Wake Up And Smell the Smoke
The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire teaches lessons in fire policy and involving the public in crafting it.
Entry 19: October 19, 2017
In the classical Greek legend of Pandora's Box, Zeus was angry with Prometheus for giving people fire. He sent a beautiful woman, Pandora, down to earth with a box, saying it must never be opened. She married Prometheus' brother. Curiosity eventually overcame Pandora and she opened the box, unleashing troubles of every kind on humans. It was the gift of fire that started it all.
The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge began Saturday on a hot Labor Day weekend, when hundreds of hikers seeking shade and a cool river to splash in headed up one of Oregon's most popular trails. Most of the summer, the path was closed several miles to the south because a fire was burning in steep terrain that started near a trailside camp on July 4th. Named the Indian Creek Fire, the Forest Service had been fighting it for almost two months by dropping water on it from helicopters. A source in the agency said that fire was likely caused by fireworks but the perpetrator hadn't been identified.
On September 2 a group of teenagers was hiking near Punchbowl Falls, a popular spot with a picturesque waterfall and streamside access off the main trail. A witness reported seeing one of the boys toss a lighted firework into the canyon, and smoke started rising almost immediately afterward. The witness summoned law enforcement at the trailhead, and police questioned the group before releasing them.
There was another difference that day. It had been a hot, dry summer. The forest was a tinderbox ready to go up. Compounding high temperatures, hot winds created an unstable atmosphere perfect for large fire growth. Foresters know this and plan for it. A map of the Haines Index, a prediction scale ranging from two to six with six being intense fire growth conditions, showed Eagle Creek was in the bullseye.
The time was about 4 pm, and a clock started ticking. When a fire starts in a dry forest in windy weather, there are just a few short hours to put it out before it grows rapidly out of control. Those hours are the time to hit it with everything you've got, a phase called the "initial attack." Tick: The Forest Service diverted helicopters from the Indian Creek Fire to help with the new one. They helped assist 150 trapped hikers and campers near the fires, and dropped water to try to slow the fire's spread.
Tock: In two hours, the fire raced up a 3,500-foot ridge, producing 300-foot flames. Pandora's Box had been opened, and nothing could be done to put back the trouble. In only 16 hours after the fire started, it grew to 3,200 acres. The critical time to stop it had already passed. Once a fire reaches that size, helicopter water drops are like trying to put out a bonfire with a thimble. Over the next two weeks, the fire expanded to 48,000 acres and cost over $18 million to fight. As of this writing, it's still not out so the final figures are unknown.
The impacts from the fire are only beginning to be understood and will affect the region for decades to come. Residents were evacuated from homes, businesses lost money and laid off employees, transportation was shut down, Interstate 84 lanes are reduced at a landslide-prone section causing traffic delays, hiking trails are closed and likely won't open until summer of 2018, major tourism draws such as Multnomah Falls and the waterfall segment of the Historic Columbia River Highway are closed, landslide and rockfall risk are heightened until stabilization work and natural processes take their course, and habitat for rare plants and salmon have been degraded. We narrowly missed a major fire in the Bull Run Watershed, the source of Portland's drinking water supply. For likely more than a year, the Oregon side of the gorge will be economically depressed since recreationists will take their business elsewhere.
After the Eagle Creek fire, a logical question to ask is, "What is the fire management plan for the Columbia Gorge?" The answer is hidden behind layers of government, and transparency has worsened in the past decade. A 2008 version still exists as a forgotten public document online. Now, it's very interesting reading indeed. It appears the plan was never intended for the public to read as it contains corrupt font data. It can't be read on Windows PCs, but Apple software can decipher most of it. It's a treasure trove of information.
Since then, the Forest Service moved to a computerized planning system. It's not accessible to the public. So there's no way for us to know today's fire management strategy, and unclear if there's any process for interested stakeholders to suggest changes. Now that we know the damage an uncontrolled fire in the gorge can do to the region's economy, habitat, and recreational resources, it's essential for the public and representatives of all affected groups to be involved. The forthcoming inquiry into the response to the fire must address some key questions. While Forest Service officials are tight-lipped, I've obtained some information through anonymous sources.
The current plan calls for full suppression of all fires within the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area. The 2008 plan defined full suppression as containing 95% of all wildfires during the initial attack stage of 24 hours or ten acres. With Eagle Creek, that did not happen. Why wasn't containment reached in that period? This fire had the best possible notification that it started: Eyewitnesses immediately hiked out and contacted police. Helicopters were diverted from the nearby Indian Creek fire to dump water on the new fire. That response was ineffective. The Indian Creek fire started July 4, and burned all summer. With two fires in the same season that could not be suppressed during initial attack, there is a serious flaw in our firefighting strategy. What must change so a similar fire will be put out?
Sources in the Forest Service say that there was likely nothing that could be done, even with the best equipment available immediately, to put out the Eagle Creek Fire owing to the conditions that day. Whether or not this is true, there are certainly many things we could do that might have prevented the fire from starting in the first place.
The plan's authors knew the gorge's fire history: "From early September through mid-October the west end of the gorge offers the best of all worlds from a fire's perspective. The tremendous fuel loading of a west side forest coupled with hot and dry wind and incredibly steep terrain make for some of the most spectacular burning conditions the Pacific Northwest has to offer." Fire risk maps rate Eagle Creek as high to extreme, the two most dangerous categories. With this risk and fire history well known, why was the public allowed in the area?
There is a precedent for closing trails at times of high fire danger. Portions of the Klickitat Trail are traditionally closed from June through mid-October. We could do something similar in the Columbia Gorge, possibly closing trails when indicators such as vegetation moisture and the Haines Index predict rapid fire growth.
The plan summarized past causes of fires and their frequency. Ninety-nine percent were from human causes. Burn bans were in effect late this summer, accounting for 56% of total historical risk. In 2017, fireworks were the cause of three fires in the gorge. Should we consider a total fireworks ban in Oregon and Washington?
Fuels reduction is frequently proposed to reduce fire risk. In much of the Columbia Gorge, it's not practical or even possible. Wilderness lands can't have roads or motorized equipment in them and our rainforest is naturally dense stands of Douglas fir, cedar, and hemlock. This year's fires were the result of a very dry summer in a forest that was healthy, yet vulnerable to human-caused fire. Thinning this forest would destroy critical habitat, decrease slope stability, and increase erosion. It's not a feasible strategy. Trees are not the problem, people are.
