Everyday Activism

How You Can Help Rebuild the Gorge (and Not Make Things Worse)

"If you wanna go fast, go alone; if you wanna go far, go together."

By Kelly Clarke September 7, 2017

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Maegan Jossy can’t stop answering emails. Or answering the phone.

As the outreach manager for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, she’s in charge of requests to volunteer for efforts to rebuild the Gorge in the (eventual) aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire. “Right now, on average, I’m receiving one email a minute,” marvels Jossy, who grew up on a Willamette Valley farm. “It’s overwhelming.”   

Overwhelming—and heartening. One of the constants that has emerged since a gaggle of A Clockwork Orange extras incinerated one of our region’s natural treasures over the weekend is a visceral need to just “help” on the part of locals who see the Gorge as a forested extended family member

Immediate efforts center on caring for families, businesses, and animals displaced by the blaze as well as supporting fire fighters and first responders and donating money to rebuilding efforts. But, already, the focus is broadening to encompass how Portlanders can help heal the Gorge in the months, and years, to come. A Facebook event to "restore the gorge this coming spring” has already been scheduled for Saturday, March 24, 2018. (As of Thursday, September 7, 4,400 people were “going” and 29,000 were interested.) The 1,800-plus member public Facebook Group “Replant the Columbia River Gorge” is similarly brimming with do-gooder energy.

Officials are energized by the overwhelming public response. But forestry insiders like Jossy also need locals to pump the brakes a bit. “We appreciate the desire to get a shovel and start planting trees but there needs to be planning,” she says. “As the saying goes: ‘If you wanna go fast, go alone; if you wanna go far, go together.’" 

Chris Havel, the associate director of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, echoes her message. “Crews are really focused on getting the beast under control right now," says Havel. "We don’t know what is damaged and what’s not yet. Before we say, ‘Here’s the battle plan,’ let’s really understand what the needs are. Volunteers will be crucial in helping the Gorge get back on its feet.”

Havel says a multi-agency group (Forest Service officials, ecologists, nonprofits, and forestry professionals) is just beginning to form in order to assess the damage to the Gorge. Next steps include surveying the land, creating a rebuilding plan, and, eventually, deploying strategic efforts to help the land heal itself—most likely in conjunction with seasoned nonprofits like Trailkeepers of Oregon and Jossy’s Friends of the Columbia Gorge, both groups with decades of experience managing volunteers. 

“We have this image in our head of a forest fire—scraped-out ground with spindly black trees. [In reality] you get that in patches, but other places still look like healthy forest with underbrush cleared out. Nobody knows what the Gorge will look like yet,” says Havel. “It’s a very fertile area and full of life. That’s why we love it. In some patches you may see the scars of this fire for generations [20 years or more]. But with good care and volunteers, some of the more popular areas may bounce back much more quickly.”

For now, Jossy and Havel urge locals to stay out of the Gorge until the smoke clears—citing dead standing trees and eroded trails as hazards—and, instead, sign up for future restoration work with Trailkeepers and Friends of the Columbia Gorge. Tasks may include select replanting, pulling weeds, moving soil to combat erosion, or acting as support staff for crews in the field. “Every moment of anguish now can turn into a day of volunteering down the line,” says Havel.

“The Gorge that we know and love today has been through a lot of changes—it has seen fires, floods, and harsh winters before. And the Gorge bounces back. And people recover with it,” Havel continues. “If there is a silver lining to this fire, it is that it’s a reminder that we’re not just here to use the landscape but help take care of it.”

Can't wait to help? There are plenty of opportunities to safeguard and improve Oregon’s other parks and natural areas:

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