hikers, see the forest as a sea of green differentiated only by tree or shrub or flower. Learning to see the differences, however, is a very rewarding process. When the sea of green begins to focus, it’s like spotting friends in a audience, smiling back at you. “Oemleria, my old friend, what lovely flowers you have this spring!” There are times when my love of plants leaves me feeling a little exposed, but hey, I’m a plant nerd and I’m proud. Plants contain a fascinating amount of diversity (an estimated 300,000 species) not to mention their essential role in every ecosystem on earth. Every living thing thus far discovered is made primarily of carbon. We, and our animal and fungus brothers and sisters, thus have to eat other animals to get this carbon. Plants, however, can take carbon right from the air. This is every high school biology students favorite process, photosynthesis or carbon-fixation, taking atmospheric CO2 and creating carbon-based carbohydrate molecules and O2, atmospheric oxygen which us animals greedily inhale. This process not only is the basis for carbon based life forms, the O2 byproduct also prepped the land for mobile, oxygen breathing animals.

So don’t get me wrong, animals are great, but lets not forget our more distant cousins, the plants, they need advocates too! Much has been made of our tendency to protect charismatic megafauna, pandas and tigers and elephants, while amphibians and fish and less cuddly things are often forgotten. An estimated 33% of amphibians and  21% of fish globally are in danger of extinction. This bias is even stronger with plants. Considering all they do for us animals, only around 13,000 of the estimated 300,000 total plants have even been thoroughly evaluated. Additionally, plants are at a disadvantage simply because they can’t move away from danger or habitat loss. Likewise, they will be less able to retreat to higher latitudes or elevations as climate change worsens.

Plants are fascinating, unique, and beautiful organisms in their own right and they deserve a voice. Learning to see plants as individuals is a good start. So look for Indian plum next time you are on an early spring hike and start learning the tree species you see everyday. If you are here in Cascadia then this isn’t too difficult as there really aren’t that many tree species here. Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is the ubiquitous tree with the mouse-butt cones—three bracts that stick up from between the cone scales as if a tiny mouse were hiding in there. Western hemlock looks similar, but its needles are not uniform in length but variable, thus the latin name Tsuga heterophylla, hetero meaning different and phylla meaning leaves. These are two common conifers you’ll see along Eagle Creek and most places between the coast and the Cascades. There are numerous books on plant ID, no matter where you live, and they are all rewarding. At the very least, you can impress your friends and family and possibly annoy them as I do by stopping every hundred feet to identify something new.

Doug fir con Columbia gorge

Douglas-fir cone showing bracts. Source.

Continuing on the trail, sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) and salal (Gaultheria shallon) provide much of the ground cover. If you head up later in the spring, you can find orange Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in the shade. Try one if you’re sure what it is, though they’re a little bitter. I prefer thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), a delicious, sweet raspberry-like berry with a satisfying crunch. Smilacina racemosa, with its racemes of white flowers turning to red berries in summer (don’t eat!) protrudes from hillsides. I found some cliff larkspur (Delphinium menziesii) on a wet slope–look for it, it’s beautiful! This is obviously only a small sample of the diversity of flora on this trail. I certainly don’t recognize every plant, not by a long shot, but learning even some of these plants greatly enhances a wilderness experience. The true diversity of life becomes obvious, the green sea focuses, you see friends in the crowd. Also, the consequence of losing forests and natural areas becomes more severe. Logging doesn’t just push back the green sea, it kills our friend Delphinium menziesii.

On the other side of the Columbia and a few miles east is Dog Mountain. This is another very popular hike and likely to be filled on any sunny day. The more eastern location of this hike leads to a very different plant community as will be obvious when you, hopefully, spot the large amounts of poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) near the start of the trail. This plant is fairly easy to spot, with its shiny oak shaped, known as pinnate, leaves in sets of three. It like things a little drier and sunnier and troves in the eastern portions of the Gorge. The effects of this plant vary from person to person based on their allergic reaction to its oils—some folks have no reaction, some will be laid up for days, and most will be somewhere in the middle, which is still miserable enough to avoid. If you’re here in spring, also look for the lovely white blooms of serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) whose berries were an important food source for many native peoples. After braving the poison oak, the trail climbs steeply through the forest before breaking out into a lovely open meadow filled with flowers in late spring or early summer.

