Excerpted from Sweet in Tooth and Claw: Stories of Generosity and Cooperation in the Natural World ©2022 by Kristin Ohlson. Reprinted with permission by Patagonia.
Chapter 7: Healing from Ridgetop to Reef
“It’s very difficult to have an orchard here,” Eric Horvath told me, looking momentarily glum at the sight of a whittled stump.
We were standing some twenty feet from the north fork of Oregon’s Beaver Creek, in a clearing off a little-used gravel road where an old homesteader’s cabin burned to the ground in the 1970s. The fire happened decades before Horvath and his wife, Claire Smith, bought this property in 2000. Bracketed on all sides by the Siuslaw National Forest, some ten miles from the Pacific Ocean, the land was previously owned by a timber company that clear-cut the sixty acres along the steep slope on the other side of the creek, and then planted a dense monoculture of commercially valuable timber. It was a gross simplification of a previously complex landscape, and it happened all over the Pacific Northwest. And it’s just one example of how human actions can unwittingly rupture one of the most essential relationships on our planet—that between the land and the water—with tragic repercussions for the living things inhabiting both.
Horvath and Smith live in the coastal town of Newport, and they bought this land—a total of eighty acres from the road to the top of the ridge on the other side of the creek—not to settle here, but to nudge it back into a healthy, pre-European-onslaught landscape. That’s good news. The even better news is that they are not unique. Environmentalists who battled government and private industry to protect nature through the last third of the twentieth century—remember the spotted owl battles?—say that Horvath and Smith and thousands of other landowners around the state represent a new phase for the movement. They are healing private land in an effort to restore clean, clear, cold water to the state’s troubled waterways.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to watch this transition evolve,” says Paul Engelmeyer, a legendary activist, Audubon property manager, and chair of the MidCoast Watersheds Council. Back in the 1970s, he was hired to plant trees in the aftermath of clear-cuts. It seemed like a great life until he realized how dangerously the logging was fracturing the forests and the implications that had for wildlife. He and other activists insisted that the government measure the impact of all that logging on streams, and it turned out that every Oregon stream failed to meet the water quality standard of the Clean Water Act. He demanded that the EPA list the streams as impaired.
“If they’re impaired, then we have to bring them back into compliance,” Engelmeyer explains. “And that’s the first step. But we also realized a few decades ago that we don’t just need folks to change the rules. We need folks to sit in people’s living rooms and explain that they can work on their own land to improve water quality for salmon.”
The MidCoast Watersheds Council was formed in 1994 to work with landowners, government, and nonprofits to reverse human damage with projects that allow natural processes to resume, and it now works across nearly one million acres and five major river basins. Sometimes landowners are inspired to donate land that becomes part of a larger preserve. Sometimes they hold on to their land, and the MidCoast Watersheds Council helps them secure the funding, resources, and even physical labor needed to restore it. Horvath and Smith bought this damaged land with no purpose other than to restore some of the ecological functions it had a hundred years ago.
Even though they’re trying to rewild the bulk of it, Horvath and Smith had hoped to keep the tiny patch around the crumbling stone chimney slightly more domestic, with a small orchard and a vegetable garden. But the rest of nature had other plans. Bears climbed the apple trees and snapped the branches. Beavers waddled out of the creek to gnaw down the saplings.
So, Horvath and Smith ditched the idea of having an orchard for humans and decided to plant one for the rufous hummingbirds that arrive every spring from Mexico. They had noticed that the hummingbirds were already drawn to the site, as they’d seen the females peck at the grit holding the blackened chimney stones in place—getting a calcium boost for their eggshells, they assumed. When I visited in early February—too late to see the bright-red coho salmon depositing their eggs in the creek and too early to see the fry emerge from the pebbles or to spot the rust-breasted rufous on their return to the Pacific Northwest—Horvath had already planted several red-flowering currants, a native bush that blooms in March. He was planning to plant another fifty of the bushes, which the MidCoast Watersheds Council will provide.
“Will the bears eat the currants?” I asked.
He shrugged, cheerful again. “I don’t really mind what the bears do.”
Horvath pointed to the steep slope across the creek. The previous owner of the property planted thousands of Douglas firs there, so closely spaced that hardly anything else could grow. Such a dense monoculture is nothing like a naturally growing forest, where many species of tree stretch at their own pace toward the sunlight. When they die or are uprooted by storms or landslides—such deaths are common in a natural forest—they crash to the forest floor and become a gold mine of ecological services to the nature around them. By one estimate, some two-thirds of all wildlife species use broken, dead trees (called snags) or fallen wood for food or habitat. Forest soils are steadily fed and enriched by this woody manna from the overstory.
Such precious detritus is quickly dragged away from commercial plantations and many other managed forests and parks, but Horvath is eager to have more of it. Ever since he got the land, he’s been hiking into the fir-dark mountainside with his chainsaw, trying to simulate the patchiness of a natural forest by cutting some of the Doug firs above shoulder height and creating both snags and wood fall. In those open patches, evergreen huckleberry, salmonberry, elderberry, salal, and other shrubs have filled in to create a brush layer that nurtures even more wildlife.
Now, Horvath is conducting that same thinning process with the trees he planted when he and Smith bought the land. The timber company planted some thirty thousand trees on the denuded sixty acres, but it left some open spaces. Horvath had eagerly filled the gaps with five thousand Oregon natives, including western red cedar, hemlock, and spruce. “We planted two hundred trees each day, which was a lot of effort, especially on that steep ground,” he told me. “When we started I’d kiss each one and pat it and plant it nicely. But toward the end, I’d just open the ground and slam it in.”
Those trees are now crowding each other, and it’s hard work to thin them. He’s grateful when he finds that the bears have been roaming among his young trees, ripping away the bark for snacks and leaving them to die. A little break for his chain-saw arm!
Horvath and Smith are birders who lead birding tours around the world, but though they are delighted by the diversity of birds in their eighty acres—the hummingbirds, the thrushes, the warblers, the wrens, the raptors, the woodpeckers, the grouse that whirrs on an alder tree just out of sight, broadcasting his excellence to nearby females—they are re-storing this landscape for salmon. Horvath is thrilled when he sees forty salmon in a day in his stretch of the creek, but there used to be many thousands in these waters—enough to keep five nearby canneries busy.
Overfishing itself didn’t decimate the population—in fact, according to Mark Kurlansky’s Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of Their Common Fate, Indigenous populations used to catch a lot of fish for consumption as well as trade. Early European explorers reported that Indigenous people along the Columbia River used to pull some eighteen million salmon from the river every season. But they didn’t destroy the ecological health of the overall landscape that supports the salmon life cycle, as did the white people who displaced them…
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