Trails Through Clearcuts

When I first started working at Cle Elum in 1991, there was still logging going on. The Spotted Owl War had been heating up for a couple of years, and it was the last hurrah for large scale road building and natural resource extraction. The Forest Service shut it down sooner than private industry. The timber market dropped. The woods got quiet. People lost jobs, moved on.

The trails stayed. Washington State’s Forest Practices Act had no provision for trails. The forest could be cut without considering recreation, as long as it was more or less cleaned up afterward. Removing the timbered overstory has a huge effect on trails; first, by exposing the soil to much more water and second, by the young trees and brush that come later. So a well-funded trail crew (does such a thing exist?) can have job security for at least 30 years, repairing erosion and cutting brush and limbs. Trees on the edge of clearcuts are more susceptible to being blown over by the wind, without the protection of the neighboring canopy. The fun never stops.

I am somewhat consoled by staying on the same district for a long time. It’s been years since I had to drive into the ditch to get out of the way of an oncoming log truck. And I have gotten to watch the trees grow back, from scruffy twisted little things to straight saplings reaching for the sky. In some places, the branches touch over my head. It begins to feel like a forest again. I have certainly put in my time cutting brush and limbs, and cursing as I find yet another place where the water runs down the trail in a rainstorm. A place that used to be sheltered, where needles and branches softened the water’s blows, and the soil was able to absorb rain.

One time, a long time ago, I was out on a field trip with a forestry expert. We were looking at a planned timber cutting unit near the Cascade crest at high elevation. This expert turned to the foresters and silviculturalist and said: “You guys just don’t get it, do you?” meaning that it would be hard to get trees to grow back in this place. “Don’t worry”, he went on. “Mother will fix it.”

And given enough time, she always does. The forest persists, in some shape or other, and we humans are less in charge than we think we are.

From the Archives

I was looking for something in the flatfile and came across this drawing. It was drawn from a plant I collected in 2003, while working on the Pacific Crest Trail. I was heading north from Tacoma Pass, which crosses the Cascades at about 3500 feet in elevation. Directly to the west is the Cedar River watershed, which serves the city of Seattle. The pass itself is a dark place of towering conifers, but the trail north leads through clearcuts of industrial magnitude. When my eyes are offended by the excess of logging, I have learned to look down. There, near my feet, are signs of persistent returning life. Butchered vine maple stobs sprout like many-headed hydras, and thousands of silver fir and hemlock seedlings spread like green fuzz. I noticed a clump of basal leaves with delicate white flowers. It’s not often that I see wildflowers that are new to me, so this was a special day. There were clumps all along the rocky exposed trail. I had no idea what it was, but it reminded me of the campanulas I grow in my garden. When I showed the district botanist, she identified it as Campanula scouleri, Scouler’s bluebell. By the next morning, the white flower had taken on a bluish tint. I pressed it and mounted it in my trail herbarium. The following winter I had time to examine it closely and make the drawing.

My all-time favorite field guide to wildflowers is Washington Wildflowers, published by the Seattle Audubon Society in 1974. It is now out of print. My copy is inscribed with my name and the date 1978. The photo on the cover is nearly worn off, and the pages are falling out. I have other field guides, but I return to this one because it is so complete and is arranged taxonomically. I can usually determine the family of a plant, so turning to that part of the book usually leads me to what I am looking for.

According to this book, there are six Campanulas found in Washington. The one I see most often is the Round-leaved bluebell. It grows in rocky meadows, and is a harbinger of September. Another grows only in the Olympics and still another is from the North Cascades, so I am unlikely to see those without traveling away from my home range. But that leaves two more for me to discover. May I be in the right place at the right time to see Parry’s bluebell and the Rough bluebell! Something to look forward to…