Why no one knows exactly how much old-growth forest we have left

To use older trees to fight climate change, we need to know where they are. But new maps created by the Forest Service aren’t that detailed

Why no one knows exactly how much old-growth forest we have left

Old story: Big trees, like these remnants of a 2021 “public safety thinning” project along Oregon’s Lostine Wild and Scenic River Corridor, aren’t so easy to find. Just ask the Forest Service. Photo: Oregon Wild

By Nathan Gilles. April 18, 2024. It’s said that the map is not the territory.

This statement, say critics, is especially true of the maps created by the U.S. Forest Service to inventory the nation’s largest carbon sinks: its mature and old growth forests.

In April 2023, under pressure from the Biden administration, the Forest Service completed its first-ever nationwide inventory of mature and old growth forests found on federal lands.

This inventory of older trees is part of an ambitious Biden administration plan to harness the power of our nation’s forests as a nature-based solution to the climate crisis.

The idea is simple: rather than cut older trees down, the Biden administration is proposing we leave many of them standing, allowing them to do what years of scientific research has shown older trees do very well: take climate change-causing carbon out of the atmosphere and store it for long periods of time.

Announced in December 2023, the awkwardly named “Land Management Plan Direction for Old-Growth Forest Conditions Across the National Forest System” has been widely lauded by environmentalists and many scientists as a long-overdue step to help address the nation’s over-sized carbon footprint.

The nationwide forest plan is expected to lead to revisions of local forest plans throughout the country, including the Northwest Forest Plan governing Washington, Oregon and sections of Northern California.

But whether the nation’s older trees will be enlisted in the fight against climate change and spared the chainsaw could depend on knowing where those trees are.

And that, according to both critics of the Forest Service and the Forest Service itself, is not something the Forest Service’s inventory and mapping can do, because these maps are just not detailed enough to be used for management purposes on a stand-by-stand basis.

A study written by Forest Service scientists and published in August 2023 in the journal Forest Ecology and Management hints at this fact.

The study’s authors write that although the maps they created contain “a high degree of accuracy. … Identifying mature and old-growth forests in a stand management context will likely require additional measurements, adjustments to criteria at local scales, and incorporation of social and traditional knowledge within a consistent definition framework.”

In other words, the maps show the forest but not the trees, per se.

‘Low-res’ maps

The Forest Service’s mature and old-growth inventory used data on trees collected at individual forest plots that are part of the agency’s Forest Inventory and Analysis, a long-term scientific monitoring effort designed by the Forest Service to assess the health of the nation’s forests.

Data from the FIA program goes back decades. These data, and the FIA program generally, are widely respected and used by scientists both in and out of the Forest Service.

Nonetheless, FIA has its limitations, according to Richard Birdsey, retired Forest Service scientist turned senior scientist at the nonprofit Woodwell Climate Research Center.

Dr. Richard Birdsey

Dr. Richard Birdsey. Photo: Woodwell Climate Research Center

Based in Massachusetts, the Woodwell Climate Research Center funds scientific research related to climate change. Many of its scientists have been critical of the Forest Service and its practices.

“The FIA data is adequate for looking at large areas, maybe a whole state or a group of national forests. But there’s just not enough FIA sample plots in the typical old-growth stand to characterize it or monitor it carefully,” says Birdsey, who in addition to spending 15 of his 40 years at the Forest Service working on the FIA program has also conducted his own analysis of the carbon-storing potential of America’s older forests.

“[FIA is] a terrific program and really is a backbone for policies,” says Birdsey. “But it’s a little less effective when trying to monitor what’s happening at smaller scales or at the project scale. And that’s where a lot of public interest is.”

Here’s the problem. While the Forest service has 355,000 FIA plots (on public and private lands) in forests across the United States, the FIA plots themselves are small, covering approximately two-and-half acres each.

The plots are also miles away from each other, with one plot every 6,000 acres, or nine square miles, of forested land.

This leaves big gaps in the available data set, gaps that need to be filled with scientific guesswork that has to come from other sources of data.

What you get from this is a big picture look at the forest, but not a detailed one.

And this, says Birdsey, is exactly what the Forest Service ended up producing in 2023.

The Forest Service mature and old-growth forest inventory maps were created at what’s called a “fireshed” scale.

Firesheds are 250,000 acres each, or roughly 390 square miles.

This means a single 390-square-mile fireshed gets a single classification, for instance, “Moderate Mature, High Old Growth” or “High Mature, Moderate Old Growth,” as can be seen on an interactive online map displaying the agency’s mature and old-growth data.

By most scientist standards, this “resolution” is considered “low” or “coarse,” according to Birdsey and other scientists.

Mature, not old: This stand of Douglas fir (and other species) includes trees of multiple ages. Photo by Jurgen Hess

This low resolution has been widely criticized not only by scientists but also by environmentalists hoping to protect mature and old-growth forests, says Steve Pedery, conservation director at the Oregon-based environmental nonprofit Oregon Wild.

“The Forest Service maps did give a total picture in terms of the volume [of mature and old-growth trees], but they were so vague that you couldn’t actually identify any particular specific stand of old-growth anywhere,” says Pedery.

Pedery says the low-resolution maps could make protecting older trees more difficult.

For its part, the Forest Service admits its maps are vague and can’t be used to manage individual stands, but the agency doesn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing, according to Jamie Barbour, assistant director for adaptive management at the Forest Service’s Monitoring and Analysis Team, which oversaw the implementation of the mature and old-growth inventory.

“We didn’t want to create the impression that we knew exactly where these clumps of old forest were because that would have ramifications that might not be very useful,” says Barbour, adding that the agency wanted only “to present an idea of where large accumulations of older forests were.”

Asked what he meant by “ramifications,” Barbour responded, “People misinterpret things. If we’re saying that a specific small area is mature old growth and it’s not, then that could lead to disputes about how to manage it.”

Barbour says high-resolution mapping of mature and old-growth forests should ideally happen at the local level. Though, he says, the Forest Service is also exploring using a NASA-led effort called “GEDI,” a project that is literally out of this world.

GEDI: Monitoring old-growth from space

“GEDI” stands for the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation—which, yes, is a reference to “a galaxy far, far away” and is pronounced “Jedi.”

Befitting its namesake, GEDI uses a high-resolution laser system known as LiDAR to map the Earth’s surface.

The project’s LiDAR system is located on the International Space Station.

The GEDI system can observe “nearly all tropical and temperate forests.”

The project’s goal is to “provide answers to how deforestation has contributed to atmospheric CO2 concentrations, how much carbon forests will absorb in the future and how habitat degradation will affect global biodiversity,” according to its website.

The NASA-led effort has been used to map old-growth trees in Australia but was not used as part of the Forest Service mapping project, despite the fact that GEDI data for U.S. forests were available at the time.

However, GEDI might be used by the Forest Service to continue monitoring older forests, at least according to promotional material posted by NASA on its website and on YouTube.

This material suggests that adding GEDI to the Forest Service’s mapping effort will “soon” enable the public to “view some of these [old-growth] forests like never before” and help “fill in those spatial gaps” that FIA data and the Forest Service’s current inventory was unable to fill.

Exactly if and when GEDI will be used by the Forest Service is unclear.

GEDI project lead, Ralph Dubayah, professor of Geographical Sciences at the University of Maryland, couldn’t be reached for comment.

The project’s LiDAR system is also currently not in use on the ISS. Instead, it’s being stowed away to make room for a Department of Defense project, according to Barbour.

GEDI data won’t provide a complete picture of what’s out there, says Barbour, but echoing NASA’s promotional material, he says it could help fill in the gaps between FIA plots.

‘Mature’ trees needs protection, too

Beverly Law, a retired forest ecologist at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry and leading researcher on how to harness the carbon-capturing power of older trees, says she was also disappointed with the Forest Service’s inventory of mature and old-growth trees.

In 2018, Law came under fire from the timber industry following the publication of her study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study demonstrated that the state of Oregon could sequester more carbon and slow climate change if it slowed the rate at which it harvested its forests.

Beverly Law

Beverly Law. Photo: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Law is impressed with the Biden administration’s efforts to push the Forest Service in the direction of carbon storage.

But she worries about how the plan will be implemented by an agency that historically has had to be ordered to conserve rather than log the nation’s trees.

“It’s the best move that’s been made by any administration, ever,” says Law of the old-growth forest plan. “But the devil’s in the details in how it’s carried out.”

In February, Law was one of over 190 scientists who study the carbon-capturing potential of older trees to sign an open letter to the Biden Administration requesting it immediately “direct the Forest Service and BLM to suspend all timber sales in mature and old-growth forests, and refrain from proposing new timber sales in these forests” until the environmental impact statements required by law to implement the old-growth forest plan are completed.

One of those devilish details Law and others are concerned about is the possibility that the Forest Service is now trying to sidestep its obligation to protect both mature and old-growth trees.

As critics pointed out in December 2023, when it was published, the Land Management Plan Direction for Old-Growth Forest Conditions Across the National Forest System, while creating nationwide protections for old-growth forests, fell short of also providing broad protections for mature forests.

Because many mature tree stands are now old enough to be carbon-capturing powerhouses in their own right, and because many are now just decades away from being classified as old-growth, many scientists, Law among them, argue that the lack of protections for mature trees is a major loss both for trees and for fighting the climate crisis.

Leaving out mature trees, they say, also violates the intent of the larger push to use the nation’s forests to sequester carbon, a push that doesn’t originate with the Forest Service but with two executive orders issued by the Biden Administration.

The first executive order, EO 14008, was signed shortly after President Biden’s inauguration in 2021. It directs federal agencies to protect 30% of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030.

The second executive order, EO 14072, was issued in April 2022 and directs the Department of Agriculture (which contains the Forest Service) and the Bureau of Land Management to create a national inventory of mature and old-growth forests found on federal lands as part of a larger effort to use these forests to, among other things, “retain and enhance carbon storage.”

According to the Forest Service’s own estimates, while old-growth forests cover just 17% of the federal lands they inventoried, mature forests can be found on 45% of surveyed lands.

Barbour, however, takes issue with claims that his agency is no longer concerned with mature forests as a way to fight climate change.

“We would like to manage [forests] for a suite of conditions, some of which are older forests, and we’re trying to understand where we can maintain forests for a very long period of time,” says Barbour.

Barbour says ultimately the goal of carbon storage needs to be balanced against the need to “provide economic opportunities in rural communities” through ongoing forest management.