Since a minor allegedly caused the fire, Oregon law limits parental liability. Parents are liable for up to $7,500 per claimant. Fire agencies can only recoup $5,000 of their costs from parents. For both children and adults, we need to examine if there is enough of a deterrent in place. Should there be stiffer penalties for arson, clearly posted at all recreation sites?
A popular question to officials was why didn't they use supertankers, jumbo jets that can dump almost 20,000 gallons of water or retardant on a fire? The answer is complex and takes an entire article to explain. A simple calculation that appears to have been overlooked strongly suggests they could have helped. The fire cost about one million dollars per day to fight, and a supertanker costs around $120,000 per day to operate. When estimated economic impact is added to firefighting cost, using a supertanker for 12 days pays off if it shortens the fire's duration by one day. Restoration cost will add greatly to the final cost of the fire. If the fire's size could have been reduced through supertanker use, restoration cost would also be less, making a compelling case that they should have been deployed.
I want to clarify that I'm not laying any blame on particular individuals. There is a combination of misguided policy and funding issues, both from many levels of government, that have caused officials to respond to fires more timidly than in the past. Rapid growth in our region has strained trails to the breaking point, and we haven't kept pace with the added demand and increased danger from many more people in the woods, some of whom are unfamiliar with our area's fire history. We've seen the pendulum swing from policy that put fires out immediately without regard to the fire's potential benefits, to now believing that "let it burn" is a better way to manage them without considering the fire's harmful impacts. Fire crews have done an exemplary job of protecting lives and property this time, and that's good. But the flip side is that habitat and recreation resources have taken a gut punch. Many have asked to publicly name the teenager who threw the firework into the canyon. While justice feels good, it's important to remember that our fire policy is the root cause. It created a situation where one careless person could destroy a vast area loved by millions of people. If it hadn't happened September 2, it would happen in the future from any one of a number of causes without improvements to our response and prevention plans. We could blame Prometheus, but the best thing to do is to look ahead and ask what needs to change, and insist that everyone affected has a seat at the table to create future policy.
This year, Oregon has spent $340 million on firefighting costs. In the gorge's rugged terrain, air drops are the only known option to effectively fight fire. If we need better equipment such as larger air tankers, we could have easily purchased them for a fraction of that money. It's time to wake up and smell the smoke. We need a thorough, open review of fire prevention strategy, response planning, and budgeting for the Columbia Gorge, and the entire state.
Chris Carvalho has a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a photographer and blogger on public policy, environmental, and conservation topics.
Everyone's a Winner: The 2017 Solar Eclipse
Photographing the Great American Eclipse of 2017 from Central Oregon
Entry 18: September 9, 2017
Depending on who you talked to, the 2017 solar eclipse ranged from a spiritual experience to the media event of the century, or possibly Armageddon. What you wanted to see in it, you found, much like a Rorschach test given to millions of people at the same time. For me, it was the chance of a lifetime and not to be missed. We made reservations a year in advance for a motel in Redmond, Oregon so we could be within the path of totality as Portland is just outside it. Already rooms were getting hard to find. By June we heard all kinds of dire predictions of fuel shortages, traffic jams, food stores and restaurants selling out, cell phone outages, and power failures. Newspapers said that over one million tourists would visit Oregon for the event, causing unprecedented strain on communities fortunate enough to be in the darkest part of the moon's shadow for one or two brief minutes. Click here to read more.
Forest Service Hoards $14 Million from Recreation Fees; Trails Suffer
An Embarrassment of Riches, Poverty of Programs
Entry 17: October 2, 2016.
Hikers in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA) are familiar with the Northwest Forest Pass, a $30 annual permit required at many sites on federal land. The fee program operates in Washington and Oregon, with collections allocated to participating regional forests. Revenues in the Scenic Area have climbed steadily from $100,000 in 2003 to $441,000 in 2015, a 7% annual growth trend. Click here or on the chart below to read more.
An Open Letter to Governor Jay Inslee
Serious flaws in Vancouver oil-by-rail terminal risk analysis create false impression of safety
Entry 16: June 16, 2016.
The recent derailment and fire of a train carrying crude oil in Mosier, Oregon led me to question the reasoning in the draft environmental impact statement for the Vancouver Energy oil terminal and conduct an independent review. What I found was a number of flaws, errors, and omissions in the risk analysis. If the terminal is built, we can expect to see an oil release event in the Columbia Gorge once every 18 months according to industry data. The letter below to Washington Governor Jay Inslee explains what I found. Click here to read more.
A Map Salem Doesn't Want You to See
Is Portland the reason Sherman County has one of the highest cancer rates in the nation?
Entry 15: February 14, 2016.
Sometimes a map is great for improving one's perspective. Residents of Portland, Oregon are upset about recently discovered high levels of arsenic and cadmium at several hotspots in the city, some located near artisan glass manufacturers using the toxic metals to color their glass. As a cancer survivor, I too am angry at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for its pro-business attitude that values corporate profits far above human health, even though corporations don't get cancer.
While I care deeply about the situation and want the DEQ to serve the public's interest first and businesses' second, I found something startling that puts Portland's problem into a wider perspective. My natural suspicion was that cancer rates in Portland would be the highest in the state, owing to the greater concentration of industry, automobiles, and their pollution. I was wrong. Here is a map of cancer incidence (all types and all races) in Oregon showing how cancer rates vary by county.
The map comes from the National Cancer Institute website and one can easily generate a map for any state and most cancer types, categorized by race and sex if desired. The tri-county Portland metro area (Washington, Clackamas, and Multnomah counties) has an average annual incidence rate of 445 cases per 100,000 population. That's slightly below the national average of 454. The average rate for Sherman (dark red), Gilliam, and Morrow counties (from left to right above, with Portland General Electric's Boardman coal plant in Morrow County and Arlington's Columbia Ridge Landfill in Gilliam, serving Portland) is 540 cases per 100,000. That's 21 percent higher than Portland. Sherman County's rate of 587 is an atrocious 32% higher and ranks as the 14th highest of 2,919 US counties with reported data.
