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Opal Creek Wilderness: A story of survival

Decades of battle over a pristine old-growth forest climaxed with the devastating 2020 Beachie Creek fire. But new growth is happening – and photographers are documenting a rebirth.

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Mike O’Brien, “Springtime in the Forest,” Opal Creek, 2011. Photo courtesy Mike O’Brien.

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” wrote Scottish-born American naturalist, philosopher and environmental advocate John Muir. Co-founder and first president of the Sierra Club, Muir played an influential role in preserving forest wilderness areas, including Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park. His many writings describe his explorations in nature, and he made a visual record of his experiences in detailed drawings. Muir was not a photographer, but he appreciated photography, and he built a collection of thousands of photographs in his lifetime, many of which were taken by accomplished landscape photographers of the 19th century.

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The publication of this article coincides with the three-year anniversary of the Beachie Creek fire, which destroyed much of the Opal Creek Wilderness and the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center in the Willamette National Forest.

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When present-day Portland photographer and environmental advocate Mike O’Brien began his own explorations of the forest wilderness in Oregon, he felt inadequate to the task of capturing his “feelings of deep wonder and awe” in a single photographic image. “But I wanted to try to share with others an idea of what drew me there, and in the early days I wanted to use the images to help support saving the forest wilderness, so others could experience for themselves what John Muir describes in his writings.”

A Photographer Champions the Forest

Mike O’Brien has a long history of public service. In 1967 he and his wife, Vana O’Brien, joined the Peace Corps to teach English, math and science in a primary school in the mountains of Ethiopia. In the 1970s he joined a group of climate change activists called the Energy Bozos, which led to working as an energy agent for the Energy Extension Program at Oregon State University, addressing energy use in residential buildings. Mike and another OSU energy agent started Iris Communications, a business providing training and how-to videos about energy-efficient home design. He became deeply involved in the effort to construct sustainable buildings, which led to teaching opportunities and a ten-year stint as the Green Building Specialist for the City of Portland. During this period, O’Brien and his wife built their own energy-efficient home, using environmentally sustainable resources.

In 1987 the Salem Chapter of the Sierra Club approached O’Brien’s Iris Communications business partner, Dave Burtner, with a request to produce an informational video about a place O’Brien had never heard of at the time: the Opal Creek watershed. The U.S. Forest Service had plans to harvest Opal Creek for timber, and the Sierra Club wanted a video that could be used to create public awareness and help in the effort to keep the loggers out. O’Brien and Burtner agreed to produce the video, and they eventually joined in the effort to save Opal Creek by writing letters, fundraising, attending hearings and guiding visitors through the watershed.

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Mike O’Brien, “Opal Creek, Looking South from Bridge at Opal Pool,” 2012.  Photo courtesy Mike O’Brien.

While creating the Sierra Club video, O’Brien began a decades-long love affair with Opal Creek. In 1988 he embarked on a weeklong solo backpacking trip through the watershed, discovering the joyful solitude of the forest. Over the years he would revisit the area numerous times. “One time,” he recalls, “as I was photographing around the Opal Creek pool below Cedar Flats, these butterflies started landing on me, my equipment and my daypack. After a time there were dozens of them fluttering around and I had several happily parked on my bare arms and head for hours. Later, I learned that I had stumbled upon an anglewing butterfly lek, an event where the males show off and the females choose mates. But to me, those butterflies were welcoming me into the forest.”

Mike O’Brien, “Anglewing Butterflies,” Opal Creek, 2002. Photo courtesy Mike O’Brien.

Since those early days, O’Brien has led other photographers on outings to Opal Creek, where they captured their own “feelings of deep wonder and awe” with their cameras. Many of the images below were made by photographers O’Brien guided through the forest wilderness. The photographs help tell the story of how Opal Creek, one of the last remaining stands of old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest, became a tale of survival.

Old-Growth Forests: The Story Begins

When the first European explorers came to the Pacific Northwest as early as the 16th century, they encountered vast ancient forests that had been home to Native Americans, whose sustainable forestry practices had allowed the woods to thrive for millennia. Those forests contained many large, centuries-old evergreen conifers like Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, western red cedar and western hemlock, whose wood, bark, resin and needles were harvested by Northwest tribes as needed for subsistence. The early European settlers arriving in the 18th century were awed by the size of the old growths and the scale of the ancient forests, and soon sought ways the trees could be used for their own purposes.