As for the Forest Service’s inventory of mature and old-growth forests, Law, who helped design the Forest Service’s FIA program, says one important question is why it took so long for the Forest Service to develop official mature and old-growth maps when the scientific community more generally has been doing this kind of analysis for decades.

“We’ve been waiting for this since before [President George W.] Bush, and even now it’s like, what the heck took so long?” says Law.

The post Why no one knows exactly how much old-growth forest we have left appeared first on Columbia Insight.

Whitebark pines are in trouble. That means our water supply is, too

A nationwide effort to save the whitebark pine in underway. Much of the story is happening in the Pacific Northwest

Clark's nutcracker foraging on whitebark pine cones

Super spreader: Whitebark pines depend on Clark’s nutcrackers to distribute their seeds. Photo: Jackson Chase

By K.C. Mehaffey. April 11, 2024. At the Dorena Genetic Resource Center near Cottage Grove, Ore., scientists are collecting whitebark pine cones, growing seedlings, examining them for resilience to disease and then gathering cones from the strongest survivors.

Those select seeds are then used to grow hundreds of thousands of baby trees in nurseries and plant them across the West.

It’s a job meant for the Clark’s nutcracker, a gray-and-black bird in the crow and raven family with a long sharp beak designed to crack open the toughest of nuts.

Mostly, he uses that beak to dig into the tough cone of a whitebark pine, pick out the seeds, eat a few and stash away several more in the ground to eat later.

Over the course of a year, a Clark’s nutcracker will cache thousands of seeds, many of which will go uneaten and become the next generation of whitebark pines.

While it appears to be their favorite food source, Clark’s nutcrackers aren’t wholly dependent on these high-elevation trees. In the Cascade Range, they also eat Douglas fir and ponderosa pine seeds.

But whitebark pine trees do depend on the nutcracker to disperse their seeds throughout their range that stretches across 80 million acres in seven western states and two Canadian provinces.

Whitebark Pine, Grandmother Tree, Crater Lake National Park

In good standing: Whitebark pine Grandmother Tree in Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park. Photo: Quinn Lowrey/QLCeramics

Now, one of the West’s few tree species able to survive on cold, windy ridgetops and steep slopes at alpine and subalpine elevations is in serious trouble.

It’s not that Clark’s nutcrackers aren’t doing their job—they are.

But a nonnative fungus that causes white pine to blister rust has entered the scene and become an existential threat to the pines, says Diana Tomback, one of the foremost researchers of the unique relationship between whitebark pines and Clark’s nutcracker.

Tomback is professor and interim chair of the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Colorado Denver. She also helped found the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation with several colleagues and now serves as its outreach coordinator.

She says there’s no cure for the disease, which continues to spread and threaten whitebark and other five-needled pines in the West. Many of these forests have also lost trees to mountain pine beetle infestations and wildfires that are becoming more frequent and more severe with the climate crisis.

“We’ve got this disturbing downward spiral,” Tomback tells Columbia Insight.

When a lot of whitebark pine die off, Clark’s nutcrackers—which are extremely mobile—sometimes move to new locations and find alternative seed resources.

And when the nutcrackers leave, the remaining whitebark pine trees—those that are resilient to blister rust—lose their means of dispersing seed.

“Whitebark pine clearly needs human intervention to come in and break this downward spiral,” says Tomback.

No ordinary tree

According to the Federal Register listing, “Whitebark pine is considered both a keystone and a foundation species in western North America, where it increases biodiversity and contributes to critical ecosystem functions.”

Its large and high-calorie nut is a critical food source for Clark’s nutcracker, and for 18 other animal species ranging from grizzly bears to red squirrels.

Individual trees can live to be hundreds of years old and become craggy and gnarled as they appear to thrive in the harsh mountain environment.

In many western landscapes, its beauty is secondary to the immense importance of these forests for sequestering snowpack.

“Whitebark pine forests exist in the headwaters regions for several large western river systems (e.g., Snake, Columbia and Missouri). High elevation forests like those featuring whitebark pine help redistribute, shade and retain snowpack, and their root systems stabilize soil and prevent erosion, especially on steep, rocky slopes where they thrive,” says Wash. D.C.-based American Forests.

The nonprofit group deems them “vital to the health of western watersheds, helping sustain ample stream flows that human and natural communities depend on.”

When not exposed to a foreign fungus, these trees are ultra-hardy.

They tolerate poor soils and can exist in rocky and shallow soils over bedrock. They grow in mountain ecosystems with vastly different climates, with annual precipitation amounts ranging from 20 inches to 100 inches of rain—most of which falls as snow.

But they’re also slow growing and can be outcompeted and replaced by more shade tolerant trees, such as subalpine fir.

Tomback says having these rugged trees at high elevations stabilizes the snowpack and allows it to melt at a slower rate, providing water to lower elevations during the summer.

In a short documentary about saving the whitebark pine, she says, “If we fail to do anything for whitebark pine, we are going to end up with many regions of our high mountain areas without it and we lose the ecosystem services, the wildlife food, the habitat protection, the watershed protection. It will be very apparent that some cataclysm affected our western forests mightily on a large scale.”

In January 2023, the whitebark pine was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It is the most widely distributed forest tree under ESA protection, according to the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation.

According to U.S. Forest Service researchers Sara Goeking and Deborah Izlar, there are now more standing dead whitebark pine trees than live ones.

They estimate that more than 325 million trees have died.

Because whitebark pine is a high-elevation species, the vast majority of its range is on public land. Tomback says between blister rust and mountain pine beetle, some places—like Glacier National Park—have lost the majority of whitebark pine trees.

There, she says, 80-90% of the living trees now have blister rust. Along with the northern Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest is among the areas that have seen widespread decline from this unprecedented combination of threats.

Just how bad the rust is varies widely across Washington and Oregon, according to Robyn Darbyshire, regional silviculturist for the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest office in Portland.

She says some places, like the Warner Mountains in southern Oregon, have no rust. Others, like the Gifford Pinchot National Forest seem to have a fairly high degree of resistance.

But trees in some areas seem to have very little resistance to the disease.

Desolation Wilderness, California

High and dry: Prime whitebark pine habitat in California’s Desolation Wilderness. Photo: Quinn Lowrey/QLCeramics

Still, there’s plenty of whitebark pine around, Darbyshire says. And some of the trees—at least individual ones that appear to be resistant to blister rust—can be protected from mountain pine beetles by using pheromone patches.

“We can protect good trees and high-value stands, and make sure we have a variety of age classes,” she says.

Additionally, having white pine blister rust isn’t always a death certificate. In some cases just a branch tip will die off, and the tree is able to prevent it from getting to its trunk.

“Trees can have rust for quite some time, and just because they have rust doesn’t mean they’re going to die from it. When we get worried about rust is when it girdles the mainstem of the tree,” says Darbyshire.

Those trees that are surrounded by the disease but seem to resist it have become the foundation for recovering this majestic conifer.

“In nature, these things would sort themselves out over time,” says Tomback.

Resistant trees would survive, and their seeds would eventually become the next generation of whitebark pines. But whitebark pine cones don’t open on their own, Darbyshire notes. And if Clark’s nutcrackers leave to find food in new areas, it could become too difficult for the next generation of trees to become established.

Human intervention

Scientists working to save the whitebark pine are playing the long game.

Many likely won’t be around—or will at least be retired—by the time the seedlings they’re cultivating produce cones.

Darbyshire says that a Douglas fir or ponderosa pine can start producing cones as young as 10 years old.

Diana Tomback working with whitebark pine in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest

Pine solve: Diana Tomback studies whitebark pine across the West. Photo: E.R. Pansing

It takes whitebark pine trees 30 to 50 years to mature.

To find the resistant trees, people go into whitebark pine stands where rust is occurring, and look for trees that appear to be resisting the disease.

“We do a fairly thorough evaluation of the degree of rust resistance. We’re not necessarily looking for the perfect tree that has no rust at all, but ones that have some sort of defense system that keeps rust from getting to the main stem,” says Darbyshire.

They collect cones from those trees, grow the seeds in a greenhouse, and subject them to rust spores to test whether they are truly resistant.

“You might have to test 100 trees to find five that are resistant enough. It’s a lot of work narrowing it down and finding those resistant trees,” she says. “Then we want to go back and collect seed from those trees that have the rust resistance.”

The cones from each resistant tree have to be carefully marked so the seedlings can be planted back in the same geographic areas.

And they can’t all come from the same rust-resistant tree.

“We want to make sure we have at least 25 parent trees in a seed lot, so there’s genetic diversity,” says Darbyshire.

The seedlings are grown in greenhouses in containers.

And true to this slow-growing tree’s nature, it takes two to three years to get a seedling that’s big enough to plant, whereas most conifers would be ready to plant after a year.

The whole process takes several years, just to find the right seeds, ensure there’s enough genetic diversity and grow seedlings to an age where they can be planted.

Final restoration plan

Tomback says work on the National Whitebark Pine Restoration Plan started in 2016—six years before the tree was listed as threatened.

It’s a collaborative inter-agency and tribal plan based on identifying a subset of the whitebark pine range for priority restoration, developed by the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation and American Forests and advised by the Forest Service.

“We think it will be highly compatible with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Plan for whitebark pine, which is now under development,” says Tomback.

The pandemic and a government shutdown delayed the process, but the draft National Whitebark Pine Restoration Plan went out last summer.

“I’m in the middle of incorporating minor suggestions and updates. The revision has just been submitted to the Forest Service,” she says.

Restoration is a challenge—29% of the whitebark pine’s range is in wilderness areas.

The draft plan got high marks from American Forests, which is working with the National Park Service to restore the trees within national parks. Its website says, “The National Whitebark Pine Restoration Plan is a science-driven, collaborative strategy to restore whitebark pine across its U.S. range. The plan is designed to work with nature—by using the seed dispersal capabilities of the Clark’s nutcracker to restore whitebark pine populations.”

The plan suggests that agencies identify 20-30% of the range of whitebark pine within a given jurisdiction—such as a national park, a Forest Service region, a Bureau of Land Management state office or a tribal reservation—to focus initial recovery efforts.

Because of the logistical and financial challenges of recovering a species that is so far ranging and often so remote, these core areas would receive the highest priorities and eventually serve as dispersal centers for adjacent areas.

Tomback says Region 6 of the U.S. Forest Service—which comprises national forest land in Oregon and Washington—has been proactive in selecting core areas and coming up with its restoration strategy.

