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Last Chance Adventure: Oregon’s Umpqua National Forest

Can you see the forest through the trees? Join a bittersweet trek through an old-growth wilderness in its final days.

“I feel like I’m walking through a war zone,” Sutherland told me in a low voice, as if the ghosts of those trees might be disturbed by normal conversation. I, too, was startled by the intensity of feelings this place evoked. The desolation reminded me, more than anything, of massacre sites I had visited in Rwanda. But here it was the landscape itself that had been cut down, dismembered, slashed, and burned.

True to BLM regulations, six or seven legacy trees had been left standing on each acre. Many of these survivors were severely damaged, their low bark stripped away by skidders, cables, and other machinery that had enabled a crew of a half-dozen workers to dismantle the living surface of this hillside in a matter of days.

According to a Forest Service employee (who asked not to be named), legacy trees are more susceptible to disease and blowdown, since they lack sheltering forest around them. “Leaving them there is an insult,” he said. “Everyone knows the only reason we do it is so we can say we don’t clearcut.”

My visit to this clearcut–pardon me, regeneration harvest–might have been less disturbing if I hadn’t personally financed it. As is the case with almost all timber sales on BLM or national forest land, these trees were sold for less than what the agency spent to prepare the sale. The watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense reports that more than $1 billion in public funds per year subsidizes private logging companies that harvest federal forests. The Umpqua National Forest is among the top 10 money losers, but in 105 of 111 national forests, revenue from timber sales falls short of the costs of administration and roadbuilding, and other outlays.

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