Historic photograph showing two loggers posing below the undercut of a large tree; a crosscut saw leans upright against the tree trunk; several axes are embedded in the tree trunk, early 1900s. Photo courtesy Oregon Historical Society.

By the mid-1800s the first mills were built in the Pacific Northwest, and lumberjacks began to mine the timber from the ancient old-growth forests. As the population of the region increased as a result of westward territorial expansion and the displacement of Native Americans throughout the 19th century, the demand for lumber grew and continued to grow at a steady pace for decades, while technological improvements in logging and the expansion of railroads helped facilitate the supply. Concerned that timber companies would rapidly deplete the forests, the federal government set up a system of forest reserves on public lands and established the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to manage tree harvesting levels. But during the economic boom of the post-World War II period, the demand for lumber increased at such a rapid rate that Congress set aggressive new targets for the harvesting of timber in the national forests and charged the USFS with managing the task. By the 1980s timber was considered one of the highest value crops in the country. 

The Northwest Timber Wars

Before the mid-20th century little was known about the workings of old-growth forests outside of the accepted forestry management practices meant to facilitate the logging of trees by the timber industry. But in the 1970s scientists began an in-depth study of the complex ecosystems of the ancient forests. These new studies led to a keener understanding of the biodiversity of the forests, from the rotting dead logs on the ground to the canopies reaching twenty stories to the sky. Forest ecologists now understood that felling the giant trees on a massive scale came with serious costs to many wildlife and plant species. The knowledge gained from the studies became a useful tool for conservation groups to battle the timber industry and gave new power to activists in a fledgling environmental movement seeking to keep loggers out of the forests.

Deb Merchant, “Forest Floor Diversity,” Opal Creek, 2008. Photo courtesy Deb Merchant.

The war over timber in the last remaining old-growths forests in the Pacific Northwest has been in effect a series of battles waged for many decades between two competing interests: the economic interests of people and towns dependent on lumber for their livelihood, and the environmental interests of conservationists determined to protect ancient cathedral forests for the benefit of future generations. Each time battle lines have been drawn over the years, no quarter has been given by either side in the bitter struggle to claim some of the oldest and largest trees in the world for their own purposes. 

In the late 1960s environmental activists and conservationists began their first campaigns to protect forests in the Pacific Northwest from destruction by the timber industry. Besides arguing their cases in courts of law, the strategies they adopted included such civil disobedience measures as calling for group protests and using physical blockades to occupy the space near the sites of timber sales proposed by the U.S. Forest Service.

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Bruce Leonard, Cascada de los Ninos, Opal Creek, 2015. Photo courtesy Bruce Leonard.

One of most significant campaigns in the Northwest timber wars occurred on Easter weekend in 1989. In what became known as the Easter Massacre, the USFS decided to take advantage of an expired temporary restraining order to push through a timber sale of old-growth trees in the Willamette National Forest that had been contested in the courts for years, and now faced a new request for injunction just after the Easter holiday. In an attempt to get ahead of the upcoming litigation, the USFS announced just days before the scheduled court date that the North Roaring Devil Timber Sale could proceed and logging could begin. When local environmental activists caught wind of the scheme, they quickly organized a blockading effort by setting up camp at the logging site, building barricades and trenches on the logging road, and locking themselves to trees earmarked for the chainsaw. Although the activists endured six days of blockading, many were arrested for non-violent civil disobedience, and the loggers were able to cut down several acres of old growths in just a few days. The effort by protesters to save all of the trees was unsuccessful this time, but it served to slow down the logging and buy time for the case to be argued in court. The event attracted widespread media coverage and increased public awareness, and the courts ultimately stopped the logging. The Easter Massacre is now regarded as a watershed moment in the history of the timber wars.

