Cleaning Up After Forest Fires Changed My Understanding Of Wilderness

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Bivouacking above Table Lake and beneath Mount Jefferson.

My first forest fire was a mushroom cloud blooming in the rearview mirror of a pickup truck. The driver, a ranger named Joe, was unfazed. The US Forest Service named it the Two Bulls fire, the inaugural spark of the summer of 2014, burning an area of Oregon forest about half the size of Manhattan. That season, 98 fires across the Pacific Northwest incinerated the equivalent of 90 Manhattans. Joe ended up being right — Two Bulls was barely a campfire.

I had felt out of my element a few days before, when I was on that thankfully unburned New York City island, graduating from college, surrounded by classmates off to their associate positions at Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. Now, sitting shotgun in a Chevy Silverado in my knockoff Carhartts, I had never felt more like an imposter. Still, there was literally no turning back, despite Joe’s assurances that what looked to me like an atomic explosion in the opposite direction was “not a big deal.” I was a backcountry trail worker for the Deschutes National Forest, reporting for training.

We continued down US Route 20 through the muted landscape of ponderosa pines. We were headed to the Allingham Guard Station, a campground along the Metolius River about 40 miles outside of Bend, Oregon, where a hundred Deschutes Forest Service employees and volunteers would be trained on everything from building a rock retaining wall to felling a tree in such a way that it doesn’t flatten you.

Normally, Allingham was a comic con for forestry nerds: Crosscut saw collectors would debate the merits of M tooth and Great American tooth models; SWAT — Sawyers With Attitude, a volunteer crew of septuagenarians who spend their retirement clearing downed trees — would teach new volunteers how to properly break down logs; long-distance backpackers would mill about the campfire, trading stories of hiking the Pacific Crest or Continental Divide trails.

This training had a rarified air, though. It was 2014, the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which had fundamentally changed American conservation. The Bundy standoff in Nevada was fresh in people’s minds, and the Forest Service — especially in the Deschutes National Forest, with its 550,000 acres of federally designated wilderness — was filled with a sense of renewed determination to protect the natural world.

I never had the patience to read Henry David Thoreau, so I won’t pretend I was chasing some idealized dream of living deliberately. The truth was a confluence of half-baked motivations: some notion of needing to live in the American West and the lack of appealing job prospects for humanities majors with undeserved self-importance.

I settled on an AmeriCorps program that would let me work for a national park or forest for a season, which had a romantic ring to it; never mind the fact that my only real backpacking experience had involved puncturing several blisters borne of Walmart boots with a dull Swiss Army knife. I finally skimmed Walden. Now, I thought, the only thing separating me from bucolic bliss was high-quality footwear.

Like the great American conservationists — John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and the intellectual godfather, Thoreau — my idea of nature was selfish. Having spent most of my life in cities and suburbs, my definition of wilderness was the absence of development. Nature existed for me through my own consumption of it, and that was why I decided to flee the Northeast and head to Oregon.

I thought of a summer in the forest as a conduit for peaceful introspection — a place to regroup before joining the real world. In other words, the plot of several bestselling travelogues by middle-aged white folk. Luckily, that was not in the Deschutes National Forest’s plan for me.

A wilderness area in the Deschutes National Forest recovering from the 2003 B&B Complex fires.

American conservation has a complicated past, rooted in the seizure of indigenous land for its administration by wealthy urbanites. Yosemite Valley, for example, lies next to the (formerly) equally stunning Hetch Hetchy valley, which was dammed, flooded, and converted into a reservoir in the early 20th century to serve the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Both valleys were inhabited by Native Americans before they were respectively turned into a playground and a wellspring.

For centuries in the US, men in high offices managed land without the input of the people who lived off it. Even preservation efforts were myopic, centered around a self-defeating idea of protection. For example, fires are not inherently harmful to a forest. In fact, the opposite is true: They are a natural part of the lifecycle of a forest. Fires clear underbrush and burn decaying vegetation, returning nutrients to the soil. However, early firefighters would put out every single wildfire. A 1935 Forest Service policy mandated that any fire be put out by 10 a.m. the following day, which only served to intensify future fires.

