In 1998 I was in grad school in Southern California and taking a seminar in physical geography. One of our assignments was to write a critique of an essay entitled “Sustaining the World’s Forests” by Janet Abramovitz. I won’t bore you with a discussion about the essay (or my critique!) but suffice to say that I had to do some research in order to craft my critique. As I descended down into the rabbit hole of research, I happened across the website of a group called Umpqua Watersheds (UW). Based out of Roseburg, Oregon, this group was fighting to save old growth stands under threat of logging around the Umpqua River watershed.
At that time in the 1990s, the Umpqua region was the center of renewed attempts to log old growth forests as a result of something called the 1995 Salvage Rider (background link and link). The links better explains it but, briefly, the Salvage Rider was one of those typical unrelated 11th hour amendments attached to a larger piece of federal legislation and it re-opened countless numbers of timber sales that had been previously withdrawn due to environmental concerns. To get their message out, UW used their website to publicize the various sales and the UW case against them, and this was something of a first at that time. It was pretty effective because the combination of narrative and photos taken out in the contested sale units really helped make the point about why these places were so special.
On a trip north to visit the Pacific Northwest one summer, I even tried to visit one of the contested sales (I don’t recall actually making it to the contested site, though). A couple years later, I realized one of my dreams and moved up to Washington State. As my new life in Washington came together, I ended up losing track of what was happening down in the Umpqua. Sometime last year, I got curious about what had happened over the last 16 years. The UW website had been revamped at some point and the new version had largely no mention of its past work. The photographer in me was very curious since I love to go out and photograph lesser known locations.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before but my background is in cartography and geographic information systems (GIS), and I decided to put those skills to use in answering the question about what has happened. I spent a lot of time combining spatial data from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) & US Forest Service with the information that used to be posted on the old UW website (it’s still accessible via Google searches). I was actually able to do quite a lot on my own but, due to the time frame we’re talking about, a lot of content isn’t available online. I eventually contacted UW to ask the proverbial “what happened” question and share the fruits of my own labor. Not only did I get a lengthy, insightful response, I also got a CC response from Francis Eatherington who was UW’s first salaried employee and someone who was deeply involved in the activism as it was happening.
It was a great surprise to have her respond with her thoughts. Even better, she offered to assist me further with my project by offering access to UW’s hardcopy files in order to fill in the gaps I ran up against on my own. It was a fantastic offer that I’d be crazy to turn down. I made my plans to visit and recently got back from my five days down in Roseburg. Before going too much further, I think it’s important to review a little history lesson. Much of the landscape in the Cascade and coastal mountains in Southern Oregon owe its existence to the expansion of the railroads in the 1800s. The Oregon & California (O&C) line was developed to connect Portland to California. The BLM has a more detailed version of events (link here) but the cliff note version is that the company trying to develop the land as part of the O&C expansion ran into issues and the federal government had to step in. What was left was a severely fragmented landscape that resembles a checkerboard where ownership alternates between private and public land every other square mile.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was tasked with management of the federal lands within the checkerboard and its management is largely dictated by the mandates that are part of the O&C Lands Act of 1937. This act really set the tone for resource management in the area (and not in a good way). The act was very pro-logging and mandates that the local counties get reimbursement payments in return for the “loss” of tax revenues due to the O&C land ownership pattern. This worked out pretty good for counties like Douglas for several decades. The 80s gave rise to concerns about the rapid loss of old growth forests in the region and their impacts on Salmon, Spotted Owls, and the Marbled Murrelet.
As the 90s began, the court of public opinion was turning towards the saving of old growth (outside of the logging industry & associated families, that is). A number of timber sales were challenged and successfully stopped. This is the point in time where we circle back to the passing of the Salvage Rider. Through determined efforts, groups like UW were able to defeat some timber sale proposals that were re-introduced as many as three or four times. Around the early 2000s, the last of the Rider area sales reached a resolution and with that, the Rider era timber sales by and large quieted down. Umpqua Watersheds transitioned from an organization focused on activism to one that now promoted education and conservation.
So, 20 years after the passage of the Salvage Rider, what, ultimately has changed? Certainly, logging volumes have certainly declined from their heyday but logging is s a culture / mindset that’s deeply embedded in the community. According to the County, nearly half of the population is directly or indirectly associated with the timber industry. Just down the block from UW’s offices, the city is updating the downtown area and part of that upgrade includes some public art in the form of small sculptures that resemble log rounds. Roseburg’s city seal even includes the phrase “Timber Capital of the World.” County revenues have taken a significant hit thanks to the reduced volumes of timber harvested. Recently, Douglas County opted to clearcut one of its own county parks in order to make up a budget deficit within their parks department. The county is also preparing to join with 17 other counties to sue the BLM about the reduction in the reimbursement payments.
