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Matthew Dickerson

The Clear Cut, the Cutthroat, and the Cascade Effect

Everything is connected.

Just off the deck of the small cabin where I am writing, a cutthroat trout lives in a shallow pool beneath the shade of an overcut bank and a canopy of red alder. She makes her home just downstream of a shallow riffle that oxygenates her cool clear water and provides a breeding place for the insects that offer her sustenance. She is a beautiful creature. Her sides are a soft light green with hints of yellow. A splotch of thin watercolor pink brightens her belly, but it is not visible from above. Her back is a darker green mottled with black spots, and this is the side of her seen by kingfishers, otters, and stream bank predators. Or, ideally for her, it is the side not seen as it blends with the gravelly stream bed below her. Like her older, larger, and more famous steelheaded cousins, she has a hint of metallic sheen on her jaws and gill plates. What sets her apart from her relatives is the thin but bright ruby necklace that adorns her throat and gives her species its common name. She wears her bling proudly.

Several days ago, when I arrived at the cabin and discovered the fish, I named her Carol. I have come to care about Carol. Though I cannot see her from the deck of the cabin where I write, I could easily toss a small stone into the pool where she usually lies an inch or so above some sand in the cool shade, waiting for food. There is plenty of food for her so I doubt she ever has to wait long. Shotpouch Creek has one of the richest and most diverse arrays of aquatic insects I have seen in a stream this small. Turning over even a small rock in the current I find mayflies, caddis flies, and stoneflies of several varieties. In the late afternoon and evening, the air around the stream thickens with hatches of these aquatic insects. There are small vivid golden stoneflies called "yellow sallies," awkward and almost prehistoric larger stoneflies with dark green bodies, and mayflies that mistake the blue dew-damp roof of the Honda Odyssey minivan for a stream and attempt to lay their eggs there. There are small crayfish in the stream also. They look like miniature lobsters. And they will make a wonderful and filling gourmet meal for a lovely young cutthroat out on the town in her green gown and ruby necklace.

So when you destroy a salmon stream, you destroy not only the salmon but everything that depends on them.

Two or three times a day I creep down to the water and look at—or for—Carol. She is usually there, until my shadow or some other movement spooks her and she darts upstream toward the concealment of an overhanging branch, or beneath the old submerged log. It is good to know she is there, even if I catch only a quick glimpse of her. When I walk down to look and don't see her, I feel disappointment. I even worry. Despite the incredible abundance of food in the stream, life is dangerous for a seven-inch cutthroat. This shallow stream, though full of food, does not have much deep water in which to hide. The world is full of threats.

A few years ago my older brother and his family moved to Alaska. He moved there for work, when the collapse of the US economy cost him his business and job in North Carolina. It was an indirect chain of events. It might be traced back several steps if one had the mind. The second to last step involved his biggest client, and biggest debtor, declaring bankruptcy and defaulting on several months of pay owed to my brother for work he had already done. It was an economic blow from which recovery was impossible.

I guess you could say, then, that it was economic necessity that forced my brother to uproot from the southern Appalachians and move thousands of miles northwest to the shadow of Mount McKinley. To be honest, moving from North Carolina to Alaska was in most ways not a hardship. My brother and sister-in-law and their two sons have always loved the outdoors. They hike, fish, camp, rock climb, backpack, kayak, canoe, snowshoe, and cross-country ski. And Alaska is replete with opportunities for all these things.

They did have one fear, however. Anchorage was a long way from their friends and closest relatives. A long and very expensive way. "Who is going to come and visit us now?" my brother and sister-in-law asked each other one day, as the reality of their cross-continent move settled in. They pondered that question a few moments, feeling a little discouraged. But not too much time passed before they suddenly looked at each other and answered the question at the same time. "Matthew will."

