I will never forget leaning in close to its great, red-gold trunk, pressing my cheek against the bark that flakes into puzzle pieces and silently promising, “I will save you.” I wished more than anything that this tree would continue to stand in life and in death as nature willed–perhaps offering decades of food and shelter to woodpeckers and a host of other wildlife. When it fell someday, tree 58 would continue to give to the forest, returning to the soil with the aid of ants and many other insects. I had hope and determination when I wrote my blog on November 7th. I tried. Many of us did. Maybe you wrote in and called the Forest Service and our representatives. I thank you.
I’m sad to report, the tree painted with the blue ring of death and the added grafitti of “58” crashed to the forest floor with chainsaws roaring at the end of November. The loggers fulfilled their contract with the Forest Service and cut down 103 trees. The rare ancient ponderosa forest of the upper Imnaha River corridor within the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area has suffered yet another blow. The travesty is worse when you consider the mandate to treat the deepest gorge in North America and its associated rivers and wild places with reverence.
We lost, but we are far from giving up. We owe it to tree 58 and all the others. In the past couple months, I’ve learned more about the science of western pine beetles. The premise of cutting down big ponderosa pines harboring western pine beetles as a way to prevent spread in a forest is seriously flawed. Entomologist Dr. Diana Six and plant physiologist Dr. Anna Sala, study beetles and the significance of our biggest, oldest trees. From them, I’ve learned it is almost impossible to find trees that are at an early stage with beetles that will hatch and fly that season. Preventing beetles from emerging into a large landscape of ponderosas simply doesn’t work. Yet, that’s what the Forest Service claimed they were doing in the upper Imnaha, and will extend that practice across the landscape, unless the best science is applied. And what is that?
We should preserve as many of our large, older trees and snags as possible, and the remaining and rare ancient forests in all their glory of living, dying, and dead. We need a big dose of humility and science that continues to show the complexity of ecosystems that evolved with beetles for thousands of years. If there is action taken by us, it should be with the lightest of touches, in tune with the dynamics of forests, and based on our growing understanding of ecological relationships, like the intricate dance of ants and trees.
Beyond the science is our moral obligation to save trees that have stood for centuries. We’re far past the days of wanton squandering like there was no tomorrow–the attitude that wiped out 95 percent of the redwoods, the tallest trees on the planet. In honor of tree 58, please consider taking up the cause wherever you live. Find your elder, big trees and be their advocates, whether in an urban park or in the wilds. Go ahead. Hug a tree. Sniff the vanilla fragrance of a sun-warmed big ponderosa.
Where we do lose, how do we express our grief? How do we honor and remember the great trees? My friend and great conservationist Brock Evans has an idea called “We Shall Never Forget.” Along with the many victories over his decades of fighting to save wild places and big trees, he’s witnessed plenty of casualties. He proposes that we honor these places. We name them, commemorate them, hold a ceremony, write an obituary, list the people who worked hard to save them, and where we can, put permanent markers on the land. We grieve, honor, and rally to work on the behalf of all that remains wild.
I’m pondering how to apply this wisdom to the upper Imnaha River forests. In this coming year, I will make my pilgrimage to the stump of tree 58, shed my tears, and gather my courage, too. I will celebrate all the good people who continue to advocate for wilderness, wildlife, and ancient trees. I will take heart and join the inspiring people who are putting together a wonderful vision that connects, protects, and restores the superlative wilds of Hells Canyon, the Wallowa Mountains, the Elkhorns, Lower Joseph, Wenaha-Tucannon, and more.
With every loss comes a victory somewhere, too. I remind myself that small things matter, like saving the elk calf tangled in the fence. Never give up. Strive for the good. Be kind, courageous, and loving. Notice the beauty nature bestows upon us every day.