By: Marina Richie

Beloved Metolius River
Every Wild Place Has a Story

Spring wildflowers trickle like snowmelt from Lookout Mountain. By July, blooms will flood sagebrush meadows in lupine, paintbrush, penstemon, and scarlet gilia. Here, elk shelter within shady fir and pine forests. Pileated woodpeckers drum on life-giving dead trees. Colossal ponderosas grace the lower ridges. Juniper and mountain mahogany sculpt rocky outcrops. Songbirds bustle among leaves of aspen and alder by streams. Hawks, eagles, and ravens draft the shoulder of an open summit. 

Gatherer of flaming sunsets over the Cascades, Lookout Mountain tops out at almost 7,000 feet, the highest in the Ochoco National Forest, east of Prineville in Central Oregon. Where once a fire lookout stood, the peak is like a beacon shining our attention on the roadless wilds.

In mid-April, I joined two friends for a trek to the top, about a nine-mile round trip from the trailhead at the lower parking area. This was my fifth time hiking the peak, and the first so early in the season. We crossed snowfields muffling meadows. Often, we bushwhacked as we found and lost the snow-covered trail. At the lower elevations, melting snow revealed a labyrinth of raised earthen tunnels, the architecture of voles. We paused to note buttercups with buds tight as fists. By our afternoon return on a sunny day, some buds had burst wide open into five-petaled yellow blooms. That’s the way my heart felt, too. 

Lookout is the centerpiece of a more than 1300-square-mile forest at the western edge of the Blue Mountains ecosystem and a critical link to the Cascades.  It was here that famous wolf OR-7, named Journey, found safe passage on his thousand-mile-plus trek from northeast Oregon to northern California. The beacon centers our attention, too, on vital wildlife corridors at risk from logging and roading.

The Quest for Wilderness

Forty years ago, the 1984 Oregon Wilderness Act added the first areas on the Ochocos to the national system—Mill Creek, Bridge Creek, and Black Canyon Wilderness. Not including Lookout Mountain’s almost 20,000 roadless acres seemed a puzzling omission.

To find out why, I called Don Tryon, now living in northeast Washington. Tryon was instrumental to the Ochoco’s new Wilderness. At that time, he worked for Oregon Wild (then Oregon Natural Resources Council) out of Prineville. I remember Tryon in the early 1980s as lean, soft-spoken, and at home in the forests he knew intimately from inventorying minerals for the Forest Service in prior years. Tryon’s easy-going manner cloaked an inner tenacity. 

“My approach was to get congressional staffers on the ground. We’d pound around and have a good day,” he said.  Once, he took Tom Imeson, then an influential aide to Senator Mark Hatfield, on a backpacking trip up Lookout and camped in a beautiful place. He was hopeful.

But later, Imeson told him that four wilderness areas would be too many for the Ochocos. Lookout Mountain, he reasoned, was then a “special management area” for dispersed backcountry recreation. But Wilderness is the gold standard for protection.

Note that today’s Black Canyon, Mill Creek, and Bridge Creek Wilderness tally only 36,200 acres, or four percent of the national forest. Still, adding three new wilderness areas in the Ochocos was a triumph. The Forest Service had recommended just one—Black Canyon. 

Every Wilderness has a story of origin. Mill Creek roadless area, the closest to Prineville was not on the Forest Service radar. Tryon, however, knew the terrain well, and steered public attention to the stunning intact forests remaining in the upper watershed. 

He recalled one tense moment after Mill Creek had made it into the legislation. A district ranger claimed the boundaries should be reduced after returning from a horseback field survey. Tryon met with the ranger and the forest supervisor and pulled out the map. The supervisor sided with Tryon after a close inspection of the drawn lines. The bill went forward with the correct map intact.   Mill Creek Wilderness is the largest of the three at 17,000 acres.

When Tryon led Imeson and other congressional aides into Bridge Creek, a golden eagle soared and circled right overhead—as if on cue. There was no question this 5,400 acres of meadows, plateaus, springs, and forests of fir, larch, and lodgepole would be in the final bill. 

I love it when nature bats for Wilderness.

Campaign: Ochoco Mountains National Recreation Area 

Lookout Mountain’s wild beacon shone bright from 2014 to 2016 when Oregon Wild led a campaign for an Ochoco Mountains National Recreation Area –inspired as one way to honor the legacy of Oregon Wild’s Tim Lillebo. He had long defended the ancient forests of the Ochocos and was instrumental in the 1994 East Side Screens protecting trees 21 inches in diameter and larger (recently reinstated in a court victory). 

If enacted by Congress, the national recreation area would enfold about 300,000 acres and include wilderness protections for 26,000 acres. Timing is everything. A win seemed on the horizon. Who would have predicted that the proposal would coincide with the violent takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016? 

Many of those extremists traveled more than two hours to Prineville to heckle and jeer at one terrifying public meeting at the Crook County Fairgrounds. They sabotaged a grassroots effort that epitomized local cooperation–finding common ground, compromise, and goodwill.

