Old Growth Logging’s last stand?

Clearcutting ancient trees in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest makes little sense—ecologically, climatically, even economically. So why is it so hard to stop?

IMG_8414This feature originally appeared in BioGraphic Dec. 20, 2016

If you’ve paid attention to the conservation battles fought in the Lower 48 over the past couple of decades, you might have thought nobody in the United States was still cutting down old-growth forests—at least not on public lands. But all of Southeast Alaska’s sawmills survive on a diet of ancient trees from the 16.7-million-acre Tongass National Forest. It’s the last national forest in the country with an industrial old-growth clearcutting program. Now, the Forest Service is trying to dial that back. More…

The Clam That Sank a Thousand Ships

An infamous mollusk is invading new areas, buoyed by climate change and the 2011 tsunami in Japan

IMG_5272This feature originally appeared in Hakai Magazine Dec. 5, 2016

Early on a calm June morning, Nancy Treneman picks her way along the wrack line of a stretch of southwestern Oregon coast. The biologist has short, curly hair that furls in small wings from beneath her baseball cap and wears jeans patched at the knee with a denim heart. Every so often, she pauses to scrutinize a plastic bottle or lonely flip-flop, or retrieves a hatchet from her pack and skims shavings from a piece of driftwood sticking out of the bony assemblage of logs where the beach meets a steep hillside.

“The debris tells a story,” Treneman explains as she makes notes in a waterproof yellow book. “It tells you what’s going on out there. When the fishing boats are out there. When the crabbing is happening. When the hagfishing is going on.”

And today, just like 30 other days over the past three years, Treneman is looking for passages from a very particular story that may have snagged here among the rocks and sea stacks at Crook Point—a promontory inside Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge that happens to be a perfect catchment for Pacific Ocean castoffs. Suddenly, she spots a black plastic sphere the size of a beach ball. “Oh, oh, a new float! … This one looks freeee-esssh! Lookit! It’s got a mussel!” she cries excitedly, pointing to a delicate lacework of threads fouling its surface. “This is a tsunami float. All this stuff is old mussels.” The cluster of thumb-sized bivalves are Mytilus galloprovincialis, a Mediterranean species that has established itself along the Japanese coast.

Treneman perches on a log and punches out an email on her cellphone to marine biologist Jim Carlton, then retrieves a ziplock bag of chocolate cake from her pack and passes me a piece. “I need the bag,” she says, scraping the creatures from the float’s surface and dropping them inside.

When the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan in 2011, it measurably shifted the country’s main island eastward, tweaked the tilt of Earth’s axis, and killed nearly 20,000 people with the towering wave that followed. The tragedy also sucked an enormous amount of buoyant stuff out to sea—fishing boats, docks, plastic flotsam—offering scientists an unprecedented look at how species raft to new environments on anthropogenic debris, a mechanism that is increasingly influencing ecosystems. With the help of volunteers, government officials, and funders, Carlton, Treneman, and more than 50 other taxonomists have identified about 300 different species that survived a journey of thousands of kilometers across the ocean to Hawai‘i, California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska.

Among them is the little-known mollusk closest to Treneman’s heart: not the Mytilus, no, but the shipworm, a tunneling bivalve with a voracious appetite for wood. More…

River Time, River Tongue

This post appeared on Last Word on Nothing Aug. 28, 2016.

IMG_6792It was a bird of confluences. Nameless, to us. Gray as cloud belly, large as raptor, with eyes streaked over black as if with a stick of charcoal.

The first time I saw it, I stood shin deep in the narrow, clear Pitman River, steps away from the line of opaque jade water marking its union with the Upper Stikine River. The Stikine flows through a landscape sawed at the margins by endless mountain ranges, and is one of three great salmon-bearing rivers that originate in a swath of northern British Columbia known as the Sacred Headwaters. My present purposes were neither great nor sacred, though: I had splashed into the water to pee, or rinse my face, or both, but not in that order, when the bird caught my attention.

It moved while remaining nearly motionless. Its body was fixed in a soaring cross, with narrow, scythe-like wings and a long bill, and it swung in slow arcs a dozen feet above my head, out over the main current, then back. A juvenile gull maybe, or some searching ocean bird thrown improbably far inland. If silence were a creature, it would be this one. More…

BLM moves away from landmark Northwest Forest Plan

This piece appeared in the July 26, 2016 print edition of High Country News.