While the outrage in Portland over arsenic and cadmium is certainly justifiable, there should be even greater outrage about the situation in Morrow, Gilliam, and Sherman counties. The coal plant (slated for closure in 2020) and landfill deserve careful scrutiny to find out if they are causing these high cancer rates. While the lack of regulation of arsenic and cadmium is troubling, our state authorities need to devote even more attention to understanding and doing something about cancer rates in the rural counties east of us, especially if Portland is exporting its cancer risk there along with its solid waste and coal-fired power emissions. Note: It may not be only Oregon's problem. The Roosevelt Landfill, of similar size, is located in Washington just across the Columbia from Arlington. It handles waste from all over Washington.
The evidence that Portland could be the reason for these rates is admittedly circumstantial. But the high rates in these rural counties are not. I have sent a letter to Oregon's state epidemiologist asking whether this merits concern and will post an update on her response.
Every time we in Portland throw out the trash, turn on a light, or charge our iPhones, we should thank the residents of the counties downwind from Boardman. If they are giving their lives for us to have our electricity and garbage service, will we do anything for them in return?
Chris Carvalho has a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a photographer and blogger on public policy, environmental, and conservation topics.
Eat Organic, or Die
Mounting evidence suggests glyphosate in food supply linked to serious diseases
Entry 14: January 18, 2016.
I’ve always trusted our foods to be safe to eat. In the summer of 2015, that changed. After some meals I felt miserable, with intense pain in the small intestine. I feared I might be experiencing a return of the cancer I’d been treated for in 2011. That turned out to be wrong, thankfully. After further research and experimentation with my diet, I’ve concluded the pain is from emerging contaminants in the food supply that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should be monitoring and regulating. The contaminants are glyphosate and surfactant additives, used in Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup® and similar products from other manufacturers. Click here to read more...
Heat Wave Cooks Washington's Monarchs
Record heat decimates fall migrating population
Entry 13: August 19, 2015.
In mid-August, a group of volunteers (including myself) planned to work with Professor David James of Washington State University to tag monarch butterflies at a site near the town of Vantage and monitor their fall migration. The work was cancelled due to poor emergence of the fall migrating population of butterflies. According to Dr. James, only about three potential migrant monarchs per hour were observed around August 17th and 18th. It's a devastating count compared to the same time in 2014, when around 22 per hour were observed.
It's the first year since he's been monitoring the site that the population has declined in August. He believes this is due to a heat wave that happened at the same time that the first generation of butterflies was due to emerge as adults at the site in late June and early July.
A WSU climate recording station 2 miles from the Vantage site recorded an average maximum temperature from June 26-July 10 of 103.1ºF. Every day during this period exceeded 100ºF with a maximum of 109º on June 28.
According to Dr. James, "These temperatures exceed optimal temperatures for Monarchs by a significant margin and appear to have had a detrimental effect on population development and survival."
Monarchs face many threats to their future as a species: habitat loss, loss of milkweed from rapidly expanding herbicide use on farms, deforestation at their overwintering sites in Mexico, and now it appears that climate change may pose yet another threat.
I will follow this story and write more as additional information becomes available.
Oregon's Liquid Gold
Bottled water is big business in Oregon, and the public is the loser
Entry 12: April 23, 2015
It rains a lot in Oregon. So it seemed that the Nestlé proposal to bottle a little bit of spring water in the Columbia Gorge wasn't a big deal. It's only half a cubic foot per second, and one tenth of the total volume coming from Oxbow Springs. It creates 50 jobs and property taxes for the struggling town of Cascade Locks. What could possibly be wrong with that? Click here to read more...
Anatomy of a Clearcut
Entry 11: February 8, 2015
SDS Lumber is a timber company operating out of the town of Bingen, Washington. At the end of 2011, it logged 110 acres of land above the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail in Mosier. The site consists of two parcels, about one third owned by SDS and the remaining two thirds owned by the Warm Springs Tribe. Trees on the site were burned in the 2009 Microwave fire, and a clearcut operation was conducted to salvage the burned timber.
The resulting deforested area was an eyesore that appeared seemingly overnight and angered residents, who had no idea it was happening. The site was on land in the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area designated as General Management Area (GMA) Open Space, where timber harvest was thought to be prohibited. The logged area was visible from towns, trails, and the major highways in both Oregon and Washington. The historic highway trail's character was seriously impacted (Figure 1). Click here or on the photo below to read more and take a virtual tour of the clearcut up close...
U-Develop Closes: The Decline of Photographic Printing and Why Paper Prints Matter
Entry 10: January 11, 2015
Sadly, the preferred lab I've used for printing since 2000, Udevelop/Digicraft in Portland, Oregon closed its doors on December 23, 2014. I've worked with them over those years and together we navigated the transition from traditional darkroom enlargements to digital optical printing on photographic paper. But the handwriting has been on the wall for several years now that there is a shakeout of fine-art print shops in progress. They weren't the first lab to close, nor will they be the last. But the world lost a great resource for making and seeing the beauty of art photography.
The first photographic prints date from around 1826. Here's one:
While it's not much to look at by today's standards, the print shows us a window to a world almost two centuries ago. Predating photography, there are drawings surviving from around 1437 and manuscripts that date from the sixth century A.D. Reproduction of images has taken well over a century to move from hand drawings to a variety of printing technologies. In just a couple of decades there has been an explosion of change owing to digital capture and the Internet. It is clear that printing is now in decline.
In this rapidly evolving marketplace, photographers have a few options. One is to print at home using inkjet printing. Another is to use one of the remaining fine-art labs. I have chosen West Coast Imaging in California as they've printed my work before with excellent service and results. But my prices and delivery time will increase owing to the extra shipping involved to use them. A third option is to go completely online and sell images to clients directly for viewing on wall-mounted displays, or on digital media such as Blu-ray disks.
There's no way to stop this inexorable tide, but I must at least question it so people can make intelligent choices about where it's going. We don't have to do what others are doing, though resisting change will carry its own costs. Here is why I still believe paper prints matter.
Screens let us search for and look at images quickly, and change them at our whim. But there are things they don't do well. They don't often let us look at the image at the detail the photographer intended, as nearly every online photo is compressed. If a photographer allows you to zoom in to see more detail, the experience is different from looking at a print on the wall, as one can only see a crop of the zoomed area defined by the borders of the screen. That's not the same to the eye as being able to wander through an image hanging on the wall by simply moving one's eyes and head. Getting lost in a large print is a visceral feeling photographers strive for, and it's not possible electronically. Even the most expensive large displays cannot approach the pixel count of a large fine-art print.
