The Dinosaurs of the Elliott State Forest

I was a 16-year-old member of the last graduating class from Blue Mountain School when I first met Bob Zybach through my mother, who was working with him on a project about early Coos County history.

Jim Petersen -
6 MINUTE READ
The Dinosaurs of the Elliott State Forest

Editor’s Note: McKenzie Peters has been working with Bob Zybach on his Oregon Watersheds and Websites project since 2012. Most recently, she has helped Zybach film an interview with David Gould and Jerry Phillips, two “dinosaurs” who know the history of the Elliott State Forests better than anyone. We asked her to tell us the story of her involvement in her own words. This is it – and it’s a delightful read.

The Elliott is easily one of the most productive timber growing forests on earth, but it is currently embroiled in a nasty controversy rooted in politically driven harvest declines dictated by environmentalists and the State Board of Forestry. Counter suits by county school districts that have lost funding are also on deck.

We profiled Zybach’s voluminous research in two recent essays profiling his Master’s thesis and his PhD dissertation. More can be found in our three Carl Stoltenberg essays.

McKenzie Peters

For the past five years I have been working as an oral historian, field research assistant, and documentary videographer with a focus on the Elliott State Forest.

In 2008 I was a 16-year-old member of the last graduating class from Blue Mountain School, a rural charter school six miles upriver from the closest town, Cottage Grove, Oregon. About that time, I first met Bob Zybach through my mother who was working with him on a project about early Coos County history.

Bob Zybach in photo taken by Jim Petersen in the early 1990s. Bob was then working on his Master’s thesis at Oregon State University.

Bob Zybach in photo taken by Jim Petersen in the early 1990s. Bob was then working on his Master’s thesis at Oregon State University.

I started working part-time with Bob in 2012 after my mom moved to Washington State. My first project was as a “human scale” photography model to show the relative diameter and height of the dangerous street trees in Cottage Grove for an article he was writing for the local newspaper. Since then, I have moved from human scale to office and field research assistant, and then videographer for the ORWWmedia YouTube channel.

While working with Bob my principal job assignments have included data entry on Excel files, scanning historical documents for archival storage, transcribing and auditing oral histories, and as a field research assistant documenting wildflowers and wildfires.

In 2017 the focus of our work changed to the Elliott State Forest, when Bob began a series of oral history recordings with a number of local experts. My job was to transcribe, audit and format these recordings so they could be indexed for storage at Oregon State University Archives. In this manner I first heard many of the voices of the Elliott, as represented by such individuals as Wayne Giesy, Roger Ott, Lionel Youst, David Gould and Jerry Phillips.

In early 2018, using the oral histories as a guide, we began scouting field trips on the Elliott for Tasha Livingstone’s Southwestern Oregon Community College F251 Forest Recreation class. In all, we developed six four-hour trips that were used by her 2018 and 2019 spring-term classes.

In March 2020 the coronavirus pandemic changed everything, and I began videotaping the field trips and classroom lectures as “distance learning” exercises. All public facilities were shut down and due to “social distancing” guidelines, we began recreating the field trips with David or Bob driving and me videotaping them and Jerry at designated stops for posting on YouTube for the students.

THE BOX OF DINOSAURS

The Elliott oral history interviews took place in an Oregon Department of State Land (DSL) vehicle operated by DSL employees while Bob interviewed Jerry and David at the different stops. While I was transcribing the December 2017 interview, I learned that this arrangement was jokingly referred to as the DSL employees being “trapped in a box with some dinosaurs.” This made me laugh – especially when I found myself in a similar situation while videotaping the field trips. They were dinosaurs all right, but non-threatening and mostly happy ones.

While working on the Elliott the past few years I have had the pleasure of meeting and listening to a number of the most knowledgeable and experienced foresters, historians and forest scientists I have ever known. I have greatly enjoyed helping to preserve their thoughts and works and have gained incredible insights while listening to, and recording, their stories of the Elliott.

One of my first assignments on the Elliott was digitizing Jerry’s 435-page history of the Forest that he spent seven years writing about after his retirement in 1989. This was the basis of the oral histories that followed and were then developed into the field trips for Tasha’s classes. The oral history recordings totaled more than 25 hours and the resulting transcriptions were more than 900 pages long. So I thought I knew him pretty well.

When I met Jerry in person for the first time – and knowing he had been a forester on the Elliott for 38 years and as its long-time successful manager, I expected a hardened, gruff individual, tough as nails and tall – like Sam Elliott, but maybe a bit sterner and more reserved. Instead, I was greeted by one of the kindest and most thoughtful people I have ever met. Also, he was clean shaven and a lot shorter than the movie star.

There are always a lot of smiles and laughs when Jerry tells his stories of working on the Elliott, the process of buying and selling the timber there, the stories of the people he met and worked with, and the history of logging and logging roads. Learning with him is always fun. Jerry’s attachment to the Elliott is widely recognized and why the Forests’ remaining stand of old-growth is named in his honor: the Jerry Phillips Reserve.

McKenzie Peters filming an interview with David Gould and Jerry Phillips

McKenzie Peters filming an interview with David Gould and Jerry Phillips

While Jerry is the recognized expert on the history and management of the Elliott, David Gould is its heart and soul. His great-grandparents first homesteaded the land in the 1880s and his beloved grandfather was raised there. Meeting David and being able to hear him tell this story of his family and to hear the admiration and respect he has for the Elliott was an incredible and rewarding experience on many levels for me. The way he speaks of the forest and his family home and history — I got to personally hear this deep love and emotional attachment and soon developed my own.

For many years David has single-handedly – and out of his own pocket – worked filling the potholes, washboards, and water ruts of the Elliott’s many rock roads. This tireless effort and his many personal stories have given me a new appreciation for the forest, its roads and even history itself. His only reward is knowing that he is keeping the forest safe, open and in good condition for others; people like myself, the local college students and their families – and especially for the children – to enjoy.

LESSONS LEARNED

When I graduated from Blue Mountain School and began looking for employment, my views on forest management and logging practices and their impacts on native wildlife were similar to those of my classmates and neighbors: clearcutting was ugly to look at and bad for the wild animals.

After beginning work for Bob my understanding began to change. From him I learned how to conduct and organize research on fires; how to recognize and document wildflowers and landscapes, and the different edible and native plants of the Willamette Valley.

In traveling and discussing the trees and woods with him, Jerry, David and others I have also learned the importance of active forest management, tree age and growth cycles, the need for logging, road maintenance, recreation, fish habitat and the significance of Native American trails and forest history.

This has all led me to believe that it is important to share these stories and insights with others before they are lost to time. We have expanded the audiences for this information by putting it on educational websites such as Oregon Websites & Watersheds Project, Inc. (ORWW.org), posting on Facebook, YouTube videos, radio interviews, and traditional magazine and newspaper articles and editorials.

In these manners, and including student field trips, classroom lectures, and archival storage, thousands of people are receiving this information by a wide variety of methods and media. I have also noticed that we are helping to educate people outside the realm of forestry on topics such as wildfires and logging and their importance with preserving the beauty and sustaining the future of our forests.

WHAT’S NEXT

Ever since I was a little girl, I have always wanted to be a Park Ranger. The great thing about my experiences of the past several years, is that I never stop learning about things that I am most interested in. Whether I continue forward as an oral historian, a documentary photographer or by producing educational videotapes, my intent is to continue working in the forest and environments that I love. If I can combine these skills and somehow become a Park Ranger someday as well, then that would be the dream.