This story was published in the February 1998
Jefferson Public Radio Listeners Guild
Learn more at Siskiyou Field Institute.
On a cool June day in 1884, the pioneering California botanist Thomas Jefferson Howell urged his tired horse up another ridge in the southern Siskiyou Mountains. Howell was as weary as his mount, but his keen eye spied an unfamiliar and distinctive tree growing along the rugged track. This was a medium-sized conifer, a spruce, with unusual, drooping branchlets. Howell collected specimens of the odd little tree, which proved to be a species new to science. Today, it is called the Weeping, or Brewer’s, Spruce. Found only on exposed mountain ridges in northern California and southwestern Oregon, it was the very last tree species to be discovered in North America.
The discovery of Brewer’s Spruce illustrates two themes in the natural history of our region: and its great obscurity and extreme wealth. Only at the very end of the 20th century is this obscurity beginning to lift, as the world becomes aware that one of its greatest biological treasuries lies a few hours north of San Francisco. Here, in a tangle of sharp-edged mountains and twisting wild rivers lies a world that geologists call the Klamath Knot, ecologists call the Klamath-Siskiyou Ecoregion, and almost everyone reading this calls . . . home or may be planning to making it so.
Nature places life on the land in endlessly subtle and intermingled patterns. Humans, on the other hand, delight in boundaries. Both humanity and nature have given free rein to their pattern-making artistry in the Klamath-Siskiyou, resulting in a very complicated landscape. This provides plenty of room for individual opinion on exactly where the region begins and ends. Geologists give one answer, hydrologists another, botanists a third, while politicians have further complicated matters by adding the California-Oregon state line, among other things. But there is no question about the core of the region: it is the rugged mountains that stretch in a series of intermingled ranges from the Oregon Siskiyous through the Marble Mountains, Trinity Alps, and Yolla Bollys of California. From this core, the region extends north to the banks of the Umpqua River and south to the headwaters of the Eel River. It includes the fog-bound Pacific coast from the mouth of the Klamath River north to Cape Blanco, and reaches its eastern boundaries in the arid foothills of the Rogue and Shasta Valleys. United by an ancient and eventful geological history, the Klamath- Siskiyou is divided by elevation, climate, and soils into a dazzling mosaic of natural worlds.
In the Beginning: Geology. The geological map of Oregon is a beautiful thing–to any fan of geology–with sweeps of color denoting the various types of rock making up the state. In most parts of the map, the pattern is fairly broad-brush, but one’s eyes are irresistibly drawn to the southwest corner, where the sweeping strokes break down into an fractured kaleidoscope of fiendish complexity. In the words of one despairing geologist, the mountains of the Klamath-Siskiyou are “a geological nightmare, a chaotic mixture of a wide variety of rocks originally formed at different times, in different ways, and at widely separated places all swept together into a hopelessly confused heap.” As we will see, the region owes much of its biological richness to the age and complexity of its rocks.
Most of the rocks of the Klamath-Siskiyou are 200-400 million years old, and originated as offshore sediments that were repeatedly uplifted, folded, and mixed with the granites of the ancient seafloor bedrock. Intruding into this mixture are large geological masses formed under extreme pressure in the earth’s interior: peridotite and serpentine. Due to the manner of their formation, these rocks are deficient in some minerals (including calcium and potassium) and are heavily laden with others (especially magnesium, iron, and nickel). The largest block of exposed peridotite in the world lies west of Cave Junction, and smaller outcrops occur throughout the Klamath-Siskiyou.
The strange mineral composition of serpentine and peridotite means that soils derived from them will often be very inhospitable to plant life. On a landscape scale, the open Jeffrey pine woodlands northwest of Cave Junction reveal the struggle of trees to grow on serpentine, a struggle that has been won in the unique Redrock Rainforest of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. On a more intimate scale, the tiny fens that dot serpentine sites like Eight Dollar Mountain are treasure-troves of rare orchids, insect-eating cobra plants, and other unique species that have evolved the ability to survive where their more widespread rivals cannot. Our region is famous to botanists around the world for the amazing diversity of its serpentine-adapted plants. More generally, the wide assortment of soil types resulting from the mountains’ complex history provide plenty of opportunities for other plant species to penetrate down roots in their favorite ground.