Identifying those core areas was more challenging than Darbyshire thought it would be.

“We looked at places where there was a need—places that had burned or places with bark beetle mortality, and then we also wanted to identify places where we need to go collect seed for resistance testing, because we haven’t done that everywhere yet,” she says.

Part of the challenge is the ecological diversity across Washington and Oregon—from the Olympics to the North Cascades to the Selkirks. Darbyshire notes that the Forest Service region hasn’t gotten feedback on its core-area selection from the national office.

“These things aren’t set in stone. We’ll see how other regions did the process and learn from each other.”

Even without a finalized plan, the Forest Service is continuing its work to replant stands of new rust-resistant trees.

Mimicking Clark’s nutcrackers

A big part of the restoration challenge has to do with where whitebark pine grow. Tomback says 29% of their range is in wilderness.

Here in the Northwest, 60% of their range is in wilderness, and an additional 20% is in roadless areas, according to Darbyshire.

“So accessibility is pretty challenging in many cases,” she says, adding, “It’s important to protect the cone-bearing trees that we have inside and outside of wilderness and to establish new rust-resistant trees wherever we can.”

Within the wilderness, the Forest Service can’t use invasive technical or mechanical means to plant trees. Even taking cones out, growing them and brining seedlings back to plant is not fully supported, says Tomback.

She and other researchers are trying to figure out if humans can essentially mimic what Clark’s nutcrackers do.

“That means going in with bags of seeds harvested within the same seed zone and methodically planting them in caches, just like the nutcrackers,” she says.

The method is still experimental.

“We need to monitor it and get results to figure out whether this is going to be adequately productive and learn how to modify where we put the seeds” and discourage rodent thefts, she says.

But since it’s one of the few things they can do in wilderness areas, the Forest Service, Park Service and BLM are all seriously looking at the option.

While scientists are doing some of the work that Clark’s nutcrackers do, the long-term plan is to eventually give the job back. But in areas that are highly devastated, if nutcrackers have moved on to find better food sources, that may not happen until enough rust-resistant trees have grown old enough to start producing cones.

“It’s sort of a you-build-it-and-they-will-come idea,” says Tomback. “If we can restore these areas where whitebark pine were once abundant, we believe the nutcrackers will come back.”

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In Washington, a missing wolf mystery baffles officials

What happened to the female half of Klickitat County’s two-wolf Big Muddy Pack?

Wolf in Klickitat County, Wash.

Half-pack: Wildlife biologists collared gray wolf WA109M in January 2021 in Klickitat County. Now his mate has gone missing. Photo: WDFW

By Dawn Stover. February 27, 2024. In April 2023, Columbia Insight reported that Southwest Washington had its first gray wolf pack in a century.

The Big Muddy Pack formed when a collared male that wandered into Klickitat County was joined by an un-collared female.

Together they met the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s minimum for recognition as a pack: at least two wolves traveling together in winter.

The state wildlife agency’s wolf biologist Gabe Spence told Columbia Insight it was a “big deal” to finally find a pack in the southwestern third of the state.

It seemed likely the pair would produce pups in 2023.

Now wolf experts with the agency aren’t sure the pack still exists.

And some locals are wondering if the wolf may have been intentionally killed.

Missing in action

Since October 2023, the wildlife department’s monthly updates have repeatedly noted that agency experts “conducted monitoring activities” in the Big Muddy Pack’s territory. Those activities have thus far failed to detect the female member of the pack.

The collar on wolf WA109M, the pack’s male, usually transmits his location twice a day. When he’s in rocky or heavily wooded terrain, it can take longer to receive that data.

The state’s wolf team uses the collared wolf’s last known location to look for tracks in snow and check game cameras in the area.

They can also circle over the location with an airplane or helicopter.

The team’s aircraft were grounded by freezing fog and freezing rain for a few days, and team members are still finishing their surveys of all packs in the state.

Data from survey counts, camera footage and reported sightings will be compiled into an annual wolf report that will be released in mid-April, said WDFW statewide wolf specialist Ben Maletzke.

When Columbia Insight spoke with Maletzke on Feb. 14, the team had one more flight to do and some cameras to check, but they hadn’t yet been able to pick up the Big Muddy female wolf.

“We have not been super successful at finding that wolf, but that doesn’t mean she’s not out there,” Maletzke said. It’s possible she is on a hunting foray, he said, or “she may be more camera-shy” than her collared mate.

Maletzke acknowledged there is a “lot of animosity toward wolves in certain areas,” but he said there is no evidence of foul play involving the Big Muddy female.

Staci Lehman, a spokesman for the department, said “the wolf world can be a rough one. It’s not unusual for a wolf to go on a temporary or permanent road trip to new territories or to run into trouble along the way.”

New model for species recovery

If Southwest Washington’s only known pack has split up or the female has died, that would be “a big loss for sure,” said Maletzke.

In the short term, the loss of one wolf may have an impact for the next year or so, he said, “but over the next two to five years, I think we’ll see an influx of wolves down into the South Cascades.”

Maletzke said the state documented a lot of wolf mortalities in 2023 but is still seeing the species recovering in Washington.

The statewide population of wolves and the number of breeding pairs has been increasing for 14 years.

In its Periodic Status Review for the Gray Wolf dated February 2024, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends that the state reclassify wolves from “endangered” to “sensitive,” bypassing the intermediate designation of “threatened.”

The agency says wolves no longer face a serious risk of extinction throughout a significant portion of their range in Washington.

The Wolf Management and Recovery Plan adopted in 2011 calls for the state to consider downlisting wolves from endangered to threatened when there are at least two successful breeding pairs in each of the three recovery regions for three consecutive years.

But that hasn’t happened yet.

Known wolf packs and single wolf territories in Washington at the end of 2022. Map: WDFW

The Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast recovery region currently has no successful breeding pairs and, with the absence of wolf WA109M’s partner, might have lost its only known pair.

However, the state is proposing to jettison those recovery criteria and rely instead on a new model that estimates current and future population dynamics of Washington wolves.

The model estimates a 100% probability that wolves will “colonize” the southwest recovery region by 2030—meaning at least one wolf territory with two or more adults in it.

The downlisting proposal will be presented to the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission at a meeting next month, and a decision is expected in June.

Both the draft proposal and the final version published this month note that “the first known pack was documented in [the southwest] region as of 2022.”

For now, that “pack” appears incomplete.

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With limited resources, an Oregon town plans for climate change

This story was produced through a collaboration between the Daily Yonder, which covers rural America, and Nexus Media News, an editorially independent, nonprofit news service covering climate change.

One of the most iconic landmarks in downtown Grants Pass, Oregon, is a 100-year-old sign that arcs over the main street with the phrase “It’s the Climate” scrawled across it. 

To an outsider, it’s an odd slogan in this rural region, where comments about the climate – or rather, climate change – can be met with apprehension. But for locals, it’s a nod to an era when the “climate” only referred to Grants Pass’ warm, dry summers and mild winters when snow coats the surrounding mountains but rarely touches down in the city streets. 

Now, the slogan takes on a different meaning.

In May 2023, the Grants Pass City Council passed a one-of-a-kind sustainability plan that, if implemented, would transition publicly owned buildings and vehicles to renewable energy, diversifying their power sources in case of natural disaster.

While passing the sustainability plan in this largely Republican county was an enormous feat on its own, actually paying for the energy projects proves to be Grants Pass’ biggest challenge yet. 

Grants Pass
The exterior of City Hall in Grants Pass on November 28, 2023.
Claire Carlson / The Daily Yonder

“There are grants out there, but I don’t think we’re the only community out there looking for grants to help pay for some of these things,” said J.C. Rowley, finance director for the city of Grants Pass. Some project examples outlined in their sustainability plan include installing electric vehicle charging stations downtown and solar panels at two city-owned landfills, and converting park streetlights to LED. 

Rural communities face bigger hurdles when accessing grant funding because they don’t have the staff or budget that cities often do to produce competitive grant applications. This can slow down the implementation of projects like the ones laid out in the Grants Pass sustainability plan.

And time is not something Grants Pass — or any other community — has to spare.

Global climate models show the planet’s average annual temperature increasing by about 6.3° Fahrenheit by 2100 if “business-as-usual” practices continue. These practices mean no substantive climate change mitigation policy, continued population growth, and unabated greenhouse gas emissions throughout the 21st century — practices driven by the most resource-consumptive countries, namely, the United States. 

In southwest Oregon, this temperature increase means hotter summers and less snow in the winters, affecting the region’s water resources, according to a U.S. Forest Service analysis. This could mean longer and more severe wildfire seasons. 

A blue "It's the Climate" sign stretches across a quiet street.
The “It’s the Climate” sign was first hung on July 20, 1920, to promote the temperate weather of Grants Pass.
Claire Carlson / The Daily Yonder

In Roseburg, Oregon, about 70 miles north of Grants Pass, a 6.3°F increase would mean the city’s yearly average of 36 days of below-freezing temperatures would decrease to few or none, according to the analysis. Grants Pass would suffer a similar fate, drastically changing the climate it’s so famous for. 

Grants Pass has a population of 39,000 and is the hub of one of the smallest metropolitan statistical areas in the U.S. The metro contains just one county, Josephine, which has a population of under 90,000, nearly half of whom live outside urbanized areas. Over half of the county’s land is owned by the Bureau of Land Management or National Forest, and it contains a section of the federal Rogue River Scenic Waterway.

“In the event of a natural disaster, we are far more likely to get isolated,” said Allegra Starr, an Americorps employee who was the driving force behind the Grants Pass sustainability plan. “I’ve heard stories of communities that were less isolated than us running out of fuel [during power outages].”

Building resilience in the face of disaster is a main priority of the plan, which recommends 14 projects related to green energy, waste disposal, transportation, and tree plantings in city limits. All of the projects focus on improvements to city-owned buildings, vehicles, and operations. 

In partnership with Starr and the Grants Pass public works department, a volunteer task force of community members spent one year researching and writing the sustainability plan. In spring 2023, it was approved by the Grants Pass City Council. 

Now, the public works department is in the grants-seeking stage, and they stand to benefit from the influx of climate cash currently coming from the federal government. 

Money for sustainability, if you can get it

In 2022, the Biden administration passed the single largest bill on clean energy and climate action in U.S. history: the Inflation Reduction Act, which funnels $145 billion to renewable energy and climate action programs. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, passed in 2021, allocates $57.9 billion to clean energy and power projects. 

