Three Days in a Forest – YOUR forest!

Posted in Blog

I can’t think of a place where the ratio between the number of people who talk and think about a place is so out of whack with the number who have actually set foot in the place.  The place is the Elliott State Forest in the Oregon Coast Range and, until recently, I was part of that “strong interest – but a stranger to it” contingent.  Back in 2010, I had a near miss on making a visit.  As a member of the Board of Forestry, which was deep into making policy decisions that were critical to the 85,000 acre forest’s future, I had homework complete and plans set for a visit, only to be stopped by requests from Department of Forestry staff saying “Please don’t go; the protesters are very active and the last thing we need is you showing up and making things worse”.  A decade later, my long suffering wife, best buddy and co-pilot (all in one!) and I finally managed to load up with maps, notes, groceries, and flexible attitudes and escape into the Elliott’s backroads, hills and hollows for three days of explorations.   

The good news is that thanks to a well designed and well maintained network of main roads, it is relatively easy to travel the Elliott in any reliable vehicle.  The more challenging news is that finding ones way can be made tough by the mazes of roads, near absence of signage, and scarcity of reliable maps.  Focused on our understanding that there is a ridgetop loop road running through the forest, accessed by about eight narrow, winding roads leading up to the loop, we turned our back to the pavement of the Umpqua River Highway and worked our way up to Loon Lake and then up to the ridgetop at Cougar Pass.  From there, in no hurry, we explored roughly around the loop in a clockwise direction.  We found detours off of the loop to Golden and Silver Falls and down into the upper and lower reaches of the Millicoma River to be well worth our time.  Nights were spent camped beneath huge, old trees, looking up to the stars and serenaded by owls.  Days found us scrambling up fire lookouts for visits to the Pacific, walking sharp ridgetops and enjoying cooling dips in pools cupped in the river’s sandstone ledges.

We reluctantly said farewell, for now, to the forest and carried away seven main conclusions or takeaways:

  1. The Elliott is a unique, remarkable and interesting place.  Its sedimentary geology, climate, ecology, economy and history all contribute to it being notably different from any place else – and well worth getting to know.
  2. Much of the land is super steep!  We lost track of the number of times that one of us or the other looked out and down from the truck window and exclaimed “Holy …. look how steep that is – stay on the road!”.  This difficulty of access shaped the pattern of past logging.  What hard work to build roads and log and replant!
  3. The Elliott has been shaped by many stories and chapters – but three recent ones stand out.  The first concerns two mega fires that shaped this land.  The first, in 1770, burned significant portions of what is now the Elliott.  A subsequent fire, in 1868, burned south from Scottsboro on the Umpqua to the margins of Coos Bay.  The results that we see today are very old forests, relative to the rest of the Coast Range, that have never been logged, but which are less complex than what is normally consider primary forest.  The second big story concerns the logging that has been done in these older forests.  To enable this work, major networks of roads and logging systems had to be developed and maintained.  The combination of these stories resulted in a bi-modal distribution of stand types – with significant areas being home to trees that are 150 years or older, a second clump of acres that are between ten and fifty years, and little between.  The third big story might be called “calling the question” – where active logging of the Elliott stopped due restrictions caused by species listings, which led to plans to sell the forest into private hands, which led to public outcry, which led to exploration of options for reshaped public ownership and management.  Underlying all of this is the larger public debate – and wrestling – over the questions of “what is a forest for – and what will a forest – and this forest – be for?”.  As with many other issues, the future of the Elliott reflects Oregonians’ wide diversity of opinions, priorities, assumptions and values.  Work moves ahead toward the goal of the Elliott becoming an experimental forest under the leadership and management of OSU’s College of Forestry.
  4. We were struck by how little travelled the Elliott is, by humans.  While our walks brought us in close contact with bears, owls, cats and many other animals, we encountered very few other travelers.
  5.  The Elliott is a relatively easy place for anyone to explore, thanks to the way that its main road network is designed, built and maintained.
  6. There is so much that we can learn from these 85,000 acres and its past, present and future.  In addition to potential to advance understandings of forests and forestry, there is great potential to learn about all elements of the ecosystem, particularly wildlife and aquatic systems.
  7. And finally, we rolled down and out from the Elliott’s ridges with a strong sense that we and others could spend years exploring the Elliott and still feel that we’d only gotten started.  We look forward to future visits. 

The Elliott has much to teach us, not only about how forests and forestry function, but also about the ways in which our thinking about and relationships with forests continue to evolve over time.

For those hoping to learn more and/or plan their own visit, the following websites are ones that we found particularly helpful and interesting:

Special thanks to Max Beeken and Teresa Bird of Coast Range Forest Watch for their generous and helpful advice. It aided us in both finding our way and getting lost!