As a visitor to Wallowa County for over sixty years, as one who has spent twenty-five years exploring burned forests through photographs, and as a person privileged with many a discussion with the best of experts, I wish to weigh in on what to do for the Lostine River corridor. The situation in the Lostine is serious. Lives are at stake here, so is nature as we know it. After having been absent for many years, when I drove up the Lostine River Road this summer to backpack into the Granite Gulch Fire in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, I was shocked at how thick the forest is. Aerial photos taken in 1956 and 2011 validate my perception. I wonder what it looked like in 1900?
Essentially, by up-ending the ancient rhythms of fire, the Forest Service with good intentions and broad public support, fundamentally changed our forests not just in the Lostine, but everywhere. Historically it was many small fires, and the occasional large ones, followed by partial re-burns that kept fire and insects in check, and underlied the broad spectrum of plants and animals. Instead of avoiding fire, we are now set up to have it in a way that is more destructive than beneficial.
In a period of a couple of days under hot dry windy conditions, the Lostine could literally go from being a thick continuous patch of green to a place with few live trees. Recognizing that hazard, the Forest Service is trying to find a way to interrupt future fire along the narrow strip of road surrounded by Wilderness on both sides. In a way the Forest Service proposal is a half-measure, but it is the best it can do. Unfortunately, one sector of the environmental community, that mistakenly views the Lostine as pristine and does not see the danger has intervened.
The very idea of trees being cut in a much-loved area and logs sent to mills is the rub. For years the Forest Service had to "get out the cut", with unrealistic targets set by congress. Stumps and scrawny little trees occupy too many places where magnificent ponderosa pines once stood. That logging done intelligently might actually be helpful, even essential to the forest, is a foreign concept to many. The compromise offered by David Mildrexler of Eastern Oregon Legacy Lands of taking only eight inch and smaller trees is not the answer. It does not address the need for gaps and openings where fire might extinguish when relative humidity goes up at night, places where fire would drop to the ground and fire-fighters would have a measure of safety, and success.
A commercial logging component is needed not just to restore the forest to an earlier condition, but to fund the work of taking out tens of thousands of small trees that will have to be piled and burned or chewed up by machinery. Protected are any trees larger than 21 inches in diameter. Getting work done on the National Forests these days is tough. Staffing on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is down by 67% from 1994. The lawsuit and appeals of Oregon Wild, and Greater Hells Canyon Council must have come like a kick in the knee to a weakened agency.
To be clear, following the Forest Service plan for the Lostine does not ensure that the inevitable big fire does not end badly. It does not ensure that every visitor will get out alive, or that every old growth tree survives. What it does is gives the agency a leg-up in being able to fight fire, and improves the odds of survival for man and nature. Cutting openings in the forest will provide sunny habitat for everything from bumblebees to elk. An emphasis on retaining the shady nature of the Lostine makes it more likely that the very thing most cherished will be destroyed.
John F. Marshall is a biologist and photographer whose career includes working with Dr. Paul Hessburg of the University Washington School of Forestry and USFS to document forest conditions and health. Marshall's latest work is a collaboration with Wallowa resources and the USFS to re-photograph and document views and forest conditions recorded from lookouts in Oregon and Washington in the 1930's.