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Forests: The good, the bad and the ugly

Stunningly lush Hoh Rain Forest in Washington stands in stark contrast to acres of clear-cut forestland, reporter finds. Photos: A contrasts in forests

PORT ANGELES, Wash.--It's been a day of extremes.

On the one hand, I've encountered some of the most beautiful natural scenery I've ever witnessed. On the other, I've been ankle deep in what might well be the ugliest thing I've ever seen.

I've made my way to northern Washington on my Road Trip 2006 through the Pacific Northwest, and after stopping to see the Arcata Kinetic Lab, Howard Hughes' "Spruce Goose" and several other man-made wonders, I'm now ensconced in natural glory.


So it's disheartening to witness the ugly: miles and miles of forestland clear-cutting. I've driven by on Route 101 in Oregon and Washington state. Often, these cut areas are hidden away or barely visible from the road. But sometimes it's as blatant as can be: acres of land with nearly every bit of tree, plant and topsoil simply ripped away, leaving a barren, destroyed surface that looks like it was hit by a hurricane.

But it wasn't hit by a hurricane. It was hit by loggers, intent on saving time and money in their hurry to log the endless stretches of forests here. And while there is some disagreement about whether clear-cutting has benefits--some say it makes way for nearby, smaller trees to grow since they now are able to get more natural light--there is no doubt that the practice is the aesthetic equivalent of a high-speed train wreck.

Critics say it leaves clear-cut land susceptible to erosion. And that's not good.

On the other hand, though, just minutes past some of the most egregious clear-cutting, I find myself in the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington's Olympic National Park. And in stark contrast to the clear-cut hillsides, I can say confidently that this is one of the most stunning sights I have ever seen.

This is what happens when you combine a perfect storm of beneficial ecological factors: the cool mountain mass that is the Olympic; the Hoh, an ocean-facing valley; the Pacific Ocean itself; prevailing onshore winds; and the protective barrier that is the nearby Cascade mountains.

Road Trip 2006

The result: forest that is nearly dripping with tangible lushness. That is to say, gigantic Sitka Spruce trees that average 220 feet in height, and an uncountable number of maples, Douglas firs, Western Red Cedars, Red Alders and Western Hemlocks--all of which are playing host to more than 100 species of what are called epiphytes, or "air plants."

The park's information panels just call the epiphytes "the upholstery of the rain forest."

That's because at nearly every level, from the ground on up to several hundred feet, is the most brilliantly green, most lush and most mossy plant life imaginable. Indeed, it looks like something straight out of "Lord of the Rings" or "the Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

But it's real, and it's right there for the viewing, and, sometimes, the touching.

In the high crowns of the trees, there are what are called Foliose lichen, in the middle parts, Fruticose lichens. Down in the lower areas, often on the low branches or the trunk, are plentiful club mosses.

One tree may host as many as 40 different species of epiphytes.

And this is all the result of an average yearly rainfall of 142 inches. By comparison, San Francisco gets 21 inches.

And because of the heavy rainfall, in addition to the area's high humidity, deep, well-drained soil and mild temperatures, the trees here are some of the largest in the world.

Which is all to say that walking through the Hoh Rain Forest is one of the most magical, peaceful experiences I've had in a long time. To be sure, there were screaming children to break the reverie, but for the most part, I found myself alone, wandering through the forest, stopping every few feet to stare, awe-struck, at another incredible sight.

It was almost enough to make me forget the ecological disaster waiting for me upon my return to the highway and my journey north. Almost, but not quite.