Crunching across a brushy, logged-over slope near Corvallis, Oregon, Reed Wilson points his trekking pole at an ancient Douglas fir in a neighboring patch of forest. The tree is more than an armspan in diameter, its toes decorated with saprophytic orchids and millipedes.

One of 117 behemoths among these otherwise young stands, this tree and 38 others also wear necklaces of pink tape. Tree-climbing citizen surveyors left them to mark the presence of red tree vole nests, explains Wilson, a gray-haired local jeweler and activist. The tiny rodents devour conifer needles and use the hair-like resin ducts to build pillowy abodes in the trees’ branches. Most vole business takes place high in the canopy — interlaced limbs offering access to other trees, food, mates and new homes. The vole is also favored prey for the threatened northern spotted owl, and its population here in the low-slung northern Coast Range is a candidate for endangered species protection.

The federal government set aside this area as part of a 10-million-acre network of reserves in western Oregon, Washington and Northern California, largely to protect species like spotted owls and voles whose old-growth habitat was being destroyed by logging. In 2009, though, the Bureau of Land Management proposed a commercial project to thin younger trees here, ostensibly to restore more diverse forest structure. And though the Benton Forest Coalition, to which Wilson belongs, and two other environmental groups forced the agency to leave intact forest around most of the vole trees, several stand alone amid logging slash, their tiny tenants marooned and more vulnerable to predation. “This was native forest,” regenerating from a 1931 wildfire, Wilson says. “It hadn’t been logged before.” More…

The Great Horny Owl

This satirical science post, part of a series of posts and making fun of the hyperbole of shark week, that ran on The Last Word on Nothing June 28, 2016.

Owls. Little downy Ewoks. Fat and fusiform with big round eyes, legs feathered like miniature pilot pants in a stiff wind, perhaps a pair of droopy tuft ears. What is more trustworthy than droopy tuft ears? They appear as if they will take your deepest secrets to the grave. Perhaps this is why owls decorate a wide variety of hipster girl paraphernalia.

But beware, because owl tufts are not really ears. And this is where the treachery begins. Instead, owl ears are clandestine, twisted caverns, buried out of sight on either side of the bird’s sinisterly rounded skull. Worse, one is high, and one, low – an asymmetry that allows owls to triangulate on the exact location of sounds. Sounds made by things they will snab with their razor sharp talons and eviscerate with weird, hooked little nose-job beaks. Things like…YOU. More…

Meet the group that’s turning artists into nature’s advocates

This piece appeared in the print edition of High Country News June 27, 2016.

Hard rain has driven the small crew down from their camp at an alpine lake to a roadside national forest picnic area. The spot’s pleasant, even under a late-May storm: Oregon’s Clackamas and Collawash rivers meet here, and conifers and the fluorescent whorls of horsetails overhang the clear green water. Amy Harwood — all in black with an Army-drab beanie and a long braid over one shoulder — crouches by a metal fire pit, knifing kindling from a wedge of wood. Four others, all artists, stand around her. Despite sweaters and jackets, everyone looks chilled.

“Are there rippling muscles in there yet?” asks Harwood’s partner, Ryan Pierce, pointing at my notebook. The flames falter in the wet ash. Harwood blows them back to life as Pierce narrates my hypothetical story: “ ‘It seemed like fire sprouted from their fingers … or from their rippling muscles,’ ” he says gravely. “ ‘Julie made a bird call and we were suddenly surrounded by finches.'”

It makes for an unusual staff meeting, but then this is an unusual group. Signal Fire, which Pierce and Harwood co-founded, runs public-lands-based backcountry trips and residencies for artists and art students. More…

The Map Box

This post originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing June 10, 2016

IMG_5220I keep a wooden box on my bedside table.

It’s cheap – an old Yalumba Wine case that I found on a curb somewhere, with a hinged lid and a shred of price tag still attached. Usually, it’s stacked high with magazines half read, a thing seldom opened and often dusty. But in all of the houses where I’ve lived in two states, I’ve kept it within hands’ reach of where I sleep.

What it contains is difficult to describe.

Nominally, it’s a collection of maps. I found the first in 2007 at an Aspen, Colorado thrift store – a treasure of a place where you could pick up the castoffs of the rich with the scrapings from your pocket. Designer dresses crammed in the back of the 50-cent bin; $300 jackets for the price of a sandwich. Rifling through the shelves of the basement book room, my hands closed on a gallon ziplock so fat it couldn’t seal. Old topographical maps of the surrounding warren of peaks and redbanked creeks spilled from its mouth, along with several hand-drawn novelty maps of the same, and giant dog-eared Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management maps of deserts further west, all the way into Utah. More…

Oregon oil train explosion fuels growing opposition movement

This web exclusive appeared online at hcn.org on June 8, 2016.