The US Forest Service, formally established in 1905, has always been different from the more traditional National Park Service; it has more in common with the Bureau of Land Management. As part of the US Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service takes an active approach to land management, opening up large areas of its holdings to sustainable logging, grazing, mining, and, of course, recreation.

The 1964 Wilderness Act changed the Forest Service’s approach to fire management, allowing for fires to naturally occur and emphasizing controlled burns. It also changed conservation. The act established a legal definition of wilderness as land where “man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and protected that land through a series of regulations that would minimize impact and encourage limited use. This change meant that conservation areas were not just set aside as escapes from civilization.

With this combination of preservation and active resource management, the Forest Service has a uniquely collaborative approach to conservation. Problems still exist. Those who have access to the resources of federally owned forest land, both for recreational and agricultural purposes, are overwhelmingly white, and conflicts between government officials and land users — like the Bundys — are constant. Even so, conservation is no longer a solitary pursuit, developed and reified by dogmatic men like Muir and Thoreau. Conservation today is enacted by a community that understands that laws are only as good as the people breathing life into them.

In practice, most of the restrictions placed on any land legally designated as “wilderness” are about how far from water you can pitch a tent and build a campfire, and what type of tools are allowed. For example, all motorized equipment is prohibited, partly because it’s more likely to start fires (using a powerful weed-whacker or chainsaw on a summer day will light up brush just from heat contact), but mostly to preserve the serenity. That meant that I spent most of the week at Allingham learning how to use a crosscut saw, which is the old-timey saw seen in sepia-toned videos with a comical frame rate and handlebar-mustachioed loggers.

New York City taught me to not be shocked by the sheer number of niche subcultures in the world, but witnessing crosscut saw culture still managed to surprise me. Since crosscuts are not manufactured anymore and are really just used by wilderness trail workers — and enthusiasts who apparently aren’t aware of the advent of chainsaws — the saws are a rare breed. The Deschutes National Forest only owns about a dozen of them, each with their own personality: what type of wood they work best with, for example, and whether they’re better operated by one person or two. They’re lovingly cared for, with names like Steel Beaver, Excalibur, Triple-Toothed Jack, CrOss-Exist, and Ally McSteel. Rangers will show up to the compound early to get their favorite one. Sharpening them is also an art. In all of Oregon, there is literally a single craftsman the Deschutes management trusts to maintain its crosscut saws.

I say this not to lament the lost art of American ironworking, but to demonstrate the very real and vibrant community around wilderness. It was that community that made me rethink what wilderness is and gradually, over the course of the summer, brought a new idea of it into focus.

The people of the Forest Service do this work not just because of a spiritual connection with nature, but because our world is burning. To begin to confront the impending end of the natural world, we have to redefine our relationship with land — and understand that it does not only exist for our own needs.

The tools of the trade for a backcountry trail worker.

“Where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” is a radical idea. On some level, land is no longer wilderness when humans arrive, no matter how briefly or reverently. And so the Wilderness Act has created a legal framework that aims to reconcile two perhaps contradictory goals: to keep vast stretches of land devoid of human presence, as much as reasonably possible, and also to minimize the inevitable imprint of our visits.

As a backcountry trail worker, then, my job was somewhat paradoxical. By maintaining trails in wilderness areas, we were creating ways for people to access them. But with the understanding that people would access them regardless, accessible trails ensured that any usage of the land would have minimal impact.

This was a gargantuan task. The 1.6-million-acre Deschutes National Forest had only a total of five full-time staff members dedicated to trail maintenance, which is why they brought on three volunteers — Donna, Sean, and me — to work in the Central Oregon backcountry on an AmeriCorps budget of $75 per week (which occasionally necessitated petty shoplifting to sustain a 5,000-calorie-a-day diet).

Since there were so few of us, Deschutes “mission control” triaged projects and sent us where the work was most urgent. Allingham was the last time for months we were in a wooded area. After we completed our training, we were placed almost exclusively in stretches of land that had been ravaged by forest fires.

Trail maintenance usually means sawing through and clearing out trees that have fallen onto trails and building drainage to help deal with the glacial runoff that floods them every spring. Areas hit by forest fires are different.

