More than 120 people turned out on Sunday for a memorial service to honor a stand of old growth trees cut down last May at Oregon State University’s McDonald-Dunn Research Forest.
Dressed in parkas and puffy coats, the somber crowd packed into a large covered picnic shelter at Willamette Park in South Corvallis to sing songs, listen to poems and mourn the passing of a grove that has become a symbol for changing public attitudes toward the university’s forest lands.
“Death has called us together,” intoned the Rev. Jill McAllister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis. “The death of majestic trees, the death of parts of a small local ecosystem, and the death of some of our trust and some of our hope.”
The “No Vacancy” clear-cut took down 16 acres of trees, many of them more than 200 years old and one believed to have been at least 420 years of age. The action sparked an outcry from members of the community who felt OSU should be managing its research forests to protect environmental values instead of logging old-growth trees to generate revenue.
Anthony Davis, interim dean of the OSU College of Forestry, called the clear-cut an accident and declared a moratorium on cutting any trees more than 160 years old while the college completes a new management plan for its 10 research forests, which cover 15,000 acres around the state.
The largest of those is the 11,250-acre McDonald-Dunn north of Corvallis, which not only serves the college’s research, education and demonstration mission but also receives more than 150,000 recreational visits each year.
Some critics have cited the “No Vacancy” harvest as evidence that the college is not fit to take over management of the Elliott State Forest, a 91,000-acre tract near Coos Bay, as proposed by the State Land Board.
Sunday’s memorial service, sponsored by the Friends of OSU Old Growth and OSU’s Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word, showed how deeply upsetting the clear-cut has been to many members of the Corvallis community and others around the state.
Oregon poet laureate Kim Stafford read two of his poems, including one that highlighted the climate crisis and asked what kind of future humanity would choose.
Norm Johnson, a retired College of Forestry faculty member and one of the architects of the Northwest Forest Plan, led a group reading of W.S. Merwin’s “Unchopping a Tree.”
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And Spring Creek co-founder Kathleen Dean Moore delivered an impassioned reading of an essay titled “The Terrible Silence of the Sky,” which contrasts the life an an old growth forest with the devastation of a clear-cut and asks what kind of world we will leave to future generations.
At the end of the 45-minute service, audience members left flowers on the altar, made from a polished round of wood cut from the oldest tree in the “No Vacancy” grove. The tree’s growth rings were plainly visible, with paper labels pointing to the dates of historic events that occurred during the Douglas fir’s long life, such as the Revolutionary War and the founding of OSU.
After the service, Friends of OSU Old Growth founder Doug Pollock said the group has collected more than 1,300 signatures on its petition to preserve the remaining old growth trees on the university’s forest lands and is taking steps to become a full-fledged nonprofit organization.
“We want to broaden our base of support and get a little more formalized,” he said.
Pollock added that the group is working on its own proposed management plan for OSU’s research forests and will continue to push for more public involvement in the college’s planning process. And he said he has a meeting scheduled later this month with Gov. Kate Brown’s chief of staff to discuss the issue.
“That’s a sign for me that we’ve got some interest there,” he said. “I’m just going to keep trying to advocate and try to get some positive change.”
Johnson, looking around at the audience members chatting after the memorial service ended, said public outrage over the clear-cut has not died down and seems to have taken on a life of its own.
“It’s kind of an uncontrollable force,” he said.
“I hope this does bring about change — and that the college will lead it.”