Andy Kerr

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

A Last Stand for Oregon's Coast Range

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 1980. Last Stand for Oregon's Coast Range. Not Man Apart. Vol. 10, No. 1. January. 7. 

By Andy Kerr

In Oregon's Coast Range the moist marine air and fertile soil have combined to produce the fastest growing conifers in the world. These mountains are rich with Douglas-fir, Sitka spruce, and western red cedar. Non-conifers such as red alder, bigleaf maple, and Oregon white oak also thrive here.

The timber industry has long recognized this region's wealth: it now owns about half the Coast Range. The rest is controlled by the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. Regardless of ownership, the forests have been extensively logged. The private land is now mostly bare, the public's land is scarred with clearcuts.

The untouched areas remain so not because of their outstanding natural values, but because of their unsuitability for timber exploitation. The slopes are steep, the soils unstable, and the more accessible trees often of relatively little value as timber. But as our supply of prime timberland dwindles and the value of timber climbs, the loggers turn their attention increasingly to these less attractive areas.

The timber companies are most interested in logging the small amounts of old growth that remains in the Coast Range. Here, old-growth forest is generally defined as stands of trees that are more than 200 years old, with large diameter trunks and upper limbs, scaly bark, and broken tops. These trees are particularly valuable as timber: each tree may yield as much as 5,000 board-feet of timber (one board-foot equals 1"x1"x12") and be worth more than $3,000.

Old-growth forest not only has a special grandeur, it is also important wildlife habitat. The northern spotted owl, a reclusive bird, needs trees with broken tops and sturdy upper limbs to support its nest. The two-story canopy (old growth overstory and young growth understory) provides habitat for the northern flying squirrel and the red tree vole, on which the spotted owl feeds. These animals won't be able to adapt to the young Douglas-fir monoculture plantations now taking over the Coast Range. If present cutting and reforestation trends continue, the spotted owl will soon have to be classified as an endangered species.

Anadromous fish—those that are born in fresh water, live in the ocean, and return to their birthplace to spawn—are in serious trouble because of poor logging practices. Every year, the salmon return from the ocean, each trying to return to its place of birth to spawn. Rivers through logged areas pose often insurmountable problems for the returning fish. The river may be too muddy for the fish to see their way. As they approach their birthplace of two to six years earlier, they might encounter logging debris blocking the stream. If they do reach their birthplace, the gravel on the stream bottom in which they lay their eggs may be covered with silt from clearcut hillsides. The silt will suffocate the eggs. Logging may have changed the stream characteristics such that the gravels in which they were hatched are now scoured away by higher velocity water. Furthermore, removing trees along the shade corridor of streams raises the water's temperature, increasing the fish's susceptibility to disease.

These problems can sometimes be mitigated by proper logging techniques, but they cannot be eliminated. Partial solutions are not enough here. If we are to preserve the remaining fish runs of the Coast Range, its last wilderness and wild rivers must be preserved. The spotted owl and many other creatures which inhabit the old-growth forest will survive only as long as we preserve enough forest to support them.

Six wild areas remain in Oregon's Coast Range. They are:

• Drift Creek Wilderness (proposed 14,500 acres)

The best example of what the interior Coast Range forest used to look like. Towering Douglas-fir and western hemlock abound, with occasional giant Sitka spruce and red cedar. Georgia-Pacific has clear cut several square miles upstream from the wilderness area, but the salmon still run Drift Creek, shaded by huge moss-covered maples.

• Mount Hebo Wilderness (proposed 31,609 acres)

This area surrounds the second highest point in the Coast Range. The area was burned at the turn of the century and not a stick of old growth remains. A vast stand of alder and mixed conifers has taken the place of the original forest. Alder is often the successional species following a fire since it does well in disturbed areas.

• Windy Peak Wilderness (proposed 5,100 acres)

This proposal contains the watersheds of Raleigh Creek and Bear Creek, habitat for bears, eagles, deer, elk, woodpeckers, hawks, and bobcats.

• Coast Creeks Wilderness (proposed 15,929 acres)

This area includes the last undeveloped coastal streams in Oregon. Cummins, Little Cummins, Bob, and Rock Creeks begin about six miles inland and then rush to the sea. They pass under US Highway 101 just before they spill into the sea, but are otherwise pristine. Coast Creeks is the home of many species of wildlife, including the Roosevelt elk. Large Sitka spruce are common in the lower stretches, giving way to alder and Douglas-fir as the land rises.

• Wassen Creek Wilderness (proposed 21,000 acres)

This country is incredibly steep and the trees get pretty big. There is a spectacular falls downstream from Wassen Lake, Devils Staircase, but very few have seen it.

• Oregon Dunes Wilderness (proposed 32,000 acres)

Oregon's coast offers a unique opportunity to include oceanside sand dunes in the wilderness system. Ocean, sand, wind, and forest blend beautifully here. The snowy plover nests on the beach, but off-road vehicles are contributing to a decline in the bird's population.

Conservationists have drafted the Oregon Coast Range Wilderness Act and have asked members of the Oregon delegation to introduce the bill in Congress. Les AuCoin, whose district contains most of the Oregon Coast Range, is reluctant to introduce the Act. He feels these areas "really don't have wilderness characteristics." This is not spectacular alpine terrain, but it is our most threatened type of wilderness: low elevation forest.