Screens also draw power. A framed print needs light sometimes, but not if viewed in daylight. So we are moving to an era that's contrary to the need of society to reduce carbon emissions. It will take more electricity to view photography as printed art declines.
Viewing an image on a screen takes away the photographer's freedom to choose the medium on which to present the image. With paper, the artist can choose the surface texture and color gamut of the ink or dyes on the paper or the emulsion. The image is exactly as the photographer wanted it to be seen. On a screen, the image's colors will depend on the quality and gamut of the viewer's display and how accurate the color calibration is. There will likely be color inaccuracies, especially in the highlights and shadows. Even with black-and-white images, these factors apply and can even be more apparent in some cases. Since I likely won't know the exact characteristics of the viewer's display, I can't produce an image that looks best on it.
Unlike a framed print, a digital image is tied in some way to the display system. Display technology is changing rapidly, so an image produced for a display in use today will look very different on a display in use in ten or fifty years from now. Owning an electronic image means buying into an upgrade path to have an image to look at on future technologies. That may mean extra money for photographers, but also more risk for buyers. Think about how quickly digital TV has changed since the first sets came out in 2009 in the US.
Pixels on a display are a periodic arrangement of small red, green, and blue bars. They are not the same as the continuous tones of a photographic print, nor are they the same as the ink dots of an inkjet print. I've written about this topic here. For the viewer, there is a richness and tactile quality of a print that displays cannot match. It's similar to the difference between digital and analog music recordings. Not everyone appreciates or sees the difference, but those that do know what I'm talking about. Images on a screen have an artificial quality that can become readily apparent under certain conditions, such as when there are textures or repeating patterns (called moiré) or areas of high contrast with fine detail.
Another serious problem is protecting the rights of the photographer. Most photographers are reluctant to convert a high-resolution image to electronic form and distribute it widely, because it can be easily duplicated. If electronic distribution becomes the only practical way to sell images, they will be pirated and the pictures essentially become free to anyone willing to violate copyright law. We've seen this play out in the music industry. An album track is usually available for download at 99 cents. Most musicians find that this price is too low to make an honest living unless one is at the top of the charts. Once something is only worth 99 cents, it also becomes difficult to pursue copyright violators. Is it worth going after someone who steals something that's worth only a dollar? Nearly every music track can be found online as a pirated version for free.
A characteristic of prints is that once purchased, they are always there for the owner unless some disaster occurs. Digital images are only there when the viewing medium is turned on and the storage media are working properly. As time passes, there is no real guarantee the images will still be there for the owner. Can you find anything on your computer you bought 25 years ago? Maybe, but not very likely.
All of us need to think carefully about the art we appreciate as the digital revolution progresses. Paper art has real power. It's been around for centuries, and deserves to be around for centuries more. That will only happen if art buyers support the people who make prints. Electronic images have their place and their advantages, but they do not supplant a well-crafted framed image.
This Picture Is Illegal
Proposed regulations to require Special Use Permits for commercial filming/photography
Entry 9: September 26, 2014
The Beatles, "Taxman"
Yes, this picture is illegal. It was taken while US Forest Service interim directive 2709.11-2013.1 was in effect and is (gasp!) For Sale. I was unaware I needed a Special Use Permit just to carry a camera into a wilderness area, take the photo, and show it to you so you could appreciate the beauty of wilderness free of charge, and if inspired, buy a copy to hang on your wall. The Forest Service is taking comments on this policy, so I wrote the letter below. Please add your voice and support free access for photography. Without a backlash from the public, we'll all suffer a great loss as our government erects another barrier to appreciating nature.
Dear Mr. Tidwell:
I am a photographer who takes still pictures and video for personal and professional purposes. I sell my work as fine art, and also for publication. Some of it is newsworthy and has appeared in documentaries, books, and in the press. Most of my subject matter is nature, and often taken in wilderness areas. I also blog about environmental issues. I am highly concerned about the US Forest Service Proposed Directive for "Commercial Filming in Wilderness; Special Uses Administration" (79 FR 52626) for the following reasons:
I'd like to share some additional observations about why the proposed policy is a wrongheaded idea. The government is unaware of the large amounts of goodwill they now receive from conscientious photographers and others who love wilderness. When I photograph in wilderness, I'm conscious of the privilege I have to do this without restrictions. I often carry out other people's trash, clean up campsites, and do other volunteer activity such as trail maintenance and construction with USFS personnel. If everyone needs to pay a fee for photography, the sentiment could easily become, "The heck with it, I'm not going to clean up after others anymore, I'm paying the government to do that."
The more government tries to make wilderness into a cash register, the more they will find visitors treating it poorly. Photographers have done more to popularize the value of wilderness and create public support for it than the government ever could. It's time the Forest Service wakes up and gives photographers the credit we're due. For those of us not involved in a lucrative for-profit advertising contract, photographers collectively donate many millions of dollars of time, fuel, equipment, editing, and publishing expenses without asking the government to compensate us.
Government is also unaware of how photography really works. The regulations are written to assume that we just walk up, snap a photo, and then sell it for thousands of dollars. In reality, we may visit an area several times a year to monitor conditions, sometimes going back over many years to find the right combination of weather, light, and vegetation, taking hundreds or thousands of shots. We get one that then sells to a magazine that pays us $50, or maybe $200 if we're lucky. If I had to pay $1500 for a special use permit for each of those trips, would I be able to justify this financially? Of course not. The end result of this misconception is that no one will take pictures in the wilderness any more. It will be prohibitively expensive. The government is taking a place that's accessible to the public, and clearly supported by the courts as an area where photography can't be regulated, and trying to stifle photography there.
The reality of most of my work and that of nearly all fine-art photographers is that people view it online or in galleries free of charge, essentially an educational use. A few people decide to buy prints. A few publishers buy image rights for publication. But the fraction that does is vanishingly small compared to those who view it for free. The "fair use" copyright law allows people to copy my work when it appears online and publish it for educational or journalistic use, and I don't receive any payment for it. If I can't charge for fair use of my images, the Forest Service certainly shouldn't be charging me to create them.
