By Lee Anna Sherman
On June 24, Stan Gregory opened a window into Lookout Creek.
It was HJA Day, the annual field day which this year drew about 150 scientists, students, writers, foresters and community members to witness the exciting ecosystem research that makes H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest one of the crown jewels of the National Science Foundation’s network of long-term ecological research sites.
The OSU biologist had set up a pair of wedge-shaped portable aquariums beside the creek, their front and back glass panels spaced just a few inches apart. They looked almost like double-paned windows with water between the panes. Sun dapples dancing through the canopy made the glass glimmer.
Inside the narrow aquariums, species native to the McKenzie River drainage were moving lazily or watching warily. As visitors clustered in front of the trailside display, Gregory pointed out the fish, amphibians and aquatic insects he had netted from the crystalline waters just that morning: a small cutthroat trout and an even smaller rainbow, some of the “charismatic” species that humans value (as opposed to the humble sculpin, a critical but largely unheralded lynchpin in the food web). A salamander sat on the bottom of its temporary glass house, its gills pulsing rhythmically. There was a stone fly with its scorpion-like hindquarters. And a caddis fly in a gravel casing.
We were entranced. It was as if Gregory was taking us along on a virtual dive into the forest’s cold, fast waters to see the animals and insects he studies during actual dips in mask, snorkel and wetsuit.
For several decades, he has monitored trends in Oregon’s aquatic populations. Not all the news is bad, he said. Some species can evolve quickly to adapt to changing water conditions. And old-growth’s complex, multilayered structure — with its cool carpets of mosses, feathery stands of ferns, snarls of shade-loving oxalis, trembling vine-leaf maple, cathedral-like stands of Doug-fir and hemlock — holds onto the cold air that flows down the timbered slopes after the sun sets, mitigating some of the effects of planetary warming.
Still, he has seen the precipitous slump in salmon runs as spawning fish push upstream through the Columbia and Willamette rivers with their toxic loads of industrial and agricultural pollutants, wear themselves out leaping concrete dams, and swim against the warm, sediment-laden waters of degraded landscapes. “I’m old,” Gregory said at one point. “Maybe it won’t be so bad to die, seeing where things seem to be headed.” He smiled, but there wasn’t much mirth in the look. A few people laughed softly. Those of us who are older knew what he meant.
The students, though, stand at the beginning of their work on Earth. Their faces are smooth and unlined, their hearts beat with possibility. Will they see those trends turn around? Will they be part of the solution? There’s nothing to do but to go forward with hope.