Coral root orchid in Columbia gorge

Stripped coral root orchid on Dog Mountain

On my latest early summer hike, I found fairly-slipper orchids (Calypso bulbosa) as well as some coral-root orchids (Corallorhiza maculata). Orchids, though the largest plant family on earth in terms of the number of species, are relatively rare in the Northwest, due to it largely being a tropical family. So seeing one on the trail deserves a stop to absorb their beauty (just don’t pick them!). The coral-root orchids are especially interesting, despite their lack of flashy colors, due to their lifestyle. Their lack of any green pigment is not coincidence, they no longer are able to photosynthesize. These are parasitic plants. They have a system of roots that will actually connect with fungal strands in the soil in order to steal the nutrients they need from the unsuspecting mycorrhizal fungi. These connections between plants and fungi are by no means uncommon, in fact most plants have them, however, they typically represent a more equal partnership. The fungi uses its vast network of strands to suck up water the plant can’t get. This water is exchanged in the roots of the plant for sugars the plant has made via photosynthesis. This mutually beneficial relationship is incredibly important for both parties and thus is essential for the survival of forests today. Without this assist from fungus, trees in particular would not be able to pull enough water from the ground to support their massive bodies.

In evolution, however, if a partnership can be exploited, it will. This clever little orchid has found that it can not only take water from the fungus but it will have some sugars too. And what are you going to do about it? Parasites of all kinds are very common in nature. They are also, I believe, unfairly maligned by us proud and earnest free-living types. Why go through all the trouble of hunting or grazing or photosynthesizing, when one can just take a little from an unsuspecting neighbor? Just as evolution has no direction (towards intelligence for example) it has no morality either. If a creature can make a better living, that is create more offspring and thus spread its genes more widely, by “cheating” then it will. This comes down to the very simple and seemingly basic concept of selection, which to me makes skepticism towards evolution so strange. The gene variation (known as an allele) that makes more copies of itself will be more prevalent in the next generation. Repeat this over several generations and you have evolution, defined as the change in allele frequency over time. So if the cheating orchid has more offspring then there will be more cheaters in the next generation. It’s unavoidable. For example, Imagine a gene with two alleles or variations: A and B. 90% of the individuals have A and 10% B. Now, however, the organisms with the B allele start making more offspring than A due to some benefit the B allele grants them. Maybe this means B allows them to escape predation more effectively, or gather more resources, or have better offspring mortality. Whatever the details, the generation after this will be skewed. Let’s say 85% A and 15% B. As long as B continues to have an advantage then it will continue to grow until eventually all organisms have the B allele. If the B allele imparts some amount of parasitism, then eventually the species will be parasitic. This is evolution by natural selection. Selection is the most well known and likely most prevalent process of evolution, though there are three other process that can lead to evolution: mutation, gene flow, and genetic drift.

Understanding evolution is not only important for understanding the world around us, it also lays a tremendous weight of history on to each living thing. From today, all the way back to the origin of life, each living thing can necessarily trace an unbroken chain of lineage. Each of those lines converging and converging again as we find common ancestry to every other organism, all the way to the beginning of life. The wolf, the mushroom, and the poison oak plant are our cousins and each the product of 3.5 billion years of changing alleles. The impact of losing these unique and beautifully adapted species is to lose an unbroken chain of genetic history we can never get back. It lends tremendous weight to the struggle for conservation as it means each extinction is an irreplaceable loss that affects the present, the past history of life, and stretches into the future, where new branches of evolution will never be realized.

It is also important to see what this evolutionary view of conservation means for ecosystems. Ecology, the study of ecosystems, and evolution are inseparable. It is within an ecosystem that the parameters of natural selection are set. Whether an allele is beneficial or not is determined by the environment. An allele that allows a bird to catch more insects in the forest may be useless for a bird living in a grassland. Therefore, conserving an ecosystem is just as important in protecting the past, present, and future of life. Wilderness areas, from this perspective, are not only shrines to the present beauty of nature, they are also celebrations of the 3.5 billion years of natural history they contain as well as preserves for life yet to evolve.

Dog Mountain summit in Columbia gorge

View from the top of Dog Mountain

With these thoughts running through my mins, I reached the top of Dof Mountain and found my inner self temporarily quiet. It really is a remarkable view. Wildflowers abound, the wind blows strong and the Gorge opens up in both directions. Gazing down at the mighty Columbia River, my legs sore and back sweaty, my mind turned to more basic thoughts: a cheeseburger and a beer: it really was a tough climb.



Thanks for reading my first post! Please let me know what you thought. If you’re interested in an actual hike description check out these: Eagle Creek and Dog Mountain. Also check out the Friends of the Columbia Gorge. Have fun, and maybe share what plants you saw on these hikes!


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