In 1981, David "Chainsaw" Alexander, head ranger of the Detroit District of the Willamette National Forest--the nation's top timber producer at the time--committed himself to sending the largest intact chunk of low-elevation old growth Douglas fir in the Western Cascades to the sawmill. There was something more valuable here than a forest of thousand-year-old trees, some of the purest waters on earth and a few hundred pairs of odd, dark-brown barking birds.
Namely, thousands of jobs. And first on the line was Alexander's.
"The environmentalists want us to stop cutting old-growth timber at Opal Creek," explained Alexander at the height of the controversy that exploded shortly after his surveyors put down their clear-cut markers. "They get at that 32,000 acres, and do you think that would be the last we'll hear of appeals and opposition to timber sales?"
Alexander was right, but he wouldn't last long enough to see just how right he was (his tumultuous reign at Detroit ended in 1990; he's now head of Idaho's Payette National Forest). Ultimately, the Friends of Opal Creek prevailed. Though there were plenty of protests (including some with celeb greens like Bonnie Raitt and Robert Redford), the success of the movement to save the area came not because of pods in trees or spectacles outside Forest Service headquarters. Instead, the Friends found a powerful ally in Sen. Mark O. Hatfield. As his final act before retiring from Congress in 1997, Hatfield sponsored a bill creating the Opal Creek Wilderness and Scenic Recreation Area. The act emboldened environmentalists to launch the litigation that's currently locking up the Northwest's federal timber supply.
And I, for one, am grateful. Sure, I buy two-by-fours like the next guy. But I'm willing to pay more if my lumber comes from second or third growth that's sustainably harvested, not clear-cut from isolated pockets of pristine old growth that the government sells at a loss just to keep an unsustainable rural economy afloat for another season.
I'm glad I can still bring my children to Opal Creek and walk around the Addison "Guts" Gibbs Tree, named for the Oregon governor who denounced slavery during the Civil War. That venerable old fir--12 feet wide at its base and 20 times as tall--stands at the terminus of an idled Forest Service logging road, on the other side of the locked gate leading to Jawbone Flats, the 1930s mining town Friends of Opal Creek now uses as a base camp for environmental education programs. This giant was a sapling when William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel, and it will still guard Opal Creek long after you, I and all those jobs are forgotten.
For directions to Opal Creek and information about hiking and biking in the Wilderness Area, which maintains more than 40 miles of trails, call (503) 897-2921 or check out www.opalcreek.org .
Register now for Ancient Forest Weekend and spend Aug. 4-5 at Jawbone Flats with a resident naturalist from the Friends of Opal Creek; $65 includes three meals and a bunk in the camp's rustic lodge.
To learn more about how Opal Creek was spared from the sawmill, check out David Seideman's Showdown at Opal Creek.