Legislation passed by Congress also played a strategic role in preserving old-growth forests. In 1964 the Wilderness Act was passed, giving protective status to some federal lands and limiting development in these designated wilderness areas to the construction of nature trails. The 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed to protect endangered and threatened plants and wildlife dependent on forests. The ESA is responsible for protecting the northern spotted owl, which received threatened-species status in 1990, halting logging in the old-growth forests the owls claim as habitat.

Scott Carpenter, Northern Spotted Owl, Mount Hood National Forest, Earth Day, 2019. Photo courtesy Scott Carpenter.

Although these laws were created to protect forests by declaring designated wilderness areas off limits to logging and by utilizing the ESA to stop logging in critical habitats, they also threatened a way of life for loggers and mill towns dependent on lumber production for their livelihood. Lumber-dependent communities protested the stringent new laws, and the struggle for control of the old-growth forests in the Northwest continued, with no workable solution put forward.

Responding to the ongoing crisis, President Clinton organized the Northwest Forest Summit in 1993, bringing together government officials, scientists, environmentalists, members of the timber industry and timber communities to find ways to solve the impasse. The summit resulted in the creation of the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP), which attempted to set policies for land use that would satisfy all stakeholders in the timber wars. The NWFP helped define new standards for the use of old-growth forests, but it did not put an end to the ongoing struggle. At the time the NWFP was enacted, the war in the woods was continuing apace in a rare forest jewel called the Opal Creek watershed, located in the central Cascades on the northern edge of the Willamette National Forest, where one logger and miner who became an environmental activist was waging an epic battle to save it.

Don Jacobson, Opal Creek Wilderness, 2018. Photo courtesy Don Jacobson.

George Atiyeh: A Crusader for Opal Creek

In the pantheon of foot soldiers fighting to save the old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, George Atiyeh was a legend. To all appearances, he was an unlikely champion for conservationist causes. Years before the Easter Massacre in 1989, Atiyeh had owned a mining company, extracting zinc, lead, copper and silver from an old mining claim in Opal Creek. He later partnered with a good friend to found North Fork Logging, an operation engaged in scavenging wood debris from sites previously logged and performing some small-scale logging. He eventually sold his share of the business to his partner and returned to his core principles, which dictated a very different direction for his life.

Mike Osborne, vine maples in fall color, Opal Creek, 2015. Photo courtesy Mike Osborne.

George Arthur Atiyeh was born and raised in the Portland area, but he spent many of his boyhood summers in the Opal Creek watershed, where Opal Creek and Battle Ax Creek meet and flow into the Little North Santiam River. He stayed with relatives in a mining camp called Jawbone Flats, founded on a mining claim in 1929 by his great-uncle, Jim Hewitt. Young Atiyeh spent his days exploring the seemingly boundless surrounding woods and swimming in the sparkling opalescent pools formed over the millennia by cascading waterfalls. The summers he spent at Jawbone Flats provided the foundation for a steadfast devotion to the forest wilderness and a spiritual attachment to Opal Creek that would sustain Atiyeh for the rest of his life.

Mike O’Brien, “The Spirit Guest,” Opal Pool, 2014. Photo courtesy Mike O’Brien.

As a boy, Atiyeh was witness to repeated attempts by the U.S. Forest Service to take over Jawbone Flats, which Jim Hewitt successfully defended with blockading tactics and by citing the General Mining Act of 1872, which protected his claim from outside intrusion. The lessons Atiyeh learned from his great-uncle would serve him well when, in 1969, he became caretaker at Jawbone Flats. Time and again Atiyeh was also forced to defend against persistent efforts by the USFS to take possession of Jawbone Flats and the surrounding Opal Creek forest. During these early years of guardianship of Jawbone Flats, he took part in his own version of blockading by sabotaging survey stakes, ripping down boundary markers, and damaging logging equipment. He was once arrested for threatening forest service personnel with a gun. He sought the help of his uncle, state Senator Vic Atiyeh, who eight years later would become Oregon’s governor. With his uncle’s assistance, George Atiyeh avoided indictment, but the episode persuaded him to change his tactics.