They were right. In their first five years in Anchorage, I managed to visit them four times. In part because of my brother, I am now doing research on transient killer whale predation on other marine mammals in southeast Alaska in collaboration with a marine biologist from the NOAA and UAA and with another computer scientist at uaa. This is fascinating research for me. This project gives me a chance to put my knowledge about computer modeling toward a project that might give insight into the world in which we live and the way it functions; insight into the intricate chains of influence that link life together. Might the overhunting of gray whales cause the transient killer whales to seek other food such as sea otters, causing a decline in sea otters, and a corresponding overpopulation in sea urchins, the favorite food of sea otters, thus resulting in a dramatic loss in coral as the coral-eating urchins overpopulate? This new research also gives me a chance to incorporate real world ecological modeling problems into the undergraduate environmental studies and computer science curriculums at Middlebury College. This is a real improvement over what are often entirely synthetic examples that instead train students to make more computer games.

Of course the research has also given me opportunity to visit my brother and sister-in-law in Anchorage. And to go backpacking in Chugach State Park with its wild blueberry and cranberry strewn meadows, remote glacial-fed lakes, and peaks that rise from sea level to 10,000 feet over just a dozen or so miles. My research, and the presence of my brother's family in Anchorage, has given me a chance to hike and fish on the famous salmon-filled waters and emerald green lakes of the Kenai Peninsula. It has given me the chance to go sea-kayaking in Kachemak Bay, where I paddle past seals and sea otters and share a small lagoon with six bald eagles and 100,000 pink salmon along with my two oldest sons, my brother and sister-in-law, and two nephews. Hopefully in the future I will share this also with my wife Deborah and my other son.

So where are we? A construction company in North Carolina goes bankrupt, so Middlebury College professor Matthew Dickerson from Vermont—who knows nothing about the construction business—starts doing killer whale research and computer modeling with a pinniped and cetacean biologist at UAA.

My brother's new job in Alaska has kept him more aware of environmental concerns, especially related to global climate change. He frequently passes on to me some of the climate change news in our country's 49th state. And I have become more aware of the issues myself through my visits and my killer whale research, along with the newsletters my brother sends. I have for years been aware of the concept of cascading effects. There is a whole lot more living downstream of us than we imagine.

Take salmon. I am an avid fly fisher, so I read a great deal about trout and salmon. I confess that my passion can at times be anthropocentric, and even self-centric. Still, for years I have had some sense that salmon were not just the object of desire of anglers like myself, but the very lifeblood of the north Pacific. I have long known, for example, that many marine mammals, like seals and resident killer whales, countless birds, including bald eagles, and land animals as large as grizzly bears, are all largely dependent on salmon and their annual migrations. I suppose that is why anglers so often share the salmon streams with the bears. And why, when we do, we carry pepper spray. "Go to Alaska," the saying on the T-shirt reminds us. "There is nothing to fear but fear itself … and the bears."

Take away the salmon, however, and the bears will die.

I have recently learned that the dependencies go much deeper. The cascade effect cascades far longer. It isn't just living salmon and a few big mammals whose fates are intertwined. It's dead salmon, and the eggs of salmon, and … everything. Everything! I don't think that's an exaggeration. All life in Alaska, land and marine, gets back to salmon somehow.

I have read that most of the available nitrogen in the soils of the Pacific Northwest comes from salmon, which bring it inland from the ocean. It comes from dead and rotting salmon that find their way to shore, or from salmon that are eaten and defecated on land. "Does a bear poop in the woods?" the old question asks. The answer is "yes." And when they do, they spread nitrogen that came to them from the ocean in the salmon they ate. In coastal British Columbia, I am told, trees within two miles of a salmon stream can grow twice as fast as those further away. Remove salmon and not just bears suffer, but the trees suffer. And, of course, everything that depends on the trees. The cascade effect.

Dead salmon also drift back downriver and into the ocean. That should be obvious, I suppose. But what is not obvious, and what I only recently learned, is that the rotten salmon flesh actually drifts and is carried by tides some five miles or more out into the ocean. Five miles. Halibut come in closer to shore seasonally in order to feast on dead salmon. So do crabs and a host of other creatures. It is a big annual banquet.