Fragmented as it is, stands of old growth still exist. Visiting them is not like visiting a national park. There’s no fanfare or anticipation; it consists of traveling along logging roads through large sections of industrial clearcuts and knowing where to park and then crashing through brush in order to reach the stands. It’s not always easy, as I learned firsthand. The BLM road network is immense and can be quite confusing. BLM roads might be federal roads but they often must cross through those private ownership sections and sometimes the private owners have elected to install access gates. I ran into this situation with one of the stands I wanted to visit. The addition of a gate added a 2.2 mile, 1,400′ elevation gate hike just to even reach the location of the stand. Having experienced the situation of being locked behind a gate before, I was very concerned about this happening to me and so I wasn’t able to visit all the sites I had hoped to visit.
I’m glad that I did some pre-planning before my trip because it can be easy to get turned around while visiting these old sale units. I made a series of aerial maps for each of the sites that I was going to visit. Additionally, I used the GAIA GPS app on my iPhone to log GPS tracks while in the field and referred to aerial photos I pre-cached each day before heading out. Most sites are located on hillsides which means either climbing up or down in order to explore the site. Pacific Rhododendron, which is a common understory shrub, creates some challenges for a photographer seeking compositions. They have a tendency to grow 10′ or higher and in thickets so it can be hard to see much else in the forest. To counter this, sometimes I would use a 7′ gimbal to raise my camera to a taller height or hold my tripod in the air like a color guard would do with a flag.
After a day and half of exploring on my own, I finally had my meeting in Roseburg with Francis Eatherington at the Umpqua Watersheds office. Initially, I had only expected to spend 4-5 hours but the depth and wealth of material prompted me to change my plans and I spent the whole day scanning pages. In addition to a floor to ceiling bookcase full of project binders, they also had 2 file cabinets with more files. It wasn’t hard to get sucked into the history; many pages had hand written comments and just bringing up the name of a timber sale would prompt some story or recollection from Francis. Time flew by quickly and soon it was 5pm and Francis had to leave to attend some lands committee meeting.
Before leaving, Francis offered to “guide” me the next day at one of the timber sales and that was a fantastic opportunity which I knew I couldn’t pass up. After Francis left, one of the UW board members suggested we go grab some dinner to talk some more about the region and my mapping project. Over that dinner, he recalled numerous stories of how logging (and the timber industry in general) have impacted the region. Some things, like how clearcutting steep slopes leads to landslides, is fairly obvious but others impacts aren’t so obvious to the untrained eye. For example, I remarked how many streams in the region (not just the Umpqua) ran over bedrock bottoms, devoid of much cobble. As it turns out, in Oregon, you can thank logging for this. One factor was an early practice which loggers would fell trees into streams and let high flows transport the logs. A second factor was a puzzling decision by the State that rock in streams was bad for salmon and so timber sale contracts had stipulations that required the contractor to clear streams of rock. Just crazy.
It was a great day of conversation and I have a lot of admiration for people that continue do work under such adversity. The next morning I touched base with Francis and made plans to meet and head over to the sale units from the East Fork Coquille timber sale. Located about 25 miles southwest of Roseburg, this was a sale proposed by the BLM but was successfully defeated on appeals. These units are located in the coast range and have stand ages over 300 years old. I did visit a couple of these units after arriving in Roseburg but those were quick, cursory visits. We eventually decided to visit Unit 108, which is near 50 acres in size. The unit isn’t as steeply sloped as many other units so traversing through the unit wasn’t as bad. That being said, there were still many large thickets of dense Rhododendron that made travel interesting.
The unit has plenty of big trees- Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock. It actually has quite a high concentration of big trees per acre and that’s one of the reasons that UW sought to save these units from the chainsaw. Francis recalled that there was at least one 7′ diameter tree somewhere inside the stand and I’m sure that we passed by it at some point. Our deepest penetration into the unit was a point along the east edge of the unit. The edge outside the unit had experienced some thinning and the big trees extended literally up to and along the unit boundary. Despite blue sunny skies, I didn’t have too bad a day photographing the forest and trees. Overexposure was an issue but I was able to bracket scenes using multiple exposures to capture the range from shadow to sun. We had to head back eventually but it was a really great time out in this unit.
It was now mid afternoon and Francis was willing to take me to another sale somewhat nearby named Dickerson Heights. This time, we encountered a gate right off the highway. It was shut- but wasn’t locked. Nonetheless, I was still skittish about passing through the gate. We called it a day & headed back to Roseburg. Over dinner, Francis suggested a number of options for me to check out the following day (my last full day down in the area). I ended up with a lengthy & ambitious list and the next day I tried to tackle all of it.
