Yes, Sometimes Conservation Means Cutting Down Trees
By Shane Reed, KEEN International Sales Support Specialist
I’ve always been the kind of guy who says yes to a new opportunity, even before knowing the details. I have to admit, this has worked out pretty well for me. I mean, there definitely have been some suffer fests, rough experiences, and overall bad ideas, but in the end I’ve always learned from them and often have a great story to tell later.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a level of common sense that needs to be used before blindly committing. I do have limits. But there are so many things I have unexpectedly done, that I never thought I would be able to do. By committing to new things before talking myself out of doing them, I continuously step out of my comfort zone. This has pushed me to re-evaluate my self-expectations and believe in myself more than I ever have.
So, when I received an email out of the blue about a 4-day KEEN volunteer trip in Eastern Oregon, of course I responded yes and asked questions later.
Although I am a (fairly) new resident of Oregon, I like to think I know the state well. My father grew up in Oregon and we frequently made trips here as kids. What amazes me about Oregon is the diversity of ecosystems within the state. When considering Oregon, many probably envision the lush, green, and rainy environment around Portland. The rolling hills, cliff lines, and waterfalls along the Columbia Gorge. Or the rugged coastline pushing against the waves of the Pacific Ocean. However, where we were headed, a large portion of sparsely populated land lying east of the Cascade Mountain Range, is quite the contrary: High Desert.
KEEN HQ to Pine Creek Conservation Area
On a Tuesday morning, our team of 12 headed out from Portland to make the 3.5-hour trek east to the Pine Creek Conservation Area. When we arrived on site, the views were amazing. The rolling desert hills were broken up by massive rock formations, looking like the landscape was smiling with a mouth full of missing teeth.
We set up camp along Robinson Creek – a tributary for Pine Creek. We were greeted by a beautiful night, in which the clouds seemed to part all around us, leaving us with blue(ish) skies and a great atmosphere to build camaraderie. One of the ancillary benefits to a trip like this is getting to know your fellow co-workers on a deeper level. Although KEEN is a relatively small company, many of us work in different departments and don’t always get the chance to interact on more than a “hello, good morning” basis. On this trip, we were ecstatic to have two people join from KEEN’s footwear production facility on Swan Island in Portland. And heck, we even had KEEN’s CFO along for the fun. In a true KEEN fashion, with jobs and departments aside, our team came together naturally to build a firepit, start a fire, and cook up a wonderful dinner to fuel us for the work ahead.
When standing around the fire, I couldn’t help but to finally ask “What will we be doing the next couple of days?” The answer was one that surprised me. Ben, our trip leader from the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), explained that we would be cutting down trees. I nodded as he described our work, but in my head, I questioned why we would be cutting down trees and not planting trees. When have you ever heard an Earth warrior advocating for the removal of trees? Of course, my scientific brain needed to understand why we were doing this – and how it was beneficial for this unique ecosystem.
The answer: HYDROLOGY, the branch of science concerned with the properties of the earth's water, and its movement in relation to land.
A single Western Juniper tree with an 18-inch diameter base can use 30-40 gallons of water per day on hot summer days.
Oregon’s high desert is emblematic of Western Juniper, a native tree species that is prominent in Central and Eastern Oregon and can be found shooting up from the sagebrush like shabby green rockets. Western Junipers thrive in the arid climate and extreme temperatures of the region, which has led to a tenfold increase in the area’s juniper density since the late 1800s. In many places, this would be an accomplishment. The proliferation of trees leads to increased wildlife habitats, cleaner air and stabilized soil. However, in Oregon’s high desert climate, the encroachment of junipers has had a significant impact on the region's water cycle – its hydrology.
According to studies done by Oregon State University, a single Western Juniper tree with an 18-inch diameter base can use up to 20 gallons of water per day on warm spring days, and 30-40 gallons of water per day on hot summer days. Because of this, ranchers and ecologists alike have seen watersheds, streams, natural springs and creeks completely drying up in Oregon’s high desert. With less rain, warmer temperatures and stronger storms each year, these waterways and riparian areas have become even more essential to the desert’s health.
Rejuvenating a Riparian Zone
Our task for this trip was to thin and remove a large population of Western Juniper trees up the Cove Creek Canyon, a key watershed feeding Pine Creek. Driving into Cove Creek Canyon, I couldn’t help but wonder, where the heck is the creek? The basin of the canyon had completely run dry. However, walking through the floor of the valley, the ground and dying deciduous bushes showed signs that this was once a thriving riparian area.
The KEEN team, including Shane in red, puts their tools into action for full days of sawing and lopping.
Our team headed out to the worksite for our initial training and received our tools. Fear not, long unused gym membership, this would be no easy task, given that we only had hand saws and loppers. We swiftly navigated the sagebrush basin, dropping trees at a pace that seemed like a tornado rolled through. At this rate, we’d cover the ground we needed in a day. But someone should have told us that this was a marathon, not a sprint. By lunch, our arms were tired, and our knees were sore, this chopping-down-trees thing was no joke. Luckily, the weather was good to us for the most part. At night, we regularly fell asleep to the sound of raindrops on the outside of our tents. But by morning, the clouds began to clear, and the sun persuaded us to shed our extra layers.
After our first long day of work, we hiked up Cove Creek to see historic Native American pictographs along the canyon walls. While hiking further up the canyon, we couldn’t help but notice the sky turning black, and the winds beginning to shift. Within a half hour, a storm moved in and the rain began to pour. We sopped our way across the landscape and back to our vehicles, turning our KEEN boots into bricks of mud along the way.
We arrived back at camp, to find our canopy had been blown over, and all our camping chairs, tables, and kitchen gear was soaking wet. This didn’t dampen our spirits though (pun intended). We started a nice fire, cooked up a pot of KEEN Kanteen Chicken curry, played games and shared stories in the rain.
The high desert really did exceed my expectations, and I feel fortunate to work for a company that stands up to protect it.
How will our work impact the hydrology in this region? That is yet to be seen. Looking up and down Cove Canyon after our days of work was impactful, but it still left me yearning for more. Where once stood dense, dark green canopies of juniper, we only saw the blueish hue of the sagebrush below. But the ground was still dry. I had to realize that this project would not provide instant gratification for our efforts, a concept that is always hard for my impatient mind to accept. Science and research show that juniper thinning in this region has significant impacts on the revitalization of groundwater and the restoration of surface flow water levels. However, this change doesn’t just happen overnight. It could take months and even years for these effects to be seen. This is a good lesson in patience for me, and I look forward to revisiting the area in the future. Not only to take in the tranquility of this remote region, but to also see the results of our efforts.
These four days of work, adventure and connection seemed to pass quicker than the storms that lied within them. However, as we were driving back West of the Cascades, one thing was for sure, our work in the high desert did not come unrewarded. The weather was unprecedently cooperative, friendships were made, and we walked away with a greater appreciation for what was once just sagebrush-covered hillsides. So, add this one to the list as another epic adventure. The high desert really did exceed my expectations, and I feel fortunate to work for a company that stands up to protect it.
Looking for a High Desert Adventure?
Oregon’s high desert is known for many things, here are a few to get the stoke flowing:
If you are interested in volunteering for, donating to, or learning more about the Oregon Natural Desert Association, visit onda.org