There Was No “Sea of Old Growth”

There Was No “Sea of Old Growth”

“I think the largest single need in American forest biology is the study of man’s relation to forest land. Our foresters need to understand much more than most of them do about purely human motives and aspirations with respect to land. They ought to become genuinely knowledgeable and respectful of people’s economic, social and aesthetic institutions.”

-Hugh Miller Raup, legendary botanist and ecologist, Harvard University

I finished reading Bob Zybach’s 1999 master’s thesis this morning. It’s 321 pages long and includes the lyrics to the Tampico Song, a rousing saloon tune of unknown origin that the regulars at the old Tampico tavern sang – presumably at the tops of their lungs. More on Tampico in a moment.

Bob’s MAIS – Master of Arts In Interdisciplinary Studies – is titled, “Using Oral Histories to Document Changing Forest Cover Patterns: Soap Creek Valley, Oregon, 1500-1999.” The mere fact that it covers 500 years speaks to the fact that it is an ambitious and well researched work. So too is his 2003 PhD thesis, “The Great Fires: Indian Burning and Catastrophic Forest Fire Patters in the Oregon Coast Range, 1491-1951.” It runs 451 pages.

Now I can say I’ve read them both – a claim that Bob says can only be made by perhaps a dozen people. That’s more than unfortunate. It’s a tragedy, especially for Oregon, once home to the nation’s leading educational system and now a bottom feeder.

Bob’s MAIS and PhD should be required reading for every forestry student at Oregon State University, most of OSU’s forestry faculty, the OSU Board of Trustees, the Oregon Board of Forestry, and every elected official in Oregon.

Until this happens – an unlikely occurrence - the state where I lived for 21 years will continue its deep dive into numerous fever swamps that have developed since the federal government listed the northern spotted owl as a threatened species. A 1990 decision based on flimsy, politically driven science.

Why would I say something so seemingly outrageous?

  • Bob’s MAIShere and PhD demonstrate what real and unbiased research looks like. It took him more than a decade to work his way through his sources. More importantly, he had no preconceived ideas and no one goal in mind.
  • His was interdisciplinary research aimed at linking known forest science with other social, cultural and historical evidence including – within his MAIS - oral histories gathered from Soap Creek Valley pioneers, foresters and long-time residents.
  • Anyone – and perhaps especially FEMAT [the federal government’s Forest Ecosystem Management Assessment Team] could have done what Bob did. FEMAT members did not do this because their instruction was to prove that northern spotted owls “needed” old growth.
  • Why was this? Because “old growth” isn’t a species. Its myriad descriptions have always rested in the eye of the bolder. Early on, journalists seized on environmentalists’ visuals of “ancient” and “cathedral forests.”
  • But the federal Endangered Species Act does not recognize value-driven descriptors. It aims to protect species habitat. Thus emerged the “sea of old growth” myth and its underlying claim that logging was to blame for the loss of spotted owl habitat.
  • To “save” old growth from logging, environmentalists would need to find a surrogate. They found one in the northern spotted owl, though here it must be said – again - that the science that connects old growth and owls was dubious at best. Were this not the case, owl populations would not still be in free-fall 31 years later.
  • FEMAT laid the groundwork for the government’s decision to “protect” spotted owls by concocting a still unproven theory about how owls use old growth habitat. I have a copy of a statistical analysis conducted by a PhD statistician at Rutgers University that makes a solid case for the fact that FEMAT’s scientists did not do their homework. Their goal was to create large old growth reserves, not protect owls. Again, 31 years.
  • To back FEMAT’s work, environmental litigators challenged numerous federal timber sale proposals. Eventually, more than 90 percent of the federal timber sale program within presumed spotted owl habitat was shut down. The listing decision continues to reverberate through every forest planning document in the western United States.

The Soap Creek Valley

A word about the Soap Creek Valley and its connection to spotted owls. The picturesque and well-populated valley is a 15,000-acre sub-basin of the Luckiamute River in northern Benton County, northwest of Corvallis, Oregon. Highway 99 North runs just east of the valley enroute to Dallas, Oregon and the Luckiamute drains part of the Coast Range before converging with the Willamette River about 10 miles north of Albany.