A Fortress For Forests. As any hiker soon discovers, the Klamath-Siskiyou is not an easy, gentle, or welcoming wilderness. From its perpetually soggy coastal rainforest to the knife-edged ridges and sun-baked canyons of the interior, the region hardly seems like a sanctuary from the harsh realities of a changeable world. And yet that is exactly what it is: for millions of years, this difficult land has been the last refuge for an amazing array of unique trees and other plants.
For all its great antiquity, the Klamath-Siskiyou has never been subject to massive volcanism and glaciation, the sorts of cataclysms that rework entire regions. Its mountains and valleys have unfailingly offered a complex mosaic of habitats, allowing diverse species to survive countless environmental changes. It is hard to imagine two more different conifers than the gigantic redwoods of the coastal strip and the stunted foxtail pines of the alpine peaks, but our region provides pockets of habitat that meet the needs of both of these specialized trees.
The Klamath-Siskiyou has the highest diversity of conifer species in the world, with 30 species overall and an amazing 17 species within one square mile in the Russian Wilderness. This richness reflects the region’s sanctuary role. Many of the conifers, as well as other plant species, reach their range limits here. For example, the region is home to the northernmost Coast Redwoods, the southernmost Alaska yellow cedar, and the westernmost Western Juniper. The centers of these species’ distributions are elsewhere, sometimes in far distant regions. Yet their farthest-flung populations, whether adventurous colonizers or stubborn remnants, thrive right here. Other plants, notably Brewer’s Spruce and the magnificent Port Orford Cedar, are relict species. They survive only in the Klamath-Siskiyou today, but millions of years ago were much more widespread, as revealed by their scattered fossils. This long ebb and flow has filled the Klamath-Siskiyou with the rich pool of life that we recognize today as one of the world’s treasure-troves of biodiversity.
Wildlife Wilderness. The biological wealth of our region is not limited to plants, of course. The case can also be illustrated with birds. The Klamath-Siskiyou is host to 392 bird species, 189 of which are confirmed to breed here. This great diversity is possible because of the variety of habitats and plant communities in the region. Birds of the oak woodland and chaparral communities, like the California Towhee and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, reach their northern limits here, while species of deep coniferous forest, such as the Blue Grouse and the Gray Jay, extend no further south along the Pacific coast. The Clark’s Nutcracker and other timberline birds are happily at home on the Siskiyou Crest, while Snowy Plovers and Black Oystercatchers find the habitats they need in the mix of sandy beaches and rugged, rocky shores along the Klamath-Siskiyou coast. Above all, the region is a haven for birds that thrive in wilderness, either because of their sensitivity to disturbance or their need for ancient forests. Thus, we find here important populations of Marbled Murrelets, Northern Goshawks, Spotted Owls, Band-tailed Pigeons, Olive-sided Flycatchers, and Hermit Warblers, to name a few.
As recently as 150 years ago, the Klamath-Siskiyou was home to a spectacular assemblage of great wildlife species. Elk, deer, grizzly and black bears, cougars, and wolves roamed throughout the region. Herds of pronghorn raced through the Rogue Valley, and bighorn sheep lived on the slopes of the Marble Mountains. California condors soared ponderously overhead, and huge runs of chinook, coho, and steelhead jammed the rivers. Those days are now gone. Bighorns, grizzlies, pronghorn, wolves, and condors are extinct in the region, salmon runs are a fraction of their former abundance, and wildlife habitat faces ever-increasing pressure. What remains, however, is still arguably the most important stronghold for forest wildlife on the west coast of the United States, as evidenced by the continued survival here of such rare carnivores as the Pacific fisher and the Humboldt marten.
The World Takes Notice. Aside from a few intrepid botanists, the world of science sent few representatives into the Klamath-Siskiyou region during the first half of the 20th century. That changed in 1949, when a young plant ecologist named Robert Whittaker arrived in Cave Junction. Over the next three summers, he carefully documented Siskiyou plant distribution in relation to climate, elevation, soils, and fire history. In 1960, Whittaker published the results of his work, entitled Vegetation of the Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon and California. It was immediately recognized as a classic in the field of plant ecology, and remains influential today. Describing the Klamath-Siskiyou, Whittaker wrote: “The region possesses a greater diversity of forest communities, in a more complex vegetation pattern, than any comparable area of the West . . . [It is] as dramatic an expression of relations of natural communities to geological formations as is to be found anywhere in the world.”
