I follow the gravel path from the trailhead towards the sound of rushing water. The creek is fuller and faster than I’d expected. The rains, though moderate, have been steady. The moisture captured in the old growth cedar and spruce canopy have dripped slowly to the springy forest floor. The water then traveled, following gravity, to the lower portions of the crags and ravines, hundreds of feet above us. Once the drips and rivulets reach us near sea level they are raging streams of water, froth, and noise. They are streams that barrel downhill, galloping with energy and life.
Standing in the middle of Oswald West State Park I am surrounded by prehistoric Western Red Cedar, Hemlock, and giant Sitka Spruce. There is a primordial feeling in the best sense. But looking closer to the east I see a gouge in the greenery. A fresh logging project has begun. Tree trunks that have never been exposed to direct sunlight, shine yellow and orange, contrasting with the mist that hangs within the disturbed canopy.
It seems sacrilegious to see logging, through a curtain of old growth. I know that the ground above the park will now be less stable and prone to landslides and in the long run I worry that this will be a danger to the old growth below it. There’s nothing to hold the soil in place anymore on the hillside. The water liquifies the soil and moves it toward the same stream, I am now standing over. This time next year, the water will be a thick viscous brown, filled with sediment from the clearcut above, choking out any fry and clogging water systems in the watershed.
It makes me sad. We know better but it’s easier to ignore. The truth is, this isn’t the only clear cut. Standing at the turn out on Neahkahnie Mountain you can see the patchwork of different stages of clearcuts, spreading like pock marks, over the coast range toward the valley.
In reality, it’s too painful to empathize with the ecosystem that is being disrespected daily, under the protection of outdated law called the Oregon Forest Practices Act.
This “act” doesn’t protect the forest ecosystem as it implies with forestry funded ads of happy springy tailed deer and young supple evergreens. Instead it serves to protect the act of forestry and logging as a crop. The corporations that log the tracts of land have more rights than you or I. And that’s a problem.
The sediment in the streams doesn’t just color the water for a few days and flush out. The majority of coastal community water sources are from “watersheds” located below, through, or inside timber land. This sediment that is now mobile moves down into small community water systems, that clog and damage their treatment plants causing system failures and million dollar upgrades. The timber companies aren’t accountable for those upgrades. The water is then treated with a cocktail of chemicals to make it “safe” to drink. Your children drink that water processing those chemicals in their tiny bodies.
Once a portion of land is logged, the Oregon Forest Practices Act requires that the lumber company begin to “reforest” by the end of the the first year. To protect their next harvest and work within the legal requirements of the same Practices Act, the corporations hire private aerial herbicide application pilots, who then mix a combination of herbicide and pesticide. This is then sprayed over the newly exposed clearcut and young trees. This practice kills off or snuffs out competing vegetation like scotch broom, alder, and salal. Any persons, property, livestock, even schools in the path or general area of application are in danger of chemical drift or direct exposure. But the Forest Practices Act protects the applicator and does not hold them liable for any damage or injury within the confines of legal forest practices. When the rains come, the water moves these chemicals downhill and downstream contaminating groundwater, wells, crops, wetlands, private property, and public water systems.
Rumbly Trucks and Sawdust
I had never heard of aerial spraying of pesticides on privately owned timber lands before. I’d been naïve until the coastal town of Wheeler notified its residents late one Friday afternoon, in the early summer of 2014, of a spray scheduled by Stimpson Lumber the following Monday morning. The notification looked benign and was listed as an announcement in the community’s email chain.
We’d recently moved from Seaside and had vaguely noticed the Scotch broom scattered clear cuts that stretched above the town. The town rose sharply up the hillside, tucking houses not twenty feet from the tree-line, that marked the edge of the town and the beginning of lumber land.
The day the notification came out, we’d just harvested our first batch of sugar snap peas from the community garden plot we rented from the city. The crisp green pods crunched between our fingers and my son’s sharp teeth. They were juicy and sweet, watered by the city’s water, and grown in the terra cotta colored clay soil of Tillamook County.