It was youthful Sarah Cuddy, then the Ochoco campaign organizer for Oregon Wild, who stood up without flinching in front of 600-plus people who were there to bully. Her bravery awed fellow environmentalists who attended, including Erik Fernandez of Oregon Wild, Amy Stuart of the Bitterbrush Chapter of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and Mathieu Federspiel of the Juniper Group of the Oregon Sierra Club. (All of them continue to advocate for the Ochoco wilds today.)

Police offered to escort Cuddy out for her safety, but she declined. After all, she was from Prineville. This was her home. She held her head high and was unafraid.

Sarah Cuddy. Photo by Joel Caldwell

Today, Cuddy lives in Baker City, working as a regional coordinator for Oregon’s Outdoor Schools. We serve together on the Board of the Greater Hells Canyon Council. At an April retreat, I sat down with her to learn more.

She had planned four meetings on different topics to gather ideas for the proposal that many local people had helped shape. The first two meetings went smoothly, she said, with about 40 people attending each. Then, the winds shifted for the worse. Looking back, Cuddy wished she had canceled the next two. In a local election fueled by the Malheur takeover, a candidate for the judge position used his anti-public lands stance as his platform. He won the election and fueled local distrust for the proposal that had not been present before. 

That distrust culminated at the fairgrounds in late January of 2016. It was there that Cuddy stood up with a message of locals caring for the Ochocos. She spoke of coming of age in this forest and her hometown of Prineville. She learned to flyfish on tiny streams, camped at Walton Lake, and often climbed both Lookout and nearby Round Mountain with her family. “But people weren’t listening,” she said. “They were a hundred percent about the Malheur occupation. It was sad. You felt this positive community-supported vision taking root and then completely crumpling.”

Before the Malheur takeover, Cuddy said there was a feeling of unity. Then, two Crook County Commissioners listened to Oregon Wild with open minds and were intrigued by a proactive protection plan for the Ochocos. Many locals felt the Ochocos were changing for the worse. What brought them together was a Forest Service proposal to build a huge network of Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) trails. Nearby landowners, hunters, anglers, horseback riders, hikers, and mountain bikers hated the OHV plan, she said. (Ultimately the unpopular Forest Service scheme to add 137 miles of OHV trails through old-growth forest was defeated in district court in 2019.)

The challenge was to merge multiple visions for the future. Cuddy rolled up her sleeves, researching the Sawtooth and Hells Canyon National Recreation Areas. Both offered solutions and pitfalls. The resulting proposal benefited from Cuddy’s ability to bring people to the table over tough issues, including livestock grazing, logging, and closing roads to give wildlife shelter. Like others participating, Oregon Wild had certain “must haves” in the proposal, including protecting roadless areas and designating more wilderness. “There are very few places on the Ochoco where roads don’t exist,” said Cuddy. It remains imperative that the remaining roadless areas remain roadless.”

For historical perspective,  in 2001 the Forest Service issued the Roadless Area Conservation Rule after 600 public hearings. Designed to protect 58.5 million acres of vital wildlands from roading and logging, the rule includes 2 million acres in Oregon. However, the Forest Service inventoried only roadless lands of 5,000 acres and larger. That leaves the smaller roadless areas highly vulnerable. Lookout Mountain is 14,000 acres according to the inventoried roadless area, but 20,000 acres reflects the actual size. Even the inventoried areas are at risk as administrations change. 

To keep roadless areas roadless takes vigilance. Right now, a Forest Service proposed Mill Creek Dry Forest Restoration Project covering more than 23, 000 acres would log in the Stein’s Pillar citizen-inventoried roadless area. Oregon Wild and several other environmental groups watchdogging the Ochocos filed objections on multiple issues. 

Meanwhile, Oregon Wild and others support protections for three streams that flow from its plateau. Canyon Creek, Brush Creek, and Lookout Creek are part of the proposed River Democracy Act.

And the Ochoco Mountains National Recreation Area proposal remains—ready to be taken up when the time is right. It would include roadless additions to the National Wilderness System: the east side of Lookout Mountain (reduced as a compromise with mountain bikers), Spanish Peak, and an expansion of Black Canyon Wilderness to include Rock Creek. 

“People think if roadless areas are small, they are not important, but you have to take what’s remaining and grow the wilds,” Cuddy said, pointing to the significance of intact landscapes as headwater protectors, and wildlife havens and corridors in a time of drastic climate change. Those wild places are rare in the Ochocos, where about only 7 percent of the forest is beyond a half-mile from a road.

Lookout Mountain is one special place. Gently ascending trails pass through many of the 28 plant communities and the largest remaining old-growth forests in the Ochocos. Nature is rewilding the old Mother Lode Mine not far from the upper trailhead. A rustic wood shelter tucked in trees off the summit is barely noticeable. Present, too, are the invisible footsteps of indigenous peoples over 10,000 years or more. Central Oregon is part of the ancestral lands of the Wasco, Tenino, and Northern Paiute Tribes.

