THE LAST TITANS

Oregon's old growth coastal forests have been pushed to the very edge of oblivion. Heavy machinery is right now ripping into woodlands buffering the Arcadia Cedar, the largest tree in the state of Oregon, and other colossal trees. Time is running out to protect some of the last titans on the Oregon coast and the threatened seabirds they shelter. ​

The forests of the Pacific Northwest are living cathedrals with no equal on Earth. Drenched by rain and saturated by fog, these temperate rainforests grow the tallest and heaviest trees on the planet. The total weight of the conifers and other plants in these ancient, dripping woodlands dwarfs the biomass produced by tropical rainforests. Evergreen conifers that rise along the Pacific Coast strain the necks of people who witness their soaring grandeur, and the blades of sunlight that knife through the eternal mist dazzle the eyes of observers.

 

Industrial logging reduced most of the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest to clearcuts and tree farms, but in a handful of scattered groves on the Oregon coast, some titans still stand. Amid the spreading crowns of these massive trees, the marbled murrelet nests. This seabird leaves the ocean in spring to lay a single camouflaged egg on a branch high in the treetops, where the egg and chick are safe from ground predators. (Other seabirds nest on sea cliffs to avoid ground predators.) Like the salmon that return from the sea to the forest streams of their birth, the marbled murrelet travels between two realms. It is a creature of oceans and forests, and both of its worlds are under siege. Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, murrelets are starving in barren waters, where the fish they feed on are disappearing. The mature trees where this bird nests are also vanishing.

 

The Arcadia Cedar, Oregon's largest tree, is secreted away in a grove that somehow escaped the saw. This western redcedar of gargantuan proportions can be reached by bushwhacking through coastal rainforest near a busy highway. Yet few people have seen this hidden giant—or have even heard of it. I'm thrilled that one of the last stands of old growth on the North Coast is so hard to find; I'm also frightened that so few people have glimpsed the grove where this titan hides.

In this fragment of primeval forest, in this scrap of Eden that could soon vanish, an elk lifts its antlers above a jungle of huckleberry and salal. Birdsong blends with the frothy slur of distant surf. Mist wraps around the trees and tastes faintly of salt. You reach toward a log velveted with moss and crush the crumbling wood in your hand. Shelves of fleshy mushrooms colored sulfur-yellow and pumpkin-orange glow amid the rot. Some days dry hemlock needles tick like raindrops as they fall into the swordferns; other days rainstorms slash the woods with such ferocity you fear the drops will flay your skin. The light around you is forever in flux. Windows of sky in the canopy above shift from soft-glowing white to impenetrable lead to rain-washed blue. At dawn, a few beams of sun find their way through the labyrinth of the forest to set cedar bark aglow. And the call of a marbled murrelet, its haunting keer, fills the fog-drenched silence, as it has through the millennia.

 

The Arcadia Cedar Grove is threatened by development now underway on adjacent land, and the fate of the state's largest tree and surrounding murrelet habitat is uncertain. Whether Oregon can muster the will to preserve this last patch of primal forest is an open question. The ocean's roar could mask the screech of saws slicing into this tree that has been growing for more than eight centuries. Only a handful of people among the hordes of nearby beachgoers would know what was lost: one of the last living cathedrals that lift their spires into the clouds along the coast. A more likely scenario—but one with equally devastating consequences—is this: Logging on adjacent land will kill some of the last giant trees in Clatsop County, including the Arcadia Cedar, by creating an edge effect.

After trees are felled, the artificial edge between still-standing forest and clearcut land allows sunlight and wind to penetrate deep into ancient groves, affecting plants and animals far from the cutting boundary. A stand of old growth with a new edge ripped open can be attacked by wind and weakened by parched soil as heat pours in and cool, humid air leaks out. When wind that was frustrated by dense stands of trees suddenly flows unobstructed through a new clearcut opening and pushes into stands of old growth, trees that have stood for centuries can have their limbs sheared off. Edge effect can even topple titans. Trees that have stayed healthy for many hundreds of years, fending off fire and insects through the ages, can be killed by poor forestry practices on surrounding land. A cedar or spruce the size of a skyscraper can fracture with a crack that rips the eardrums of a person witnessing this giant’s death.

The edge effect also has drastic consequences for marbled murrelets. Aside from damaging their vanishing nesting habitat, new edges along old growth forests attract ravens, crows and jays; these clever corvids prey on murrelet eggs and chicks with devastating repercussions.  Researchers have documented increased corvid predation extending up to a kilometer from campgrounds . Right now, roads are being cleared for an RV park at the edge of the Arcadia Cedar Grove.

In the coming months, as new edges are cut around one of the last stands of old growth on Oregon's North Coast, the trees and murrelets in this primordial forest could be irreparably harmed. The few remaining titans could topple, and because so few people know about this grove, the sound of these trees shattering could be swallowed in a storm without a single human witness to hear them fall. But the reverberation of their loss would echo across the generations. Explaining to children how we allowed the last of the great trees to vanish from the Oregon Coast would be a daunting task. 

The Oregon Forest Practices Act was written to please the timber industry, not to safeguard the few remaining fragments of old growth along Oregon's coast. It's time for Oregon to start following forest practices that preserve the heritage of the ages for future generations. If we fail in this struggle, some eight hundred years might pass before trees like these titans once again pierce the clouds along the coast and the murrelet's plaintive call fills the misty silence. 

GALLERY OF GIANTS

western redcedar
Arcadia Cedar
Arcadia Cedar in summer sunlight
Arcadia Cedar in winter mist
western redcedar at dawn
western redcedar and vine maple
western redcedar
western redcedar
hemlock in morning light
western redcedar
hemlock and cedar
western redcedar trunk
canopy illuminated at sunrise
western redcedar
sitka spruce
cedar and hemlocks in last light
twin giants
Arcadia Cedar