For these reasons, I recommend that the proposed directive be shelved permanently. Any directive to regulate photography and video in wilderness areas must not restrict the taking of images as long as the process is done in accordance with the existing guidelines of no-trace usage, non-motorized access, and keeping the party size below twelve people. The sole limitation requiring a permit should be clear and simple: impact to the wilderness resource, or unreasonable disruption of public access during a shoot. Existing restrictions not allowing models, props, or sets are enough and need not be changed as those items are external to the wilderness and make a clear separation between a for-profit commercial use that is planned in advance and funded upfront by a third party, versus spontaneous, creative use for journalism, artistic expression, publication, or documentation, which are situations where compensation is uncertain, after the fact, and often unknown in advance. I hope you agree, and will help the wilderness to remain a place that photographers can show to others who may not be able to visit it, and largely owes its success to the images we publicize showcasing its beauty.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment.
Open Letter to Mt. Hood National Forest
Improved bridge needed to stop hiker deaths
Entry 8: August 22, 2014
Dear Ms. Wade:
I'm going to take some heat from the Forest Service for not sharing this letter privately. However, I've watched this situation evolve since I moved to Oregon in 1981 and hiked to Ramona Falls at least once a year, and I'm fed up. Public pressure is the only way to change it. On August 12, 2014 Brent A. Ludwig, a 34-year-old man visiting from New Lenox, Illinois, was crossing the Sandy River on the Ramona Falls trail during a severe thunderstorm that poured around an inch and a half of rain in less than an hour on the slopes of Mt. Hood above the trail's bridge, where he was crossing with a group of 19 others. A flash flood washed away the bridge, and he was carried to his death as his wife looked on. The day of Ludwig's death I was planning a hike on Mt. Hood, but canceled it when I checked weather radar and saw severe thunderstorm warnings on the mountain.
This isn't the first time. In August 2004 Sarah Bishop, who was a skilled hiker, died under similar conditions in another rainstorm.
The Ramona Falls trail is a popular hiking destination because it's close to Portland, relatively easy, and offers a great wilderness experience with a wild river, views of Mt. Hood, and an iconic waterfall.
Thousands of people visit every year. It attracts a lot of photographers too. It also requires an expensive Northwest Forest Pass for trailhead parking. So visitors are providing funding for the Forest Service to maintain the trail, and keep tabs on safety. On most days it's a wonderful hike with an easy crossing of a temporary bridge that rangers install in the spring and remove in fall.
Long ago, there was a permanent bridge but the unstable conditions in the riverbed washed it away and the Forest Service decided on a temporary bridge to reduce costs. But things have changed. The popularity of the trail has grown since those days, and on many weekends the parking lot is near capacity. Climate change has also increased the severity and frequency of intense storms. Ramona Falls is talked up in most local hiking guides and websites as a top visitor destination. For that reason, it attracts many inexperienced hikers who are not familiar with the dangers of crossing glacial streams.
The sign directs readers to the homepage of the Mt. Hood National Forest website where "more river crossing tips" are available, but there is no information to be found easily there by visiting the link. Typing "river crossing tips" or "stream crossing tips" into the site's search box gives nothing useful. The only document I could locate was buried in the site's trail description for Ramona Falls, and it's an exact copy of what's on the sign. It's an example of government at its worst: taking taxpayer dollars, promising something, and then failing to deliver. Much credit is due Bishop's family for paying for the signs, but the Forest Service isn't let off the hook. They have been negligent in not doing anything to improve the safety of their bridges. While the signs are helpful, we now know they are not enough.
In particular, when reading the sign the section listing reasons to turn back and not cross doesn't list the most important thing to be aware of: heavy rainfall upstream. That was the cause of both recent deaths and needs to be listed as one of the red flags. Right now, it's only hinted at in the footnote with Bishop's picture.
The time has come for a fix to the dangerous crossing on this trail. Ramona Falls needs a safe suspension bridge of the kind used along trails in New Zealand. These bridges are also in use in places such as Mt. Rainier's Wonderland Trail. They're not unheard of in the USA. Until there's a safe, permanent bridge in place, the deaths are likely to continue.
As a temporary measure until a safe bridge is installed, improved wireless technology makes it possible to put a solar-powered warning light at the river crossing that could be activated from the nearby ranger station. If a storm warning is declared, the light could flash and alert hikers to not cross the stream until help arrives. A sign with the light should indicate for hikers to wait and that help has been summoned. It's a travesty to realize that while Ludwig and Bishop perished, rangers were sitting warm and dry at their desks in the ranger station in nearby Zigzag, just a ten-minute drive and 30-minute hike away. This is a stopgap measure and wouldn't work when the station isn't staffed, but it could help a lot.
I've done a lot of backpacking and made many crossings of dangerous streams. Some of those trips were to New Zealand, where the rainfall is legendary. I remember one time I had to turn back trying to ford a stream alone in dangerous rains causing widespread flooding in the region over several days. Fortunately, I received training and it helped me to find a way across. New Zealand's Department of Conservation thoughtfully placed a shelter at the stream where I could wait for help if I decided to not make the crossing. I was able to wait there, keep dry, and have lunch while I waited for a lull in the storm that lowered the river level. Ramona Falls should also have a shelter to make hikers more inclined to wait in a storm than to take a chance with the crossing. Peer pressure can be your own worst enemy in a situation where a group is rushing to get back to the car and avoid getting drenched in an afternoon rainstorm. The shelter needs to be located on the side of the river where hikers returning from the trip can wait before crossing the river and stay dry while waiting for help or for rains to let up.
The Forest Service is conducting an internal investigation into what can be done in the wake of Ludwig's death. They need to look at an electronic warning light, a safe suspension bridge, a shelter at the crossing, and a better effort to educate hikers on the danger of mountain streams, emphasizing the danger of severe upstream storms. Please, do something useful with our taxpayer and recreation pass dollars. The time has come to take action to stop these senseless deaths. Tourism is an important part of our local economy, and the expense of better infrastructure is justified.
I'll share two excellent links to safe stream crossing tips that should be part of the Forest Service's education efforts below. All hikers should read these.