“It’s almost like drinking through a fire hose with the grant opportunities, which is a curse and a blessing,” said Vanessa Ogier, Grants Pass city council member. Ogier joined the council in 2021 with environmental and social issues as her top priority and was one of the sustainability plan’s biggest proponents. 

Grants Pass city council member Vanessa Ogier at City Hall on November 28, 2023.
Claire Carlson / The Daily Yonder

But competing against larger communities for the grants funded through these federal laws is a struggle for smaller communities like Grants Pass. 

“I really don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but when a small community only has one grant writer and they have to focus on water systems, fire, dispatch, fleet services, and they’re torn in all these different ways, it can be difficult to wrangle and organize all these opportunities and filter if they’re applicable, if we would even qualify,” Ogier said. 

Having a designated grant-writing team, which is common in larger cities, would be a huge help in Grants Pass, Ogier said. 

A 2023 study by Headwaters Economics found that lower-capacity communities – ones with fewer staff and limited funding – were unable to compete against higher-capacity, typically urban communities with resources devoted to writing competitive grant applications. 

“[There are] rural communities that don’t have community development, that don’t have economic development, that don’t have grant writers, that may only have one or two paid staff,” said Karen Chase, senior manager for community strategy at Energy Trust, an Oregon-based nonprofit that helps people transition their homes and businesses to renewable energy. Chase was a member of the volunteer task force that put together the Grants Pass sustainability plan.

When the Inflation Reduction Act money started rolling in, many of the rural communities Chase works with did not have plans that laid out “shovel-ready” energy and climate resiliency projects, which is a requirement of much of the funding. Grants Pass’ sustainability plan should give them a leg-up when applying for grants that require shovel-ready projects, according to Chase.

“Most of my rural communities pretty much lost out,” she said. 

This is despite the approximately $87 billion of Inflation Reduction Act money classified as rural-relevant, rural-stipulated, or rural-exclusive funding, according to an analysis from the Brookings Institute. Rural outreach is part of the Biden administration’s larger goal to put money into rural communities that historically have been left out by state and federal investments.

But this outreach isn’t perfect. Most of the federal grants available to rural communities still have match requirements, which are a set amount of money awardees must contribute to a grant-funded project. 

The Brookings Institute analysis, which also looked at rural funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the CHIPS and Science Act, found that “over half [of the rural-significant grants programs] require or show a preference for matching funds, and less than one-third offer flexibility or a waiver.” 

Of the rural-exclusive and rural-stipulated programs, less than one-third of the total grants offer match waivers or flexibility to reduce the match requirement. This makes getting those grants a lot harder for rural communities with smaller budgets. 

Help from the outside

To address limited staffing, in 2021 the Grants Pass public works department applied to be a host site for an Americorps program run out of the University of Oregon. 

The program, coined the Resource Assistance for Rural Environments (RARE) program, assigns graduate students to rural Oregon communities for 11 months to work on economic development, sustainability planning, and food systems initiatives. An Americorps member was assigned to Grants Pass to work as a sustainability planner from September 2022 to August 2023. 

Kyrrha Sevco, business operations supervisor for the Grants Pass public works department, at City Hall on November 28, 2023.
Claire Carlson / The Daily Yonder

Without the Americorps member, Grants Pass officials say there’s no way the plan would have been written.

“She came in and learned about the city and the operations and the technical aspects of it and was able to really understand it and talk about that,” said Kyrrha Sevco, business operations supervisor for the public works department. “That’s hard to do.”

Bringing outsiders in can be a tricky undertaking in a rural community, but RARE program director Titus Tomlinson said they collaborate with the host sites to make the transition for their members as smooth as possible. 

“When we place a member, we place them with a trusted entity in a rural community,” Tomlinson said. “[The site supervisor] helps them meet and engage with other leaders in the community so that they’ve got some ground to stand on right out of the gate.” 

Each participating community must provide a $25,000 cash match that goes toward the approximately $50,000 needed to pay, train, and mentor the Americorps member, according to the RARE website. Communities struggling to meet this cash match are eligible for financial assistance. 

Grants Pass paid $18,500 for their portion of the RARE Americorps grant.

A man with a goatee and glasses, wearing a bright blue button down shirt and black tie, stands in front of a map.
Director of public works Jason Canady at City Hall on November 28, 2023.
Claire Carlson / The Daily Yonder

Allegra Starr, the Americorps employee, no longer works in Grants Pass since completing her 11-month term. In her stead, a committee of seven has been created to monitor and report to the city council on the progress of the plan’s implementation. 

Much of this implementation work will fall on the director of the public works department, Jason Canady, and the business operations supervisor, Kyrrha Sevco. 

“There has to be that departmental person who’s really carrying that lift and that load,” said Rowley, the Grants Pass finance director. “It’s the Kyrrhas and Jasons of the world who are leading the charge for their own department like public works.”

Now, Canady and Sevco are laying the groundwork for multiple solar projects. Eventually, they hope to bring to life what local high school student, and member of the original volunteer sustainability task force, Kayle Palmore, dreamed of in an essay titled “A Day in 2045,” which envisions bike lanes, wide sidewalks, solar panels, and electric vehicle charging stations on every street corner. 

“A smile spreads across your face as you think of how much you love this beautiful city,” Palmore writes. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline With limited resources, an Oregon town plans for climate change on Feb 18, 2024.

Can Oregon protect its farmland against rapid development?

Nearly two-thirds of the state’s agricultural land will change ownership in the next 20 years. It’s ripe for development

Oregon farmland

Promised land: Transfers to farmland to heirs create tenuous periods of ownership that can be exploited by developers. Photo: Sam Beebe/Wikimedia Commons

By Eva Jacroux. January 17, 2024. Farmland in the United States is under threat. About 31 million acres, a land mass equivalent to the size of New York state, has been lost to urban expansion in the last 20 years. By 2040, nearly 18 million more acres could be lost to development.

“Without farms, there’s not only no food, but there’s no future. We need farmland to feed us and sustain our economy—but also to help restore our planet” says American Farmland Trust president John Piotti.

Urban sprawl has been swallowing farms around the peripheries of our nation’s cities.

Oregon has a strong history of protecting its farmland, creating a leading land-use planning system to protect open spaces.

However, with growing pressure on land to both house and feed an expanding population, the state’s lawmakers are being pulled in multiple directions.

Now, a boundary isn’t enough. Farmland advocates must work across the rural-urban divide, tackling urban housing policy in the process, to protect the future the state’s food systems.

Rural gentrification

Rural America is experiencing a real estate crisis. Low density rural development and urban sprawl into rural areas continues to drive up land prices.

In agricultural areas, the conversion of farmland to non-farm uses deters the extended life of irrigation districts and processing facilities.

As profitability decreases, farmers are more likely to divide and sell land for development, deepening the cycle of conversion and slowly reducing the amount of farmland nationwide.

“It’s what we can call rural gentrification” says Brooks Lamb, American Farmland Trust, land access specialist.

Rising land prices and declining agricultural districts further restrict young farmers and underrepresented groups like women and BIPOC from entering the industry. Thriving agricultural food systems require a critical mass of farmland, and this land-intensive industry is framed by issues of equity, access and entry.

Roughly 370 million acres of farmland across the United States will change hands as the aging population of farmers retires in the next 20 years.

In Oregon, nearly two-thirds of the state’s agricultural land will change ownership in that time—farm owners aged 55 and older control 64% of agricultural land in the state, according to an Oregon State University study titled The Future of Agricultural Land.

Land transfers to heirs create tenuous periods of ownership that can be exploited by developers. In declining agricultural economies, property heirs are more likely to sell or be bought out by developers.

Some become victims of “forced partition sales.” Heirs can be bought out by a developer who then becomes an equal co-owner and forces the entire parcel to be put up for sale at a public auction for pennies to the dollar of the market rate.

SB 100 and contemporary challenges

In the 1970s, Oregon created one of the strongest land-use planning systems in the United States. Senate Bill 100 was passed to create urban growth boundaries designed to protect Oregon’s environment and open space.

Its secondary goal was to continually reevaluate housing production to meet statewide needs. This was an important tool for the conservation of Oregon’s farms, forests, natural resources, economic development and open spaces.

However, single-family zoning requirements have undermined both urban and rural housing affordability and land access, creating low-density expansion out of urban growth boundaries while simultaneously failing to build enough units to house a growing population.

While SB 100 has been influential in slowing suburban expansion, it failed to codify funding pathways for increased compact housing production.

As state policymakers grapple with how to meet housing demands without these avenues, the urban growth boundary is being chipped away.

Last year, Oregon’s controversial House Bill 3414 was narrowly defeated. If passed into law, the bill would allow cities to unilaterally expand urban growth boundaries.

Furthermore, while SB 100 remains a strong conservation tool, it has often failed to protect the state’s most valuable farmland, especially on the peripheries of cities.

Expanding residential development to the outskirts of cities through single-family homes rapidly raises the cost of living in rural areas while simultaneously exacerbating inequality in cities.

Now, Oregon is experiencing a statewide housing shortage.

People in all Oregon counties are concerned about affordability and homelessness. While Portland housing prices are expected to begin a slight decline from their recent historic heights, prices for Oregon farmland have continued to rise year after year.

Oregon has continually ranked at the top of federal measures for statewide homelessness.

In recent years, Oregon has made monumental moves to reform city zoning laws.

In 2019, it became the first state in the country to do away with single-family zoning requirements and has begun funding city-housing strategies to increase housing production of multi-use housing.

However, rural areas haven’t been allocated the same funding to create similar housing strategies.

Many rural county governments lack the resources to protect agricultural economies to resist the development of prime farmland.

How then should state, county and municipal governments create measured policies that don’t take productive farmland out of commission and decrease the expansion of single family-homes?

Advocates on concurrent fronts

Beneath the glow of warm lighting of Helioterra Winery in Southeast Portland, Oregon Agricultural Trust partners and farmers celebrated a successful 2023 year over locally sourced appetizers and vibrant Pacific Northwest wines.

Among many of its successes was work done to petition local, regional and national governments for more funding to protect agricultural land.

In Washington, American Farmland Trust has set a model of holistic urban sprawl prevention policy: working to reduce development pressure by advocating for middle housing options within Seattle.

By promoting affordable high-density housing in cities, American Farmland Trust is attempting to build bridges across the rural-urban divide by increasing affordable housing.

Land trusts are working to help educate farmers about the importance of succession planning.

