Going Public

Confessions of a crew leader

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

If memory serves, my official entrance point into the mountainous mass of federal- and state-managed land that colors the geography of the entire Pacific Northwest came at Boulder Creek Wilderness Area. I was in Umpqua National Forest just a few months after the logging industry and the United States government put a fairly effective end to the long-simmering Spotted Owl Crisis by officially adopting the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan.

Enduring two intermittently snow and rainstorm-addled weeks deep in the moss-draped west slope of the Oregon Cascades, I struggled mightily to lead my 11-person crew in completing a piteously short trail relocation though a towering, cathedral-like stand of old-growth timber that featured, among other curiosities, 500-pound boulders rooted into the dirt like giant prehistoric animal teeth and native rhododendron bushes about the size of a typical two-car garage.

Green to the region and woefully unfamiliar to the inherent complexities of its definitive land management issues at the time, I just assumed that most, if not all, public parcels out there were congressionally designated wilderness preserves and simply went about minding my own business.     

But as I soon discovered on my very next project on and around Mt. Ashland, preserving our nation’s common ground rather than exploiting it to the nth degree has generally proven to be the exception over the years, not the rule.  

For the better part of the following fortnight—while my crew and I maneuvered cartload after cartload of riprap onto denuded, overgrazed slopes in Siskiyou National Forest—I was forced to confront the sobering realization that while several decade’s worth of overly robust sheep driving could be blamed for the actual physical damage we were repairing, it also took a decade’s worth of ill-informed decisions made by citizens, politicians and land managers who all seemed to have acquiesced so fastidiously to their own bottom lines that they essentially lost all meaningful perspective.  

Yet, as dire as this predicament seemed to be, it actually took three more weeks of hardcore tree planting among the apocalyptic coastal clear cuts in Suislaw National Forest before I found myself mired inexorably into the mundane minutiae of cleaning up somebody else’s mess.

Crawling through indeterminable slash piles with my trusty hoe-dad and a rucksack full of Doug fir seedlings as midafternoon temperatures boiled up into the high 90s and dastardly swarms of biting insects threw themselves into all and any of my exposed orifices, there seemed little other viable alternative for me at the time than to stop languishing too morbidly in the tragedy of the commons and simply learn to not only accept it, but to actively anticipate it with the absolute, unwavering conviction that I will continue to do everything in my earthly powers to mitigate the damage—past, present or future—at every turn. 

Fortunately, before my general outlook on public land management tanked completely off the deep end, I managed to secure a two-week “heavy” trail reconstruction assignment in the Mt. Baker Wilderness Area—a project that not only succeeded to expedite my desired extrication from the seemingly endless environmental devastation I kept bumping into in Oregon, but also actively precipitated my subsequent migration northward into the wild, wonderful world of Whatcom County, a place where mountains loom large, snow falls epically and public land accounts for significantly more than half the total available land mass.  

So, on Sept. 28, the 20th anniversary of National Public Lands Day, I encourage others to sign up for one of dozens of projects planned around the state—including Mt. Baker’s Heather Meadows—and lend a helping hand. Our wealth of public lands is an incomparable treasure. But this much elbow room hardly comes cheap.

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