The Eighth Wedge
Entry 7: November 7, 2012
If you have read Al Gore's book "An Inconvenient Truth," Page 280 has a chart of seven wedges representing different approaches to controlling carbon emissions contributing to climate change. The chart is based on a paper by Robert H. Socolow and Stephen W. Pacala published in the journal Science. The paper proposed seven strategies to level off emissions: energy efficiency, renewables, clean coal, forests, soils (stop deforestation and agricultural tilling), fuel switch (coal to gas, oil to heat pump, etc.), and nuclear power.
Source: Pacala, S., and R. Socolow. "Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies." Science 305 (August 13, 2004):968-972.
The premise of the paper is that there is a way to control carbon emissions through these techniques that could successfully mitigate human impact on climate. However, even though the paper talks about current technologies, there are many uncertainties in the success of these strategies. Clean coal, for instance, could be too costly to implement and it relies on unproven technology such as carbon capture and storage. But what if we were overlooking an eighth wedge, a strategy that doesn't require any new technology at all?
Roadside Trash: Causes and Solutions
Entry 6: March 29, 2012 (updated October 23, 2012)
For several years I've picked up trash along different stretches of roadway. I do it to make the world a better place and as a way to do exercise that produces a benefit to society rather than just to burn calories. Trash pickup is an endless job though; it's hard sometimes to realize that there's no way to make permanent progress.
While doing all that work I have plenty of time to think and I've come up with some ideas that might make a dent in roadside litter. It started with analyzing what gets thrown away. Much of the trash comes from products involved with addiction, such as beer cans, liquor bottles, and cigarette boxes and butts. A lesser amount is fast-food packaging and cups, followed by food packaging from the grocery, and finally random non-food items. Below is what I found on a recent cleanup trip along Old Highway 8 near Lyle, Washington. This road is near a lake, so there's a disproportionate amount of fishing items such as bait cups. Other than that, it's fairly typical. Contrary to what most think, I've never found drugs or syringes over the several years I've done this work. We hear about it on the news a lot, but most trash is quite boring.
Just like on TV commercials, I tried to turn most items so their corporate logos are visible. These companies deserve some bad press for contributing to the mess along America's roads. Some of the items say "Please recycle," but as you can see the message is not getting through. If you click on the photo above it will open a high-resolution version (3MB file.) The collection above came from along about 1/2 mile of country road. I've cleaned that stretch many times before, so it's representative of what appears in the course of a couple of months.
I see two solutions to the problem of roadside trash. The first is to fine the companies producing product packaging and use the money generated to fund cleanup efforts. It would be relatively easy to do this, just collect trash along a sample of roadways and sort it by the manufacturer, grade it by weight or volume, and then assess a fee.
The second approach, while more complicated, would attack the problem at its source. This would be to tax all product packaging. The tax would be calculated on how biodegradable the packaging is, how easily it's recycled, and just as in the first suggestion above, on actual measurement of how much trash is found along roadways. Money from the tax would fund cleanup and recycling efforts.
Both of these approaches would create jobs cleaning up litter. The packaging tax would be especially effective at spurring manufacturers to create more efficient packaging that creates less litter, and perhaps find ways to eliminate some kinds of packaging altogether. We should also allocate a portion of the money collected to addiction treatment programs. That would reduce alcohol and cigarette consumption and decrease litter as well.
Today most states have a deposit on carbonated beverage containers, but as you can see in the picture above they still make up a huge portion of trash even though in theory one could make money by picking up and returning the cans and bottles. We could increase the deposit and that would certainly help. But it wouldn't address the trash coming from other kinds of packaging. At the current redemption rate of 5 cents per container in Oregon, I couldn't even buy half a gallon of gasoline from the cans and bottles above. Oregon pioneered a bottle-return bill but the latest version was watered down by retailers and beverage companies. There is a provision for refunding a dime per container but it would require the number of cans returned to drop below 80% of sales for two years.
There is a possible shortcoming to these ideas, and that's the notion that people might be more inclined to litter because someone will clean up after them. But people who litter already think that today, and I don't think there will be much of an increase of littering, if any.
Some of the alcoholic beverage containers are likely discarded by underage youth who are drinking in their cars and don't want the containers to be found at home. That's a tough problem to solve. Reducing underage drinking has never been very successful. But we could certainly take some money from the ideas here and put it toward better education and enforcement campaigns. Georgia has studied the profile of people who litter, and the majority of people who litter deliberately are young males between the ages of 11 and 24. I think anyone caught littering in that age group should be the first to work on a cleanup crew.
We can also expect some ranting from the right-wingers who claim that we shouldn't be paying a tax on product packaging. I don't think the tax would be very high though. Also it would likely decrease over time as manufacturers found ways to reduce wasteful packaging and improve recycling. Either a tax or a manufacturer charge is more practical than trying to more strictly enforce littering laws. The cost of patrolling to catch violators is prohibitive and couldn't be done without an intrusive police presence. We know who makes the trash in the first place, and that is the manufacturers. They are easy to locate and bear responsibility for the problem too.
While on the topic of trash, Nestle Beverage has a plan to bottle water from a spring in Cascade Locks and sell it. Since the spring is on state land and feeds the local fish hatchery, they've come up with a proposal to provide well water from the city to the hatchery and take the natural water. That water is a public resource and belongs to everyone in the Columbia Gorge, as well as to the plants and animals that rely on fresh water to survive. We shouldn't squander this spring for the benefits of a corporation, and neither should water from the Columbia Gorge end up contributing to the growing mountain of discarded water bottles. Nestle only wants the water because it's free, and they've found a town that's willing to gamble its future on this scheme in exchange for jobs. If Nestle were serious about helping small towns, they could purify water from the city's well and sell that instead, creating the same number of jobs and leaving the natural spring alone.
Just about every state has studied the composition of roadside litter in ways far more detailed than my own analysis. I've yet to hear of anyone proposing a fine on manufacturers or a packaging tax though, likely due to industry opposition. We have all the data we need and have spent all the money we need to spend to understand the problem; what we lack is the political will to create a solution. Until we do, many volunteers will waste tireless hours picking up a never-ending stream of trash.
October 23, 2012 update: After making another trash pickup, I found an interesting connection between this story and the one below about Washington State Parks. Rowland Lake State Park lies along the road and it's seen visitation drop to near zero due to the Discover Pass fee hikes. The law of unintended consequences (see maxim below) has taken effect and now people park at the junction of Old Highway 8 and SR-14, where parking is free, and camp and litter in the woods there. No one polices the site and there are no trash receptacles. So the perverse result of raising state park fees is that we now have more litter.