Many use the “Buy, Protect, Sell” model to place easements on farmland to permanently remove development rights. They rely on public outreach to inform agricultural land owners about the importance of stewarding farmland, and how one plot of land sold can become millions of acres lost.

The nonprofit 1,000 Friends of Oregon spearheads the Portland for Everyone campaign.

The watchdog organization was formed by Governor Tom McCall, who was integral to the bipartisan push behind SB 100.

In the past, 1,000 Friends of Oregon has collaborated with LandWatch Oregon and American Farmland Trust for the Portland for Everyone program. Continuing this overlap and drawing in more agricultural land trusts to protect the urban growth boundary is a natural coalition.

The post Can Oregon protect its farmland against rapid development? appeared first on Columbia Insight.

How the recovery of a stolen plant helped one nation re-Indigenize tobacco

By Brian Bull

Mark Petrie knows tobacco. Both the good kind and the bad kind.

As a youngster, he witnessed commercially-processed tobacco with its additives and chemicals hook and ravage people in his family and tribe. Many believed they were practicing “tradition,” while nicotine and tar spurred addiction and ruined their lungs.

But outside the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians’ plankhouse in the coastal town of Coos Bay, Ore., the former tribal vice chair reverently holds a bulbous and gnarled strain called Nicotiana quadrivalis variety multivalis. Known more simply as Columbian tobacco, Petrie says this is the kind his distant ancestors raised, protected and used – well before the arrival of white settlers.

“When I started working for the tribe, I had the opportunity to work in commercial tobacco prevention,” Petrie said. “I really set my sights on looking for bringing back the traditional tobacco and how it was used.”

That was a tall order, given that Columbian tobacco practically disappeared from the banks of the Columbia River during the 1800s. The culprits were a Scottish botanist, the fur trade and the erosion of Indigenous protocols surrounding the plant.

Mark Petrie holds a handful of tobacco outside the CLUSI plankhouse in Coos Bay, Ore. It’s the same tobacco his ancestors raised, protected and used – well before the arrival of white settlers. Brian Bull / Underscore News

The bartering thief

David Douglas – namesake of the Douglas fir – ventured into what became known as the Pacific Northwest in 1825, scouring the terrain for new and interesting plant life to share with the Royal Horticultural Society. He found tribes growing Columbian tobacco next to their plankhouses. It was carefully cultivated and didn’t grow in the wild forests.

When he asked to take the plant’s seeds back with him, Native people rejected the request.

“And so he came by way of night and took some seeds,” Petrie said.

He was caught in the act. But some fast-talking and exchanging of other materials, including European tobacco, allowed him to get away with the seeds.

“He took them back to Europe,” Petrie said. “So that’s really the story of those plants we lost. We weren’t able to cultivate them and maintain the environment where they were growing, because we were displaced.”

Another Native person familiar with the practices of pre-colonial Indigenous tobacco is Robert Kentta, retired cultural director for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.

Over generations of careful cultivation, The Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians created the Columbian strain of tobacco. The larger pods don’t open on their own. In order for the seeds to spread, tribal citizens manually open the pods to disperse seeds themselves. Brian Bull / Underscore News

“There were real strong beliefs around if tobacco grew in the wrong place,” Kentta said. “There were strict protocols around where you grew it, how you used it, all of those things. Like if seeds sprouted from a tobacco offering in a cemetery, those things could be used as a poison.”

Throughout the 1800s, the fur trade saw Native Americans and European companies exchanging goods at a rampant pace. Of the many items the Hudson Bay Company brought into the continent that intrigued tribes, processed tobacco was among the most prized.

That appeal still confounds Kentta.

“It’s a little bit of a surprise that our elders picked it up that quick, because they had such protocols around tobacco,” Kentta said. “Trade tobacco did catch on, and it quickly replaced our traditional grown tobacco. People just kind of quit growing it.”

A Native tradition becomes Westernized…and weaponized

Over the following century and a half, the protocols and reverence for traditional tobacco dissipated like smoke. With commercially-processed tobacco supplanting both the Columbian and Indian (Nicotiana quadrivalvis variety quadrivalvis) varieties in the Native community, marketers were quick to target this demographic. One particularly influential brand is Natural American Spirit, which features a thunderbird, peace pipe, and Indian chief on its packaging. A 2021 study by the University of California-Merced showed Alaskan natives switched to the brand instead of quitting the habit, saying it was “healthy and natural.”

Generations later, this targeted marketing – as well as the propagation of the idea that all smoking is “traditional” – has paid off for tobacco manufacturers, though at a tremendous human cost. A long-term study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed higher rates of lung cancer in general for Native people, while the anti-smoking organization The Truth Initiative says nearly 23% of Native people smoke, compared to 13% of non-Natives. And 16% of Native American/Alaska Native high-schoolers smoke cigarettes – a rate nearly three times higher than average.

In 2017, CLUSI biologist John Schaefer found out about a tobacco germplasm collection in Pulaway, Poland that had Columbian tobacco seeds and requested some be sent back to the tribe. The seeds were perhaps the first ones back in the region – if not the entire U.S. – for generations. Brian Bull / Underscore News

“I talk about that,” said Scott Kamala, a certified prevention specialist with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

While currently focused on underage drinking, his previous focus for 12 years was on educating his fellow Natives about the difference between authentic tobacco practices and modern-day smoking, as well as addiction and commercial tobacco products’ negative effects on the community.

“Back in the day I did a smoke-free powwow and it was just to protect people from secondhand smoke,” Kamala said. “A lot of people would stand by the door and smoke cigarettes, and lots of dancers and singers were complaining about that.”

Kamala says there’s also a sequel legend about about what happened after Adam and Eve disobeyed the Creator’s command not to disrespect the Garden of Eden.

“You ate this apple, you know what? You guys are gonna be kicked out of the garden, you’re gonna go down to Earth,” Kamala said. “Then the man (Adam) got scared, ‘Well, how do I know how to communicate with you?’”

That’s when the Creator introduced them to tobacco.

“You’ll roll this tobacco up, we’re gonna use it like a landline, a telephone. It’s going to communicate with me, so you’re going to be serious. It’s going to bring your prayers up to the Creator.”

Kamala wants that message to return.

“You know, Natives, we forgot about that teaching and we use it in a different way,” Kamala said. “That’s where people are suffering from lung cancer, skin cancer. Because we’re not following that teaching.”

From a theft, revival

On a bright afternoon, Nicole Romine walked into a greenhouse at the headquarters of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians. She knelt next to a small cluster of the distinctive, large-bulbed tobacco plants that David Douglas stole Native people near the Columbia River almost two hundred years ago.

“So this is the strain that made its way from the Columbia River Gorge all the way over to London, and then all the way to Pulaway, Poland,” she said.

Romine serves as CLUSI’s tribal tobacco prevention program assistant, a role she cherishes as that makes her the steward for the traditional tobacco variants.

“I’m gathering some of this tobacco, it’s just ready now,” Romine explained, gently running a finger alongside the nearly foot-high plant. “I left it a few weeks ago, there’s still some light green on the stem that will mold if we don’t let them dry out completely.”

Next to Romine is a plant with a handwritten name tag, indicating it will be gifted to a tribal member. For the tribe overall, just having this strain of tobacco back is a gift that required years of effort.

Nicole Romine examines a small cluster of the distinctive, large-bulbed tobacco plants in the greenhouse at the headquarters of the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians. She says these are the same plants that David Douglas stole from Native people near the Columbia River almost two hundred years ago. Brian Bull / Underscore News

A CLUSI biologist, John Schaefer, managed to procure seeds for Indian tobacco from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation in Virginia back in 2006. But the real prize, Colombian tobacco, remained elusive. Inquiries were made at various seed banks and universities, but the chances of actually recovering seeds seemed meager.

Then in 2017, Schaefer heard from his contacts that there was a tobacco germplasm collection in Pulaway, Poland. That same year, a padded envelope arrived containing the long-awaited Columbian tobacco seeds.

They were perhaps the first ones back in the region – if not the entire U.S. – for generations.

“So these have been harvested and strung up,” Romine said, shaking a dried seed pod with a faint smile. “These will actually keep until we want to use them.”

Romine explained that when the tribe cultivated this strain, it resulted in larger pods that don’t open on their own. “So we have to go in and open the pods, for the seeds to spread. We’d go in and whack them, and disperse them ourselves.”

Giving back

In the six years since the Columbian tobacco seeds were sent from Poland, the tribe has actively grown and dried many plants. In May, CLUSI representatives gifted several to the other eight federally-recognized tribes within Oregon’s boundaries, and a few Native American organizations at the Sacred Tobacco and Traditional Medicine Gathering near Bend.

“At that event, we just really highlighted medicines, and talked about how those medicines bring healing into our communities,” said Petrie, who was among those presenting tobacco. “And sacred tobacco was one of those medicines.”

Altogether, there were 150 people at the event. Petrie recalls many were deeply appreciative to receive the tobacco.

“Having the ability to practice ceremony in ways that their ancestors have been practicing for so long, and with the plants that are special to our people,” Petrie said. “That was really wholesome to see and really brought good medicine to me.”

Organizers are planning another Sacred Tobacco and Traditional Medicine Gathering next summer in Grand Ronde. Petrie and Romine are dedicated to helping Native people reconnect with their special relationship with tobacco, and use it with the reverence and care they feel it deserves.

Authenticity returns to tribal ceremonies

Baldich, or Gregory Point, is a ceremonial spot for the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. Elders say tribal members hid there during roundups and forced marches to reservations. Today, it’s where the annual salmon ceremony takes place. Now, the tribe will use the Indigenous tobacco of their ancestors during the ceremony. Brian Bull / Underscore News

Before my departure, the pair took me to a place on the Oregon Coast commonly known as Gregory Point. To area tribes, it’s called Baldich, and its history has seen Natives hiding from U.S. soldiers during the roundups and forced marches to reservations areas, as well as ceremonies.

“It’s a very sacred place for our people,” Romine said. She carried a jar of sacred Columbian tobacco, and gave a small blessing for this story amidst the crashing waves, keening gulls and cormorants.

Petrie explained that a salmon ceremony takes place here annually, where the remnants of a salmon feast are put back into the ocean. And part of that ceremony involves the offering of tobacco.

Now, the ceremony will include the pure, Indigenous tobacco of their ancestors, not a commercial brand filled with additives.

“We have been without the sacred tobacco for so long,” Petrie said, looking out beyond the craggy shoreline. “It brings a lot of happiness to our elders, myself and our families. We have that back with us.”