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In his next move to thwart the government’s dogged attempts to mark Opal Creek for timber sales, Atiyeh founded the Shiny Rock Mining Company in 1972 with funds provided by an investor who also wanted to save Opal Creek from logging. Like his great-uncle, Atiyeh was now able to successfully defend Jawbone Flats in the courts for many years by citing the General Mining Act. The GMA also allowed him to secure additional mining claims to expand his total private inholding to 151 acres. But in 1981 the USFS decided to move forward on an Opal Creek timber sale in a plan that called for building miles of logging roads and harvesting millions of board feet of timber. This time Atiyeh approached established conservation groups, joining forces with them in a lawsuit to stop the timber sale. Although the lawsuit and subsequent appeals were unsuccessful, Atiyeh, along with the other appellants (including Salem Audubon, the Oregon Sierra Club, the Central Cascades Conservation Council and the Oregon Wilderness Coalition), was able to delay the timber sale long enough to attract much needed attention to the cause.

Eric Brody, Opal Creek, Sawmill Falls, Opal Creek Wilderness, 2015. Photo courtesy Eric Brody.

For the next fifteen years Atiyeh would do constant battle with the USFS and the timber industry in the courts as well as in the legislature. Though he failed repeatedly, his efforts proved useful as delaying tactics as he argued for his cause. Several pieces of legislation were considered as a result of his advocacy. In 1982 Opal Creek was included in the proposed Oregon Wilderness Act in the U.S. Congress, but it was deleted in the final draft of the legislation. In 1985 Opal Creek was included in plans for a state scenic waterway system but was later omitted from consideration. In 1989 the Oregon Legislature considered a bill to create Opal Creek Ancient Forest State Park, which met with such fierce protests from adherents of the timber industry that the legislation also failed to pass. In 1994 the Opal Creek Forest Preserve Act was introduced in the U.S. Congress, but the legislation died in the Senate.

George Atiyeh (center), representing the Shiny Rock Mining Company, testifies in Washington, DC, with Jim Quiring (left) and Vina Coffel (right), representing the Central Cascades Conservation Council, in favor of including Opal Creek in the Oregon Wilderness Act of 1984. Photo courtesy Jim Quiring.

Charismatic, passionate and articulate, Atiyeh became the face of the movement to rescue Opal Creek from destruction. Using his well-honed skills as a grass-roots activist, his work drew considerable media attention, leading to appearances on national news programs and feature articles in major news publications. In 1989 the National Audubon Society produced a documentary about the plight of old-growth forests, which was carried by Turner Broadcasting. The film Ancient Forests: Rage Over Trees was narrated by the actor Paul Newman, and shined a bright light on Opal Creek and the Northwest timber wars. Atiyeh was the subject of the 1993 book Showdown at Opal Creek: The Battle for America’s Last Wilderness, written by the journalist David Seideman. As an accomplished pilot, Atiyeh was able to fly news media and politicians over the Willamette National Forest to show the scars left by clear-cut areas and the miles of roads built to facilitate logging. He also guided interested groups on hiking trips through Opal Creek, which generated additional public awareness and support. 

Evan G. Schneider, “Reflection at Opal Creek,” Opal Pool, 2018. Photo courtesy Evan G. Schneider.

In 1989 Atiyeh created the Friends of Opal Creek, a nonprofit corporation established to advocate for protection of the watershed and to foster public awareness of the ecological complexity of old-growth forests. In 1992 Atiyeh’s Shiny Rock Mining Company gave its 151 acres of forest land in the Opal Creek watershed, including the entire 15-acre mining town of Jawbone Flats, to Friends of Opal Creek. For the next several years, Atiyeh and Friends of Opal Creek continued their local, statewide and national efforts to defend against logging in the watershed.

Susan Turner, core shed at Jawbone Flats, Opal Creek, 2015. Photo courtesy Susan Turner.

Then, in 1996, after nearly two decades of battle to preserve Opal Creek, federal legislation was finally passed giving protected status to 34,000 acres of old-growth forest land in the watershed. With the help of Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, Congress authorized the establishment of Opal Creek Wilderness and Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area. With the exception of Jawbone Flats, the legislation required the return of all privately owned land in the watershed to the Willamette National Forest. Operating under a USFS special-use permit, Jawbone Flats would remain a private inholding under the ownership and management of Friends of Opal Creek, which by now had transformed the old mining claim into a center for forest ecology and education. In 2005 the Friends of Opal Creek changed its name to the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center (OCAFC). For the next 15 years, OCAFC would carry out its mission to educate the public about forest ecology and act as custodian of the historic mining outpost of Jawbone Flats. But a cataclysmic event changed everything. 