One of the first trails we worked on was called the Park Meadow Trail, located in the Three Sisters Wilderness. The Park Meadow Trail weaves through the devastation of the 2012 Pole Creek fire, which burned more than 26,000 acres. A ranger who had been in the area where the Pole Creek fire started had received a tip on his walkie-talkie about a small blaze. He walked a few miles into the woods to investigate and was met with a sound he later described as a jet engine — a vacuum of combustion feasting on all trees and oxygen in its path. He barely made it out.

Two years later, the area still smelled like smoke. Charred trees littered the landscape, with the soil turned to sand, stripped by flame of every nutrient and mineral. Our task was to build log bars for drainage — digging a ditch diagonal to the trail, dumping in a log, and packing it in so that streams of water would flow off the trail instead of eroding it. We would spend our days looking for salvageable logs that didn’t powder at the touch and trying to dig back sand to make ditches only for it seep back in, as if Paul Bunyan had confused his tall tale with Sisyphus’s.

Soot coated me like ink at the end of those days. I would practically scrub through my skin to get off the last remnants. Some nights, I would be too tired to wash off the stains of the fire in the nearby creek, instead collapsing in my tent until the sun rose.

The waste left by forest fires has an undeniable beauty. Fires carve out the horizon. On Park Meadow Trail, the burn had opened up a vista of South Sister mountain, a rust-blood monument rising from the ruins with the scorched corpses of trees standing at attention before it.

Luckily, I was never doing the work alone. I always have a peculiar feeling when I meet someone who I know will become part of my life. When I met Donna and Sean at Allingham, I felt as if my future had collapsed on me. And for the next four months, our lives ran as one as we navigated our strange world together.

Being part of a trail crew strips down any pretense of individuality. We spent every minute of the day together, from waking up when the sun rose and baked us out of our tents, through the workday on the single-track trails, and until the last embers of the fire went out at night.

Sean fashioned himself to be a rogue survivalist, with a lumberjack beard and vocal disdain for most people. Despite his attempts to prove that he did not need “society,” he still had an interest in my well-being (often annoyingly so), scolding me if I didn’t eat what he deemed to be a sufficient breakfast. He was taking a break from college out in Boulder; he had packed up all his stuff and driven from Colorado to Oregon in a Subaru with a busted head gasket, with no idea what he was going to do next.

Leo (left) and Sean cutting their well-earned beards at the summit of South Sister mountain at the end of the summer.

Donna was in her mid-twenties, from upstate New York, and had worked on conservation crews before in Utah. She had an understated presence — quiet but with an innate understanding of how you were feeling. As would be expected from a trio forced into some sadistic combination of coworkers, roommates, friends, and siblings in the barren backcountry, we constantly pissed each other off, but mostly kept each other sane.

In such conditions, survival is still a shared routine: figuring out where to set up camp, where to find appropriate water sources, how to ration food. Wilderness backpacking is 25% grueling fitness and 75% mundane logistics. The work, too, was monotonous, and I would get lost in the swing of an ax and the rocking of a crosscut.

This was contrasted by the constant awe of my surroundings. Mountains are profoundly transformative: a meditation on diminution. It was impossible not to feel insignificant with them constantly in the background: the Cascades of Central Oregon — the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, Broken Top, Three Fingered Jack — with their glacial caps and jagged edges.

The juxtaposition grounded me. In the midst of sheer wonder, our conversations were about how poorly a trail drained or how our bowel movements were faring. The quotidian was revelatory, which — to give him some credit — was one of Thoreau’s better ideas.

When the moments of true spiritualism shone through, usually as the moon waned in the sky, and the Milky Way spread across the ink-jet night, my awe was tinged with guilt. “I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another,” Thoreau writes. But nature is no longer so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed. As one of only three humans for miles, I knew that my presence was a burden to the land around me, each cut of my shovel a scar to the earth. As I grew accustomed to the territory, I felt myself becoming less and less welcome.

Donna, Sean, and I spent a few weeks on the Park Meadow Trail, only fighting our way out of the burn at the very end. We were immediately and unceremoniously restationed to the backcountry sitting beneath Mount Jefferson, where we stayed for the next month. This was the true wilderness: a 5-mile hike from a trailhead that was a 5-mile drive on a Forest Service road away from any sign of civilization — the kind of road where four-wheel drive is not optional.

