BWCA Land Swap

Crescent Lake, WA: Photo by The Comfortably Numb

Recently, I took a family trip to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. We visited Seattle for a few days, then headed toward Lake Crescent,  Hurricane Ridge, Sol Duc Hot Springs, Kalaloch Lodge, and finally Lake Quinault. The idea is that we would experience the city for a few days, a high alpine forest, a low land ancient forest, hot springs, and the only temperate rain forest in the United States in less than 2 weeks. We got the thumbnail version of each ecosystem, but each was unique and powerful. These landscapes were everything that I had hoped they would be, but I came home with unexpected and lingering emotions that I can’t seem to shake. Furthermore, about 1 week after returning home, I discovered a bill that is moving through government that will essentially open up a large chunk of the protected Boundary Water Canoe Area in northern Minnesota  to logging and Copper Sulfide Mining.

I don’t know if it’s possible to describe these forests. The tens of thousands of life forms embodied in these forests are so intertwined, so interconnected, it is as if they are a single massive forest organism. I was a visitor making my way through the interior systems of some ancient mythical being. Every square inch of every surface is densely covered with life. The ancient trees, 1000 years old or more, are spectacles towering hundreds of feet above you, with giant drapes of moss hanging from their rain-soaked branches. When these trees fall, new life springs from the fallen wood, including new trees that might be hundreds of years old in themselves. It’s not unusual to see new trees rising out of multiple layers of fallen trees, reaching to the canopy while grounded in layers of dead trees, each of which might be many feet in diameter laying upon each other, stacked well above our heads. The piles of fallen trees create little cavernous places, each of which have their own little microclimate, depending on how much light and water happen to be infusing into the space. The small cavernous spaces are so packed full of life that one could imagine entire landscapes within. I envisioned miniature birds, trees, animals living under the mushrooms and along side the lichen and moss. But, then, I’d back away, look up, and see the 300 foot tall Sitka Spruce tree looming above.

John Vaillant, in the opening pages his book “The Golden Spruce,” beautifully described the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest by saying:

“…for a stranger it is not a particularly comfortable place to be. You can be 20 paces from a road or a beach and become totally disoriented; once inside there is no future and no past, only the sodden, twilit now. Underfoot is a leg-breaking tangle of roots and branches and, every 50 feet or so, your way is blocked by moss covered walls of fallen trees that may be taller than you and hundreds of feet long. These so called nurse logs will, in turn, have colonnades of younger trees growing out of them fifty years old and as orderly as pickets. In here, the boundaries between life and death, between one species and the next, blur and blend: everything is being used as a launching pad by something else; everyone wants a piece of the sky. Down below, the undergrowth is thick, and between this and the trees, it is hard to see very far; the sound of moving water is constant, and the ground is as soft and spongy as a sofa with shot springs. You have the feeling that, if you stop for too long, you will simply be grown over and absorbed by the slow and ancient riot of growth going on all around you. It can be suffocating, and the need to see the sun can become overpowering – something you could easily do if it weren’t for all of those trees.”

It is an accurate description. His book, interestingly enough, outlines the complex relationship loggers have with the forest. These people live to be in this environment, yet they spend their entire lives destroying it. It takes a very particular person that can move efficiently in that world, one that really understands it, and one that loves it. It is so incredibly ironic that these people are willing to kill it.

Lake Quinault: Image reproduced with permission by OceanLight Photography

The experience that has nagged me since returning from Washington, is that of driving in, and out, of Olympic National Park. The highway that circumnavigates the park passes across the park boundary many, many times, making it obvious the effects of logging has on this ancient forest. Long stretches of clear-cut forest, with grey stumps protruding from lifeless soil extend for miles, just before hitting the park boundary, where a 200+ foot tall wall of ancient green forest meets you. In other places, just outside the park boundary, there are replanted forests of various degree of age. Some fields of saplings, some 50 -60 year old trees. However, absolutely none of them even begin to compare to the complexity of life of the original forest.

When we destroy a forest, the least of what we kill is the trees. There are millions of organisms that live in an infinitely complex web of relationships to create the ongoing life that is the forest. To think that a logging company, or a mining company, can re-build, restore, or rejuvenate a forest that is hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of years old is completely absurd. It is laughable to even consider. It is arrogant to think humans, or worse, large industrial entities, have the capacity to do such a thing. Usually that is left to the gods. It is simply beyond words. The best they can afford to do is plant a few saplings and call it done. In the mean time, humanity has lost a life that has incalculable beauty and meaning. It is appalling.

Upon my return to Minnesota, I learned that Republican Chip Cravaak, Representative of District 8,  put before the House Committee on Natural Resources a bill that has the potential to both allow Minnesota’s education system to capture (what is billed to be) badly needed money and open additional lands for logging and mining, at the expense of the Boundary Water National Forests that are now protected. There are a number of places to read about the bill, and I strongly encourage you to do so. I’ve listed a number of websites at the end of this post that will orient you to the various opinions and policies surrounding this issue. However, they all miss a very important point.

The political/economic system that we attempt to place upon nature is irrelevant. Nature does not recognize it. The politicians, financiers, and figure heads have gotten themselves into a man-made pickle about who actually controls the fate of the BWCA. There is no appropriate vocabulary in the discussion regarding saving this ecosystem simply because we do not value it for its amazing complexity and beauty. You see, nature doesn’t get to come to the bargaining table. It doesn’t explain, in legal-speak, its monitary value to our economic situation. The millions of species in the BWCA ecosystem are lumped into one category, called Natural Resources, and represented by humans that barely understand the infinitely complex set of relationships that make the web of life work. It is appalling that an organization can buy up vast expanses of land and forever change them to whatever suits their (industrial) needs. Land that has been in existence for millions of years can be destroyed in an instant, with no responsibility to the thousands of future generations of people who might want to learn from, experience, love that natural landscape. Nor do they have responsibility to the species of micro-organisms, insects, wildflowers and animals that are not yet in existence. It seems trite to say such things, but these are the scales that the universe operates in. We are essentially destroying ourselves by our pervasive indifference to nature’s wealth of knowledge and beauty. Humanity must realize that there are only a few things that we, have, that no other species have, that define our purpose in the web of life. We have opposable thumbs which allows us to make tools (read technology), enormously clever brains capable of designing solutions to complex problems and we have risen to a level of self-awareness, allowing us to emotionally appreciate the beauty and power of the universe. As Edward McCord says in his book, “The Value of Species,” it is ironic that we are the we are the only species capable of appreciating the power of nature, yet also the only ones that are systematically destroying it.

Be aware of this. Take action.

In closing, I’d like to offer the democratic opposition comment to the bill, by Rep. David Dill, D-Crane Lake. He said a bill under consideration would violate the state constitution. He said a simple exchange of land would work better. He then made the extraordinarily hateful comment that,

“That land in the wilderness should belong to the federal government,” Dill said. “We should do it in accordance with the constitution, and then we should mine, log, and lease the hell out of that land that we get in the change.”

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