My first stop was a portion of the North Umpqua Trail in the vicinity of Susan Creek. The trail is a pretty long trail and entry/exit points are separated by somewhat lengthy intervals. As it turns out, a new bridge across the Umpqua was built just a couple years ago which drops you off right into a beautiful stretch of old growth forest. Boy- was Francis right about this one! It had big trees, a nice understory with lots of Oxalis. I could have continued on and explored longer but I had too many other stops to make. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the day, though! The next stop was Toketee Falls which was as beautiful as all the photos I’ve seen. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as inspired photo wise since compositions are extremely limited due to the dangerous nature of visiting the falls (officially, there’s only a small elevated platform).
Near Toketee Falls, was my next stop: the Loafer Timber Sale Units. This sale is actually a fairly recent one (proposed 2011/2012) but threatened some pretty large trees just like the older sales. Accessing these units was a little more difficult because the units I was visited were situated away from existing roads and required bushwhacking in order to gain access. The chances of getting confused and lost were high so I made sure I logged a GPS track. Francis had told me that there was an old road that led into the area of the units but she couldn’t recall how to find it. I tried following what I thought was a slight sign of a road that I spied in an aerial. I wasn’t really convinced that I was actually on the road but, as luck would have it, during a traverse around a nasty Rhododendron thicket, I stumbled onto the old road. There was no doubt about it, especially since it was flagged at regular intervals.
Following the road, I would occasionally stop and check out any flagging that had writing on it. One flag caught my eye. It read: “RVT Possible Trees 280° / 150 ft”. Deciphered, it means “Red Tree Vole habitat trees possible, bearing 280° in 150 feet”. This means big trees are nearby! I hopped of the road in search of the trees being referenced. I should mention that mosquitoes were HORRENDOUS at this location despite no obvious sources of water. I was lathered up with bug juice but it wasn’t helping all that much. It really made it hard to keep going but I did. The further I went into the sale units, the more photogenic the forest became. In addition to the big trees, there was finally a nice understory with Vanilla Leaf, Oregon Oxalis, and Star-Flowered Soloman’s Seal. A person can stand only so much mosquito harassment so I made steady progress back to my truck to keep the day moving.
My next stop was a unit from a contentious sale named Snog. While this sale was logged, there was one unit that was saved. It’s located higher up in the Fish Creek drainage and it came recommended by Francis. All was well until I turned onto the last spur road to the unit. I didn’t know it at the time but this was the first of what would be many roads with windfall to deal with. Someone else had gone through and cleared away the worst blockages but I ended up making the passages wider for my benefit and for others. It ended up taking way too long and I made the tough decision to bail out of this stop.
At 4pm, there were only a couple hours of daylight left and I was planning on visiting Crater Lake for sunset. My attempts to visit some locations between Lemolo Lake and Diamond Lake didn’t pan out due to a lot of windfall that hindered access. I realized that I would be rushing my time anyplace I decided to visit before sunset. I eventually just decided to drive up to the northwest rim of Crater Lake to set up for sunset. This was my first ever visit to Crater Lake and fortunately the north entrance to the park just opened the week before. Despite being open, there was still ample amounts of snow up around the rim. A nice sunset didn’t look too promising a few hours before sunset but things changed favorably closer to actual sunset. I would have enjoyed the nice sunset a little more if not for the constant 30mph winds and 40° temperatures.
For my last morning, I attempted to visit a sale named Diamondback, which was located about 10 miles northwest of Sutherlin. I ended up getting confused/lost while driving to the unit. The area has experienced a recent round of logging (that wasn’t visible in the latest aerial photos) and some new roads were built which I inadvertently turned onto. It wasn’t the greatest way to end a trip but it was an exploratory trip. The Umpqua region is quite beautiful but suffers from a tortured environmental history. Although I went to visit sites from the past, I’ve come to realize that my trip now comes at the right time. Both the BLM and Forest Service are beginning the process of updating their long term management plans. Both agencies (the BLM especially) are under fire to increase logging production thanks to budget shortfalls in the C&O counties.
The Spotted Owl and Marbled Murrelet are still at risk species and their suitable habitat has not expanded. In fact, those same locations are likely to become the target of chainsaws once again. It’s important document what makes them so special, and that’s what I hope my contributions do. There are many, many locations I want to visit and photograph so I have unfinished business down in the Umpqua. This won’t be my only post about the Umpqua moving forward.
If you’re interested in viewing my web map project of timber sales within the Umpqua basin, you can view that map here.