The Beachie Creek Fire

In August 2020 severe thunderstorms moved into the Willamette National Forest and other parts of the Cascade Range. By Sunday, August 16, a red-flag warning had been issued for the area due to the frequency of lightning strikes. That afternoon, OCAFC staff at Jawbone Flats noticed a plume of smoke about two miles south. An immediate evacuation was ordered for Jawbone Flats and the surrounding woods. It had been a particularly busy weekend, with 100-degree temperatures attracting visitors to the shaded hiking trails and Opal Pool, so there was concern about leaving people behind. However, the evacuation was successful.

Meanwhile, the USFS lookout on Coffin Mountain also spotted the smoke and alerted fire crews, who quickly began an air assault by dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water on the target area. The source of the smoke was a small blaze in the forest above Beachie Creek, a tributary of Opal Creek. It was later determined that lightning had caused the fire. After dousing the flames with water, the USFS determined that the fire was sufficiently contained, so they could safely turn their attention to other wildfires that posed a greater threat to communities at the time. For the next two weeks, the fire at Beachie Creek remained relatively small, but it continued to smolder without further preventive measures taken by firefighters.

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Augustus Gleason; a firefighting helicopter combats wildfire at Beachie Creek, 2020. Photo courtesy Augustus Gleason.

By Labor Day a windstorm had begun to develop in the western Cascade Range. The smoldering Beachie Creek fire quickly grew in size and continued to expand dramatically in the coming days as the windstorm reached historic proportions. By now the USFS had already judged the location of the fire too remote to safely send fire crews into this part of the Opal Creek Wilderness. As the raging winds pushed the wildfire westward, they also downed power lines in Santiam Canyon, sparking fires that quickly grew and merged with the Beachie Creek fire. These fires soon merged with the Lionshead fire to the east. The combined Labor Day fires eventually burned more than 700,000 acres in Oregon by the end of September. The fires would not be fully contained until the rains came in November.

Augustus Gleason. The Beachie Creek fire grew rapidly after Labor Day, 2020. Photo courtesy Augustus Gleason.

The Beachie Creek fire alone destroyed almost 200,000 acres of land, including large swaths of forest in the Opal Creek Wilderness and much of Jawbone Flats. Several towns along the Santiam River, including Detroit, Elkhorn, Gates, and Mill City, also suffered significant damage. Tragically, the wildfire killed five people. Among those who lost their lives was the beloved and steadfast champion of Opal Creek, George Atiyeh, who died when fire destroyed his home in Elkhorn. He was 72 years old.

Andy Adkins: “George Atiyeh on the Little North Santiam Trail,” March, 2020. Photo courtesy Andy Adkins.

Jawbone Flats: After the Fire

After the evacuation of Jawbone Flats on August 16, OCAFC staff were allowed to reenter the site following the initial efforts to control the fire by air. When the windstorm arrived over Labor Day weekend, staff could only watch in awe as the fire grew large enough to prompt another evacuation on September 4. It would be a year before they were allowed to regain entry with a special USFS permit to assess the extent of the damage to Jawbone Flats.

Before the Beachie Creek fire, Jawbone Flats had been a popular destination for hiking in the surrounding forest, swimming in the gem-like pools, exploring the artifacts in the outdoor mining museum, or staying in one of the guest cabins. As the site of the OCAFC, the primary mission of Jawbone Flats, however, was as a center for environmental education, attracting regular visits by school children on field trips to the forest. Jawbone Flats consisted of approximately two dozen structures with a mix of old restored and newly built cabins. It generated power with solar panels and its own hydroelectric plant. Some of the cabins had become the permanent residences of a few OCAFC staff members, and a part-time residence of George Atiyeh, who often stayed for extended periods. Only one cabin survived the blaze.

Mike O’Brien, Jawbone Flats, Opal Creek, 2013. Photo courtesy Mike O’Brien.