The surrounding land had been cremated by the 2003 B&B Complex fires, one of the worst in recent memory, burning 90,000 acres and $38 million in firefighting costs. The only people who still set foot in the area were Pacific Crest hikers taking a detour and a local Christian Bible camp, which had chosen an unfortunate spot for its outpost and had been (miraculously) spared from the fire.

This area was different than Pole Creek. The land had had over a decade to recover. The charred trees turned into milky-white masts, dotting the landscape like ghosts with outstretched arms. The first pioneer plants — bushes like manzanita and snowbrush — were thriving. Still, they would only reach about three feet, and we were working out there in the height of July at 6,000 feet elevation with no tree cover and the cloudless blue sky of the high desert.

We spent three consecutive weeks camped at a remote backcountry lake in the midst of an abandoned expanse that became our new home. I only saw two groups of people our entire hitch out there. One of those times, I was woken up in the middle of the night by loud noises and voices, which, having spent days at a time with no other sign of human life, was jarring. Convinced I was about to be murdered by one of the survivalist cults I heard occupied the National Forest land and resigned to my fate, I went to sleep, waking up the next morning to find out that it was a group of hiking fathers and sons who had decided to leave from the trailhead after sunset and somehow stumbled across our camp.

Rationally or irrationally, they angered me, and not just because I was at one point certain they were going to turn me into a Mad Max–style hood adornment. They treated the land respectfully, but even so, it was no different than an amusement park to them — a place built for their enjoyment, to be entered and left at their whim.

Most of the time, though, it was just Donna, Sean, and me. This was the height of fire season, and our only link to the outside world was the constant chatter of new fires popping up on our walkie-talkie. I would go to sleep with the horizon lit up by blazes from across Oregon. Every night, I called out our position to the dispatcher, hoping that if one of the fires came close enough to us, they would remember to send in a rescue unit.

One night, after we built a small fire we probably weren’t allowed to have, a whirring in the sky grew louder as a black dot slowly materialized into a helicopter. Eventually, it landed on our tiny backcountry lake, scaring the shit out of us. The pilot made stern eye contact with me and took off, disappearing into the dusk sky. We weren’t in an actual wilderness, after all — just a government-sanctioned one.

The days blurred together as we were sent on different assignments across the vast stretches of the forest: a horse camp with rutted-out trails, a swamplike lake that we used as our water and bathing source until it gave our supervisor, who had hitched along for a few days, a staph infection. By the end of the summer, the heat subsided, and the nights dipped below freezing. We filled our Nalgenes with boiling water and stuck them in our sleeping bags to stay warm.

The entire summer, our boss had promised a final hitch into one of the hidden treasures of the Deschutes: a backcountry paradise called Table Lake that had never seen fire. The hike out was 10 miles through steep, unmaintained terrain, and we were supplied with packhorses to make the trek. At the end, we found a crystalline horseshoe lake shielded by a wall of hills. Our last night, we decided to climb the ridge, scrambling up the loose scree like mountain goats and rewarded by a wide plateau, with Mount Jefferson looming above. We only had our sleeping bags and a tarp, which we made into a bivouac.

The sun set as we sprawled beneath the open sky, stars beginning to pepper the dusk. It was too cold to sleep that night, so I just shivered in my sleeping bag, watching the moon rise and fall in space.

The next day, I left the Deschutes. I haven’t seen Sean or Donna since. When I visit the backcountry now, it is as a tourist, although I can never see the trails in the same way. Factories and SUVs and aerosol cans and farting cows cause climate change, but not all pollution is physical. The United States has always viewed nature as a resource to be consumed or conserved. Wilderness, though, is not for us. Its purpose is to exist outside of our selfish motives. That summer, I was a steward for the wilderness of the Deschutes National Forest, but I was a visitor. It was not mine. ●

Leo Schwartz is a freelance journalist and graduate student at New York University in journalism and Latin American studies. His work has appeared in the Nation, Roads & Kingdoms, PBS NewsHour, and Deadspin, and he is currently the web editor at the NACLA Report on the Americas.


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