Evidence of our ability to transform the earth on a colossal scale is found throughout the forests within the Pacific Northwest – where vast stands of old-growth trees once blanketed the area. Today, the landscape is covered by a patchwork of routinely harvested young monoculture forests. By exploring resource extraction, preserved ancient forests and the wildland urban interface, The Missing Forest aims to challenge moral and ecological values inherent in governing the natural world.

Forests within the coastal mountain ranges in Oregon and Washington have been radically altered following the westward expansion of European colonization beginning in the late 19th century. Approximately 72% of original forests have been degraded, largely through logging and other developments.1 On average, 65% of these forests (18.9 million acres, an area nearly the size of South Carolina) were considered old-growth forests,2 containing trees over 200 years old. These ancient giants were as tall as thirty story buildings, up to fifteen feet in diameter and were growing before Columbus arrived.2 A fraction of these forests contained trees over 1,000-years-old. Beginning in the 1930s, 40% of old-growth forests remained3 – by 2012, less than 21% remained (6 million acres, about the size of New Hampshire).4

The majority of these forests were clear-cut, a process of harvesting timber where whole stands of trees are uniformly felled. This process is regarded as safe and economical but is viewed as a shocking display of resource extraction where the forest appears destroyed rather than harvested.2

In the late 20th century, conservation efforts preserved much of the remaining old-growth forests and helped coerce the timber industry to adopt sustainable harvesting practices. Of these remaining high biomass forest stands, roughly 20% are strictly protected from future harvest.3 Outside these protected areas, the loss of 200-year-old forests continued – between 1993 and 2012, these forests were lost at a rate of 1.7% on federally managed lands and 24.2% on other lands. While the majority of determinable losses on federal land were explained by wildfire, timber harvest was the primary reason for losses on non-federal lands.4

Today, evidence of this vast landscape transformation remains in the form of giant stumps, often found within planted stands of young trees. Many of these ancient stumps are marred by the process in which they were harvested; to improve efficiency with milling and cutting (these turn-of-the-century stumps were cut with axes and handsaws), loggers elevated themselves above the swollen buttresses of these giant trees by cutting notches into their sides and placing a springboard (a wooden plank) into the notches on which they would stand.

Clear-cutting remains the predominant method of timber harvesting in the Pacific Northwest and is effectively analyzed through satellite imagery. This imagery is used to determine annual gains and losses along with the age of individual stands. Data analyzed by the U.S. Forest Service was integral in locating stands of trees which likely contained ancient stumps. In addition, images from the E.S.A. Sentinel-2 satellites were used to illustrate timber harvests across the landscape over time.

To further illustrate this transformation, I photographed giant stumps and the younger forest that surrounds them. I illuminated these stumps with artificial light, rendering the surrounding forest in darkness. This enhanced the contrast between the ancient stumps and the younger forest while emphasizing their ecological distance. Outside the forest, I photographed stumps in clearcuts and dry lake beds. Using similar lighting techniques, I combined illustrated trunks into these photographs. I created these artificial trunks with image editing software, utilizing measurements taken in the field to convey the size of the physical tree that was removed. These trunks appear to glow against the darkened background, casting light onto the stumps below, alluding to the forest that used to exist.

While searching for these giant stumps, I explored several ancient forests where I found walking through a stand of enormous trees to be a profoundly meaningful experience. Having grown up in the Chihuahuan desert of Southeastern New Mexico, where trees rarely survive outside the built environment, I found myself particularly sensitive to the destruction of these ancient forests. I questioned the morality of cutting down a 1,000-year-old living organism and reducing it to a commodity. I fantasized about these colossal trees that were once prolific across the landscape and I longed for this missing forest. I began to examine my relationship with consumption and my impact on the environment through extraction industries. Furthermore, I found myself questioning our obligation, as a species, to live in harmony with the natural world. I sought to illustrate this growing discomfort by emphasizing the divergence between tree, trunk and stump. I used a remote-controlled laser which rotated along a single axis to draw a line across the trunks of trees. These lines represent the location where a saw blade might split the trunk, creating a separation between living organism and lumber.

As I sought to comprehend the scale at which these ancient forests were altered, I photographed expansive clear-cuts from elevated view points (often from within clear-cuts themselves). These harvests signify the divergence between nature and commodity; whereas an environmentalist might see the destruction of a complex biodiverse ecosystem a timber professional might see the transformation of a stagnant landscape into economic activity. The reality of these photographs is they reflect our own desires – a growing demand for forest products. The appetite of the United States has steadily increased from a record low of 13 billion cubic feet of lumber in 2009 to 17 billion cubic feet in 2017 (record highs were over 20 billion cubic feet as recently as 2005).5 Despite this demand, the timber industry is often accused of being callous or shortsighted, when in reality, it is an industry that must plan decades into the future.2 With the decline of old-growth forests open to harvest, the industry has no choice but to implement sustainable harvesting practices. Meanwhile, 75,000 acres of timberland are lost to urban development each year, where the land is typically not replanted but is often, in part, paved over.2

Faced with this reality, we find ourselves at the precipice of what may be our greatest challenge, human-caused global warming, a phenomenon exacerbated by deforestation. As nature holds us accountable, old-growth forests may be a key to our preservation. Scientists have found that large, older trees not only act as carbon reservoirs but actively sequester large amounts of carbon compared to smaller trees.6

Photographs throughout this project were captured with a digital camera limited to the infrared spectrum of light (in the 850+ nanometer wavelength). Infrared light is monochromatic by nature and conforms to black and white when the color data is removed. The infrared spectrum strongly reflects light from foliage which brightens the scene within the forest and adds contrast to the landscape. Infrared photography was especially advantageous for photographing clearcuts where it greatly enhanced the boundaries between older (darker) and younger (brighter) stands of trees.

  • 1. Strittholt, J. R., DellaSala, D. A. & Jiang, H. Status of mature and old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Conserv. Biol. 20, 363–374 (2006).
  • 2. Dietrich, W. The Final Forest: The Battle for the Last Great Trees of the Pacific Northwest. 304 (Penguin Books, 1993).
  • 3. Krankina, O. N., DellaSala, D. A., Leonard, J. & Yatskov, M. High-biomass forests of the Pacific Northwest: who manages them and how much is protected? Environ. Manage. 54, 112–121 (2014).
  • 4. Davis, R. J. et al. Northwest Forest Plan–the first 20 years (1994-2013): status and trends of late-successional and old-growth forests. (2015) doi:10.2737/PNW-GTR-911.