Before the Beachie Creek fire, Augustus “Auggie” Gleason had been the on-site caretaker of Jawbone Flats and the OCAFC, residing year-round in one of the cabins. His job included managing and maintaining the historic buildings, the hydro, solar and generator power systems, and potable water systems, as well as winterizing and preparing Jawbone Flats for upcoming programs. In his current role as Facilities Director, Gleason’s job description has changed. His new mandate requires him to perform a multitude of tasks in the effort to rebuild Jawbone Flats, including recovering insurance proceeds, applying for FEMA public assistance, allocating funds to specific projects, finding contractors, and working with the USFS and the community to coordinate rebuilding plans.

Jim Congleton, scorched slope after the fire, Jawbone Flats entry road, Opal Creek, 2022. Photo courtesy Jim Congleton.

In 2021, a full year after the fire, the only way to get to Jawbone Flats was to hike an arduous sixteen-mile round trip over fallen trees, burned bridges and forest debris. By 2022 the old three-mile road to Jawbone Flats had been cleared sufficiently to allow light trucks to carry in tools and temporary utilities to the lone surviving cabin, providing shelter for staff and volunteers performing clean-up tasks.

Jim Congleton. These old mining trucks survived the fire largely undamaged but littered with firestorm-blown debris, Jawbone Flats, Opal Creek, 2022. Photo courtesy Jim Congleton.

In 2023 Opal Creek is still closed to the public and access remains severely limited, requiring a special-use permit issued by the USFS. Because the old road and bridges are still not safe for heavy vehicles, the massive amount of debris from the fire at Jawbone Flats has not yet been removed. Progress toward rebuilding has been necessarily slow. However, Auggie Gleason is proud of what has been accomplished so far, considering “the fragile state of the landscape, the complexities of having a private inholding surrounded by public lands managed by the Forest Service, and the need for Opal Creek to develop a solid financial strategy.” And he is optimistic about future achievements “given our desire to rebuild more resiliently, maybe with a smaller footprint, while we address the challenges of human-caused climate disruption.” 

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Mike O’Brien: Opal Creek at the same location before and after the fire, 2012 (left) & 2023 (right). Photos courtesy Mike O’Brien.

As Programs Director at the OCAFC for the past eight years, Megan Selvig is also optimistic about what the organization can achieve going forward. Since the Beachie Creek fire, her work has changed as well. Her focus remains forest education for children, but her program activities are no longer based in the Opal Creek Wilderness. While Jawbone Flats is being cleaned up and redesigned, the classrooms have been relocated to other forests in Oregon. Many of the OCAFC outdoor school programs have been moved to Silver Falls State Park’s Camp Silver Creek, while the center’s youth expedition programs continue to occur in several wilderness areas in Oregon. When the reconstruction of Jawbone Flats is complete, future programs will be held there, as well as at Silver Falls and various other locations around the state.   

Because of the remote location of Jawbone Flats, overnight field experiences were the only programs offered by OCAFC before the fire. Now the center can offer students day and overnight outdoor programs at Silver Falls, since the state park is more readily accessible. As the surrounding forest at Silver Falls has the same magical feel as Opal Creek, Selvig has embraced the change. All of the outdoor programs still focus on learning about forest ecology and “cultivating an awareness and relationship with nature,” as prescribed by their mission, but the center can now offer a more diverse set of experiences.

Mike Osborne, fall leaves in Opal Creek, 2015. Photo courtesy Mike Osborne.

Another important change has been the new partnership the OCAFC has forged with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde to help students learn not only about forest ecology, but also about the worldview of the Tribes with regard to their relationship to place. Selvig also has plans to create a research program focusing on forest recovery from catastrophic fires. Because Jawbone Flats experienced a mosaic pattern of burn with varying degrees of fire intensity and tree mortality throughout the area, the location is an excellent place to study how a forest recovers depending on the degree of burn damage. Selvig has converted Cabin 4, the sole surviving cabin on Jawbone Flats, into a temporary research center, where scientists can stay while studying how the forest is developing after the Beachie Creek fire. 