As the east side Cascades become crowded, more recreationists are discovering Lookout Mountain for hiking, trail running, mountain biking, and horseback riding. In turn, this wild beacon calls all who clamber up her sides to treat her well. Go lightly. Do not take her for granted. Be part of a legacy of preservation. Each one of us has the power to make a difference.  All the wild Ochocos are calling on us to engage on behalf of threatened wilds in this 50th anniversary year of Oregon Wild and the 60th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Take heart from wildflower buds opening brilliant petals to the sun.

We ended our conversation on a note of optimism for the proposal that reminded me of the famous words of Martin Luther King: “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Lookout Mountain is Calling…

Lookout Mountain is one special place. Gently ascending trails pass through many of the 28 plant communities and the largest remaining old-growth forests in the Ochocos. Nature is rewilding the old Mother Lode Mine not far from the upper trailhead. A rustic wood shelter tucked in trees off the summit is barely noticeable. Present, too, are the invisible footsteps of indigenous peoples over 10,000 years or more. Central Oregon is part of the ancestral lands of the Wasco, Tenino, and Northern Paiute Tribes.

As the east side Cascades become crowded, more recreationists are discovering Lookout Mountain for hiking, trail running, mountain biking, and horseback riding. In turn, this wild beacon calls all who clamber up her sides to treat her well. Go lightly. Do not take her for granted. Be part of a legacy of preservation. Each one of us has the power to make a difference.  All the wild Ochocos are calling on us to engage on behalf of threatened wilds in this 50th anniversary year of Oregon Wild and the 60th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Take heart from wildflower buds opening brilliant petals to the sun.

Beloved Metolius River

An Untold Story, the Promise of Wilderness, and the River Democracy Act

By: Marina Richie

“We’ve learned that safeguarding a river requires that people become engaged in the future.”

Tim Palmer, Wild and Scenic Rivers, An American Legacy

Read other posts in this series:

Beloved Metolius River
Every Wild Place Has a Story

Sunlight strikes a chord across the Metolius. An American dipper, perched on a fallen tree in the water, sings a melody of whistles, riffs, and churrs. The river gives the beat and the hum on a late winter’s day. The great forests seem to rise even higher as if lifted from their roots by the wild aria. I stand still at the Allen Springs Campground, transfixed by a small gray bird dipping and dipping. 

On that mostly cloudy day, the river flowed like polished obsidian. Under blue skies, the swift currents can dazzle in turquoise, jade, and whitewater. Deep clear pools. Icy cold. Refuge for the wily native bull trout. Legendary for flyfishing. Haven for centuries-old ponderosa pine, incense cedar, Douglas-fir, grand fir, and western larch. 

One of the largest spring-fed rivers in the United States, the Metolius flows 29 miles north to Lake Billy Chinook. At the Head of the Metolius viewing area, you can see the birth of the river. Emergence. Frigid waters bubble up through mossy rocks whispering of origin 1.4 million years ago. Then, Black Butte erupted to blockade the ancestral headwaters of the Metolius in today’s Mount Washington Wilderness. Yet the river found her way, seeping into porous fractures in the lava rocks. Fed by Cascade snows and rains, two springs converge to enter the light-filled world at rates that range from 67 to 130 cubic feet per second. The river soon strengthens from more springs originating in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness. 

The melody that is the Metolius rushes into our hearts as if to whisper—protect…protect…precious freshwater. Fortunately, people who love this river and the interwoven great forests continue to heed the message. The legacy extends back in time, including a 1931 designation of a Forest Service Research Natural Area for ancient ponderosa pines near the river–the first in the Pacific Northwest.  

The Omnibus Oregon Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1988 Act added the Metolius River as part of legislation that still holds the record for adding the most river miles of any state at one time—54 rivers and four tributaries. To be part of the system assures the rivers will remain free-flowing and never dammed. Much later in 2009, the Metolius Basin earned special status as Oregon’s first and only “Area of State Critical Concern,” putting an end to plans for destinations resorts that would have tapped into groundwater and impacted the headwater springs. 

The Metolius we know today would be very different if people had not turned their passion to activism. Like the critical feeder streams entering the river from headwater springs in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness, acts of heroism merge in the free flow to be forgotten, unless we pluck the stories from the main channel. Tell the tales in the way of oral traditions passed down over generations. Tales that are best repeated and expanded upon around a campfire. 

Part of environmental storytelling is to draw attention to what we have saved as reminders never to take the status quo for granted—like the treasured national forest campgrounds of the Metolius River. For those who have come to know them well, the names evoke a halcyon day: Riverside, Camp Sherman, Allingham, Smiling River, Pine Rest, Gorge, Lower Canyon Creek, Allen Springs, Pioneer Ford, Lower Bridge, and Candle Creek.

An Untold Story: Paving Paradise?

