Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

The Columbia River Gorge Is Dead; Long Live the Columbia River Gorge—Unless Greg Walden Has His Way

Part 1: It’s a Beautiful, Natural, and Necessary Thing That Nature Changes

Everyone—including many a card-carrying conservationist—just needs to take a deep breath. Yes, there was a relatively large forest fire mostly on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge. However, the clearing of the smoke gave proof through the day that our gorge was still there. The Columbia River Gorge was not “destroyed,” “lost,” “gone up in smoke,” “consumed,” or “dead,” as suggested by generally hyperbolic media reports by generally hysterical reporters, often quoting generally hysterical gorge lovers.

A black-backed woodpecker chowing down. Though the convention is not universally followed, a blue paint mark usually means the tree is marked to be cut down. Source: Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org.

A black-backed woodpecker chowing down. Though the convention is not universally followed, a blue paint mark usually means the tree is marked to be cut down. Source: Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org.

Yes, the fire covered a lot of acres and some of those acres burned hot (and that’s ecologically okay), with most, if not all, large trees being burned. (Not all charred trees will die, unless Representative Walden has his way; see Part 2.) The fire, like all forest fires, burned in a mosaic pattern and left some patches unburned and lightly burned. However, unburned or lightly burning or burned forest makes for poor video for the 24-hour news cycle.

This 2017 Columbia River Gorge fire changed the gorge, just as did the 1902 fire (covering 170,000 acres in Oregon and 604,000 acres total). Both were driven by high winds and low humidity. Both were human caused but could just as easily have been caused by lightning. Forest fires happen and are generally a good thing if one is willing to consider perspectives other and longer than one’s self-centered my-view-changed-and-I’m-unhappy-about-it perspective. The forests of the Columbia River Gorge so beloved before this most recent fire were sculpted by fire. (Some of the forest that is privately owned—located mostly on the Washington side—was also sculpted by clear-cuts and is nowhere near as scenic today.)

If your appreciation of the landscape and the vegetative beauty of the Columbia River Gorge is purely aesthetic, rooted in the present human moment and centered on the present human self, you are inconsolable and no one can help you. But you can help yourself rise above your momentary grief by realizing and appreciating that scenic beauty is more properly underpinned by both form and function. For forests to function, their form must occasionally change. The old-growth forests of today weren’t always that way but were born of major disturbance—whether fire, windstorm, insects, disease, or volcano. The “classic” (pronounced “before the latest burn”) beauty of the forests of the Columbia River Gorge is at this very moment being replaced by a new beauty.

Perhaps you’ll find solace listening to the renowned forest ecologist Jerry Franklin in the episode entitled “The Ecosystem of Forests and Fires” on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud, where he puts the recent fire in the gorge into a long-term ecological perspective.

The charred or singed forests will be quite a beautiful sight for the descent of woodpeckers (the collective noun for a grouping) that will descend upon the area for a feast—in this case black-backed woodpeckers. Their black backs are an evolutionary adaptation for camouflage as they work over the scorched tree trunks. Black-backed woodpeckers are being considered for Endangered Species Act protection because of the generally routine practice of salvage logging after a fire. (See the August 2017 New York Times article entitled “Let Forest Fires Burn? What the Black-Backed Woodpecker Knows.”) When spring comes, so will wildflowers in profusions not known in closed-canopy forests. Among the wildflowers will sprout grasses and shrubs that support particular kinds of wildlife.

Consider these two examples recent enough for many of us to remember:

• Until Sunday, May 17, 1980, north of the Columbia River Gorge stood the post-card gorgeous, classically Fuji-shaped snow-capped peak with old-growth forests on its slopes (and also some industrial clear-cuts, by the way) Mount Saint Helens. Then it blew up and away in a rather large—at least compared to what we’ve witnessed in recent times—volcanic eruption. Spirit Lake as we knew it is gone, but Spirit Lake is still there, albeit in a starkly different form. Mount Saint Helens is still there, albeit a few cubic miles smaller. The forests not covered by lava flows are coming back and—if not covered in another volcanic eruption—will likely become old-growth forest again. Of course, we’ll all be long dead.

• Though the media proclaimed the destruction of Yellowstone National Park due to the fires of the summer of 1988, Yellowstone National Park is still there—still beautiful and even more functional. Wolves, bison, elk, eagles, fumaroles, geysers, and all that stuff are still there.

I could go on and on, but I won’t. Neither volcanic eruptions nor forest fires can be prevented—and that’s a beautiful thing.

(Next week’s Public Lands Blog post will be “Part 2: Simply an Excuse and a Mandate to Clear-Cut.”)