Lessons From Eagle Creek

Lessons From Eagle Creek

It would be easy for me to say, “It’s about damned time” to all the hand-wringers and wailers in the Columbia Gorge who are mourning their yet uncounted Eagle Creek Fire losses.

But I’m not going to say that because – among other things – I also think the Gorge is a beautiful place. And I’m very sorry it is on fire, but my guess is that, once the smoke clears, it will still be beautiful: different, but still beautiful, with many more basalt columns visible from Interstate 84 between Multnomah Falls and Hood River.

Geologists believe the Gorge was shaped – gouged out might be a more accurate way of describing it – by the Great Lake Missoula Floods of some 10,000 years ago. As melting glaciers from the last Ice Age retreated, an ice dam on the Clark Fork River near Noxon, Montana broke loose, draining a 1,000-foot deep lake that covered most of western Montana. Alluvial fans from the Great Flood are still visible in eastern Washington.

But what did the Columbia Gorge look like before the cascading torrent from western Montana crashed into present-day downtown Portland, filling it to a depth of 600 feet? It’s very hard to imagine the water of the Columbia River lapping against the portal of the Sylvan Tunnel, but 600 feet of water would have overtopped the 546-foot tall Wells Fargo Tower – downtown Portland’s tallest building.

The soon-to-be-more-visible basalt cones along Interstate 84 – the last vestiges of millions of years of volcanic activity – suggest that the Gorge looked very different than it did following the floods. Suffice it to say, the Douglas-firs torched by the Eagle Creek Fire are newcomers in the Big Scheme of Things. Western Oregon’s oldest trees have come and gone at least 11 times since the Great Missoula Flood.

I first saw the Columbia Gorge in 1957, not long after Interstate 84 was completed. I was on my way to Yamhill, Oregon to help an Idaho boyhood pal put buck hay bales on a farm his parents had purchased. Back then, the route to Yamhill too travelers through downtown Portland and the Sylvan Tunnel, then down Canyon Road into sleepy Beaverton.

The Highway 26 Portland commuters now travel most days did not exist. When you left downtown Beaverton, you were again in farm country. That’s gone now, too, swept away by a seemingly endless string of housing developments and shopping malls.

People who live in the Gorge and in Portland and its suburbs are mad as hell about the Eagle Creek Fire. The focal point of their anger is a yet unidentified 15-year-old boy who purposefully tossed a firecracker into the Eagle Creek Canyon. Many believe he should be imprisoned, and that his parents should pay the firefighting bill, which will run into the tens of millions of dollars.

I respectfully disagree. What the boy did – and he is still a boy - was thoughtless, but the fire could have just as easily been started by lightning. What then? Would Portlanders be talking about nature’s great cleansing and restorative powers?

I ask this difficult and probably unanswerable question because those of us who have been living with wildfires much larger and more destructive than Eagle Creek have had it with the frequent holier-than-thou reminders we get from our urban brethren, advising us that these fires are “natural,” and that, if anyone is to blame, it is “greedy” loggers who cut down all the trees or the wrong trees; or its “climate change,” or the unnatural and unexpected result of the nation’s long-standing policy of “excluding fire” from forests.

We can learn much from our nation’s forest priorities, policies and practices, which have always tracked with our country’s ever-shifting felt necessities. But the blame game is a useless and unhelpful exercise. What would be helpful is a more constructive rural-urban dialogue about the losses we are all suffering, and what we can do collectively [politically] to mitigate them.

We all love forests, and we are all variously dependent on the tangible and intangible assets they provide: abundant fish and wildlife habitat, clean air [sometimes], clean water [most of the time] and a wealth of year-round outdoor recreation opportunity.

These are the quite measurable benefits that are on fire at Eagle Creek – and in nearly 100 large wildfires currently burning in our western National Forests.

Paul Hessburg, a PhD landscape ecologist we know and admire, believes we have no more than 25 or 30 years in which to restore natural resiliency in what we can treat in what remains of the West’s National Forests. The rest will be claimed by wildfire. That’s not much time for us to perform the miracle that is clearly our collective responsibility.

Paul has been studying forest change in Intermountain forest from his Forest Service post in Wenatchee, Washington for 31 years. Google his name and you will find a wealth of useful information quantifying and qualifying the subtle changes he is observing. Viewed over decades, these changes are visually dramatic. The tools Paul recommends are:

  1. Mechanical thinning - removing dying trees from forests that have grown too dense for the carrying capacity of the land
  2. Prescribed fire - reducing the woody debris component that is fueling larger and more destructive wildfires
  3. Managed fire – basically fighting fire with fire by herding big fires across large landscapes where it can be done safely.

Paul has his critics, as do we, but I think he is right about managed fire. It can play an important role in reducing the risk of subsequent and more destructive wildfires.

Likewise, I am convinced that the pace and scale of collaborative stakeholder forest restoration work must be immediately and significantly increased. This is the hands-on work that can and will protect communities, watersheds and recreation opportunities like those that are on fire in the Columbia Gorge and elsewhere across the West.

Obviously, the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area isn’t an area where mechanical thinning is permitted. Nor is it an area where prescribed fire can safely be applied. But it is an area where a great deal of handwork will need to be done by reopen trails and remove hazard trees killed by the fire. For all its troubles, the U.S Forest Service is very good at organizing large scale cleanup operations. Just ask the New York City folks who turned to them following 9-11.

Meantime, millions of National Forest acres in the western U.S. meet legally prescribed “suitable and available” criteria. This is where our forest restoration work should be focused, but it won’t be until Congress gets the message, and that message can and should be on the lips of every rural and urban citizen living in the Pacific Northwest.

There is a marriage made in Heaven to be consummated here. Millions of small diameter trees that must be removed from forests that hold too many trees can be used in the manufacture of two technologically-advanced wood products that are making headlines in our region’s largest daily newspapers: cross laminated timbers [CLT] and Mass Plywood Panels [MPP].

Architects and engineers are turning to these renewable new-age products because they are environmentally superior to - and cheaper to use - than steel and concrete. They are also as strong and reliable in building applications up to 12 stores.

Assuming the political will needed to implement a major National Forest restoration initiative, we could see hundreds of green-certified CLT-MPP commercial buildings erected in Portland and Seattle, and elsewhere in our region’s urban centers, over the next decade.

What’s stopping us? Only our collective voices in the halls of Congress. Maybe this is the "Big Lesson" the tragic Eagle Creek fire teaches.

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