“Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.”– Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Imagine for a moment this vision. Across eastern Oregon forests–from larches aflame in golden needles in fall to the shadowy mossy realms of firs, pines, and spruce–there’s a new way of honoring their weighty role in our future. Communities take pride in protected forests where the last big trees grow. They prosper from keeping centuries-old trees standing, even individual ones in town. They honor the ways of wildfire’s renewal of forests, and the term “salvage logging” is gone from vocabulary.

Centuries-old Ponderosa Pine: The largest 1% of trees in mature and older forests comprises 50% of the biomass, storing half a forest’s carbon. A living tree is half water; the part that’s not water is half carbon. A tree’s ability to stockpile carbon increases rapidly with diameter. A tree with a two-foot diameter stores about 1.7 tons of carbon; a five-foot-diameter tree stores 19.2 tons.
Find out more about the secrets powers of big trees of all species here.

With pride in their protected forests comes priceless beauty and spiritual renewal. Community residents guide people to witness the big trees. With reverence, they interpret the role of the giant trees as analogous to front line workers scrubbing excess carbon from the air and then storing immense amounts in their towering and wide frames, and even more underground. They train as naturalists who can articulate nature’s masterpieces. Everyone breathes in the needle-scented oxygen that these very trees breathe for us.

(Photo I took on an ecological field tour of the Lostine River canyon in 2018)

The healing begins in the quietude. Pine martens race over fallen giant trees that nurture the soils. Delicate ladyslipper orchids, ferns and kinnickkinnick cloak the forest floor. Western Brown Creepers (tiny nuthatch-like birds) nest in the crevices between peeling wide bark and massive tree trunks. Swainson’s Thrushes send their spiraling aria wafting to the clouds, and from the nearby wild river? A Belted Kingfisher’s torrent of quickening notes signals the trout to rise.

Everywhere is life, from a stream that sings salmon and river otter, to the burned sheltering snag that thrums with the knocking of woodpeckers. Some forests have burned, and are now renewing without human intervention. Their sprouting, leafing, and nitrogen fixing on delicate charred soils illuminates a wisdom that we are at last humble enough to receive.

Forest renewal in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness (photo taken in spring of 2016).

In towns and outskirts, homes are fire resistant with metal roofs, and yards are landscaped with native plants resilient to fire. Residents have come to understand the science that “home ignitability, rather than wildland fuels, is the principal cause of home losses during wildland/urban interface fires.”

People have also learned to live simply. They share tools, harvest local foods, and are neighborly and kind. There is enough to eat for all, clean water to drink, free health care, and well-paid teachers who weave ecology and outdoor education into every aspect of learning.

Forest paid work ranges from restoring clearcuts and overgrazed meadows to removing old roads, clearing trails, and serving as wilderness rangers. Field biologists and technicians inventory and monitor plants and wildlife to know how best to save them. Some people are experienced river, hiking and naturalist guides. Still others offer shuttles and lodging for backpackers and day hikers on the Blue Mountains Trail--that links people to wildlands and leads to more designated wilderness and wild rivers.

And yes, this model of honoring nature expands across mountains, rivers, and state lines. Instead of holding contests for newfangled technology to capture and store the excess carbon we’ve spewed into the air and sent us rocketing toward disaster, we protect nature’s carbon-storing heroes–from salt marshes to wild prairies and to our mature, elder, intact and ancient forests with trees that are living, dying, dead, or fallen.

From a utilitarian perspective, carbon capture and storage is a mighty incentive for saving intact forests and large trees. And there’s so much more as trees harbor biodiversity, purify, filter and hold water, anchor and nurture soils, and even tap into groundwaters and cool our planet by evaporation.

We might call these protected forests “Refugia,” defined as “areas where special environmental circumstances have enabled a species or a community of species to survive after extinction in surrounding areas.” My talented artist friend Robin Coen is in the process of creating a series of art pieces under the title, “Refugia of the Blue Mountains,” as in this art piece of a pine marten teetering on the brink–paws on a stump that could be a harbinger of threats to sheltering river valley forests. (See this Lostine blog).

Refugia of the Lostine River Canyon–Logging unit #7– by Robin Coen

Refugia concepts include reverence and reciprocity for the land that are not new, but signal a return to indigenous traditions. Every step we take is on the homelands of peoples who lived here for thousands of years without destroying the ecosystem. That’s in contrast to what EuroAmericans have done with such horrifying rapidity, including attempted genocide of the people who now hold the keys to planetary survival.

Many tribal traditions speak to an interconnected relationship with lands and waters that is holistic and applicable everywhere. Even ownership of land is an oxymoron. This aspiration of learning from tribes, honoring first foods, and treating all lands with respect is an ongoing journey. In the short term, our last big trees and forests are still being cut down at a fast and furious pace–on private and public lands alike. I believe sometimes you must draw a line of protection, as we have with Wilderness designations.

Trees that naturally fall into a stream add hiding places for fish, homes for invertebrates, slow waters, and offer nutrients.

Just as the federal government invests in clean energy, so should our government invest in saving our vanishing carbon-storing, oxygen-giving, biodiversity-offering, pollinating, and fungi-fueled ecosystems. Just as we tout the promise of clean energy jobs, we must put people to work in ways that restore our abused landscapes, and reconnect and rewild fragments into corridors that are lifelines for migration.

Returning to the opening vision, communities are also rewarded financially for their protection of big trees that store and sequester astonishing amounts of carbon, compared to a seedling or a sapling. No longer is anyone cavalier about cutting down even one tree that took decades if not centuries to grow. They are careful, too, to respect the integrity of forests and learn to tread lightly.

To view the forests through an ecological lens is to honor the complexity of interconnected roots underground signaling and acting in synchrony, as well as genetic diversity that we are only beginning to understand. The best possible prescription is called “proforestation”–letting forests grow to their full ecological potential.

The author contemplates light slanting through a coastal forest and the meaning of..Proforestation: Intact Forests in the United States: Proforestation Mitigates Climate Change and Serves the Greatest Good

The good news? The idea of protected reserves of our last big tree forests is not some fantasy, but a realistic science-based proposal that serves the public interest. Reserves are a key part of a recent innovative research paper by Dr. David Mildrexler and co-authors, one that received a splash in the news for articulating the high carbon capturing and storing values of large trees, their rarity across Pacific NW Forests east of the Cascades, and the importance of retaining and strengthening the rule to protect trees 21″ diameter in larger from logging, a rule eliminated by the Trump Administration in its last days. Please take action on this, and the opening up 3.5 million acres of protected spotted owl old-growth forests to logging.

In their paper, “Large Trees Dominate Carbon Storage in Forests East of the Cascade Crest in the United States Pacific Northwest,” the authors merge hard science with practical analysis of changing a decades-old management rule, and end with a brilliant solution–one that’s up to us to put into place.

The authors wrote, “Some public lands (local, state, and federal) could become part of a designated reserve system that includes intact forest landscapes and carbon rich forests, that hold most of these larger, older trees.” They propose uncoupling funding of forest restoration to logging large trees, and instead compensate communities for their role in carbon capture, by protecting both large trees in older forests and some of the younger trees that will become large. Compensation policies like these are already in place in Europe.

Now that enlightenment has returned to the White House, we have every reason to put forward visions of climate refugia for forests and for communities, and for nurturing the next generation of tree-lovers and poets like Mary Oliver (When I am Among Trees):

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

My son Ian is a climber of trees.