Our communications intern recently took a trip to a forestry property and returned with a reflective story on how the Land Trust's many tedious jobs make up the big picture.
The late-morning sun grew warm as we made our way north over the sloped meadow, lines of blue plastic tubes housing Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine saplings stood stark against the light green grass. It was quiet, peaceful. I could hear my labored breath as we climbed the gentle hillside and winced at the thought of my own plans to climb Mount St. Helens the next day. How many steps does it take to summit an 8,366-foot mountain? Surely no one has counted. At the end of a difficult journey all steps melt into one and are momentarily forgotten. Something new emerges, separate from the arduous process: the destination.
These curiosities are how I found myself covered in burrs, camera slung around my neck, fighting my way through thick underbrush. I had been itching to get out in the field and jumped at the opportunity to visit a property with Land Trust volunteer coordinator, Sam Schongalla, and our stewardship intern, Nathan Kossnar. I’d be helping them conduct annual monitoring at our Highland Forest stewardship unit, which is one of six properties within our 285-acre Little White Salmon Biodiversity Preserve. The land is a beautiful mix of coniferous forest, deciduous woodlands, and open fields where the Land Trust is planting new trees and thinning existing ones to enhance stand structure. Many years from now, this property will become old-growth forest and will provide habitat for endangered Northern spotted owls and other wildlife.
The screech of a red-tailed hawk was heard from above as we hiked further into the forest. I aimed my camera up and took photos of its flight. I continued to gaze upward at the raptor’s wings fully extended against the clear blue sky as we kept on our journey.
Equipped with a digital SLR camera, an IPad, a PDF map, and a monitoring booklet we continued our search of 19 separate photo points distributed along our property’s geographic boundaries, camouflaged and unmarked within dense second-growth forest. Guided by our PDF map to the general destination point, we’d then reference the previous year’s photos and shoot to produce the same exact frame. Seemingly straightforward, yet at times frustrating, annual monitoring is the crucial process of maintaining a documented and ongoing record of various property conditions for both historical, legal, and restorative uses.
We had made it up to photo point four with fairly little trouble. Our technology informed us we were somewhere close by, hidden within the corridor of Oregon white oaks, Douglas-firs, and ponderosa pines that linked the East and West Cascades. Locating the three trees from last year’s photo however, one prominently erect in the foreground, the other two lingering back like shy adolescents, was proving to be a difficult task. North, east, south, west, ‘never eat shredded wheat’ I repeated to myself as I swiveled my camera each direction, trying to replicate what the monitoring folder insisted was there. Sam hung back, removed enough as to let Nathan and I lead but nearby in case questions arose (they did). Nathan confidently navigated, at ease in his position, monitoring folder in hand. Dead sticks and brush littered our path. Through dense woody undergrowth we trampled, step-by-step. This was the stewardship’s daily grind.
As the day wore on our senses sharpened. Nathan and I began to notice small things about our surroundings that helped us locate the intended photo frames. We excitedly pointed them out to each other: a tree trunk’s slight eastward curve at photo point ten, an empty clearing devoid of brush in photo point seven, a lone telephone pole near the roadside at photo point sixteen. It became a matching game. The collage of woods began to clarify, metaphorically and literally, as we trounced out of the underbrush and into the bright afternoon sun. Two screeching red-tailed hawks came into view, turning graceful circles in the sky. As they swept high over acres of meadows and forests, their eyes dialed in below to the tiniest movement, the tiniest steps.
As a recent graduate of Portland State University with a degree in community development, I reflected back on the small steps that led me to where I am today. I grew up with the still lakes and deciduous woodlands of mid-Michigan. I rambled through towns with wide, empty streets and cities with entire blocks left abandoned. Moving to the Pacific Northwest opened a whole new world, one with wild, mountain-fed rivers and craggy rocks cliffs just a bike ride away. I marveled at the chasm that existed between these places, not only geographically but culturally as well. My passion for environmental conservation and community development are two sides of the same coin. We need wilderness to sustain our lives and we need communities that are sustainable in every sense of the word.
I’ve often found myself blinded by the whole of something, forgetting the individual parts that created it. Catching sight of Mount St. Helens in the weeks leading up to my climb I was amazed at its height, still grazing the clouds despite its violent eruption decades earlier. Soon my feet, one after the other, would lead me to that mountaintop and I would look out over the dark green forest, content. But what is a forest if not for its small parts: the smell of fresh dirt and decaying organisms, the sight of leaves fluttering gently in the wind, the faint cracking of dried twigs beneath your feet.
We walked slowly back to the car, not ready to give up the fresh air for the hour car ride back to the office. My first day in the field officially over, I reflected back on my years as a student and the impending job search. How could I add up my steps taken, my passions, education, and skills, and weld them together to create something new, a career? Similarly, how does an organization go from a thought, intent and hopeful, to celebrating a successful 25 years? Simply reveling in the end result is an injustice to the hard work it took to arrive at the destination.
All of the Land Trust’s parts are integral pieces of the whole. Like a mountain climb, a forested wilderness, or a college education, it’s shaped by each small step. It’s the wonderful staff that work hard every day to take great care of its lands. It’s the annual monitoring, the maps and budgets, the personally-signed thank-you letters. It’s the land, water, and wildlife we conserve into perpetuity. But most important, it’s the passion for environmental conservation that lies in each one of our supporters, our collective hope for a better, cleaner future. Much of what the Land Trust does won’t be fully realized for generations. The saplings planted so carefully across the Highland Forest meadow will take hundreds of years to reach old-growth maturity and their full habitat refuge potential. Conservation occurs over time, much less quickly than the initial degradation. Individually, small acts may seem insignificant, but strung together they can create a powerful whole, a worthwhile destination. Planning so far ahead involves big picture thinking. What will this region look like in 50 years? 100 years? It’s the small steps, the daily grind, often tedious and overlooked, that prepare the Land Trust for big leaps.