While Whittaker’s work put the Klamath-Siskiyou on the scientific map, the region remained little known to the general public. The mountains lacked a voice, but in 1983 they found one: a voice as unique, as surprising, and as great as they were; the voice of David Rains Wallace. His book, The Klamath Knot, combined geology, evolution, poetry, ecology, and mythology to create an unforgettable portrait of the Klamath-Siskiyou. The result is one of the classics of American nature writing, a book that introduced our region to the world.
The Klamath Knot became a sacred text for a new breed of pioneers that began to arrive in the region during the 1970′s and ’80′s. Many of these were young people leaving their urban or suburban roots in search of a simpler, more natural life. Over the next 20 years, these new arrivals joined with concerned locals to create a grassroots environmental movement, challenging the land management practices that had dominated the region since the end of World War II.
Much of the forest land in the Klamath-Siskiyou is public, administered by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. For decades these federal agencies formed an efficient partnership with private timber and mining companies to exploit the resources of the region. This partnership fostered economic growth in timber towns like Happy Camp, Hayfork, Grants Pass, and Roseburg, but unfortunately also encouraged unsustainable levels of logging. The region’s ancient forests were, in effect, being strip-mined: removed at a far higher rate than they could regenerate.
Except in the narrow coastal strip, many Klamath-Siskiyou forests grow under dry climatic conditions on relatively poor soils, and are unable to regenerate quickly. By the 1980′s it was clear that excessive logging was compromising the ecological health of the region. Not only were the mountains covered with the scars of unregenerating clearcuts, but salmon streams were clogged with silt, populations of many wildlife species were plummeting, and the widespread use of herbicides on tree plantations was causing great public health concern.
The mid-1980′s to mid-’90′s was a time of sometimes wrenching transition in our relationship with the environment. Both scientists and the general public began to understand the value of ancient forests, and the Spotted Owl became a national symbol for the struggle between preservation and exploitation. As social conflicts grew, President Clinton ordered a thorough scientific review of forest management in the Pacific Northwest. This review documented the failure of past land management practices, and culminated in the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994. The Plan declared that the protection of biodiversity and the restoration of old-growth forests were primary goals for national forest management. Though the implementation of this new vision has been painfully slow, it is clear that the days of landscape-scale clearcuts are over.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of local environmentalists and the newfound interest of scientists around the world, the biological riches of the Klamath-Siskiyou are no longer a well-kept secret. The region has been suggested as a World Heritage Site and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and in 1992 the World Conservation Union declared the Klamath-Siskiyou to be an Area of Global Botanical Significance, one of only seven such areas in North America. In 1995, work began on an ambitious Klamath-Siskiyou Biodiversity Conservation Plan, sponsored by the Siskiyou Regional Education Project of Cave Junction, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund. This effort is using sophisticated computer mapping technology (GIS, or geographical information systems) to develop a regional biodiversity conservation strategy based on principles of conservation biology and nature reserve design.
The biggest media splash came in fall 1997, when the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released its sweeping analysis of the ecosystems of the United States and Canada, entitled “A Conservation Assessment of the Terrestrial Ecoregions of North America.” The Klamath-Siskiyou was highlighted as both “globally outstanding” in its biological uniqueness and “endangered” because of the variety of threats it faces. Overall, the Klamath-Siskiyou received World Wildlife Fund’s highest priority rating, as a “globally outstanding ecoregion requiring immediate protection or restoration.” The WWF study, and the Klamath-Siskiyou, received national publicity from the New York Times and other publications.