However, there was a time in the late 1980s when the Deschutes National Forest planned to pave the roads, install flush toilets, and build huge pads for RVs. To do so, they would have cut down many of the centurion trees. Gorge Campground with the most glorious ponderosas of all would have been unrecognizable. The industrialization didn’t stop there—with schemes for a paved bike trail right on the riverbanks and fish cleaning stations (despite the fact the Metolius is catch-and-release only). This is an untold story.

Bob Warren and Mary Maggs Warren enjoy the Metilous River

Enter Bob Warren, longtime environmentalist and early days’ Oregon Wild board member. He and his wife Mary Maggs Warren love the Metolius. Every year, they head east from their home in Eugene over Santiam Pass to camp there for a week or longer. They’ve come to know individual sites for their immense ponderosas, cedars, and firs, each with the lull of the Metolius close by.

At the time of the despicable plan, Warren served as the natural resource policy advisor to Congressman Peter DeFazio. When he got wind of the scheme from Penny Allen of Friends of the Metolius, he went straight to DeFazio who was shocked. He, too, knew the campgrounds as sacrosanct. It didn’t matter that the river was outside his district. He gave his approval for Warren to do whatever he could to stop the proposal steaming along with little public knowledge. Despite the risk to his career from powerful business interests pushing for development, Warren never hesitated.

“My philosophy has always been simple,” he said. “If you find yourself in the right place to do the right thing at the right time, then do it.”

To win for the Metolius, he relied on locals with intimate knowledge like Allen who ran the House of the Metolius, a private nature resort. He strategized over beers at the Deschutes Brewery with Tim Lillebo, then the eastern Oregon field representative for Oregon Wild. 

For Warren, protecting the Metolius from irreversible harm was intensely personal. He even wrote a letter to Forest Supervisor Norman Arseneault in the imagined voice of his then 16-month-old son. 

“This appears to be nothing less than the planned destruction of a place my Dad loves, a place I hope to visit when I’m older.” The words I find most prescient from the copy of the typed letter he shared with me are these: “Quality is what will be rare in my lifetime. Theme parks will be easy to find.”

Towering ponderosa pines reach far above the tree canopy into a blue sky

Warren wasn’t about to let down his son. On behalf of DeFazio, he arranged a Metolius field trip for the Oregon congressional staff. Both the staff of Republican Senators Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield were there. The magic of the Metolius has a reputation for erasing most partisan divides. Missing from the field trip was the aide for Republican Representative Bob Smith, despite the Metolius falling in his district. After that two-day outing (involving the Forest Service and separately a trip led by Penny Allen), Warren said the sentiment was unanimous. All wanted the riverside campgrounds to stay as simple and humble as possible with all the big trees standing and protected.  

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., DeFazio applied his influence on the Forest Service Chief, then Dale Robertson, serving under President George H.W. Bush. Next came a forceful letter from DeFazio and signed by the Oregon delegation (absent Representative Smith) directing Robertson to drop the “recreation” plan for the Metolius. Done. Game over. 

The Deschutes National Forest withdrew the plan. Warren learned from the Forest’s public affairs officer that many fellow employees applauded DeFazio’s letter. They, too, shared a reverence for the Metolius. Today, the simple campgrounds continue to merge with nature. The noble trees stand. Riverside—once slated for the biggest development of all—is a walk-in, tent only campground.

“Peter DeFazio really did “save” the Metolius from the Forest Service,” Warren said. “It was my deal, and I put it together, but only on his authority. The management plan would have destroyed the character of the place while putting in motion an unstoppable transition to tourist development. Visiting the area today I marvel at how much it has not changed from that first time I visited in 1985.”

Every advocacy story has a lesson. We must always be vigilant. Cultivate sources who know a place intimately. Sometimes we need to go right to the top. All federal agencies depend on the public to call them to task when needed. In fact, they rely on us. When it comes to politicians and their staff, take them to the field—away from offices and cell phones. And most of all?  Apply the power of love, as Warren did with the letter from his son.

What’s Next? River Democracy Act

The quest to fully protect the Metolius is far from over. The splendor of the Metolius River cannot continue without caring for the entire watershed. Designating the mainstem of the Metolius as a national wild and scenic river system was a first step. While immensely important for preventing dams and other safeguards along a half-mile corridor, allowed activities vary depending on whether termed wild, scenic, or recreational. “Wild” is strictest and “recreational” the least limiting. The first 11.5 miles of the Metolius are “recreational” and the next 17.1 are “scenic.” While the Forest Service interpreted the Act to allow for the outlandish campground scheme, Warren said the designation gave them leverage to stop it. 

Today, Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley’s River Democracy Act would add more than 3,215 miles to Oregon’s 2,100 miles of designated rivers (now comprising just two percent of the state’s river miles). Many streams are included, a recognition that all rivers depend on their tributaries. Oregon Wild is working hard to return rivers and streams removed from an earlier version of the bill– honoring the work of thousands of Oregonians who nominated favorites. 

