PERSONAL ESSAY

We moved to an off-the-grid paradise and ended up fighting a war to save the forest

We knew what it would take to stop logging from destroying the land: endless pressure, endlessly applied

By Alison Clement

Published January 29, 2022 7:30PM (EST)

Northern Spotted Owl (Getty Images/Greg Vaughn/VWPics)
Northern Spotted Owl (Getty Images/Greg Vaughn/VWPics)

We found out about the logging by accident. We'd gone to The Forest Service Ranger District in Waldport and were looking at a big map of our valley, Tenmile, which hung on the wall. 

"What are the little flags?" I asked one of the Forest Service staff. The map was covered with flags, like what you see in old war movies when armies are being tracked. Chuck says they weren't flags, but stickers. He always wants me to get the facts exactly right, but I remember them as flags. The Forest Service worker that day said the flags, or stickers or whatever they were, indicated sale units. When I wasn't sure what that meant, he added that they were "units in process of being negotiated as part of the Forest Service's management process." 

We looked more closely. Flags were everywhere: along the road lined with giant spruce, hemlock, cedar and Doug fir; above the sauna; above our houses; near the campground; near the beautiful Five Mile Meadow. 

"Forest management," said the man.  

RELATED: How much forest did we lose in 2020? Like, a Netherlands' worth

We'd only lived in Oregon for a few years and didn't know about logging yet. Of course, it was happening all around us. Throughout the day, we'd hear the sound of chainsaws, the yarder whistle, and the crash of trees as they fell, and every day on Highway 101 or on the narrow, winding gravel road to our place, we passed trucks full of huge logs. We'd seen whole landscapes that had been clear cut and then sprayed with toxic chemicals. We saw areas that had once been pristine forest, now stripped of every living plant and animal, like a bomb had gone off, but we didn't understand the forces at play. Later we'd see how Big Timber had worked its way into and corrupted Oregon's legislature, its agencies, communities and schools, but back then, we were innocent. 

My midwife had told us about the Tenmile property: 25 acres for sale in a semi-intentional community located in Oregon's Coast Range. The land is between two wilderness areas and surrounded by the Siuslaw National Forest. It's off Highway 101 and up a narrow gravel county road that twists and climbs. The first few times you drive the road it's harrowing, with blind curves and steep, deadly drops. Huge trees line the road: spruce with its thick, sharp needles; the graceful hemlock with its drooping branches; thick-barked Douglas Fir and my favorite — the most iconic, dramatic of them all — cedar.

Everything is layered and textured. The forest, first of all. The trees and their understory. Tall and short, thick and thin, sharp and soft. The colors are muted grays and browns and every shade of green. Most of it's in shadow, but every now and then a shaft of light makes its way through the thick branches and illuminates some little section of forest. The landscape is layered with trees and bushes, ferns and flowers, and it's layered with scent. The smell of the cedar and the other trees, too, and the damp, vegetative smell of growing things. To drive up Tenmile is to be enclosed in color, texture and scent. 

RELATED: Is it possible to live off-grid?

We quickly learned to differentiate sections of that road. The kids named one part Columbine Hill for the orange flowers that grow there every spring. In early summer, they made a game of counting the wild irises or trillium we passed on the way home or to town. 

When we moved there, the Tenmile community was nine years old and made up of six households: eleven adults and eight kids. They came from different backgrounds, from WASPs and Irish Catholics, from wealthy families and the working class. All of them were people who could do things. They built houses and put in driveways and fences. They roofed and sided and did masonry work. They ran water lines, repaired engines and built a hydro-system. They caught their own fish. They went clamming and crabbing. They were master gardeners. They canned, baked and pickled. They read Tarot cards and milled lumber. They wove, painted, played the mandolin and made pottery. 

What I liked best about my neighbors was their love for the place.  The way they stopped to listen when the first rains came. Their excitement at the sight of an otter in the creek, a lynx crossing the road, a marten in the woods or evidence of a bear. And I like that when the valley was eventually threatened by seemingly insurmountable forces, the neighbors turned into bad asses and fought like hell. 

Each of us had our own separate piece of land, but we shared a garden and an orchard. The orchard grew plums, pears and apples, all varieties. There was a weekly sauna and potluck. We helped build each other's houses and take care of each other's children. Kingfishers and swallows flew over us. The kids caught snakes in the grass, and the men caught salmon in the creek. In the morning, the meadow outside our window might be full of elk or deer. Black bear and cougar lived in the woods, and at night we could hear owls.