So when you destroy a salmon stream, you destroy not only the salmon but everything that depends on them, from bears and eagles to seals and whales and halibut, to even the trees. That, I suppose, is one reason I and so many others were so concerned about the proposed Pebble Mine, and were thankful this past year when the proposition to allow it was defeated—at least for a time.

But there is an equal threat to salmon, and it has been going on for a long time. The relationship between salmon and trees goes both directions. Clear cuts destroy salmon streams. The roads necessary for the clear-cutting equipment is itself often devastating to local salmon. For, although salmon often start up the large rivers, when it is time to lay their eggs on redds they must eventually find a small stream, often just a few inches deep. Roads, unless made with tremendous care, often block or clog these streams. The logging itself is even worse. "Clear cuts," as the phrase suggests, are complete. They remove all the trees. And in doing so, they remove the greatest natural barrier to erosion. Streams and rivers below clear cuts and carelessly made lumber roads die. They silt over. They shift in dramatic and unnatural ways. The redds disappear. Eggs that silt over do not hatch. Ultimately, the salmon die. And when the salmon die … well, as I noted, everything dies. Salmon are the lifeblood.

I remember driving across Vancouver Island for the first time in the late 1970s, and then flying from there up to northern British Columbia. I remember seeing the massive clear cuts in the Pacific Northwest. Entire mountainsides denuded. Not acres, or tens of acres, or even hundreds of acres, but thousands and tens of thousands of acres laid bare by the chainsaw. Even then, though I was still a teenager, the sight put a lump in my throat and brought me close to tears. I wondered how it was tolerated. I remember also reading that much of the salmon and steelhead fishing on Vancouver Island had been destroyed. The death of these rivers did not result from overfishing, either inland or offshore. It resulted from unmitigated erosion and siltation caused by clear cutting. The salmon simply had no place left to lay their eggs. Even if they could survive the brutal upriver swim, their eggs could not take hold.

I grew up in New England. My first experience with serious logging operations was on a camping, canoeing, and fishing trip in the North Maine Woods on the Allagash River in 1972. I remember seeing swaths of clear-cut hillsides that might have been a hundred to several hundred acres large—a fraction the size of the operations in British Columbia, but still enough to catch my attention. I was too young then to have much sense of how well those operations were managed from an ecological sense. I know that the logging operations in northern New England the previous century were devastating. Entire major rivers were wiped out by the logging-caused erosion and sedimentation, the road-building, the use of waterways to float logs, and even the intentional dumping of oil into small streams to kill black flies that can make a logger's life in northern Maine downright miserable.

I have a sense, however, that by the early 1970s the practices were much healthier. I know that even then there was a two mile buffer around the Allagash River. That was a substantial buffer. And I know also that the terrain on which I saw those large cuts was relatively flat. It was not a terrain particularly given to massive erosion problems. Today it is even better. Vermont, where I live, is a leader in small family farms and logging operations, in selective logging, and in certified sustainable lumber. All the wood in the building where I work, which in the year 2000 was the largest building project in the state, came from certified sustainable sources.

All of this brings me back to the little cabin on Shotpouch Creek, and to Carol, who for a few short years will hopefully dwell in the little pool below the deck. And to all of her cousins upstream and down. Every morning, all week, we have heard the sounds of chainsaws coming from the woods across the street. Often we hear them in stereo. Two saws, at slightly different pitches, revving up in anticipation of the great trunk they will bite into. The stereo droning of the saws is punctuated every ten or fifteen minutes by a frightening loud boom as another of the majestic trees that line the northeast side of the valley crashes down, echoing up the valley and seeming to shake the earth itself.

There is a new clear cut in progress just a hundred yards or so down the road from the cabin. It is not huge. Nothing like the scale of those in British Columbia. Not even quite as large as the cuts in Maine in the early 1970s. Each section of clear cut measures in tens of acres, not tens of thousands. Yet altogether it is substantial. It is mostly conifers that are falling: Douglas fir and western hemlock. But the loggers do not discriminate. It is a clear cut. That means every tree comes down. A large bigleaf maple is felled and lands on the very edge of the road. Its round-lobed leaves, still green, dangle on branches overhead as we pass down the road below the cut. It will take two or three weeks for them to suck the remaining moisture from the thick trunk before they wither to brown.