Fortunately, the current version does include four Metolius tributaries: Jack, Canyon, Candle, and Brush Creek. A protective half-mile buffer would offer wildlife safe passage through intact forests between the Mt Jefferson Wilderness and the river. Where the creeks enter the river, wildlife gathers. At one confluence, I witnessed a belted kingfisher, river otters, and a bald eagle within five minutes. 

A Metolius Wilderness

There’s another grand opportunity waiting in the wings—a Metolius Wilderness that Andy Kerr (another early Oregon Wild staffer and renowned environmentalist) proposed in his 2004 book, Oregon Wild, Endangered Forest Wilderness.

In this 60th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, it’s time to brush off that fine book filled with excellent maps and details for new wilderness. So far, the roadless areas included in the Metolius proposal are intact, according to Oregon Wild’s Erik Fernandez, based in Bend. The 39,411 acres (62 square miles) feature Black Butte, additions to the Mt Jefferson Wilderness, the Metolius Breaks, and Green Ridge.

Map from Oregon Wild, Endangered Forest Wilderness, by Andy Kerr

Green Ridge Logging Threat

Always there’s the dance of defending the status quo to keep designated wilderness possible. Enter the Green Ridge Project, a 25,000-acre sprawling logging plan of the Deschutes National Forest within habitat for the northern spotted owl, protected under the Endangered Species Act. As part of so-called restoration thinning, the project targets enormous grand firs and Douglas-firs that are critical for the owl. The logging boundaries are adjacent to part of the proposed wilderness and some dip into de facto roadless areas.

A cedar along the Metolius River steams in the early morning sun

Thanks to the vigilance of Oregon Wild, Central Oregon Land Watch, Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project, and others, the Forest Service might be scaling back. But it’s not enough when 5000 acres appear to be slated for commercial logging of trees greater than 21 inches in diameter. Logging would take place in riparian areas. New roads would fragment habitat.

While the trees still stand, it’s never too late to save them.

Returning to the riverside of the singing dipper on the next morning, the sky is clear. I pause by a cedar and ponderosa fused at their bases and living this way for centuries. Nearby, a lofty ponderosa pine forks forty feet up and then splits into six vertical trunks. The day is warming. Mist rises from the Metolius. Trees wet from melting snow are misting, too. Breathing. Exhaling. A dipper lilts into a jazz riff.

Marina Richie is the author of Halcyon Journey, In Search of the Belted Kingfisher, winner of the  2024 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing.  She lives in Bend and serves on the board of the Greater Hells Canyon Council.

Every Wild Place Has a Story

By: Marina Richie

Read other posts in this series:

Beloved Metolius River
Lookout Mountain: Roadless Beacon of the Ochocos

Hiking into a designated wilderness on a national forest, I often pause to admire the boundary sign. The organic shape blends like a great gray owl merging with a grand fir. Routed in the wood is the name of the wilderness and the national forest. When a sign is within easy reach, I might trace the lettering and whisper my gratitude.

Crossing the portal, my steps lighten. Here, I will not round the corner to see stumps or the gash of a new road. I will not encounter a mechanized vehicle. I will not worry about the latest timber sale to “improve” forests with chainsaws.  Instead, I will open my senses to self-willed nature that is complex, entwined, and ever-changing. 

What is not on the entry sign is how that wilderness came to be protected. You might call it a love story, because love is the most powerful of motivations for ordinary people to step up with extraordinary courage to advocate for wilderness with a big “W.”    

Oregon has a rich and often unheralded legacy of local heroes who took great risks to keep roadless areas roadless, wild rivers free-flowing, and ancient forests safe from logging. Without their efforts, we would have far fewer wilds left today. We would also have far fewer wolves, wolverines, spotted owls, marbled murrelets, fishers, martens, salmon, steelhead, salamanders, and a myriad of life forms dependent on our last intact wildlands and rivers.  

As Oregon Wild celebrates 50 years and the Wilderness Act turns 60 this year, I’m delving into a few of the stories of protection and celebrating the leadership of an organization I’ve known and supported since I was a student at University of Oregon, from 1977 to 1981. Even when living in Montana full-time from 1988 to 2015, I felt the tug of the wildlands, wild coastlines, peaks, and forests I’d come to know intimately in Oregon. In 2016—following a year as a roving naturalist—I returned first to La Grande and a year later to Bend, my home today.

I’m a nature writer, environmentalist, and author of the 2022 book, Halcyon Journey in Search of the Belted Kingfisher. I’ve served on the board of the Greater Hells Canyon Council since 2016.

Throughout 2024, look for my upcoming blogs featuring the following wildlands (listed from west to east): Hardesty Mountain, Middle Santiam Wilderness, Metolius River, Lookout Mountain, North Fork Umatilla Wilderness, and Imnaha River.  

The Middle Santiam and North Fork Umatilla fall within our national system of wilderness areas. The Metolius and Imnaha Rivers are part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system. The upper Imnaha flows from headwaters within the Eagle Cap Wilderness to a confluence with the Snake River in Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Hardesty and Lookout Mountains are roadless areas not yet protected as wilderness. 