On a local level, the long-term work of many grassroots groups to preserve the Klamath-Siskiyou came to a climax in May 1997, at a memorable conference sponsored by the Siskiyou Project in Kerby and Cave Junction. To its more than 300 participants, “The First Conference on Siskiyou Ecology” felt like an environmental Woodstock, with speaker after speaker rising to present yet more ways in which our region is precious and unique. David Rains Wallace was in attendance, and helped draft a ringing petition from the conference to President Clinton, calling upon him to preserve “for posterity the principal values of biodiversity, ecological stability, and aesthetic enrichment which the Klamath-Siskiyou Province represents.” When asked for a name for the proposed preserve, Wallace smiled mischievously and suggested the “Heck of a Lot of Wild Rivers National Monument.” And indeed, the Klamath-Siskiyou has the largest concentration of Wild and Scenic Rivers in the United States.
Threats and Opportunities. All this recognition comes not a moment too soon. Much damage has been done, and much has already been lost. Only about 25% of the forests of the Klamath-Siskiyou remain intact. Grizzly bears, wolves, and other species have been exterminated. The beautiful Port Orford Cedar is endangered by a deadly introduced disease, spread by vehicle traffic along logging roads. Thousands of mining claims menace rivers throughout the region, including Rough and Ready Creek, world-famous for its wealth of serpentine plants. Logging continues to shrink remaining areas of ancient forest, especially in low-elevation areas. Road-building threatens most areas of unprotected wilderness with fragmentation into smaller parcels that provide far less habitat benefits for wildlife. Wild salmon stocks continue to decline as bureaucrats and interest groups bicker over the obvious–but difficult–steps needed to protect them.
The good news is that so much remains to save. From north to south, the region is graced with magnificent wilderness strongholds that deserve immediate protection. Just east of Ashland, the proposed Soda Mountain Wilderness provides a vital corridor joining the Klamath-Siskiyou Ecoregion with the Cascades. At the northwest corner of the region, the proposed Copper Salmon Wilderness is home to gigantic, disease-free Port Orford Cedar, breeding Marbled Murrelets, spectacular runs of salmon and steelhead, and the ancient forests that protect the headwaters of the Elk, Sixes, and Coquille Rivers. Moving south to the lower Klamath, a rare remnant of lowland ancient forest survives along the East Fork of Blue Creek, providing a last sanctuary for the endangered Humboldt marten. To the east, the Siskiyou Roadless Area maintains connectivity between the Siskiyou and Trinity Alps Wilderness Areas. Its central watershed, Dillon Creek, is one of only six streams in California that still support summer-run steelhead; and yet it is threatened by timber sales. At the southern end of the Klamath-Siskiyou, the Chinquapin, East Fork, and South Fork Roadless Areas protect important headwaters of the Trinity River and provide biological links between the Yolla Bolly/Middle Eel and Trinity Alps Wilderness Areas. Many other areas of equal significance could be named.
These magnificent wildlands provide us with all the benefits of whole, healthy ecosystems: clean, cold water for salmon, steelhead, and people; natural regulation of runoff; stabilization of steep slopes; absorption of excess carbon in the atmosphere; and habitat for uncountable life forms and the vital and often unknown relationships with which they maintain the balance of life. They provide all these services without requiring one penny of taxpayers’ money. They do not need to be enhanced, mitigated, stabilized, recovered or restored They simply need to be protected.
As we enter an era in which global climate appears to be changing at an unprecedented rate, the Klamath-Siskiyou sanctuary may be needed more than at any time in its venerable history. Trees cannot respond to global warming by moving north hundreds of miles in a few decades. Even mobile animals will be hard-pressed to find their way to new homes across the fragmented landscape produced by our roads, fields, and cities. If many rare species and isolated populations are to survive, they will have to do it in place, and to do that they will need the shelter of large areas where the natural flows of life still remain intact: areas like the Klamath- Siskiyou.
There is a final value of the wild Klamath-Siskiyou. By learning about our region, living in it, protecting it, and allowing ourselves to be shaped by it, we preserve in our own selves an essential wildness, a connection to the land that we need to be fully human. In the words of the poet and essayist Gary Snyder, “We must consciously fully accept and recognize that this is where we live and grasp the fact that our descendents will be here for millennia to come. Then we must honor this land’s great antiquity–its wildness–learn it–defend it–and work to hand it on to the children (of all beings) of the future with its biodiversity and health intact . . . Home–deeply, spiritually–must be here.”