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Persistent Wildfire Smoke is Eroding Rural America’s Mental Health

This story was produced through a collaboration between the Daily Yonder, which covers rural America, and Climate Central, a nonadvocacy science and news group.

Will and Julie Volpert have led white water rafting trips on Southern Oregon’s Rogue and Klamath rivers for over a decade for their company Indigo Creek Outfitters, out of the small town of Talent, Oregon. The rafting season, which extends from May to September, is a perfect time to be out on the river where snowpack-fed cold water provides respite from the region’s hot summer.

Or it would be perfect if wildfire smoke weren’t a looming concern.

“We’ve been in operation here since 2011, and almost every year there’s some smoke that comes in and is noticeable on our trips,” Will Volpert said in an interview. If people have flexibility, he recommends that they schedule a trip before the third week of July when the likelihood of smoke in the air is lower.

Customers frequently cancel in late July and August because of the smoke, especially for day-trips. Federal data shows air quality tends to be more than four times worse on average in Jackson County, Oregon, during this period than earlier in the summer.

“We’ve gotten very used to saying, ‘Hey, it’s very likely going to be smoky on your trip. It might not be, but it could be.’” Volpert said. But as long as they’re not putting their participants at risk, Volpert said, they won’t cancel a rafting trip because of wildfire smoke.

Running a business affected by wildfire smoke has become normal for the Volperts, but it hasn’t come without its personal toll.

“I used to get very stressed out and paralyzed with the idea of losing our summer, which for us is, as the owners of this small business, our livelihood,” Volpert said.

While Volpert says he’s learned to manage that anxiety, wildfire smoke is a frequent source of stress for many people living in rural communities. The smoke harms farms and recreation-based businesses, can be psychologically triggering for wildfire survivors, frequently drives residents indoors, and recent research showed it’s associated with increases in rural suicides.

Wildfire smoke has become a pervasive form of air pollution released from intensifying fires due to the warming effects of heat-trapping pollution and a litany of other environmental changes.

Southwestern Oregon experienced unhealthy air from wildfire smoke nearly 13 days each year on average from 2013 through the end of 2022 — up from one to two days on average from 1985 through 2012, according to a report by Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality that used data from the town of Medford, about 10 miles northwest of Talent where Indigo Creek Outfitters is based.

Smoke pollution exacerbates asthma, worsens infections and contributes to a variety of other physical maladies. Tiny smoke particles move from lungs into bloodstreams and can directly affect brain health, with research out of the University of Montana connecting smoke exposure to the development of dementia.

Its noxious effects on mental health, particularly on rural communities, tend to receive less discussion.

Hidden Dangers in Rural Valleys

Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley is at the heart of a region synonymous with white water rafting, rock climbing, and other outdoor activities in the Klamath Mountains and Cascade Range. Vineyards and pear orchards dot the valley, and in the mid-size town of Ashland at the valley’s south end, the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival boasts international recognition.

Wildfire smoke fills the air at an olive orchard on the North Umpqua River in Glide, Oregon, in September of 2020. (Photo by Jan Pytalski/The Daily Yonder) 

All these activities hinge on good summer weather, and during the past decade, they’ve been disrupted by wildfire smoke, directly affecting wages, profits and reducing overall quality of life.

“In rural areas there’s likely more people whose livelihoods are based on the land and working outside,” said Colleen Reid, a health geographer and environmental epidemiologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder who studies the health effects of wildfire smoke.

In the valley, wildfire smoke settles more easily and often sticks around longer than it does in the surrounding mountains and plains. Atmospheric conditions often arise in valleys that keep smoke close to the ground, where its effect is the strongest. This can trigger more than physical ailments like asthma.

“We’re increasingly seeing mental health impacts,” Reid said. While early research focused on the effects of flames from wildfires, she said “there are some more recent studies where even individuals who were just affected by the smoke could have mental health impacts.”

By trapping people inside homes and forcing the cancellation of outdoor social events like youth sports, smoke can contribute to loneliness, domestic quibbling and despair.

A study published last fall in the science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences linked smoke exposure with increases in suicides among rural populations, though not among urban ones.

“In rural areas, we find that smoke days are significantly associated with increases in suicide rates,” said David Molitor, a health economist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who led the research, which drew on 13 years of smoke and federal suicide data to track mental health effects.

Because deaths from suicide are tracked by the federal government, they can be a useful measurement reflecting mental health, which is otherwise difficult to research and track. And that federal data shows that rural Americans are about a third more likely to die from suicide than those living in cities or suburbs.

“I think what’s different with rural people is they have access to guns, and they’re much more effective at succeeding in their efforts,” said Joseph Schroeder, a disaster response veteran and former mental health extension specialist at the University of Kentucky with experience  working at and running crisis hotlines for farmers and other rural residents.

Suicide ideation often arises from desperate needs for financial aid and other help, more so than poor mental health. This puts residents of rural communities that have been hollowed out following closures of timber, manufacturing and other employment-rich industries at greater risk.

“From my experience, the despair that has become suicidal ideation, or a suicidal threat, they’ve all come from conversations I’ve had with people who are calling me to get out of a situational problem — mostly financial,” Schroeder said. “It’s a poverty problem and it’s an isolation problem. And that looks differently in rural communities than it does in urban communities.”

The Almeda Fire

Come smoke or shine, Indigo Creek Outfitters – Volpert’s white water rafting company in Talent – always operates.

But on the morning of September 8, 2020, Volpert knew something was different about the wind whipping through the trees around his house outside of Phoenix, just three miles from Talent. The weather was so unusual he canceled the Upper Klamath rafting trip planned for that day.

“That is literally the only time that I can remember ever pulling the plug on one of our trips,” Volpert said. A few hours after making that decision, Talent and Phoenix were engulfed in flames.

The wildfire, known as the Almeda Fire, was the most destructive in Oregon history: About 3,000 buildings burned, most of them homes. Three people and many more animals died.

Analysis of weather station data shows the Almeda Fire broke out during a bout of fire weather — when conditions are persistently dry, warm and windy. The area was in extreme drought at the time, setting up conditions conducive for an extreme wildfire once winds strengthened. It took more than a week for firefighters to extinguish the flames completely.

After surviving a wildfire that completely changed the lives of so many in the Rogue Valley, there’s an added layer of grief that comes with the smoke season.

“For me, [smoke] causes a lot of anxiety,” said Jocksana Corona. The mobile home in Talent where she lived with her husband and two children burned down during the Almeda Fire. The family relocated to a suburban neighborhood in nearby Central Point, but haven’t been able to rebuild the kinds of strong community ties they had enjoyed in Talent.

“My kids grew up in the Latino community [in Talent] where there were always kids on their bikes, people on the streets walking their dogs,” Corona said. “In our new community and our new neighborhood, we don’t have that. It’s like we don’t know anybody.”

Even though Corona and her family were able to buy a house after losing their mobile home, she said three years later they’re still not fully recovered.

“We’re listed [by the state of Oregon] as a recovered family because we purchased the house and relocated,” Corona said. “But for me, for my own mental health and for my kids’ mental health, I wouldn’t say we’re recovered. I’m still experiencing triggers from the fire.”

Corona said she is bothered by the smoke in the air much more after her experience with the Almeda Fire, especially around its September anniversary.

A swing set at the Gateway Project in Talent, Oregon. The project provided more than 50 transitional housing trailers for people who lost their homes in the Almeda Fire. More than three years after the fire, people are still living in the trailers. (Photo by Claire Carlson/Daily Yonder)

Smoke is a constant reminder for wildfire survivors of their own harrowing experiences, and the potential for it to happen again.

“That grieving and that mourning is re-triggered by smoke season because it’s evident in the very air we breathe that their experience is not only real, but it hasn’t ended,” said Tucker Teutsch, executive director of Firebrand Resiliency Collective, a nonprofit created to support the area’s recovery from the Almeda Fire.

The nonprofit runs a peer support group that provides a safe grief space for Almeda Fire survivors to share recovery resources and talk through problems they’re having in the fire’s aftermath. The group has met weekly since the 2020 fire.

When Clean Air Is Impossible to Find

In the Methow Valley, a rural region in north-central Washington state, a coalition of community members has been supporting each other during smoke seasons since the 2013 Carlton Complex Fire, which destroyed 500 buildings.

The community coalition, called Clean Air Methow, spreads awareness about air quality safety. It also supports people struggling with the mental health toll of living with smoke.

“With this mental health and wellness piece, what we often don’t explicitly acknowledge is the threat of what the oppressive, opaque, physical heaviness of being under this white smoke for a prolonged period of time is like,” said Elizabeth Walker, director of Clean Air Methow.

“People kind of just say, ‘oh, it’s so bad, so smoky, I hate it,’” Walker said. “But when we ask people to actually give the words of their experience, they use ‘oppressive, heavy.’ They feel depressed.”

The number one clean air recommendation is for people to stay indoors, but this can contribute to feelings of social isolation when it’s smoky, according to Walker. Indoor air isn’t always cleaner than outdoor air, either. Older homes without modern windows, doors, ventilation and air conditioners can let in lots of smoke particles.

“Make sure you’re indoors, but also make sure you’re indoors with a HEPA filter or an air filtration system,” said Erin Landguth, a University of Montana at Missoula scientist who researches the health effects of wildfire smoke exposure. Because buying and maintaining such systems are expensive, a “key difference” from cities is that rural residents may be less able to afford them.

Clean Air Methow has been advocating for “cleaner air shelters” in the Methow Valley to provide public spaces with better indoor air quality for community members to visit when it’s smoky out. They’ve also provided air purifiers to people living in homes that let lots of smoke in.

Poor indoor air quality affects countless rural communities.

At Southern Oregon University in Ashland, access to clean indoor air during smoke season is hard to come by. The college’s older buildings don’t have updated indoor ventilation, causing workers and students there to be exposed to toxic smoke particles.

Willie Long stands in front of a climbing wall at a Southern Oregon University climbing gym. (Photo by Jan Pytalski/The Daily Yonder)

“I’m lucky enough that the building I work in was built in, I think 2016 or something like that, and it has a great HVAC system,” said Willie Long, assistant director at the outdoor program and climbing center at Southern Oregon University. “I generally have pretty good air quality when I get to go to work, but it’s not like that for most people who work at SOU.”