Eric Forsman, now a Forest Service biologist, but in 1969 a wildlife student at Oregon State University, made one of his earliest spotted owl sightings here – in second growth timber along a pasture fence line, close to Tampico Road and several houses. Hardly a cathedral forest.

The first eyewitness accounts of the Soap Creek Valley were written in 1826 by Hudson’s Bay explorer, Alexander McLeod and David Douglas, the Scottish botanist for whom the Douglas Fir tree is named. Douglas accompanied the McLeod party on their journey from Ft. Vancouver, on the Columbia River, south through the Willamette Valley and on to the Umpqua on a route that closely follows present-day Tampico Road. To learn more about Soap Creek Valley History you can read "Eugene Glender Growing up on a Family Farm"  Benton County, Oregon 1910-1941- An oral history.


Miles Of Prairie

McLeod and Douglas recorded their observations in daily journals that describe miles of sparse prairie burned clear of most vegetation, punctuated by scattered groves of trees - mostly oak with some conifer, more so on the eastern slopes of the Coast Range. There was no "sea of old growth" – or even second growth. Vestiges, yes, but no sea and, more puzzling, big age gaps that suggest prehistoric or early historic intervention of a massive scale. Long before logging.

Douglas and McLeod also saw Indians, though not the tens of thousands that populated the two valleys and the Coast Range for 10,000 years, perhaps longer before white settlement began in the 1820s. The prairies they described were products of centuries of “Indian fire,” what we now call “broadcast burning.”

Indigenous use of fire has a long, long history in the West. Tribes burned their lands for many reasons closely associated with food production – nuts, berries, roots, flowering plants and fruits. They also gathered wood for fuel for cooking and warmth, to make tools and to construct their homes and lodges.


The Evidence and Influence of First Nations

We know all this because the archeological evidence of their presence is everywhere: Carbon dated filbert nuts roasted at least 9,000 years ago and camas root baked in maple wood and Douglas fir fires some 5,000 years ago. There is also evidence of an expansive trail system that crisscrossed and dissected the Coast Range.

Many of these trails terminate at the Pacific Ocean where evidence of Indian villages give rise to questions about trade with Asia. In fact, Indians living along the coast built ocean going canoes capable of carrying several tons of freight.

We know there were many villages from the mouth of the Umpqua River north to the Columbia River because early English and Spanish explorers wrote of smoke rising from campfires. Those who did not walk the trails inland rowed upriver in smaller canoes to encampments on the east side of the Coast Range.

There is more. Pollen samples that date from 10,0000 to 15,000 years ago, tree ring counts and observable fire scars on old stumps and snags. These scars tell us that the last big wildfire in the Soap Creek Valley occurred in 1848 or 1849. The valley’s east-west orientation coupled with its burnt prairies and its striking geological features, including 4,098 foot tall Mary’s Peak - protected it from larger fire and wind events.



And then there were the so-named Missoula or Bretz floods – Missoula for their origin or Bretz for their discoverer, J. Harlen Bretz, a University of Chicago geologist. The floods drained Lake Missoula, a body of melting glacier water that covered most of western Montana to a depth of 1,000 feet. They occurred over a 2,000 year period some 10,000 years ago.

The trigger point was an enormous ice dam on the Clark Fork River near where it dumps into Pend Oreille Lake in northern Idaho. It apparently broke with such force at 20-40 year intervals over millennia that it helped carve the Columbia Gorge. Floodwaters were at least 400 feet deep in modern day downtown Portland.

Among the ephemeral lakes created by flooding was Lake Allison, named for its discoverer, Ira Allison, an Oregon State College geologist. At its high point, the lake flooded the Soap Creek Valley, including Tampico, creating ephemeral islands at Coffin Butte and Forest Peak. This is important because much of the fertile soil found today in the Willamette and Soap Creek valleys rode on raging floodwaters from western Montana and eastern Washington.

Everchanging Landscape

The documentable progression events in these valleys seems to have gone from grassland to oak savannah to mixed conifer forests later dominated by Douglas fir – with one tantalizing interruption, a collection of journal notes written by journalist, Charles Emmons, and several scientists who passed through the Soap Creek, Willamette and Umpqua valleys en-route to San Francisco in 1841.

Navy sea captain, Charles Wilkes, who had visited the area north of Soap Creek, but did not make the overland trek into northern California, compiled their journal notes and published them under his name. Here is what wrote about the arrangement of oaks on savannas in the Willamette Valley.