The Wild and Scenic Imnaha River

All the chosen wildlands harbor big trees and ancient forests, vital for storing carbon and biodiversity. All have critical associated wildlands in need of protection. With the exception of Middle Santiam Wilderness, the selected wilds appear within Oregon’s Ancient Forests, A Hiking Guide, by Chandra LeGue of Oregon Wild.

Writing these pieces for Oregon Wild informs a new book in progress, one that links my passion for birds with saving our threatened ancient and mature forests of the Pacific Northwest.  I’ve also teamed up with watercolor artist Robin Coen to research and write prose for an exhibit called “Refugia of the Blue Mountains” (for the Wild Blues Artist in Residence of Greater Hells Canyon Council). I’m pleased that most of my writing is now interweaving like the mycelial network of roots in a wild forest.

For a sense of what to expect in the series, see the blog Drift Creek Wilderness—a Tribute  (appeared in Oregon Wild’s November newsletter). I wrote of my October hike threaded with memories and the drama of a decade-long fight to save the big trees coveted by the timber industry. Designated under the Oregon Wilderness Act of 1984, Drift Creek is the largest remaining protected ancient forest in the Oregon Coast Range. On that day, I witnessed chinook salmon spawning in clear waters.

Environmentalists in 2024 are part of a long continuum of advocates who have never had it easy.  Losses hit hard. Victories are sweet and often short-lived before we must roll up our sleeves again.  Today, we have far more tools in our hands with social media, drones for filming from above, and even Light Detection and Ranging (Lidar), a remote sensing technology that can reveal a three-dimensional forest.  No matter our advances, there’s nothing better than people out in the field as guardians, watchdogs, and for that ultimate reason—to fall deeply in love with a wild place. 

Oregon Wild has grown from a scrappy grassroots group located in an old Civilian Conservation Corps building across from Hayward Field in Eugene to a vibrant organization with a staff of 20, four regional offices, dozens of volunteers, more than 4,000 members, and even more subscribers and followers. 

I’m grateful for Oregon Wild’s unflagging advocacy over 50 years— protecting almost two million acres of Wilderness, and more than 2000 miles of Wild & Scenic Rivers. What’s harder to measure is what would have been logged, roaded, and degraded without vigilance, winning lawsuits, passing legislation, working hand in hand with other grassroots groups, and rallying people to take action.

The author takes a selfie in front of an old-growth tree

All our remaining wilds in Oregon form one unfinished symphony. The music grows more resonant with every roadless piece we protect, every existing wilderness we expand, every wildlife corridor we link, and every wild river and tributary added to our national wild and scenic river system.

Please contact me if you have stories to share from your experiences in the featured wildlands or know parts of the history. Thanks for coming with me on the virtual journey. Maybe I’ll see you on the trail! Look for my upcoming blog on the Metolius River next month. 

By John Cissel

Visitors to old-growth forests may know that these forests are ecologically important, but for most people, myself included, it is the more emotive aspects of an old forest that inspire and motivate us. We are struck by the sheer beauty of the stout, cinnamon tree trunks; the shafts of sunlight highlighting a lush understory of hip-deep ferns; or the gnarly forms of broken and twisted moss-draped branches. The awe-inspiring dimensions of these giants are globally noteworthy and remind us of our own relative insignificance. Immersion in truly old forests provides a living connection to a pre-European landscape shaped by the forces of nature and indigenous cultures.

Images of enormous Douglas-fir and western redcedar in lush, verdant forest are iconic in the Pacific Northwest. Yet the old forests that hikers actually see are quite variable, including a wide range of forest types shaped by an equally wide range of environmental conditions and history. Experiencing a broad spectrum of old forest conditions is a great way to connect ecological forces with your own perspectives on the importance of old forests.

A brief summary of a few hikes in the Willamette National Forest illustrating some of this diversity is provided below. I hope these images and descriptions encourage you to get out and appreciate these majestic old forests, and enrich your understanding of the forces shaping their history and future.

Detailed maps, ecological and hike descriptions, and photos for each of these hikes, and many others, are freely available at

The website linked above contains the newly updated 3rd edition of “50 Old-Growth Hikes in the Willamette National Forest,” last revised in 1998. This guide was one of a series of annotated old-growth guide-maps and a book I authored and published from 1991-2003.

A great resource for a statewide look at old-forest hikes is “Oregon’s Ancient Forests: A Hiking Guide” by Chandra LeGue.

Lookout Creek (McKenzie Watershed, Hike 24)

Length3 ½ miles one way
SeasonSpring to autumn
Elevation range2,430 feet – 3,440 feet
Human ImprintMinimal
InformationWillamette National Forest, McKenzie River Ranger District

The Lookout Creek Old-Growth Trail is a great place to sample classic Douglas-fir-western hemlock old growth. It is classic, in part, because it is located in the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest, where research into old-growth ecology began over 50 years ago and continues today. Old-growth stands like this were used to construct some of the initial definitions of old-growth forests. Big Douglas-fir, a well-developed understory of western hemlock, and abundant large snags and down wood characterize much of the lower slopes along this trail. Large western redcedar cluster near tributary streams.