Tucked against the steep forests and cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge on Oregon’s northern border, the town of Mosier is a modest collection of wooden homes and narrow streets that climb through oaks and droop-topped Douglas fir. From Mosier’s heart, the vast Columbia itself is invisible beyond a screen of trees, Interstate 84, and an increasingly crowded set of railroad tracks. It’s surprisingly quiet here on a sweltering Sunday in June. Though the population is just shy of 450, “town’s usually very busy,” resident Sandra Parksion tells me from a camp chair in the shade, where she sits beside her adult grandson, Adrian Stranz. “There are a lot of bicyclists. Hikers. Joggers. You name it. (Now) you don’t see anybody wandering around. You don’t hear kids hollering and playing.”

There’s also no wind this weekend, a notable absence in the Gorge, where the bluster often clocks in around 25 to 35 miles per hour. And that, some residents and local officials speculate, may be the only reason why Mosier’s still standing.

Around noon the previous Friday, part of a Union Pacific train carrying 96 tanker cars of highly volatile Bakken crude oil derailed just below Mosier’s I-84 exit overpass, 16 cars folding together in a great clanking din. Four exploded into a blaze that shot flames up to 50 feet in the air and smeared the sky with greasy, black smoke that was visible for miles. More…

West Coast cities sue Monsanto to pay for chemical cleanup

This piece appeared in the print edition of High Country News May 16, 2016.

Portland, Oregon’s Willamette is no wilderness river. But on a spring day, downstream of downtown, wildness peeks through. Thick forest rises beyond a tank farm on the west bank. A sea lion thrashes to the surface, wrestling a salmon. And as Travis Williams, executive director of the nonprofit Willamette Riverkeeper, steers our canoe under a train bridge — dodging debris tossed by jackhammering workers — ospreys wing into view.

The 10-mile reach, known as Portland Harbor, became a Superfund Site in 2000. Over the last century, ships were built and decommissioned here, chemicals and pesticides manufactured, petroleum spilled, and sewage and slaughterhouse waste allowed to flow. Pollution has decreased, but toxic chemicals linger in sediments. Resident fish like bass and carp are so contaminated that riverside signs warn people against eating them, though some do. And osprey can’t read warnings, so they accumulate chemicals, which can thin eggshells and harm chicks.

Among the worst are polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Used in electrical transformers, coolants, caulk, paints and other products, these probable carcinogens were banned in 1979 for their toxicity, persistence and the ease with which they escaped into the environment. Even so, they continued entering waterways through storm drains here and elsewhere.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s remediation plan for Portland Harbor’s PCBs and other pollutants, expected in May, will cost between $790 million and $2.5 billion. The city of Portland, one of 150 “potentially responsible parties” on the hook for a percentage, has already spent $62 million on studies and reports. So on March 16, the city council decided to join six other West Coast cities in suing agribusiness giant Monsanto to recoup some past and future cleanup costs. San Diego filed in 2015, and San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, Spokane and Seattle followed. More…

Evidence of absence: Spotted owls are still vanishing from the Northwest

This feature appeared in the Spring, 2016 print edition of The Living Bird, the magazine of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.IMG_8072.jpg

You won’t meet a Northern Spotted Owl in this story.

The first reason is that, by the time I drive west from Sutherlin, Oregon, with Janice Reid one sunny November morning, the raptor’s breeding season is over. Spotted Owls are territorial while they nest and can be summoned with a hoot simulating an intruder. But once their owlets are grown, the birds melt like ghosts into the forest.

The second reason is grimmer: Spotted Owls are becoming much harder to find.

Reid, a small woman with wavy silver hair, is the U.S. Forest Service’s project director on the 400 square-mile Tyee study area, one of 11 such study sites in western Washington, Oregon, and northern California involved in a decades-long effort to track Spotted Owl population trends.

“I essentially live in this truck in summer, so it’s still got dust and fir needles from field work,” she apologizes, explaining that the dog smell is from a Labrador retriever she’s trained to track owl pellets. She’s studied Spotted Owls in these mountains since 1985, lured by their docile personalities and the puzzle of locating them in the tangled woods.

“You can see your reflection in their eyes sometimes, you get so close,” she says. “And they have big brown eyes. Maybe it’s just human nature to like big brown eyes.” More…