“The country in the southern part of the Willamette Valley stretches into wild prairie-ground gradually rising in the distance into low undulating hills, which are destitute of trees, except scattered oaks; these look more like orchards of fruit trees, planted by the hand of man, than groves of natural growth, and serve to relieve the eye from the yellow and scorched hue of the plain.”

Artist James Neal wrote much the same thing in his 1845 journal:

“The leading features of the Willamette Valley and Tualatin plains were peculiar and strange to me as compared with any other country I had seen. Among the striking peculiarities was the entire absence of anything like brush or undergrowth in the forests of timber than had sprung up in the midst of the large plains, looking at a distance like green islands here and there dotting the vast expanse of vision.

“The plains covered with rich grasses and wild flowers looking like our vast cultivated fields, and where the rolling foothills approached the level valley these spurs would be sprinkled with low spreading oak trees, frequently with a seeming regularity that would seem unlike nature’s doing, and at a distance like orchards of old apple trees.”

Were these oaks the products of Indian planting? We don’t know, but early paintings and drawings reproduced in Bob’s MAIS depict pastoral settings with white oak trees growing in groves that look more like the work of farmers than nature. But the oaks are of sufficient size to predate early white settlement.

Did Indians plant these trees for the nuts they produce? We don’t know.

What we do know is that there were perhaps 200,000 Indians living in western Oregon valleys and the Coast Range before smallpox and malaria plagues killed all but a few hundred between the late 1700s and 1835. Lewis and Clark noted dozens of abandoned villages. John Work saw hundreds of graves in the Umpqua Valley in 1832. Ancestors of the Kalapuyan tribe live today on the Grande Ronde Reservation in Yamhill County.

Bob goes to considerable length to explain his selection of “Botkin’s fourth possible condition” as best multiple working hypothesis for his narrative and its conclusions. Daniel Botkin is easily one of world’s eminent botanists. His Discordant Harmonies, published in 1990 is considered a classic, as are 25 Myths That are Destroying the Planet and The Moon in the Nautilus Shell: Discordant Harmonies Reconsidered.

In 1996 Botkin described three options for interpreting Lewis and Clark’s journals for their 1805-1806 winter at Astoria.

  • Native forests were continuous and Indians had no impact on them.
  • Native forests were not continuous but Indians still had no impact on them.
  • Wildfires and storms were dominant factors with some impact by Indians

In his musing about these three options, Botkin added a fourth unnumbered option:

“Some argue that the forests of the Pacific Northwest as seen by Lewis and Clark were very much the product of intentional actions by Indians, and in their character were primarily the result of Indian management, and that this management led to more open conditions than would have otherwise occurred.

Bob seized on Botkin’s fourth unnumbered option as a multiple hypotheses model because it accounted for “the weight of available evidence,” meaning the summation of possible human and natural influences in the Soap Creek Valley. It also validated his oral histories which, in turn, meshed well with the rest of his source material. His bibliography, which is supplemented by more charts, graphs, tables and illustrations, is 110 pages long.

To my continuing astonishment, FEMAT chose to ignore or minimize most of this easily found evidence because it did not fit the old growth-spotted owl story they set out to create. Not just in the Soap Creek Valley but all of western Oregon.

If you’ve been following my series on Bob’s Elliott State Forest research, you know that when I walked into his rental house in Corvallis in 1993, his living and dining area were stacked high with boxes of research material that told the same story Bob tells in his MAIS and PhD.

And when I asked him where he got so much material that FEMAT could not find – or said did not exist - he said, “Oh, that’s easy. I have a library card.”

I asked Bob what lessons readers might take from his MAIS. Here is his characteristically candid answer:

“The main lesson in my MAIS is that local people know a great deal more about the history and management of their environment than anyone at OSU or in Salem or Washington D.C. will ever know. They should be consulted regarding their knowledge. Instead, they are routinely ignored, dismissed and otherwise marginalized in favor of the ‘experts,’ scientists and politicians who somehow know more than the rest of us on these topics.

