This article was published by Ensia.
January 16, 2018 — The news broadcasts of bright orange flames spilling over forested ridgetops at night were as ghastly as they were inescapable. On September 2, 2017, a wildfire ignited in the Columbia River Gorge about 40 miles east of Portland, Oregon. Quickly, flames spread across the canyon’s south side and ascended the surrounding cliffs, where dry east winds blew them into an inferno. Within three days the Eagle Creek Fire had enveloped more than 20,000 acres and jumped the river to the north rim.
Only a day before, the gorge had seemed a wonder etched in permanence — an ancient temperate rainforest draped across a 15,000-year-old basalt canyon. For millions living nearby, and many tourists from afar, it was a sacred reprieve of unsurpassed natural beauty. Visitors sought solace amid hidden stands of enormous old growth conifers. They gaped in awe as strands of water ended 600-foot free-falls at the feet of sheer cliffs, and hiked to sweeping views of the wide Columbia River. Its most ardent admirers held fast to these images of the place even as the fire gobbled it up.
While the fire’s spread was at its peak, one of those admirers created a Facebook group he originally named “Replant the Columbia River Gorge.” Thousands joined immediately, many shovel-ready to seed a new forest. “Me and some buddies are down to replant some trees as soon as the fire is down,” wrote one member from nearby Beaverton, Oregon. “If you appeal to local media I think you’ll have no shortage of volunteers willing to plant trees and even clear dead timber,” offered another.
It didn’t take long, however, for someone to disagree. “[N]ature does its own thing pretty well,” wrote one group member, arguing that the forest should be allowed to regrow on its own. “Please don’t go rogue and plant your own trees,” The Oregonian pleaded. “It could do more harm than good.”
With smoke still choking its skies, the community plunged into a debate over how it should respond to this profound loss: try to reconstruct the past, or accept a new reality?
Inhabitants of a dynamic world have grappled with this question for eons, but today and in a future where climate change is quickly destabilizing our environments, the changes are becoming more frequent and more consequential. More than ever, policy-makers and land managers are needing to make tough choices about humankind’s role in managing the natural world.