Washington Parks' Discover Pass: The $10 Picnic
Entry 5: March 8, 2012
"They took all the trees, put 'em in a tree museum / And they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em." -Joni Mitchell, "Big Yellow Taxi"
On March 7, 2012 I visited Beacon Rock State Park in Washington to hike the Hamilton Mountain trail. I knew there was a new user fee for visitors because Washington is facing a budget shortfall and wanted park users to pay up. What shocked me was the $10 fee for one day's use at Washington parks. This is called the "Discover Pass." What it looks like to me is that Washington is doing everything it can to discourage people from using their state parks, especially if the visitors aren't wealthy. Perhaps a better name for this fee is the "Discourage Pass."
Most of us would say that there is a way out, and that is to buy an annual pass for a $30 fee. But $30 is a lot to pay for many families, especially in the tough economic times we're in. There's another gotcha to Washington's fee program that's hidden away: The pass is licensed to only one vehicle by the plate number. So if you have more than one car, choose carefully which one you get a pass for. If you carpool in another person's car, your pass will be invalid.
The "one pass per license plate" policy also creates a mess for recreation clubs, which used to buy annual passes for the club and share them for carpooling to the park. Now that can't be done unless the club knows the same vehicles will be driven on each trip. So it will be necessary to poll everyone at the start of the trip to find out who has a pass, who must drive their car in order to use it. Otherwise each car will need to be sure there's $10 available to buy a day pass at the park.
Why does all of this matter to my photography blog? I can afford the pass, but I am concerned that walling off nature so only the wealthy can afford it is a good way to make it irrelevant to the public. It sends a message that the parks don't matter, and we can't pay for them as a community resource so we'll just charge the visitors as much as can be gotten away with. Once the public gets used to life without parks, why have any land set aside at all? If I had my way, parks would be free to the public and paid for by taxes on polluters and developers. After all, people who impact nature should be asked to give something back. Given Washington's rubber-stamping of wind power projects without considering their impact, I'm not surprised to see them doing something as stupid as making a family pay $10 to visit a park to have a picnic.
Washington's policy of discouraging visitors is working. On March 24, a sunny Saturday, I drove by Rowland Lake park near Lyle and it was completely deserted at noon. So even the well-to-do are choosing to stay away. I've always seen lots of people at the lake when the weather is nice on a weekend. Nearby trailheads for Catherine Creek and Coyote Wall were filled to overflowing with parked cars. These are Forest Service sites and don't have any fees.
Another way to look at the problem is to ask how much it would take to pay for Washington's state parks through the gasoline tax. Washington used approximately 3.2 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel combined in 2010(1), and the state parks annual budget is approximately $74 million (2). If a gas/diesel tax were implemented of 2.2 cents per gallon, it would completely pay for the state parks budget. I'm not saying this is the best way to pay for parks, but a balanced funding approach that drew money from several sources such as gasoline, other pollutant taxes, land development, and the sales tax could easily pay for parks. A small user fee for park use could reduce the amount from other taxes, of course. Oregon's approach is much more sensible and funds parks partially through the state lottery, which is a voluntary choice on the part of those providing the money. Oregon's annual passes are not registered to a vehicle plate.
Wake up Washington, nature is important.
Wind Turbines Blow Away Gorge Views
Entry 4: July 2, 2011 (updated January 11, 2013)
In view of the monumental damage this decision will cause to the region's scenery by opening up wind power development to all comers, I think it's time to rename Whistling Ridge to Gregoire Ridge:
Back to the main topic:
Another shoe is about to drop. Whistling Ridge (see map below) is a proposed project that's only five and a half miles from this viewpoint. While the turbines off to the east are small enough to miss on a cloudy day, the fifty turbines on Whistling Ridge will be close enough to be a real eyesore. They will be visible from Mitchell Point, Nestor Peak, the Columbia Gorge Hotel, portions of the Historic Columbia River Highway, Cathedral Ridge Winery, and many other sites where scenic interest is paramount.
It's too late to fix the Biglow and Windy Flats projects. But there is time for the Columbia Gorge Commission to oppose Whistling Ridge and the continuing assault on the view. Whistling Ridge isn't inside the Scenic Area boundary, but the Gorge Commission has every right to comment on it and their silence is telling. As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Scenic Area Act, we need to remember how important it is to be ever vigilant of new development threats. The Act was visionary when it was written, but could not anticipate new impacts that rapid changes in society and technology are creating. Now when we need it most, the system set up to protect Gorge views is failing us.
The Act contains a critical flaw. It does not specify buffer zones around the Scenic Area. We now see why that's wrong. Cities and counties can establish buffers, but we must move quickly before more projects are built. Three more are proposed in the sightline between Dog Mountain and Biglow Canyon.
The big issue with not having buffer zones is the sheer size of the turbines. Whistling Ridge, as seen in the map above, is just outside the Scenic Area boundary at one of its narrowest places and only 2-1/2 miles from the Columbia River. The turbines that would be located there are nearly twice the length of a 747 jumbo jet, and one-seventh the height of Dog Mountain itself:
While these turbines would be illegal within the boundary, the Act as written allows them to be built a stone's throw away from it and at that close a distance to the Gorge they would be disastrous for recreation, tourism, and wildlife, some of the major reasons an estimated 8 million people visit the area each year to pump money into the local economy.
The Commission needs to require state energy agencies to include the entire Gorge Scenic Area in the scenic impact simulation mapping that's part of the approval process. Today simulations are only done within a fixed distance from a turbine project, yet we are finding that impacts to the view, as in Dog Mountain's case, are happening far beyond the radius required in the public comment process. View simulations produce computer-generated maps that show the number of turbines visible at any geographic location. The environmental impact statement (Appendix B, page 18) for the Biglow Canyon/Klondike III project stated that view impacts in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area were "low to none." Clearly this was a gross understatement of the truth.