At the beginning, Chuck and I lived in a 12 x 24-foot cabin with our two kids. The first summer, we had no outhouse and dug holes in the ground instead, which is acceptable for only a short time, if you ask me. Then Chuck built an outhouse with a composting toilet, which just meant a large plastic barrel that, when full, would be capped and left to biodegrade. We heated our house with a woodstove. Hot water came from a tank which sat above the woodstove and was connected to it by a copper tube. At first, there was no phone service, although soon Pioneer Telephone, a co-op, put a line to the house.  Electric power only went up the valley for a mile and a half, so, everyone was off grid. Our refrigerators and stoves ran off propane. We used generators to run machinery and ran lines off our car batteries to watch movies. In the beginning, at night we read by kerosene lamps, but eventually Chuck and I were able to connect with our neighbor's hydro system, and then, except in late summer when it got too dry, we had enough electricity for lights and the radio. Our drinking water came from a spring up the hill, and it was the sweetest water you ever tasted.  

RELATED: "Off the Grid": The growing appeal of going off the grid

For the first two years, our house was too small for a bathtub, so the tub sat on the deck outside. I loved sitting in the hot bath beneath the stars, working in the garden surrounded by trees and mountains, lying in bed with the sound of the creek, waking in the morning to find a herd of elk in the meadow.   

We had thought by going to a remote, hidden place, we could drop out, be part of a community, make our own rules and live quiet lives with our kids, but everything changed that day in the ranger district, looking at the map. All the little flags, the timber sales, clear cuts. 

We soon realized that instead of paradise, we'd landed in the middle of the Northwest Timber wars. 

Before, when we got together, we had talked about the kids or the garden, an unusual animal someone had spotted, or building projects. We told funny stories. Now our conversations were about the forest and what we might do to protect it. They were all about strategy. The first thing we had to do was figure how the Forest Service worked. As a federal agency, it was full of rules and procedures for everything. We needed to know who was accountable and where to put pressure. 

We read books and talked to people. We learned from activists all over the country. Regional forest defenders came to Tenmile and we'd take them into the forest and to the sauna. We'd feed them salmon because this was back when you could still catch Coho in the creek, back before the salmon and trout numbers plummeted and even catch and release was outlawed. We'd give them pies made from berries we grew in the garden, salads and soups and fruit, whatever was in season. Brock Evans, president of the Endangered Species Coalition, visited from D.C. He encouraged us by saying that a small focused group is often more effective than a large unfocused one. And one night in the sauna, Brock told us what was necessary: endless pressure, he said, endlessly applied. This never stopped being true. 

Now driving home, I'd find Chuck's truck parked along the road where he'd pulled over to go into the forest. I loved watching him in our meadow, bending over to look at a plant. We took walks in the woods and. he pointed out the canopy, the way the hemlock grows in the shade of the Doug fir, for instance, and the understory below. We noticed the shape of the oldest trees. Most of them have had their tops blown off in fierce winter storms, so they're the same height as the trees around them, but their tops are flat. We learned about the birds that nested in those high, flat treetops. We learned the names of the plants, the elderberry, huckleberry, and sword fern, that grow on the forest floor. Fallen trees became nurse logs for hemlock or spruce seedlings, helping build the biomass that makes up that soft forest floor, growing in a row up its trunk. We learned about the insects that live in the downed logs. We shared information and we strategized.

RELATED: Ecological, but unaware: You care about the environment more than you think

Our little community was starting to have conflicts, but when it came to protecting the valley, we pulled together. We were a team. We went to public meetings, lectures, workshops and trainings. We learned everything we could. Eventually, we were the experts. One day I called one of our go-to environmental groups with a question and was given my own home phone number to call for an answer. 

Meanwhile, The Forest Service was surveying the trees along the road. Timber sale boundaries were being marked. The tall cedar that was my favorite tree in all the world. Yellow tape. They were getting ready. 

But then, the Northern Spotted Owl, one of those species that liked to nest in the high, flat tops of the tallest trees, was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA,) and, just like that, all bets were off. Under the ESA, a listing meant its recovery fell on federal land, so anywhere an owl was found, an area had to be set aside for protection. Pretty soon you'd see bumper stickers saying "I like my spotted owls fried," (so witty) and in some places, owls were found shot and nailed to trees. When we found Spotted Owls at Tenmile, it seemed like our problem was solved. 

