Life After Timber

What’s a community to do when outside forces and ecological realities threaten the very industry on which it’s built?

IMG_8488This story originally appeared in BioGraphic on Dec. 20, 2016

On a chilly September morning, Bob Christensen stopped his battered SUV outside an annex belonging to the local tribal government, the Hoonah Indian Association, picked up Donovan Smith and Phillip Sharclane outside, and headed for the woods. Thirty minutes later, the three were scrambling through a steep scrub of young trees on a slope overlooking the sea that rings Chichagof Island, in the archipelago that forms Alaska’s southeastern spur.

Dressed in rainbibs against the region’s ever-present moisture, Smith called out plant names as he scrutinized the ground. The list sounded almost like a poem: Beard lichen, bunchberry, oak fern. Christensen, who carried a fat revolver in case of any run-ins with brown bears, scribbled on a clipboard. “I’m the oldest and the laziest,” he joked,” so I do data entry.”

Sharclane paused at each young tree, his hand appearing from the leafy tangle to mark his own height against its trunk, then each foot past, his fingers flat as if in salute. “Growing up, I really would have rather ran through the woods than load them up on a ship,” the 38-year-old said. “There’s nothing better than being out here and getting paid for it.” More…

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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…

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…

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…

Oregon’s Trail through Time: How do you protect a historic artifact from the development it catalyzed?

IMG_8067This feature appeared in the March 7, 2016 special travel issue of High Country News:

Ignore the cold that stiffens your fingers this blustery November day. Ignore the snow atop the distant mountains and the seed-flecked mud that weights your boots. Forget the Jeep Cherokee you came in. None of that was here, in eastern Oregon, in late summer when they crossed.

“You’ve gotta pretend,” says Gail Carbiener, “that it’s 100 degrees.”

I close my eyes. Beneath my feet are the ruts of the Oregon Trail, left by thousands of covered wagons that settlers used to haul belongings from Missouri to the valleys beyond the Cascades, back during the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s. Even then, the route wasn’t new: Fur trappers and missionaries used it, and so, for millennia, did Native peoples.

Today, it’s the designated Oregon National Historic Trail, administered by the National Park Service and mostly visited by history enthusiasts like Carbiener and his wife, Muriel. This particular stretch, northwest of Ontario, Oregon, was a brutally dry 25 miles between the algae-choked Malheur River and a final crossing of the Snake River called Farewell Bend. I conjure creaking leather, plodding livestock, and sunburnt families on foot. It’s not easy: The ruts look more like an eroded ditch grown over with sagebrush. I can faintly hear traffic on Interstate 84, out of sight beyond a hill that fails to conceal a cellphone tower.

The visual intrusion makes 81-year-old Carbiener scowl beneath his John Deere ball cap, but otherwise, the white-grassed hills appear mostly unchanged since the 19th century. That’s why the Carbieners so love this spot, called Birch Creek. Those early travelers “would talk about coming up to a ridge, and as far as the eye could see, they saw wagons,” Gail Carbiener continues. “And so the dust here was unbelievable. The diaries would say that it was so thick, we can’t see the oxen in front of the wagon.”

To complete the scene, I glance at Muriel Carbiener. She performs living history at the High Desert Museum in Bend, where the couple lives, and today, she’s in character. A bonnet covers her close-cropped hair and a floral-print dress hangs to her ankles, cinched with a slightly tattered apron. “And of course there’s a corset,” the diminutive 79-year-old laughs, to “keep the girls in. Do you want to walk 2,000 miles without any support?” More…

What a dead blue whale can teach us about the ocean — and ourselves

This article appeared on Smithsonianmag.com Nov. 18, 2015:

Standing on the blustery beach, Bruce Mate wears a camo slicker, green bibs, a tidy white beard and a somber expression. While Mate’s getup suggests a typical day in the field for a marine mammalogist, the box of latex gloves and bottle of chainsaw lubricating oil under his arm hint at this morning’s unusual task.

The behemoth corpse stranded here the previous Monday, November 2. As far as Mate knows, it’s the first recorded case of a blue whale washing up on the Oregon coast. The creatures are rare; perhaps 2,500 ply the eastern north Pacific, making up between 10 and 25 percent of the global population.

Because blue whales range over vast distances, they tend to sink far from shore when they die, seeding and sustaining a diverse ecosystem of creatures on the seafloor. For a carcass to drift within reach of human experts is the scientific equivalent of that bonanza, known as whale fall. A day after the stranding, Mate, who directs OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute in Newport, and OSU stranding coordinator Jim Rice were on scene with a mission: Extract the giant skeleton for public display. More…