Mike O’Brien: The mosaic burn pattern of the Beachie Creek fire resulted in the total loss of Cabin 5 in the foreground, while Cabin 4, the sole surviving cabin, is intact, Jawbone Flats, Opal Creek, 2022. Photo courtesy Mike O’Brien.

Opal Creek Wilderness: A New Forest Emerges

The loss of an old-growth forest in a rare wilderness area like Opal Creek is a tragedy. For some, the loss of the hiking trails, the sparkling pools, and the magical spirit of Jawbone Flats and the surrounding forest was like losing family. That feeling of loss is palpable, making it easy to lose hope for the future of the forest. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the forest is now gone forever. Wildfires have always been a natural part of forests in the Pacific Northwest, and although these fires can be devastating on a personal level, they are often part of the cycle of growth, death and renewal of forests.

Derek Churchill, a forest health scientist for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, has worked in the field of ecological forestry and forest restoration for close to twenty years. He is particularly interested in how younger forests develop and begin to take on the characteristics of old-growth forests with their complex ecosystems and species biodiversity. Churchill also studies the impact of wildfires on forests throughout Washington and across the west. In the aftermath of a wildfire, he explains, a new forest begins to emerge naturally, developing by stages into a forest as diverse as the old-growth forest it is replacing.

Mike O’Brien, new life after the fire, Opal Creek, 2023. Photo courtesy Mike O’Brien.

As soon as a year after the Beachie Creek fire, the natural emergence of a new forest was already evident with new grasses and tiny seedlings sprouting in the burnt rubble of the forest floor. Now, three years later, the forest is in a period of rapid change, and Churchill sees a healthy recovery happening. “Opal Creek is in the early stages of forest development as it emerges into a ‘pre-forest’ or an ‘early-seral community,’ a non-tree phase with the appearance of lots of shrubs and other herbaceous plants with a ton of biodiversity. At this stage, the new growth and all the snags and downed logs from the fire provide habitat for a whole array of insects, birds and mammals.” 

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Mike O’Brien, tree seedlings after the fire, Opal Creek, 2023. Photo courtesy Mike O’Brien.

According to Churchill, the forest will experience a gradual transition from the current early-seral stage into a more tree-dominated forest system. This phase can take anywhere from 15 to 100 years or longer, depending on the severity of the fire. Where the forest experienced a high-severity burn, killing most or all of the trees, there will be less seed available from surviving trees. In these conditions it will take much longer for the forest to become tree-dominant. In areas where the fire burned more moderately, there will be more seed source availability, allowing trees to establish themselves much more quickly.

Jawbone Flats experienced a mosaic-pattern fire, where some areas burned hotter than others. In a mosaic-pattern burn, tree growth will also be much faster. However, Churchill explains, “In the 2020 Labor Day fires in Oregon, you had some really large high-severity patches, including in Opal Creek, that burned really hot with intense fire. In those places there may not be seed source or the right soil conditions for trees to establish quickly. If there is no seed source, trees have to grow in other places, and eventually their seed will be carried in by wind, birds and animals, and it’s a much more gradual process. However, cones can often survive on trees that die in the fire and provide a big pulse of seed right after the fire. This is called the canopy seed bank.”

Mike OBrien, road to Jawbone Flats before and after the fire, 2012 (left) & 2023 (right). Photos courtesy Mike OBrien.

Churchill also observes that Opal Creek Wilderness “is experiencing a dynamic explosion of new life that is emerging from the loss of the old-growth forest. This beautiful and incredibly biodiverse stage was rare in western Oregon and Washington before the Labor Day fires.” All of the burn debris on the forest floor is providing a valuable function. Scientists now know that forests burned by wildfires continue to store large amounts of carbon. Carbon emissions into the atmosphere are one of the main causes of climate change. So it is inaccurate to conclude that the loss of so much precious forest is a waste. On the contrary, Churchill says, “It’s not a waste. The largest of the fallen trees take 100 years or more to decompose, while they continue to store carbon, provide wildlife habitat, enhance streams and fish habitat, and build soil for the future. All that dead wood continues to provide an important purpose for a long time.”