Although our little valley was the center of the universe to us, the political wheels of the timber wars turned regionally and nationally. The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, now called Earthjustice, led the legal battle over old growth habitat for the Spotted owl. An injunction was issued by a federal judge shutting down all timber sales in Northwest National Forests. Then in 1989, Congress passed a one-year rider setting aside the injunction.

The following year, Congress failed to pass another rider but gave the go-ahead for clearcutting on already sold timber sales, if they didn't contain owl habitat forest structure. Each national forest was to have a Citizen Review Committee appointed to pass judgement on the size of each timber sale's trees – were they large enough to be owl habitat or not?  

First, we were told by the Forest Service that our trees weren't big enough to meet this criterion. We had a meeting then, and people came from town and from other nearby valleys, and we walked the drainages, measuring trees. DBH, diameter at breast height. We presented the data to the Forest Service, and they finally agreed to include the Tenmile sale units in the Citizen Review Committee process. 

I think most people, at least in the northwest, realize the issue with the owl wasn't simply the survival of one species but that the owl is an indicator species, which means it's a gauge for the health of an ecosystem. It means that if the owl can't survive, a number of other plants and animals won't be able to either. You should also know that loggers were already struggling. Almost all of the old growth on private lands was gone by now, and many of their jobs had been automated. Also, as Chuck once pointed out to an audience of angry loggers who'd come to disrupt a talk he was giving: we're not your enemy. Your enemy is flying overhead at 35,000 ft in their corporate jets. It's those folks who overcut the forests, destroyed your unions and are sending our logs to mills in Japan.  

RELATED: Reimagining humanity's obligation to wild animals

The Citizens Advisory Boards were made up of local leaders, including a sprinkling of those sympathetic to environmentalists, but generally weighted towards the timber industry. Everyone quickly realized that, regardless of the law, regardless of extinction or anything else, getting the cut out was primary. That wasn't going to change.

The meetings for our area were held at the headquarters of the Siuslaw National Forest in Corvallis.  We'd go every week and sit in the back of the room. We weren't allowed to speak, but I still have the notes I took from those meetings. 

Kent wants the cut out by Sept 30th
Carl says there's no long-term plan for the owl 
Gary says there is! 
Carl says that's an opinion 
Gary says it's an expert opinion

Liz wants a vote
Pat wants to talk
Don wants a different definition of Old Growth
Bruce says the process is proving itself. 
Pat says it's a timber-driven process.
Liz says the volume is determining the process
Don wants better stand description
Liz has a problem with analysis and mapping
Bruce has problem with definition of emerging Old Growth

Sometimes, we'd bring our kids. None of us had time for this and nobody could afford it, but we went to every meeting and made sure our tree size data was in the hands of each Committee member. Back in the valley, a neighbor was dying and someone else was getting a divorce. There was a fight over property. We were struggling to maintain our little community. And we had jobs and the normal hardship of living in the woods. Our water lines were always breaking. Roofs leaked. Driveways got washed out. Trees fell across the road. Car and trucks rusted and broke. It seemed like Chuck and I got flat tires about once a week. And you couldn't turn your back on the vegetation. It was always creeping over the driveway, over the paths, into the walls, over the gardens. You had to work hard just to keep from going backwards. It rained twenty-three days straight that December. 

Even so, week after we went. It mattered that we showed up. It made a difference that someone was watching. When information about a particularly important stand at Tenmile was suppressed, our neighbor Paul got an accurate map to a sympathetic board member, and she was able to block its sale. Don't believe it when people say we have no power. In the end, nearly all the Tenmile sales were taken off the board, which was a great victory, although slightly hollow. Our valley was preserved, but the cut still went out. Away from Tenmile, sale after sale went through. Where were the people to speak up for those places? We sat in the meeting room, silent, as the names of sales were called out.

Blue Bird, Angel, Beaver Pond, Black Snow, Tidewater, Skywalker, Stillwell, Sugar Cube, Sugarloaf, Mariah Skyline, Gordy Bluff, Picnic, Signal Point, Wapiti, Rocky Cedar, Sweet Thin, Crazy 25, Little Green Horn, Green Apple, Grass Skirt, Raspberry, Hot Elma. A place someone named Lower Sweet. A place someone called Starlight. 

The following year, 1991, logging on the National Forest was shut down.