“Can anything be more stupid than government-dictated homogenous widths to streamside buffers, imaginary and invented ‘critical habitat’ descriptions,” Bob asked. “These definitions, including Wilderness, wildland and wildland urban interface are all elitist and fundamentally racist. They are arbitrary delineations, first because they don’t - and can't - happen in nature, and second because of all the predictable and widespread grief and misery that always follows these pronouncements.”

And of FEMAT itself, he said this: “It was an expensive and destructive embarrassment. The cost of their lazy scholarship and arrogance can be measured in wildfires, dead animals and people, ruined rural homes and economies and a whole generation of misdirected politicians, government bureaucrats and students of all ages.”


Near the beginning of this essay, I promised to tell you more about Tampico, the rambunctious first settlement in the Soap Creek Valley. Its proud citizens fancied themselves as the survivors in a rivalry with nearby Corvallis - so much so that one among them, most likely schoolteacher Frank McDonough, wrote a drinking song about their hopes in 1858. There are photos of the dilapidated Tampico Tavern in Bob’s MAIS, along with drawings and paintings from the late 1890 and early 1900s.

Among the events that re-energized the encroachment of Douglas fir from neighboring hills: the loss of Indian fire, the development of road networks connecting rural farms to Corvallis, Dallas and other hamlets, the transition from draft animals to mechanized farming, the 1926 beginning of Oregon State University’s 3,000-acre McDonald Research Forest, and the 1941 creation of the Tree Farm System in western Oregon and Washington.

But nothing so profoundly altered the Soap Creek Valley than World War II and the construction of Camp Adair, a vast military training camp and artillery range that erased most of the valley’s farms and farmhouses. Shell casings are still occasionally dug up around the valley.

Following the war, Oregon State cut sufficient timber from the McDonald Forest to buy part of Adair from the War Assets Administration and turn it into the 6,000-acre Dunn Experimental Forest, so named for Forest School Dean, Paul Dunn. Today, McDonald and Dunn are parts of OSU’s forestry laboratory. It is a sham that OSU forestry students never learn that Alexander McLeod and David Douglas passed through here in 1826 – or that thousands of Kalapuyan Indians lived here for thousands of years.

I would have like to have seen Tampico in its heyday. The townsite sat astride the old Applegate Trail that ran south into southern Oregon and on into northern California. It gave Tampico’s earliest settlers bragging rights and a sales pitch in their hope to outdistance Corvallis, which was briefly Oregon’s capital city before it was moved back to Salem.  I can’t help but wonder what those who gathered in song at the Tampico Tavern would think of all this. We can’t know for sure, but we do have the lyrics to their old tavern song. There doesn’t seem to be a description or sheet music for the tune, but its form fits nicely with much of the Irish (and American) folk music of the era; a time when group singing and dancing was popular.


Hurrah for Tampico! Frank McDonough

Oregon is a pleasant place for dancing, fun and frolic-oh But if you search it o’er and o’er, you’ll find no place like Tampico!

(Chorus) Hurrah, hurrah for Tampico, Three cheers for our town Tampico. Corvallis ne’er can take the shine; To it we never will resign.

You wonder how it got its name, it happened about two years ago; A rambling scamp from Arkansaw [sic], for mischief called it Tampico.


And now the name sticks to the place; perhaps ‘twill long continue so. Later, perhaps some degenerate race, will drop the name of Tampico.


Our town is not extensive yet, being but two houses in a row; And opposite on the other street, is the Citadel of Tampico


Crouch’s goods are there for sale, silk, pantaloons, and calico; And there just twice a week the mail deposits freight in Tampico.


Saturday night the boys all meet, and all the bands are sure to go; To make amendments for the week, with a social spree in Tampico.


Egg-nog first circulates around, and then the fiddle and the bow; Off go the coats to the merry sound, and a hoe-down starts in Tampico.


Now they shake the toe and heel, and nimbly they go to and fro; All care’s resting 'til they dance and shout hurrah for Tampico.


But singing school is now the rage, there all the boys are sure to go; From North to South and all around, the neighborhood of Tampico.


One man swore he was a whale, and all believed that it was so; Then all the small craft took in sail, and scampered in to Tampico.

Perhaps some enterprising music student will set the lyrics to music. Meantime, MAIShere is Bob’s MAIS. I know its long, but I hope you will at least flip through the photographs, illustrations and paintings. I think they will draw you in for a closer look.

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