And when it’s smoky, colleges stay open. Southern Oregon University issued a policy in 2019 that states it will postpone all non-emergency strenuous activity, review filtration, and HVAC systems, and “encourage the use of N95 filtration masks or equivalent for personnel outdoors” when air quality exceeds the rate deemed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as hazardous for everyone.

Trauma and Anxiety

Heidi Honegger Rogers spent 25 years working as a family nurse practitioner before shifting her focus as an academic at the University of New Mexico researching the health impacts of weather disasters and environmental change. She’s an active member with the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments.  “Wildfire is a really intense and often traumatizing experience,” she said.

Though not everybody gets a diagnosis, Rogers said research shows that between a quarter and 60% of those directly affected by a wildfire will experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). About one in 10 people could still be affected a decade later, she said.

“Even after a trauma has dissipated and there’s no immediate emergency, the people stay in this agitated, super-alert state, which is characterized by anxiety,” Rogers said.

Smelling wildfire smoke or seeing another community burn can be triggering for those with PTSD, according to Rogers.

Smoke has become a trigger for Jocksana Corona, the former Talent resident who lost her mobile home in the Almeda Fire. She sought counseling after the fire to deal with her anxiety, in part because she didn’t want it interfering with her own work as a drug and alcohol counselor.

“I knew my physical and emotional reactions to the smoke could interfere with my ability to help my own clients with their own struggles,” Corona said.

She went to a mental health counselor for six months who helped her process her anxiety. Corona encouraged her two children to seek counseling as well, but for her daughter, the experience wasn’t helpful. Most of the mental healthcare providers in the Rogue Valley are white and only speak English, which can be a barrier for non-white or non-English speaking patients.

“I think that when it comes to mental health counseling for Latinos, it’s definitely lacking no matter whether you’re in Central Point or Medford, which are bigger towns,” Corona said.

When Corona worked as a drug and alcohol counselor, she said she was one of just a handful of bilingual counselors in Jackson County – which includes Talent and Phoenix – and neighboring Josephine County. She had clients come from Roseburg, 100 miles away, seeking her bilingual services.

Trauma manifests itself differently in every person through experiences like sleep loss, chronic worry, and grief, Rogers said. “People can do okay for a little bit and then they can be triggered by something that goes into their brain and reminds them of this scary experience that they had.”

Stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness can manifest in declining physical health. “It degrades our immune response. We end up with more inflammation. We end up with more pain. We end up with more cardiovascular problems, high blood pressure,” Rogers said.

And for those not directly affected by wildfires, seeing infernos on the news and smelling smoke hundreds of miles away can serve as reminders that the climate is changing. Rogers said that can lead to senses of hopelessness and anger that corporations continue to pollute the atmosphere despite decades of warnings and mounting impacts.

One of the consequences of atmospheric pollution has been stark increases in the number of days each year when fire weather occurs across the U.S. and the world. Fire weather is marked by windy, hot, and dry conditions.

The region torched by the Almeda Fire sees three to six more days on average every year during the past decade when fire weather conditions are present, compared with four decades prior, analysis shows.

“We can have anxiety and fear and worry about any of those injustices that we’re seeing, or any of those losses that we’re seeing,” Rogers said.

Walker, the clean air educator with Clean Air Methow, said it can be helpful to remember that “smoke season doesn’t last forever” during smoky days.

“I think that living with wildfire smoke can become this really lovely reinforcement of mindfulness,” Walker said. “This is what it is right now, whether it’s good or bad, it’s going to change.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached by dialing 988 and the Crisis Text Line can be reached by texting HOME to 741741.

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Condit Dam is gone. The fate of the land around it remains in question

The Lower White Salmon Coalition is pushing a new plan for conservation of fish and wildlife habitat. Will its PacifiCorp landowners listen?

Rafting on White Salmon River

Land ho! Removal of the Condit Dam opened sections of the White Salmon River to recreation. But left decisions about surrounding property unresolved Photo: Wet Planet

By Kendra Chamberlain. November 27, 2023. Even before PacifiCorp began removing the 125-foot-tall hydroelectric Condit Dam in southwest Washington in 2011, speculation ran rampant about how the power company would dispose of the approximately 500 acres of land along the White Salmon River where the dam stood.

The dam’s removal left behind a giant, dried lakebed after the waters of the Northwestern Lake reservoir behind it were sent downriver.

Since then, questions and anxiety about the future of the land have only increased. PacifiCorp has yet to announce a decision regarding its intentions.

The lakebed and six-mile stretch of river in question, surrounded by protected Wild and Scenic designated land, has become popular among recreationalists: the newly restored river offers some of the best whitewater paddling in the state, and the area contains an established trail system.

Now, the Lower White Salmon Coalition (LWSC) has released a community-backed Vision Plan for the land. Not surprisingly, conservation is the group’s top priority.

Condit Dam

Gone, not forgotten: Condit Dam created electricity and blocked fish and other passage on the White Salmon River for a century. It was demolished in 2011. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The LWSC was formed in 2016, amid concerns about how and when PacifiCorp might divest its land holdings in the Washington counties of Skamania and Klickitat. Its more than a dozen member organizations include Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group, Mt. Adams Resource Stewards and Underwood Conservation District.

PacifiCorp had previously offered land leases for the construction of lakefront cabins. After the dam’s decommissioning, the lake is all but gone and cabin owners aren’t sure what PacifiCorp plans to do with the land underneath the cabins.

In 2019, the coalition was caught by surprise when PacifiCorp sold a 39-acre parcel to a developer that clear-cut a wooded area and built residential housing.

“No one knew that parcel existed except them,” LWSC member Pat Arnold told Columbia Insight, adding that the parcel contained high-value habitat. Arnold is also Chair of the Board of the Friends of the White Salmon River.

Lake bed land a priority

The LWSC has spent the intervening years developing its own plan for the land, with the hopes that the group will have a seat at the table of future decision-making.

The planning process included developing committees, conducting public surveys, holding discussions with adjacent landowners and meetings with stakeholders to identify a broad community-backed strategy for the land.

A grant from the U.S. National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program helped fund the process.

PacifiCorp has already agreed to a Right of First Offer with the Yakama Nation for up to 289 acres from the former dam site south to the mouth of the river. Yakama Nation Fisheries staff, who have begun habitation restoration in parts of the lake bed, participated as observers in LWSC’s planning process and offered feedback to the coalition.

Lower White Salmon River map

Map: NPS Rails, Trails, Conservation Assistance Program

The LWSC would like to see the return of native riparian vegetation along the river corridor and salmon spawning areas protected. It also wants assurances that public access and recreational use of the area will remain in the future.

Arnold said the coalition is particularly concerned with the lake bed parcels, because that land would most likely draw developer interest.

“It’s very important for the coalition overall to see those parcels go into conservation ownership,” said Arnold. “The plan has areas where we feel we had a strong consensus and then some areas where we might not have such a strong consensus. But the conservation of those lake bed parcels is absolutely imperative [for the community].”

PacifiCorp has no obligation to take LWSC’s Vision Plan into consideration. But the groups have been in contact.

“We were in communication with PacifiCorp at the beginning of our NPS technical assistant grant,” said Arnold. “We needed to make sure we could access the land for the purpose of the developing the Vision Plan. They were okay with that. We met a couple of times. … We have asked to meet with them to discuss the Vision Plan, but do not have a date yet.”

Despite the lack of commitment, the LWSC remains cautiously optimistic.

“For no particular good reason, we feel that PacifiCorp is on board with the conservation emphasis of the Vision Plan,” said Arnold. “They did their due diligence years ago about finding which parcels could be sold profitably, and apparently after they sold the 39 acres there were not any more, without short platting and such. … We’re just hoping that we can continue to be a voice for what we feel is a pretty clear consensus as discussions go on.”

The Pacific Northwest’s only nonprofit, non-advertiser-driven news source devoted to environmental issues affecting the Columbia River Basin, Columbia Insight depends on support from readers like you. You can help us continue investigating critical stories by donating here.

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A new idea could ease tensions between farmers and solar energy developers

Agrivoltaics integrates solar power and crop cultivation to the benefit of both. An OSU prof thinks it could be the future

Agrivoltaic farm

Farm friendly? Agrivoltaics project at Oregon State University’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora, Oregon. Photo: Dan Orzech

By Kendra Chamberlain. November 23, 2023. Solar energy and agriculture can play nice—in fact, solar panels might actually allow farmers to produce better crop yields.

It sounds counterintuitive, but that’s what Oregon State University Professor Chad Higgins is hoping to prove with a pilot agrivoltaics project in the Willamette Valley.

His project runs contrary to prevailing narratives in rural areas, where encroaching renewable energy facilities are seen as a threat to agriculture.

Higgins spoke about the project during a two-day conference held earlier this month in Corvallis by the nonprofit Sustainable Northwest.

“It’s not that the solar panels are impeding farm progress,” Higgins told the audience. “They are literally farming equipment that is used to manage a farm resource—light.”

Solar Harvest, the agrivoltaics collaboration between Oregon Clean Power Coop and OSU’s College of Agriculture, is the first field-scale research station aimed at studying whether solar panels can improve things like soil health, water use and crop yields.

It’s also part of a community solar program serving electricity to OSU’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center.

Solar Harvest just completed its first growing season after coming online in April.

Higgins said his group celebrated with a big harvest meal, which included watermelon grown without irrigation.

Throwing shade

Vast tracts of open land make agricultural areas a great place to place solar arrays.

But can large panels coexist with crops or livestock?

Chad Higgins, associate professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University

Sunny outlook: Chris Higgins. Photo: OSU

Higgins calls sunlight the “forgotten resource” on agricultural land.

“It’s the one that is least likely to be managed,” said Higgins, adding that sunlight is always in excess on a farm.

“It’s uncommon to realize how much energy is in sunlight. There’s so much energy in sunlight that the plants can’t take it all,” he said.

Placing solar panels on agricultural land can serve a dual purpose.

The panels generate energy that can be used by the farm—or delivered to residential homes.

Panels can also help plants and animals survive the hottest, driest parts of the year by providing shade. Shade can translate into reduced water demand.

“What is the plant to do when it gets too much energy? It heats up. What’s the only thing a plant can do to cool down? Drink water,” said Higgins. “So all of that excess solar that goes onto the plants is translated one-to-one to water draw from the ground—that goes into nothing productive. All you have to do is shade the plants and you save a proportional amount of water.”

Extra shade offers other benefits to the crops: cooler soils, increased humidity, less stress on plants and potentially increased crop yields.