Three Pyramids (South Santiam Watershed, Hike 12)

Length2 ¼ miles one way
SeasonSummer to Autumn
Elevation range3,940 feet – 5,618 feet
Human ImprintLow (mountain bikers)
InformationWillamette National Forest, Sweet Home Ranger District

The hike up to the scenic summit of Middle Pyramid illustrates the effect of increasing elevation on the type of old forest. Cold-hardy noble fir mixes with Douglas-fir along the first part of the trail, and becomes more dominant with increasing elevation. Mountain hemlock makes an appearance as the trail ascends the secondary ridge on the way to the top. Higher elevations mean a deeper and longer-lasting snowpack which favors true firs and mountain hemlock. The long, seemingly taper-free noble fir trunks in the lower part of the stand stretch skyward to impressive heights lending a strong vertical feel to the stand. The view of the high Cascades from the top is ample reward for the uphill climb.

South Waldo (Middle Fork-East Watershed, Hike 41)

Length3 ½ miles one way
SeasonSummer to early autumn
Elevation range5,440 feet – 6,050 feet
Human ImprintMinimal
InformationWillamette National Forest, Middle Fork Ranger District

The high-elevation slopes south of Waldo Lake host some of the finest mountain hemlock old growth in the Oregon Cascades. The South Waldo hike traces the lake margin for a couple of miles before heading uphill through the northern end of this forest. The Island Lakes Loop (Hike 43) provides a longer option through the heart of this splendid stand.

Echo Basin (McKenzie Watershed, Hike 16)

Length2 ½ mile loop
SeasonSummer to early Autumn
Elevation range4,160 feet – 4,900 feet
Human ImprintModerate (plantation)
InformationWillamette National Forest, Sweet Home Ranger District

Echo Basin sits in the palm of a sheltered drainage where cold air pools, fostering a forest similar to those found around Mount Rainier and farther north. A short loop leads hikers through this forest where impressive Alaska cedar and occasional old noble fir stand by the trail. Alaska cedar are usually short and sometimes almost shrubby in Oregon, but in Echo Basin they form large trees, likely the largest Alaska cedar in Oregon.

Middle Fork – Sacandaga (Middle Fork-East Watershed, Hike 49)

Length2 ½ miles one way
SeasonSpring to autumn
Elevation range2,470 feet – 2,560 feet
Human ImprintModerate (FR 21 and other roads close by; nearby plantations)
InformationWillamette National Forest, Middle Fork Ranger District

An extensive area of dry mixed conifer forest occupies lower and south- or southwest-facing slopes above Hills Creek Reservoir on the southern end of the Willamette National Forest. This forest contrasts strongly with the forest types described above, both in terms of the species present and in the fire history of the area. An era of frequent fire, supported by indigenous burning, persisted for centuries or millennia maintaining an open forest of large ponderosa pine, sugar pine, incense cedar and Douglas-fir in near-savannah conditions. Unfortunately, a subsequent era of fire suppression led to a dense midstory and understory of grand fir, Douglas-fir and incense cedar that now competes with the older trees for water and nutrients while greatly increasing the amount of fuel in the forest. Many of these older legacy trees are being out-competed by these younger trees, especially the old pines which are dying out. This hike provides an easy way to see this forest condition before the trail heads downslope into a more mesic riparian forest. The Middle Fork – Coal Creek hike (47) and Youngs Rock hike (46) provide alternatives to viewing a forest type more typical in southern and eastern Oregon.

French Pete Creek (McKenzie Watershed, Hike 27)

Length1 ¾ – 4 miles one way
DifficultyEasy – Difficult
SeasonSummer to autumn
Elevation range1,840 feet – 2,800 feet
Human ImprintMinimal
InformationWillamette National Forest, McKenzie River Ranger District

Fire has played a central role in the formation and persistence of old forests in the western Cascades for millennia. Fires vary in frequency, intensity and size historically forming characteristic patterns of fire behavior and effects across areas of similar environmental conditions. Unfortunately, an era of fire suppression, followed by rapid and significant climate change, have greatly altered fire patterns and effects. Many old forests have burned severely in recent years where severe fire had been absent for a long time. Opal Creek (formerly hike 1) and Opal Lake (formerly hike 2) are two prominent examples. Many hikes in recently burned areas are still effectively closed. The French Pete Creek trail offers an opportunity to observe mixed fire effects. The Rebel Fire (2017) and Terwilliger Fire (2018) burned with moderate severity in this area leaving most large trees scorched but alive. However, most understory and mid-canopy trees were killed by the fires, and small patches of forest were severely burned killing the older overstory trees as well. Many existing old forests show signs of similar fires in the past, including fire-scorched large trees and groups of trees having a similar age in the post-fire understory and midstory.