Oscar Wilde once said every story can be a happy one, depending on where you end it. This story didn't end here but, still, at least in terms of our valley, the ending is a hopeful one. 

While it's true that logging on national forest land was shut down, what really happened was complicated. The shutdown was in effect only until Congress or someone could work out the next deal. And nobody was talking about private property because private property was untouchable, even if most private forestlands were increasingly owned by big corporate timber firms who destroy the land, pay almost no taxes, take the profit and run. The public relations people want to convince us that those forest owners are all mom and pop, but it's not true.

First, we were able to protect Tenmile because the Tenmile forest is Spotted Owl habitat, and when that wasn't enough, Marbled Murrelets, another threatened species, were discovered there. Our efforts were further helped when a group called Conservation International identified the ecological importance of the Tenmile as part of one of the largest intact temperate rainforests left in the continental US. When a place we call The Five Mile Meadow, one of the most beautiful spots in the valley, was about to be bought by a timber company, Paul arranged for Audubon to buy it and create a sanctuary. He also facilitated the sale of another parcel to an Oregon State University conservation group known as The Spring Creek Project. Chuck and I, along with other landowners, put our trees in a conservation trust, to be protected. A few years ago, the philanthropic arm of Worthy Brewing from Bend, Oregon (their motto is earth first, beer second) bought 64 mostly logged-over acres and are planting trees in hopes of returning that property "to the natural world." Their plans include a solar-powered nature retreat and working organic, regenerative farm. 

Years ago, I wrote an essay about our failed attempt at living on the land, which was published in The Sun magazine and reprinted in High Country News. The essay was titled "On Being Wrong" and was about my personal failures and about how little self-knowledge Chuck and I exhibited when we decided to live in the woods. We had worked for years, saving money to buy our land, but it turned out we weren't equipped for that life. Unlike our neighbors, we (especially I) didn't have the skills or wherewithal. And the community itself, despite its history and shared values, didn't hold together. For a long time, it seemed to me that the whole endeavor had been a failure, but that's not true. 

We were still living at Tenmile when my husband, frustrated by the destruction of forests outside our own valley, started a regional conservation group, The Coast Range Association, to advocate for the entire Coast Range Forest, from the Columbia River, in the north, to the Siskiyou region, in the south. The organization is now over 25 years old, and Chuck is slowly handing over its management to the next generation of forest activists. The group's current focus is the climate crisis and the importance of leaving big trees in the ground for carbon, while creating good jobs. My husband's 25-year long criticism of the role of Wall Street ownership of private forests is no longer considered radical. Recently, his analysis of forestland ownership by Real Estate Investment Trusts was taken up by ProPublica and published in a series of exposés.

Chuck isn't the only Tenmile resident to dedicate himself to the environment. Nearly every household there has someone who ended up working in conservation. In addition to ensuring the preservation of Tenmile, Paul has worked in various capacities as a conservationist. Among other things, he's participated in watershed councils and helped development and management of wetland conservancy and ocean reserves. Paul's son earned a PhD with research focused on the cumulative effects of pesticide use in forest management in the Coast Range. His current job is addressing ocean acidification.. Two of our neighbors served on the board of Chuck's organization. Both our son and one of the neighbor's daughters worked on stream surveys, counting salmon, for Oregon's Fish and Wildlife agency. Our daughter and her husband own 150 acres of land, much of it damaged by misuse, on which they're practicing regenerative agriculture. Our son-in-law works in wetland restoration. 

When Chuck and I looked at the map of Tenmile on the wall of the ranger district in Waldport all those years ago, we were planning to make a trail through the woods to connect all our properties, so the kids could reach each other's houses without walking on the road. We had no idea what those little markers foreshadowed, and how it would change everything. It wasn't what we'd dreamed of. We didn't plan it. We just wanted to have gardens and hang out in a beautiful place. We wanted dancing and storytelling, potlucks with pies and salmon, and on Sunday nights, sauna, and even though we ended up losing all that, what happened instead was beyond anything we could have ever imagined.

More stories about forest life: 


Alison Clement

Alison Clement is the author of two novels. Her short stories and essays have been published in The Sun, High Country News, AQR, Salon and elsewhere. She is currently writing a memoir, which she refers to as an ethnography of writing. She lives in Oregon and Tweets @alisonclement.

MORE FROM Alison ClementFOLLOW alisonclement


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Endangered Species Environment Essay Logging Spotted Owl Sustainability