Thursday, November 30, 2023

Forest Road NF-1500-150, Larch Mountain

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Back during the height of pandemic-related social distancing, I had a sort of mini-project going to try to find places where I could get outside and go for a hike or at least a walk without encountering any other human beings, and -- ideally -- doing this without having to drive for hours and hours first. At one point I realized that old logging roads were great for this, because they usually don't go anywhere very interesting (so there isn't much to attract crowds), and they stay open and navigable without a lot of foot traffic (due to densely packed soil left over from the logging days). A side benefit to this is that you aren't fighting your way through brush all the time, which is nice during the height of tick and poison oak season. Ok, sure, having no-grow zones snaking through your forest and persisting for decades is on the whole bad for the environment, but... well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

That brings us to the subject of today's adventure, an obscure Forest Service road named NF 1500-150, which is one of several obscure Forest Service roads that branch off to the south from Larch Mtn. Road on its way to the summit. I had moderate hopes for this one, as in, it might at least have a decent view given its location near the top of the mountain. The National Scenic Area boundary -- which largely tracks Larch Mountain Road in this area, actually jogs south and west a bit more just to incorporate the land around road 1500-150. I had never heard of this being an interesting place, but it seemed at least possible that it might be a hidden gem waiting to be rediscovered. That occasionally works, so I figured I had to check it out. But no such luck this time. It's a short stroll through a dense young-ish replanted forest, along what is obviously an old logging road. And then it just gets to the end of the old clear cut and stops, and all you can do is turn around and go back. There aren't even any side trails to explore.

Maybe they figured nobody would object to this area being inside the boundary, since it had just been logged and adding it to the Scenic Area would pad out the total acreage without impacting the timber industry significantly. I don't know whether there was once a nice view looking west to Portland at the time, but if so they didn't add it to the Scenic Area's list of specific protected views and the forest has since grown back enough that there's nothing much to see here while strolling through the forest.

I couldn't find any info online about the old clearcut operation. The Forest Service has a vast amount of GIS data online including all sorts of really esoteric stuff, but if they have any public records online about historical timber sales I have yet to come across it. It's not something I would need on a daily basis but it would've come in handy here. I did find an alternative, though: This company sells hardcopy aerial photos taken over the last century or so, and to shop for what you need they have online maps with heavily watermarked versions of these images. So looking at historical photos of this spot gives us a rough timeline for what happened here:

  1. 1953: No clearcut. If anything, the forest looked older and taller than the surrounding area.
  2. 1973: The initial phase of the clearcut was visible, which was a square-ish area maybe halfway down the road. Evidently they started in the center and cut outward from there. I don't know whether this is a common pattern with clearcuts, or something specific to this place.
  3. 1981: They expanded the cut to the south by this point.
  4. 1993: After 1981, the cut expanded further, this time to the north and to the sides. I assume all of that happened prior to the present-day National Scenic Area being created in 1986, since that generally prohibits logging, at least where anyone might see it. Maybe this place was grandfathered in as a cut already in progress. In any case you can see kind of a donut pattern as the early pre-1973 cut area had already filled back in a bit.
  5. 2020: At this point the forest has grown back a lot, though most trees are still shorter than surrounding forest, and it still doesn't resemble a natural forest.

The road branches off at an altitude of nearly 3200', and descends to about 3070', around 800 feet below the summit but still higher than any of the surrounding hills nearby, so I think the clearcuts would've been very visible while it was happening. Maybe the clearcuts were enough of an eyesore that they added the cut area to the Scenic Area boundary just to make sure it wouldn't happen again. Meaning it contributes to the Scenic Area by being scenic from a distance, not because it's a scenic place to visit and see close up. That's my current theory, anyway; if anyone really needs an answer to this, you might need to check the Congressional Record, and the searchable online form of it only goes back to 1995 or so, so instead you'll need to find a library that has it in traditional hardcopy form covering the mid-1980s. (There are limited records going back further, so you can find stuff like subcommittee hearing summaries, indicating who testified but not what they said. Which is a start, I guess.) And if that approach doesn't pan out, maybe try calling or writing to people who were Congressional staffers or lobbyists back then and see if anyone remembers. I've switched to second-person here because I'm not quite curious enough to try that myself. I really, really dislike cold-calling people on the phone, for one thing.

An unfortunate thing about the area is the way it was replanted. Evidently nobody told the logging companies that the land here would be protected for forever after once they were done logging it, so the replanting was done in the usual densely packed mono-crop style, like a Christmas tree farm instead of something a bit more natural. And maybe it's just me, but I think tree farms are inherently creepy. They're a kind of liminal space, positioned in a hazy spot somewhere along the civilization vs wilderness boundary, and subtle enough that you may not realize what felt wrong about the place until later. It somehow feels like an urban exploration environment, but one made entirely of trees, if that makes any sense. I gather this is a common feeling around the New Jersey Pinelands, driven by both fact and fiction. Ok, you probably won't stumble into a mob whacking here and suddenly have to go into witness protection or whatever, and there's no science to back up the idea that a place can just have inherently "bad vibes", if you can even define that. But the place still just felt off somehow, and I didn't feel like sticking around long to figure out why.