Did the Eagle Creek fire renew the Columbia Gorge?
For Gorge-lovers, the media coverage while the fire was burning was hard to bear. It painted a picture of a charred wasteland burnt beyond recognition, with not a single green tree left behind. Making matters worse, logging lobbyists and anti-environmental politicians quickly sought to exploit the fire to promote more clearcutting on our public lands.
As early as September 6th, firefighters were urging media outlets to tone down the rhetoric. "The gorge still looks like the gorge,” Lt. Damon Simmons, spokesman for the Portland Fire & Rescue Bureau told the Oregonian newspaper. “...It’s not a blackened, destroyed no-man’s land."
Make no mistake, the Eagle Creek fire was a very serious and dangerous event. It disrupted the lives of thousands of people, and firefighters from across the region responded to it to try and protect homes and communities. It is only natural that people react with fear and concern over a major forest fire, particularly one burning in such a beloved area of public land.
But media coverage and politicians often ignore the fact that such fires are natural, and often beneficial, events. Fires are as important to the health and resilience of forests in the Pacific Northwest as rain and soil. Rather than a charred wasteland, aerial photos show that the Eagle Creek fire actually burned in a mosaic pattern—exactly the kind of fire that our forests and wildlife need.
The fires burn hot in some areas and most trees die, while much of the forest burns lightly or not at all. While heavily burned areas may initially be ugly to the human eye, they create openings which enable diverse vegetation to grow, which in turn provides fruit, seeds, and nectar for wildlife to thrive. These areas also create standing dead trees (snags) that many animals rely on for food and shelter. Unlike logging, fire leaves these dead trees behind, where they return nutrients to the soil, stabilize steep slopes, and protect the next generation of forest. The “early seral” forest that returns a few years after the fire is among the most vibrant and important wildlife habitat in the Pacific Northwest. Fire is so beneficial to wildlife that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has created fact sheets to try and educate the plublic about its importance.
The good news is that it appears the Eagle Creek fire mostly burned in a mosaic pattern. There are still reasons to be concerned about soil erosion, and damage to popular hiking trails and recreational areas, but the environment is going to be just fine. In the coming years the Gorge will continue to be a place of stunning beauty, with a mix of green old-growth, ghostly silver snags, a profusion of wildflowers, and a stunning abundance of native wildlife, from birds and elk to bees and butterflies. It will still be a spectacular place for people from around the world to come and be amazed by the beauty and resilence of nature.
The bad news is that logging lobbyists and some politicians, including Oregon’s Rep. Greg Walden, are already trying to exploit the Eagle Creek fire to promote more logging of our public lands.
Taking a break from his typical fundraising routine in Washington, DC, Walden briefly returned to Oregon to hold a press conference in Troutdale on Sept. 9th, where he announced HB 3715, legislation to allow clearcut “salvage” logging in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. His bill would block local communities, recreation groups, and conservation organizations from having a voice in how the Gorge should be restored and protected after the fire, while requiring the Forest Service to clearcut at least 10,000 acres of both living and dead trees in the National Scenic Area. Worse, the bill doesn’t just apply to fire (wind storms, heavy snow, flooding, and other natural events could trigger future logging), and it isn’t just limited to Gorge (it would open up every National Scenic Area in the country).
Worst of all, Walden is trying to mislead the public into believing the idea that Gorge is devastated, a place not worth visiting or protecting. That effort to intentionally mislead to promote aggressive logging in the National Scenic Area is not only bad for the environment, its bad for the economy of gateway communities like Cascade Locks and Hood River.
Walden’s “clearcut the forest in order to save it” bill, and the downright apocalyptic imagery conjured up by the initial media coverage of the Eagle Creek fire, hearken back to the fires in Yellowstone National Park in 1988. Then, as now, initial media accounts described the fires as devastating the environment, and politicians rushed to blame the National Park Service and environmentalists for “ruining” Yellowstone. They demanded the park be opened to logging, and with an aggressive program to replant millions of pine trees rather than letting the landscape recover naturally.
Now, two decades later, we know the fires did more to restore the health of Yellowstone than any other event in the last 100 years. Chances are very good that in 20 years we will say the same thing about the Eagle Creek Fire and the Columbia Gorge—but only if we let nature, not clearcuts, shape its recovery.
The worst we can do to the Gorge, and to other forests recovering from fire, is allow politicians like Greg Walden, and lobbyists from the clearcutting industry, to turn turn chainsaws, bulldozers, and log trucks loose in them.