Trouble in Ecotopia
My little corner of the West—southern Oregon, between the Pacific Ocean and the high Cascades—achieved a brief notoriety during the height of the world’s Cold War anxieties: It was listed as one of the safest places in the United States in the event of nuclear attack.
Distant from population centers and major military installations, and likely spared nuclear fallout borne on the westerly winds, this seemed like a good place to escape the world’s madness. At about that same time, in the 1970s, the wider region stretching from Northern California to British Columbia was re-imagined as “Ecotopia,” by writers and environmental activists.
This has remained a durable image of the Pacific Northwest. We like to think of ourselves as apart, as removed from the social and political frenzies, the soul-crushing sprawl, and the environmental degradation that afflict much of America. It’s true that to retain this vision we have had to switch to stronger and stronger prescriptions for our rose-colored glasses, but on a good day it is still possible to believe that we are somehow beyond the reach of the world’s troubles.
Well, this summer the world came to call. On June 5, the largest piece of debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami to reach American shores washed up on lovely Agate Beach just north of Newport, OR. This floating dock, 65 feet long and weighing over 150 tons, was, in effect, a biological bomb. At least two tons of its weight was made up of the bodies of living plants and animals—more than 90 species and many of them not native to this side of the Pacific. Two of these species set off particularly shrill alarm bells for marine biologists: The North Pacific starfish and Wakame kelp. Both are on the Global Invasive Species Database list of the world’s 100 most dangerous invasive species. They pose a serious threat to the rich and productive ecosystems of our Pacific Coast.
In the days immediately following the arrival of the floating dock, state biologists worked feverishly to scrape down the hulk, burying the removed plants and animals under eight feet of dry sand and then going over the cleaned surface with blowtorches. The state rushed through a contract of over $84,000 to have the dock dismantled and removed overland, to prevent possible further spread of invasive organisms. Only time will tell if these Herculean efforts were successful. A single female North Pacific starfish, for example, can produce 20 million eggs, and the larvae are almost impossible to detect as they disperse in plankton.
Meanwhile, I woke up this weekend to smoky skies hazing the valley. That instant stab of dread—a wildfire in the surrounding mountains? Despite our relatively wet spring and cool summer, fire is always a fear here. Ten years ago, we spent weeks in the smoke of the 500,000-acre Biscuit Fire that burned across the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, 50 miles to the west of us. But a bit of checking on the Internet quickly revealed that this smoke was from much farther West; in fact, it was from Siberia. Some 5,000 miles from my hillside in Oregon, out-of-control forest fires are burning.
The Siberian smoke isn’t thick, although it can make life difficult for people with asthma. Its most obvious effect is that it produces beautiful sunsets. At least that means you can see it—and I, for one, prefer that the pollution I’m exposed to is visible. Most of it, of course, is not. The industrial pollution that now routinely drifts across the Pacific from the factory chimneys of China and India contributes up to 20 percent of the ozone measured at West Coast cities.
Last spring, measurements at the peak of Mount Bachelor, one of the Cascade Mountains’ pristine snow-covered volcanoes, found ozone levels higher than in downtown Los Angeles—carried on the jet stream from China. Other studies have concluded that 20 percent of the mercury in Oregon’s Willamette River comes from the deposition of air pollution originating in Asia.
Today, the winds have changed, and the skies of southern Oregon are again a brilliant blue. The conifer forests are dark green, and the wild Rogue River runs cold and clear. But every breath I take contains some ozone from China, and somewhere out at sea, another hunk of tsunami debris is approaching, bearing invasive species from the other side of the world. We all breathe the same atmosphere, and the waters of one great, interconnected ocean break on all of our shores. This is one planet, after all, and there is no escaping our common troubles, even here in Ecotopia.
Pepper Trail is a biologist and writer in Ashland, Oregon.
This piece originally appeared in High Country News.