By Helena Virga

It seems unimaginable that the Forest Service would target mature and old-growth forests for logging in the Mt. Hood National Forest, threatening vital carbon-storing forests and precious spotted owl habitat, and degrading the recreation values that attract so many to the beautiful areas around the mountain. Yet, the Forest Service’s Grasshopper Project does just that. Luckily, Oregon Wild is stepping up to challenge the Forest Service and their incredulous decision.

On June 27, 2023, Oregon Wild filed suit against the Forest Service, challenging the agency’s authorization of the Grasshopper Restoration Project in Mt. Hood National Forest directly south of the Badger Creek Wilderness. The Forest Service authorized commercial logging across 5,000 acres of forest, which would remove enough trees to fill 4,000 logging trucks.

The Grasshopper Project not only threatens wildlife and impacts recreation for many who cherish this place but also acts in opposition to President Biden’s direction to conserve America’s mature and old-growth forests.

How does Grasshopper threaten wildlife and biodiversity?

This logging project poses a significant threat to many species that live in this forest, including the threatened northern spotted owl, which is meant to be protected by the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The wildfires of 2020 and 2021 already reduced available habitat for these owls in the Mt. Hood National Forest, and this project puts over 1,200 more acres of key spotted owl habitat on the chopping block. 

(photo courtesy of Wildlife Department BNR – Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs)

The Grasshopper Project is also near an area of recent wolf activity. The White River Pack, as seen in the above photo, has been documented roaming areas of Mt. Hood just a few miles from the proposed logging project, after having been absent for over 70 years.

The Grasshopper Project area is in a unique transition zone along the Cascade Crest, encompassing large stands of Douglas-firs and Ponderosa pines. The Forest Service states that its goal is to reduce the risk of high-intensity wildfires and to protect wildlife habitat. Yet many of these mature stands are operating within the range of normal in terms of fire and already provide vitally important habitat that would be degraded or lost if logging goes forward. 

With owls, wolves, deer, swallowtail butterflies, and more species relying on this forest for survival, the Forest Service has failed to balance wildlife habitat needs with appropriate forest treatments. The Forest Service has prescribed ecologically inappropriate treatments for the mature, moist, mixed-conifer stands in the project area.

How does Grasshopper impact recreation?

Recreationists of many kinds utilize the proposed logging area and its surroundings throughout the year. Plentiful hiking, climbing, and camping opportunities are in and near the proposed logging areas. A popular hiking trail, Rocky Butte Trail, provides stunning views of Mt. Hood from an old fire lookout directly above the proposed logging area, with views that would be altered for generations if logging goes forward. 

(Photos of hikers on Rocky Butte Trail)

The Grasshopper Project is also near campground areas such as Bonney Crossing Campground in the east to the popular, beautiful hiking and water recreation destination Boulder Lake in the west.

How is Grasshopper misaligned with President Biden’s recent Executive Orders?

In 2021, Biden issued Executive Order (EO) 13990 to restore the role of science in tackling the climate crisis, and to direct federal agencies to calculate the true costs of greenhouse gas emissions. On Earth Day 2022, Biden issued another EO, 14072, which highlighted the importance of mature and old-growth forests on public lands in the US and the importance of conserving them. 

Because the Grasshopper Project is proposing to log mature and old-growth forests, our natural carbon sequestration powerhouses, the Forest Service is acting in direct opposition to the Biden Administration’s call to combat climate change through these forests’ protection. 

“In Oregon, logging is the leading source of carbon emissions that worsen climate change, and we don’t have time to spare when it comes to keeping carbon stored on public lands and out of the atmosphere,” said Victoria Wingell. Victoria is the Forests and Climate Campaigner for Oregon Wild and also supports Oregon Wild’s work in the Climate Forest Campaign. The Climate Forest Campaign is a nationwide coalition of over 120 organizations calling on lasting federal protections for mature and old-growth forests. You can find more about how YOU can support this campaign on the Climate Forest Campaign website here.

About the Lawsuit

Oregon Wild filed its lawsuit against the Forest Service challenging the Grasshopper Project in the U.S. District Court for Oregon. The complaint asserts that the Forest Service failed to complete a detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) analyzing the impacts of the Grasshopper Project and failed to analyze the project’s cumulative impacts from other logging, violating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 

The complaint also asserts that the logging project violates the Endangered Species Act regarding its effects on the northern spotted owl, which is listed as “threatened” under the statute. The Forest Service relied on a biological opinion (BiOp) prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 2020. However, that BiOp predates recent wildfires that destroyed many acres of critical habitat for the spotted owl and is no longer valid. 

Oregon Wild is represented in the lawsuit by its staff attorney John Persell and Meriel Darzen from Crag Law Center.

(Photo by Arran Robertson)

Oregon Wild is fighting to protect mature and old-growth forests on the chopping block in Mt. Hood National Forest for climate change, for threatened species, and to protect recreation areas that Oregon Wild members and the broader public know and love. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Helena Virga is a graduate student in Environmental Studies and Nonprofit Management at the University of Oregon who is interning with Oregon Wild.

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