The garden sat roughly 600 feet below the clear-cut and if we laid down on the green moist grass we could still see the crews pilling debris into large mounds of slash on the hillsides. We assumed they would be burned later in the fall after the heat of the summer had faded and the rains returned.
I hadn’t been worried. At least not until I went alone to the garden that afternoon and watered the bed. The hose bucked and sputtered as it filled with water, saturating the soil that housed peas, mullein, cucumbers, and cabbage. I realized in clarifying horror that I was watering what would be my family’s food, with water that might be sourced from watersheds above town. Where they would be spraying Monday.
The sun was hot and I wiped my forehead, shading my eyes and looked east toward the barren expanse that seemed very close. Closer than I’d remembered. How did they spray? Was it a helicopter or a biplane like they do on farms? Were the pesticides poisonous to pets, salmon, my son? I looked down onto my garden bed, realizing the “organic and pesticide free” community garden agreement we’d signed didn’t plan for pesticides being sprayed in the air, less than 600 feet away.
“What will happen when it rains?” I wondered. “Will the pesticide travel downhill, following the path of least resistance, spilling along the roadways, and bringing with it, the soil that had nothing to hold it there any longer? Will my food be safe? Can I drink water from the tap?”
“Did you know they are spraying up there?” I asked my neighbor, pointing to the clearing just above our apartment. She shook her head no, bending down to pet her dog.
“I didn’t know they were spraying,” she replied. “Good thing you told me. We hike up there every day.” I tried not to think about what could have happened. They wouldn’t be able to spray if people were up there right?
But the fact is, they don’t have to tell you. Logging and timber companies are not required in Oregon to contact you when they are spraying. They don’t even need to post notifications on their entry gates. And moreover, they aren’t required to inform you what they are spraying, in what amounts, and in what combinations.
My interactions with logging were from being a child in a family of loggers when the industry busted in the late 80’s. I’d ridden in the bouncy rumbly cabs of brand new Ford trucks, purchased with logging wages. I’d played on the floor next to my grandfather and uncle’s steel toed logging boots. I’d brushed sawdust off the recliner seat on early Saturday mornings, as I crawled up into the brown Lazy Boy to watch cartoons.
These childhood moments of safety and excitement fed my denial of danger to my health and my family’s.
When the logging jobs disappeared, I’d heard whispered conversations when the adults had thought I had fallen asleep, about the spotted owl and that my family’s logging equipment had been vandalized. It was a scary time and because I’d seen that side, I’d never thought that the forest practices could ever be against me, or that it didn’t care about me. It had helped feed me, when I was a child.
Forecast Calls for Reform
To see the “forest for the trees” isn’t just a statement. It’s an action. Months after I wrote the two portions above, the clearcut above Short Sands in Oswald West State Park was sprayed with pesticide and herbicide by helicopter. Community members tried to stop it from happening, creating an online campaign, an educational event at the park, and encouraging people to contact their legislators. Despite that, a cocktail of poison (because that’s what it is) rained down. The park was open. Families walked their dogs, surfers prepared their gear in the parking lot below, and tourists explored the shoreline. They were unaware of what was happening not even a mile, as the crow flies, from them.
Big money backs this industry. So the next time you see an Oregon Forestry commercial in between your favorite network television shows, remember that rain doesn’t just grow Oregon’s famous trees. Greenbacks have their roots in our soil, our water, and our safety as well.
I worry that private lumber companies own too much of Oregon. I worry that the public’s health and safety take a back seat to profit and outdated laws. I worry that legislators aren’t strong enough to fight for their constituents, logging is a touchy subject after all. But more than anything I worry that Oregonians and communities that have deep history in forestry don’t realize that they deserve so much more. They deserve a thriving economy that utilizes job stimulating forestry practices. They deserve clean water and clean air. We can have all three if we fight for reform of the Forest Practices Act. 1971 was forty-five years ago. Why should a law remain static if it isn’t working for the people anymore?