As a week old Oregonian, I received an unprecedented and gracious orientation of sorts—a “call of the wild” from the Pacific Northwest, if you will. I was invited to attend the Wilderness Conference hosted by Oregon Wild.
Oregon Wild (formerly the Oregon Natural Resources Council or ONRC) hosted an event, celebrating just over 40 years as a conservation advocacy organization that has helped safeguard nearly 2 million acres of wildland in the state.
The conference in downtown Portland catered to statewide and “transboundary” aficionados of the great outdoors, and was packed to the brim with a diverse and engaging panel of expert environmentalists, including land stewards, recreation professionals, conservation biologists, and economists. The panelists’ presentations were enriched with compelling tributes to Oregon’s rugged and ecologically complex forest biomes.
Among them is the most botanically diverse coniferous forest ecosystem in North America and perhaps the world. From spruce hemlock forests along coastal Oregon to rustic ponderosa pine forests in the northeastern portion of the state, Oregon’s floral composition makes it a biodiverse hotspot within the continental U.S. Its faunal assemblages are just as impressive. From green sturgeon to pronghorn, Oregon’s waterways and open landscapes are ripe with unique and majestic flagship and keystone fish and wildlife species.
Presenters shared inspiring imagery of nature and the human element at the recreational interface with raw Oregonian wilderness. But perhaps most important, they facilitated fruitful discussions regarding the future of wildlands in the state and its use and protection.
It wasn’t until I listened to the first session of panelists speak, that I realized that this year our country is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, legislation that has served to protect our country’s wildlands and wildlife.
When Europeans began to colonize what is now the continental United States, forested land comprised 46 percent of the total land area of the country. By the 21st century we’d lost 13 percent of this forest cover. By comparison, the state of Oregon is comprised of 61 million acres of land, of which approximately 28 million acres are forested. Since the mid-19th century, Oregon has lost only eight percent of this forest cover. You could say that Oregon has preserved a greater percentage of intact forest than the country at large, but after a century of intensive logging, Oregon has retained 10 percent of its original old growth forests.
Although conservation organizations like Oregon Wild have had great success as they have campaigned to protect forestland, only four percent of public land is actually protected. This is only one half to one third of the amount of protected lands in respective neighboring states (California, Washington, Nevada, and Idaho).
What does this mean? Well, as Oregon Wild reported in their 2008 publication Climate Control, safeguarding old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest could be instrumental in mitigating climate change. In the report, the authors indicated that a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that moderate warming may increase carbon storing capacity, but that same rise in temperature could induce drought stress ultimately transforming the forests of the Northwest into carbon sources instead of carbon sinks.
Sean Stevens, the executive director of Oregon Wild and one of the authors of the report, said, “We are really excited to be relaunching this signature event during these important anniversaries. Our hope is that this inspiring gathering can create momentum toward protecting more of the Oregon landscape that needs our help and recommit us to the idea of wilderness.”
Just as important was the take-home message from keynote speaker Michael Lanza. The winner of the National Outdoor Book Award for Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks encouraged parents to get kids outside and accustomed to a beautiful wilderness that is imperiled. According to Lanza, “There’s a growing body of research which shows that children who get out in nature more are healthier, do better in school, have higher self-esteem and self-discipline, and are more creative.” He stressed that we can’t save what we aren’t even aware of.
“I do believe that time in nature, especially in wilderness, can inspire children as much as it does adults. But in different ways. And it’s critical that we adults understand what it takes for a child to enjoy experiences that can often be difficult, strenuous, and uncomfortable. Without question, one of the best benefits of our family backpacking and other wilderness trips has been the hours we spend together every day with nothing to do but talk to each other—no phones, no email, no texts,” said Lanza.
Mr. Lanza shared similar sentiments to my colleague and former CEO of the Wildlife Society, Dr. Michael Hutchins, who discussed the Nature Deficit Disorder with me in a previous interview.
According to the Oregon Wild website, “Approximately five million additional acres of roadless natural areas remain suitable for wilderness designation, but are currently unprotected from logging, road-building, mining, and other human development.”
The organization has spearheaded a number of campaigns aimed at protecting wildlands throughout the state. Safeguarding old growth forests in Oregon not only contributes to global climate change mitigation, but it also has other important direct and indirect benefits. These include the protection of lands for recreational use, the protection of nearby waterways for clean drinking water, and the protection of critical habitat for rare and vanishing species.
(This post was updated Thursday, June 12th)