The forest in the Opal Creek Wilderness is not gone forever. In the short term, it is providing new opportunity and life. In the long term, it is reorganizing to see which species will adapt to the climate conditions that are presented going forward. As we continue to experience climate change at the current rate, Churchill explains, “The plants and the seedlings established after the fire that survive the current warmer, drier springs and summers will be better adapted for the next three or four decades. But if the climate keeps changing and climate change accelerates because not enough is being done about carbon in the atmosphere, then all bets are off.”

Mike O’Brien, Opal Creek Canyon & Beachie Saddle, Opal Creek, 2023. Photo courtesy Mike O’Brien.

Opal Creek Wilderness: A Legacy

In the 19th century John Muir argued for a strict preservationist approach to safeguarding forests, so they could be enjoyed by future generations on a purely aesthetic level. Others, like Gifford Pinchot, who would become the first director of the USFS, argued for a more utilitarian approach to managing wilderness areas by setting aside limited portions of forest lands for logging and other commercial purposes. Both sides, however, were cognizant of the rapid disappearance of the nation’s forests and agreed that some kind of conservationist efforts were necessary to protect them.

Twentieth century forester, naturalist and conservationist Aldo Leopold had views about forest preservation that are still relevant today. In his 1925 article The Last Stand of the Wilderness he wrote, “Today it is hard for us to understand why our prodigious waste of standing timber was allowed to go on — why the exhaustion of the supply was not earlier foreseen. We forget that for many generations the standing timber of America was in fact an encumbrance, and that the nation was simply unconscious of the possibility of its becoming exhausted. In fact, our tendency is not to call things resources until the supply runs short. When the end of the supply is in sight, we ‘discover’ that the thing is valuable.”

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George Atiyeh knew the value of the forest in the Opal Creek Wilderness. Adhering closely to the preservationist approach to conservation advocated by Muir, Atiyeh viewed old-growth cathedral forests as sacred grounds to be enjoyed for their beauty and the “feelings of deep wonder and awe” they inspire. He did not live to witness the devastation caused by the Beachie Creek fire, but he would surely have felt tremendously saddened by the loss. However, he might have found solace in Derek Churchill’s assurances that after the fire, “the emerging forest is providing new opportunity and life. It is a living example of resilience and transformation, something we can find inspiration in during these difficult times.”

Atiyeh might also have found solace in Megan Selvig’s experiences following the destruction of Jawbone Flats. “A lot of organizations would have closed their doors after such a cataclysmic event, but people are heartened that the OCAFC is still functioning. We’ve reinvented ourselves, just as the forest has; we continue on, just as the forest does. The forest doesn’t die; it’s in its infancy, just as Jawbone Flats is too.”

George Atiyeh would have reason to be proud. Whether targeted for its valuable timber or ravaged by wildfire, Opal Creek Wilderness leaves a legacy of survival.

Pat Rose (the author), old mining trucks (top left); 1940s International Harvester truck (top right); WWII surplus Dodge WC series truck (bottom left); 1930s Federal Motor flatbed truck (bottom right), Jawbone Flats, Opal Creek, 2013.

Sources

And many thanks to everyone who contributed to this story!

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Pat Rose is a Portland-based photographer whose work includes landscape, street, portrait and botanical photography. She is a retired English as a Second Language teacher who has taught in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in Austin, Texas, and most recently at Portland State University. She has shown her work in various juried group exhibitions in several galleries around the country, and her landscape photos have been published in two outdoor guidebooks. Much of her work can be found on her website at www.patrosephotography.com.

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3 Responses

  1. Marvelous story!! Thank you Serena for this alert and Pat for putting this story together so beautifully. Special thanks also to Mike O’Brien for providing so many wonderful images. I am studying plant recovery after the fire. Those species that had a rhizomatous mode of propagation have survived the fire remarkably well – – think Fireweed, Bracken Fern, Trailing Blackberry, Oregon Grape, Evergreen Violet, and Broad-leafed Starflower. Also the stump sprouting trees and plants have come back beautifully, think – – Big-leaf Maple, Vine Maple, and Pacific Rhododendron.

  2. Pat, what an education about Opal Creek. Your story is beautifully written and the photography is exceptional. Kudos to you and to Mike O’Brien.

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