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The Now Hidden Legacy of Logging in the Columbia River Gorge

02.11.15

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The Now Hidden Legacy of Logging in the Columbia River Gorge

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Before the Columbia River Gorge was a National Scenic Area, it was just another beautiful part of the Pacific Northwest carved up by numerous competing interests. Small towns survived on the throughput of their local wood mills, tribes held claim to salmon fishing, and until the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s, the western end of Interstate 84 didn't exist. For many people, President Regan's iconic passage of the 1986 bill that placed a hold on commercial logging and protected the gorge as a place for outdoor recreation was a notable bipartisan achievement, especially considering that the scenic area spanned two states with little history of agreeing on anything. And for others, the limitations imposed on their individual property rights by the Columbia River Gorge Commission is still a bitter pill. But few can argue that the Columbia River Gorge is a more forested place than its history would suggest, an incredible feat considering how close it is to one of the largest and fastest growing cities on the West Coast.

Larch Mountain, with Multnomah Falls at its base, was actually named for its logging past. No larch trees grow on Larch Mountain, but that isn't because they were all cut down. Instead, the mountain held an established forest of noble fir. Lumbermen harvesting wood from the mountain sold the timber as larch, which was in greater demand. Larch Mountain still has a few remaining sections of old-growth noble fir coupled with extensive new growth from the areas that were once logged. In fact, you have to search to find remnants of its logging past, such as the overgrown forest roads that intersect with the Larch Mountain Trail in a few places. For the casual hiker, the forest feels dense along all parts of the trail, from Multnomah Falls to Larch Mountain's summit at Sherrard Point.

This week's Oregon Field Guide profiled a hiker, Don Nelson, who has spent his time uncovering the legacy of commercial logging on both the Oregon and Washington sides of the gorge. Trains and steam engines were used to haul felled trees from the gorge's slopes. A network of tracks wove through what is again a dense understory and conifer forest on the slopes of Hamilton Mountain, Table Mountain, Larch Mountain and the other prominent points of the gorge. He leaves the artifacts where he finds them, hoping other visitors will encounter them on their visits and get a glimpse of the area's hidden past.

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Published in collaboration with Oregon Field Guide

Oregon Field Guide is OPB's long-running local weekly TV series. The program covers natural resources, ecological issues, outdoor recreation and travel destinations across the Northwest region. This award-winning show is one of the most-watched local productions in the public broadcasting system.

Oregon Field Guide also extends the work it does in the field for the television series across radio and the Web, providing a greater degree of coverage.

Oregon Field Guide airs Thursday evenings at 8:30 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 1:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. In the Mountain Time zone of Eastern Oregon, the program airs at 9:30 p.m. Thursdays, and at 7:30 p.m. Sundays.

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