The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Since Robert Frost penned these words in the summer of 1915, people have argued about what they mean. No doubt we all wonder whether the decision we are making now is the best one. When it comes to managing forest land, the decisions we make can have consequences lasting for decades or centuries. Our family is just now taking personal ownership of a property here in the Willamette Valley foothills, and have some decisions to make. The native Americans who lived here for thousands of years would, the evidence shows, routinely burn the land to promote their hunter/gatherer lifestyle. This allowed camas to grow, which provided food, and the open grassy slopes afforded productive hunting of game. In the mid 1800’s, when Kathy’s grandmother’s grandfather arrived, and settled here, they farmed the flatter ground, and grazed animals on the open slopes. When her grandmother was a child, in the early 1900’s, this south-facing property was mostly open grassy slopes, with scattered Douglas fir, Grand fir, Incense cedar Madrone, and Ponderosa pine, and the remaining slopes dominated by Oregon White Oak and grassland. We know this, because some of those hundreds-of-years old trees are still there. By the 1930’s the last of the family had left the property, sheep grazing was stopped, and it was largely left alone until about 1990. Since then, we have done thinning, and four “patch” cuts of 5 to 10 acres, including one 6-acre restoration to an “Oak Woodland” that we imagine may have been there historically. It is now largely forested with Douglas fir and Incense Cedar, about 70-80 years in age. In these last 30 years, we have tried to understand the land, the climate, the plants and animals that are there, and the history, while looking to the future. What kind of place should we plan for this to be? We decide with every action we take. Still, Frost’s words haunt me.
In 1905, about the time Kathy’s grandmother was running around these grassy slopes as a child, the country formed a new agency called the United States Forest Service, and named Gifford Pinchot as Chief Forester. Pinchot famously promoted the utilitarian principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number” as his management philosophy, adding “in the long run”, to emphasize the long-term importance of management decisions. For better or worse, whether you agree with this idea or not, we can see the results in our National Forests today. Some things about our National Forests I really appreciate (camping at a Forest Service campground at Big Lake), others I don’t (cross-country skiing there on a snow-machine trail). I was thinking about these things, sitting with my back to the beautiful stone fireplace in the Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, Washington, looking out at the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. What would he think about this lodge, his namesake forest, and the decisions we, who call this place home, have made? Is it really possible to make “utilitarian” decisions about a forest? How do we best understand our place in the forest? How can we tell our children and grandchildren how we decided to cut trees, or make a park within them? I guess, with Frost, we tell them with a sigh.