Unanticipated impacts to views in the Gorge from wind energy are out of control. There should never be surprises, such as Dog Mountain. Until we have a functioning regulatory system, we need to go slow on further development and get government officials and the public talking about ways to fix the problem before any new projects are built. With the Bonneville Power Administration already limiting wind generation during spring snowmelt to save salmon, we could put tax incentive dollars to better use through energy conservation programs and urban rooftop solar. These alternatives don't destroy pristine vistas and broaden our generation base beyond wind. The reason we haven't gone in this direction is that big investors are behind the wind industry and it's very profitable to ship the energy out of state. Those investors have the ear of our legislators in Oregon and Washington. Energy from urban solar and conservation primarily goes to the local market. It may not line investors' pockets and provide funding for political campaigns, but it does create jobs that are hard to export and reduces carbon emissions.
As wind power grows, local citizens need to think hard about who will pay for the infrastructure needed to manage wind energy on the grid and export it out of the region. It will likely be the ratepayers. It's a bad deal for all of us to lose the views we cherish while others benefit who don't care about what we're losing. That's poor policy, and it doesn't share the burden of cost fairly with those who are creating the electrical demand.
I think the best solution is to amend the Scenic Area Act to include buffer zones around the area that allow regulation of visual impacts, noise, and pollution coming from outside the area that affect it. Failing that, we need a process that allows the public to regulate new forms of impact that were not envisioned when the Act was created. A gridlocked Congress is unable to respond to fast-moving changes in the local environment. The Gorge Commission is stacked with members who favor development over conservation, and lack the vision and prescience needed to anticipate the unforeseen. This is the wisdom we've learned from the past 25 years of the Scenic Area Act. If we can't amend the Act, I call for the Gorge Commission to set up a local framework that could help with these decisions and gives conservation a voice in decision making. In my dreams, I see that future authority negotiating to relocate the 66 turbines in Oregon and Washington that are visible from Dog Mountain so that once again, we have a view we can be proud of.
More about my position on wind energy:
The Oregonian op-ed article is stimulating a lot of comment on wind energy, and due to the paper's 500-word limit I could not state my position on it. I think that wind energy is a useful way to reduce carbon emissions and I'm in favor of wind energy projects when they are properly located to minimize environmental impacts, including harm to wildlife such as birds and bats, noise, and visual disruption of scenery. Regarding the Columbia Gorge, they should not be located anywhere that they would disrupt the view from key viewing areas notable for the area's scenic resources and tourism potential. The region's tourism economy depends on preserving scenic views.
The Whistling Ridge site is very close to the White Salmon river. Later in 2011, the Condit Dam will be removed and will open that river to salmon. Along with the salmon will come bald eagles, and they will be endangered by the turbines while soaring to search for fish. This site has many unfortunate parallels to California's Altamont Pass, where 1300 raptors are killed each year from turbine strikes. Lewis' Woodpecker also lives in the forest at this site and unlike most woodpeckers feeds on airborne insects. It flies within the rotor sweep area of the turbines while seeking insects and is a candidate for endangered-species listing by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
It is now (January 2013) well documented that bats die from wind turbines. While we don't know all the reasons they seem to be attracted to turbines, it is known that at one wind farm on the east coast of the US, an estimated 2,000 bats were killed in six weeks. (Horn et al. 2008 Journal of Wildlife Management 72:1 123-132. based on data from p. 129) That means wind energy is far from "green."
The Oregon Field Guide segment below describes bat deaths from wind power and has some chilling infrared night video showing how bats seem to be drawn to the turbine blades:
Projects such as Whistling Ridge are tests by business interests to see if they can get a project built just outside the scenic area boundary. If approved, more will follow because the Gorge is a windy place. But there are lots of windy places all over Oregon and Washington, and we need to decide which ones are appropriate for wind power development, and which ones should be protected to preserve the scenery. In reality, the part of the landscape that needs protection is very small compared to the total acreage available for wind development in our region. Keeping wind farms out of that area would not harm generation potential in any measurable way. And yes, I believe there are many other ways to reduce our energy needs besides building turbines. Conservation, efficiency, better public policy such as building codes that maximize roof orientation for solar panels, reducing population growth, and limits on exporting power outside the region are all things we need to investigate.
One change I'm particularly in favor of is to create incentives to allow the many acres of unused rooftops on warehouses, schools, and other buildings to be used for solar power generation. Today, many of these buildings are leased by their tenants and there is no incentive for the landowner to install solar power because the tenant is paying the utility bills. That situation needs to change. A locally owned public utility could install and maintain equipment in these locations and pay the landowner a fee for the power that's generated. I think that would be a far better use of government dollars than the current system of tax incentives that reward exporting power out of state while destroying our views.
The public tends to think that wind power is "green" and has no environmental impact. While it's cleaner than some forms of power generation, this belief is mistaken. Wind power has a number of problems. First, it's a distributed generation source. Turbine installations are spread over many thousands of acres, unlike conventional power plants which take up much less land. Coal and natural gas plants do pollute, but pollution controls are easier to implement because there is only one emissions location to treat. With wind power, there are feeder roads for maintenance that impact wildlife habitat and use oil to build and maintain. High-tension lines are needed to collect and distribute power. Second, when these lines stretch to remote states to supply export markets, hundreds of miles of right-of-way must be kept clear and that requires removing vegetation, often with the use of herbicides. Power-line corridors disrupt wildlife and create pathways for invasive species to thrive. In the Northwest, these corridors are full of Scotch Broom, Himalayan Blackberry, and other non-native species that are resistant to herbicides. Third, there is the impact on scenic views already mentioned. It's one thing to have a power plant on a few acres that mars the view in a small area. It is quite another to have turbines spread across miles of countryside. Fourth, there are well-documented impacts to birds and bats. Fifth, turbines must be lit at night for aviation safety and the lighting can disrupt nocturnal animals and migrating birds, besides being an eyesore. Effects on humans and animals due to turbine noise are being investigated, but it is too early to find conclusive evidence confirming or denying effects other than complaints from people living near turbines where it's obvious the noise will be annoying.
Wind power at its heart is no different from any other form of generation. It has impacts that need to be measured and controlled, and locations must be chosen carefully to manage those impacts.
A number of people have commented that private landowners have a right to do what they want with their property. That's a simplistic argument since property rights play a lesser role in decisions to build. It's taxpayer dollars that are providing the subsidy to build these projects. If public funding is helping to build wind farms, the public has a right to decide how and where those dollars get spent.
Making Conservation Dollars Work: