When I was a child growing up in the American Pacific Northwest, my family would hunt for mushrooms amongst the cedar and fir trees of the forest. We would drive down old dirt roads, pulling off at a promising spot and disappear into the woods. We spent afternoons along the shallows of a river watching salmon fight their way to spawning grounds upstream. These were the icons of the region: forest and salmon, pillars of our collective identity. Yet in returning to photograph the Northwest, I found a region imbued with much history but uncertain future.
The project Sawdust Mountain focuses on the tenuous relationship between industries reliant upon natural resources and the communities they support. Forests of the coastal mountains are now a patchwork of logged clearings and burn piles, young timber and occasional pockets of old growth. Mountains, covered with Douglas fir seedlings barely a foot tall, appear physically smaller in size. These new “working” forests are bred in greenhouses for efficiency and shorter rotations between planting and harvest. The faster trees grow, the quicker they can be harvested and a new crop planted.
Yet with the era of endless big trees a thing of the past, mill-towns and ports that once hummed with activity are a shadow of their former importance. Old machinery and pier pilings recall a time when industry and opportunistic pioneers set their sights on the forest. Homes lie foreclosed and storefronts are closed indefinitely. An eerie quietness pervades these communities as they search for their own refashioned sense of purpose. The lumber mills that do remain are a primary employer for the towns and the main reason for their continued survival. Still, with high unemployment and dwindling populations, many are turning to improvised economies of selling sweaters or salvaging old lumber.
Wild salmon still return to spawn in coastal rivers, but like the old growth forests, their numbers are a tiny fraction of what once were thriving runs. A legacy of over fishing, hydro-electrical dams, and logging near spawning habitat has greatly depleted such runs. In their place are state-run hatcheries where tiny Coho, Chinook, and Steelhead eggs are incubated and released from their concrete holding pens into the river.
The photographs in Sawdust Mountain reflect upon how the specific challenges facing the Northwest stand as a bellwether for a sustainable balance between industry and ecosystem.