A tragic tale: The story of the Blue Mountains forests, well told

By Jayson Jacoby December 30, 2011 05:56 pm

I’ve gotten around finally to reading a book which I managed somehow to avoid, as though it were an optional but probably unpleasant medical procedure, for better than a dozen years.

The book is Nancy Langston’s “Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West.”

Langston’s ambitious goal with the 1995 volume is to explain how the national forests in the Blue Mountains — the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur — got as messed up, ecologically speaking, as they were then.

And pretty much still are today.

Langston succeeded.

Her book is the most comprehensive, and cogent, examination of this complicated topic that I’ve read.

(All the more reason that my procrastination is indefensible; but enough with the self-flagellation.)

I savored Langston’s work as much for its historical content as for its science.

She describes country that I know, in some cases quite intimately. (And by intimately I mean I’ve gotten soaked, either by sweat, rain or snow, in some of these places.)

I’m always fascinated to read about the forests I like to hike (or slosh) through — to understand what these places looked like a century or more ago, and what processes, both natural and human-caused, created the woods I see today.

Langston’s story is, above all, a sad one.

It is a tale of young foresters and their fledgling agency, the U.S. Forest Service, who boasted a surplus of enthusiasm but suffered from a shortage of expertise to pull off their grandiose schemes.

Although perhaps “schemes” is too pejorative a term.

I readily concede that my impressions are influenced by the yawning distance between my era and theirs.

This is an example, but it seems to me not the only one, of that “paradox” which Langston inserted into her book’s subtitle.

From a modern perspective — “modern” meaning post-spotted owl, post-Northwest Forest Plan — reading that the newfound (1905) Forest Service’s chief goal in the Blue Mountains was to log all the old growth ponderosa pines as soon as was practical implies a callousness on the part of the agency that it doesn’t deserve.

In that first decade of the 20th century — indeed, dating to the end of the Civil War in 1865 – the overwhelming majority of Americans seemed to believe that nature needed to be tamed.

Arable land should be broken by the plow, water diverted to nurture our crops, and native grasses turned into beef, mutton and wool.

As for trees — that endless sea of green — they ought to be fashioned into our homes and businesses.

Yet Langston writes in plentiful detail about how the Forest Service’s campaign to eradicate old growth was not some slash-and-burn blitz.

It was in fact designed to counteract the rapacious, and blatantly irresponsible, logging that had ravaged parts of the Blues before much of the land was set aside as public property.

That first generation of federal foresters was motivated by a notion that was valid enough, but — again, from a 21st century viewpoint — shockingly narrow: Because old growth trees grow slowly if at all, they should be replaced by young trees that add girth at a comparatively brisk rate.

But the Forest Service, unlike the private companies that employed cut-and-run tactics, intended to replace the trees that were felled.

These “managed” forests — that term, at least, survives all these decades later — would in theory produce a supply of timber forevermore.

Conspicuously absent in this strategy, of course, is the idea, so familiar to us today, that forests have considerable value beyond their ability to churn out board-feet at the maximum pace.

It’s fair to say, even, that that century-old outlook was almost precisely the opposite of what’s currently in fashion. Then, the oldest trees were belittled as decadent, wasteful. Today, they are venerated (“worshipped” is not even overstating the matter, when applied to some people) as the guardians of wildlife habitat and pure water.

What distinguishes Langston’s book from other treatises I’ve read on this topic, though, is that, in explaining how out attitudes have changed over the decades, she eschews simplification.

She explains — quoting liberally from Forest Service documents of the period — that the agency’s officials weren’t the scientifically naive dullards they’re sometimes cast as.

They recognized, for instance, that maintaining a healthy forest was vital in protecting the region’s water supply.

They reasoned, though, that a young forest could fulfill that role as adeptly as an ancient forest could — more so, in fact, since a managed forest, or so they believed, would be less vulnerable to insects, disease and fire.

Perhaps the most distressing element of Langston’s book is one common to historical non-fiction: We know how it all comes out, and the inevitability of the failure appalls and frustrates us.

I was particularly vexed to read that the problems that plague our forests today — chiefly the proliferation of insect-, disease- and fire-prone fir trees — were not only results those long-dead foresters were aware of, the situation is precisely what they sought to prevent.

That they failed so completely can only be described as tragic.

We are fortunate, though, that a researcher and writer of Langston’s talent compiled what amounts to the post-mortem of the forests.

And yet, for all the threads of the mystery that Langston first unravels and then ties in the neat bows of prose, her ultimate lesson, it seems to me, is hardly a triumphant one.

There is no “thank goodness we’re so much smarter today” sanctimony detectable in the conclusions Langston lays out in “Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares.”

Rather, she emphasizes that, despite the considerable knowledge we’ve amassed in the past century, we’re hardly immune to the pitfalls that befell our forebears as they strived to pour, as it were, into the sanitized confines of a laboratory vial, something as inherently, impossibly, complex as a forest.

A place, suffice it to say, which is a whole lot more than a collection of trees.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.