I stood at the bottom of one of the cuts one morning and watched the work going on. Dismayed as I was by the result—by the ravaging of an entire hillside—I found I was not at all angry with the loggers. Indeed, I was profoundly impressed by their skill. I live on about sixty acres of wooded Vermont hillside and I heat my house with wood. Between ice storms, wind storms, and disease, there are more dead, damaged, and diseased trees on our little plot than I can keep up with. Black birch. Ash. Beech. Maple. Butternut. American hop hornbeam. An occasional hickory or elm. I make regular use of my chainsaw. Though I recognize it is dangerous, as many tools are, and I always carry a certain amount of trepidation when I begin to fell a big tree, by and large I am comfortable with that chainsaw in my hands.

But the two men up on the hill make me feel like a toddler: like nothing more than a pretender at the trade. Taking down huge trees of perhaps double the diameter and height of almost anything I ever cut, while working on a slope so steep it can be difficult just to stand on, they still for the most part fell those trees just where they wanted. And efficient? Amazingly so. They took down more trees in a day than I do in a year, and probably more total tons of wood in a week than I will in my lifetime—in part by using a chainsaw with a blade double the length of mine, and probably double the power. I wouldn't even want to pick up one of their saws. They had worked to learn a craft, and to learn it well.

And at least one of them also gave every indication of being a caring father. Down in a pickup truck watching traffic on the road—making sure that no cars would try to pass while a tree was being felled—was a woman in her late teens. The daughter, it turned out, of one of the lumberjacks. Moments after my friend and co-author Dave and I stopped by her truck to chat, her cell phone rang. We could see her father up the hill calling down to her, and caught a bit of the conversation. He was making sure she was okay. That we were neither local rednecks there to harass an attractive young woman, nor bullying, confrontational anti-logging environmentalists giving her a hard time. The woman, it turned out, was going to be studying at a local university. The father was up risking his life clearing the hillside of its trees to help pay for her education.

Still, my admiration for the skill of these men did not change the way that hillside looked. The clear cut was happening on a very steep slope where there was a break in the ridgeline. It is the sort of place where water will come rushing down adjacent slopes after a rain, and then cascade along the steep bottom of the V-shaped cut toward the stream. The cut comes all the way to the edge of the dirt road that leads to the cabin. Felled trees dangle over the edge of the road. Just below the road, at the bottom of a steep bank, runs Shotpouch Creek. In places, the edge of the cut is almost as close to the creek as my deck is to Carol's little pool. Perhaps twenty yards separates the fallen trees from the stream. And I wonder what will happen to a whole generation of mayflies, caddis flies, stoneflies, and the little cutthroat who eat these insects and lay their eggs on the stream bottom. What will be the impact when that first rain comes and washes down that new clear cut, across the dirt road, and into the stream?

If there is any food in the river, Carol will find it. She is well adapted in so many ways—color and speed and instincts—to hide from predators. And even when she one days feeds a kingfisher, she has a little cousin living in a slightly smaller pool downstream ready to take her place. What she and her population are not well adapted for are chainsaws. I think I'm going to go and check on her right now.

Matthew Dickerson's recent books include The Rood and the Torc (a medieval historical novel), The Gifted (a fantasy novel), and two works of narrative nonfiction about trout and ecology: Downstream: Reflections on Brook Trout, Fly Fishing, and the Waters of Appalachia (co-authored with David O'Hara and published in 2014 by Cascade Press) and Trout in the Desert: on Fly Fishing, Human Habits, and the Cold Waters of the Arid Southwest (forthcoming in the fall of 2015 with Wings Press.) This essay first appeared in Written River, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2015). Used with permission.

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