The Solar Harvest project is testing a range of shade and water conditions to see what works best, “because somewhere—and I don’t know where it is, because no one’s studied this—somewhere there is the perfect combination of light and water to make the plants grow the best,” said Higgins.

Atypical array

There are limits to how much shade plants will tolerate—and not all plants can be optimized using shade.

But for crops such as alfalfa, beets, bok choy, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, spinach, sweet potatoes, turnips and yams, farmers could shade their plants up to 50%, depending on the species, with little consequences on output.

There’s nothing revolutionary about providing shade to crops. But farmers receive an additional bonus by using solar panels instead of more traditional means, such as shade cloth.

“Why not shade it with something that creates a tertiary farm product?” asked Higgins. “This is where you get into agrivoltaics: you engineer a system such that it removes the excess sunlight to optimally manage your farm resource for the benefit of the crop.”

Solar array and sheep

Shady acres: Sheep graze under the 35th Street Solar Array at Oregon State University. Photo by Mark Floyd/OSU

Solar Harvest is a 120 kW array. It uses bifacial solar panels that let some amount of light through to the ground, but provide enough shade to help plants cool off.

“These systems don’t look exactly like a standard solar array,” said Higgins.

The solar panels tilt upwards to allow farming equipment to pass between the rows, preserving 95% of the farm footprint.

Farmers can manage sunlight by moving the panels into different configurations, some up some down, for example, to reach specific outcomes.

“If you are at a deficit of 30% water, you can take 30% of the light away and not have to suffer,” said Higgins.

Some research shows that crops can actually help increase the efficiency of the solar panels, too. The panels operate better in cooler conditions, just like the plants do.

Taking agrivoltaics mainstream

Solar Harvest, which will provide research over a 20-year period, is one of the first pilot projects of its kind in the country. Higgins hopes his research will pave the way for more acceptance of solar energy among rural communities.

Nationally, the agrivoltaics industry is still nascent.

There are only a handful of commercial agrivoltaic installations across the country. But with wider adoption, the sector could help the nation meet its decarbonization goals.

An OSU study from 2020 estimates widespread adoption of agrivoltaics could put a dent of 330,470 metric tons in the agriculture sector’s greenhouse gas emissions annually.

There are obstacles to overcome.

In Oregon, permitting is one of the largest barriers. Under Oregon state law, areas with better soils for agriculture are not typically permitted for renewable energy installations.

“Willamette Valley is a Goldilocks zone for agriculture,” said Higgins. “It’s actually a fantastic place to do agri-solar, if the community wants it.”

The Pacific Northwest’s only nonprofit, non-advertiser-driven news source devoted to environmental issues affecting the Columbia River Basin, Columbia Insight depends on support from readers like you. You can help us continue investigating critical stories by donating here.

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In the Klickitat River Delta, a microcosm of Pac NW stakeholder clashes

Can salmon, steelhead, eagles, kiteboarders, Tribes, BNSF, the Forest Service and one tiny Washington town come together to share a unique piece of water?

Kiteboarder Columbia River

Tricky spot: Kiteboarders around the Klckitat River Delta are attracting attention. Not all of it good. Photo: Jurgenhessphotography

By Bill Weiller. October 26, 2023. Just east of its origin in Vancouver, Washington, State Route 14 is one of the most scenic and historic highways in the Pacific Northwest, if not the entire country.

Forming a section of the Lewis and Clark Trail Scenic Byway, the highway winds through the entirety of the Columbia River Gorge.

Heading east, where SR 14 enters the tiny town of Lyle (pop. 269), most motorists steal glances over their right shoulders across the Columbia River to marvel at the towering bluffs around the Rowena Crest Viewpoint on the Oregon side of the Gorge.

With such spectacular scenery, it’s easy to miss another remarkable feature of the area—one that’s recently emerged as a flashpoint for stakeholder conflict, and become a microcosm of similar issues playing out around the Pacific Northwest, as an increasing number of interest groups, government agencies, tribal nations and private citizens vie for access to and control over public resources impacted by climate change and steadily growing public usage.

On the outskirts of Lyle, the Klickitat River flows into the Columbia River, creating the Klickitat River Delta.

Klickitat River Delta

Delta don: Lyle, Washington, is located on the banks of both the Columbia and Klickitat Rivers. Photo: Jurgenhessphotography

Just below a highway bridge that passes over the river, the delta spreads out across the Columbia River like a broad and shallow fan, creating the point of Klickitat River access for migrating salmon and steelhead, and the birds that feed on them.

These same conditions also happen to make the delta perfect for kiteboarders. Lots of kiteboarders.

Therein lies, at least for now, a major challenge for the town of Lyle, conservationists, recreationists, the land-owning BNSF Railway and various government entities.

As president of the Lyle Community Council, I’ve been involved for several years with a public process undertaken to resolve issues surrounding legal access to the Klickitat River Delta.

Though work is ongoing, issues around the delta have proven tricky to sort out.

Fish and wildlife concerns

Once used for cattle grazing as part of a Starr Ranch operation, the Klickitat River Delta became a focal point of conservation efforts when the U.S. Forest Service bought the ranchland in 1994.

The USFS also owns the spit of land that stretches into the delta.

Bald eagle a Klickitat River Delta

Fish flight: Eagles converge on the Klickitat River Delta for winter feeding. Photo: Jurgenhessphotogrpahy

After its purchase of Starr Ranch land, the USFS constructed facilities and a loop trail leading to what it now accurately deems “a prime bald eagle viewing spot” in winter months. In winter, eagles from around the Pacific Northwest migrate to the area to feed on spawned-out salmon that wash up on the delta’s sand and gravel bars, making them easy pickings.

As I learned during an Oregon State University pilot class called Climate Stewards, which took place on the banks of the delta in September, salmon and steelhead migrating up the Columbia River are attracted to the delta’s cool waters.

Snow-melt water flowing into the Columbia from the Klickitat—which originates on Mount Adams in the high country of the Yakama Indian Reservation—makes the delta a vital cold water refuge for salmon and steelhead in the warming Columbia.

Three speakers in the Climate Stewards class—two from the Yakama Nation and one USFS staff—explained the challenges of maintaining the delta as a cold water refuge.

In recent years, the delta’s waist-deep waters have been warming. That’s a troubling trend for salmon and steelhead, which are sensitive to water temperatures.

What’s more, according to the USFS, it’s been a boon to freshwater bass, which prey on salmon smolts.

The Yakama Nation has championed federal research into deepening the channel by dredging the area where the Klickitat River flows into the Columbia. The hope is to keep water temperatures there relatively cool, and, thus, safer for salmon and steelhead.

Enter kiteboarders

The delta’s shallow, warming waters have also been a boon to another group—kiteboarders.

No one knows precisely when the delta became a magnet for kiteboarders—the area was the site of sailboarding speed trials in the 1980s, according to one local source—but their activity here has picked up considerably over the past decade.

“The Klickitat Delta has perfect launching conditions only found in two other locales … in the world,” according to Mike Evans, who works with the Columbia Gorge Wind & Water Association.

Those “perfect conditions” include a broad, shallow launch point leading to a wide body of water with reliable wind.

The undeveloped delta has been discovered.

Visitor data wasn’t collected during the 2023 summer recreation season, but Lyle Community Council members estimate that hundreds if not thousands of kiteboarders descended on the delta, likely even more so than in previous years when usage was heavy.

Part of that estimate is based on tickets for illegal parking issued by Klickitat County deputies.

Along the highway, a potholed, gravel turnout provides haphazard delta parking for about 15 vehicles. From there, one either runs across the busy highway then heads down a hill and across a set of railroad tracks to the delta, or (wisely) takes a footpath under the road then crosses the tracks to enter the site.

No signs mark the parking spot. No restrooms or other facilities are in sight. No fees are collected. Rashawn Tama of the USFS calls it an “unmanaged site.”

Many drivers resort to simply parking along the highway or in other unauthorized places.

Railroad no trespassing sign

Defiance: Kiteboarders are flying past the law. Photo: Jurgenhessphotography

The parking situation along SR 14 has also raised the hackles of the BNSF Railway, by some estimates the largest freight railroad in the United States.

BNSF owns tracks and a wide swath of land between the highway and Columbia River.

Despite visible signage forbidding the public from crossing the tracks, kiteboarders (and others) regularly trespass over railroad property in order to gain access to the delta.

The railroad has backed up its warnings to trespassers by issuing its own citations.

Adding intrigue, Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney David Quesnel told the Lyle Community Council this summer he would not prosecute the railroad’s tickets. (BNSF did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

Resolution efforts

It’s not clear what impact recreation is having on the fish and wildlife that depend on the Klickitat River Delta.

During the Climate Stewards class, one of the Yakama Nation speakers confirmed that the Tribe’s interest in the delta lies with conservation, not recreation. This presumably explained why the Tribe has shown little interest in engaging in conversations about access to the delta. (Yakama Nation Fisheries did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

The effort to allow legal recreation in the Klicktat River Delta and settle ongoing access disputes will ultimately require cooperation from all interested parties. All voices are valid and should be heard and considered

In 2021, the Lyle Community Council formed a Delta Committee to resolve issues surrounding delta access. In the past year, participation has grown to include the USFS, kiteboarders, local citizens, Klickitat County, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (which regulates the railroads) and Washington State Parks. To date, neither BNSF nor the Yakama Nation have joined official discussions.

Bringing BNSF to the table will likely require conducting a feasibility study that would recommend solutions. That process is costly.

Klickitat River Delta image by Google Earth

Fan base: Cool water flowing from the Klickitat (seen here in light green) into the Columbia River creates a cold water refuge for migrating fish. Photo: Google Earth

Another potential partner, the National Park Service, has a small recreation and trails grant program that provides free community mediation and can provide project funding. This year, the Lyle Community Council and USFS developed a joint grant proposal to the NPS, but the USFS decided not to submit the proposal when it became clear the Yakama Nation would not join the process.

Even if the railroad agrees to make public access to the delta legal, the fish-friendly dredging project could produce a tonnage of mucky spoils that would likely be placed on the delta’s sandbar and planted with native vegetation, potentially rendering the site unsuitable as a put-in location for kiteboarders.

While the Lyle Community Council is on record supporting salmon restoration at the delta, it’s unknown whether fish and kiteboards will ultimately be able to coexist on a small patch of delta that, at least in winter, remains a lonely and lovely place to walk … illegally.

The views expressed in this article belong solely to its author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of anyone else associated with Columbia Insight.

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