Rain Forests of the Pacific Northwest

A Web of Life

With so few temperate rain forests in the world, those found in the Pacific Northwest take on a very special role as a valuable ecosystem. The best way for humans to have any real knowledge or appreciation of such rain forests is to visit them, to put on hiking boots and walk softly amongst their quiet happenings, preferably in all seasons.

The magnificent trees suck in that worrisome carbon dioxide, use solar energy to power growth, and throw away oxygen. Lungs breathe easily and safely in the unpolluted air. Trees creak in the gentle wind.

Mushrooms grow under sheltering trees from spores that squirrels and mice have inadvertently planted. Below ground, a mutually beneficial exchange occurs between the entanglement of tree roots and these fungi. High in the forest canopy, lichens pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and drop it as fertilizer. Leaves form cups for holding water. The lush vegetation sparkles with morning dew as sword ferns, sorrel, and rhododendrons edge the trails. Snags open a sun path to new seedlings and offer homes for wildlife.

Stimuli flood the hiker' s senses the majesty of conifers, the sound of water rushing down maidenhair fern lined canyons, the contrasting touch of bark and mosses, the fragrance of a vanilla plant, and the taste of wild thimbleberries.

Humans build cathedrals; nature constructs temperate old-growth rain forests that seem like temples when one walks through them. There is no better place to feel at peace and to connect with the spirit of all life. If a poem can not match the magnificence of a tree, how can we describe the totality of a temperate rain forest?

The Pacific Northwest temperate rain forest is not just trees, but a web of life that supports more than 200 wildlife species and more than 1,500 types of invertebrates. One old-growth tree is home to a hundred different plant species, and these forests bring more breeding birds to the Northwest than to any other part of North America. The northern spotted owl is only an indicator of the forest's health, like the canary that served miners. Remember as you explore, however, that it is easy for wildlife to hide in this forest. Yet, take time for quiet observation and perhaps you'll be lucky, as I was once in these forests, and see a mountain lion strolling down the path. It will no doubt be gone as quickly as retina and brain register its presence, as long as you are quiet and don't panic.

Travelers fly round the world to see an endangered tropical rain forest, but they can easily experience the wonders of the Pacific Northwest old-growth rain forest, with campgrounds nearby. This forest is an easy place to walk, and to stop and ponder thoughts shoved aside in today's fast-paced life.

Because the redwood forest is also a temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest, it will be included. Though restricted to a smaller area, it has many of the same plants and animals, as well as a history associated with similar geological changes. It seems appropriate to begin with the general geology and fossil record.

Geology and the Fossil Record

We know now from the fossil record that redwood, fir, cedar, spruce, and hemlock trees and their ancestors have been around for a very long time. They were part of a major plant community — a diverse number of both needle-leaved and broad-leaved species called the Arcto-Tertiary Geoflora that was prevalent up to 40 million years ago, spanning from today's San Francisco latitude across the northern United States and into Canada and Alaska.

Then, at the beginning of the Oligocene Epoch, the climate began to change, to become cooler with less rain in the summer. Some inland forests were replaced by grasslands. The uplift of the Cascades, coast ranges, and Sierra Nevadas began about 20 million years ago, and these ranges considerably blocked inland rainfall from reaching the Great Plains.

A major natural sculpturing, with profound influence upon the climate and geography of North America, was caused by glaciers that began to appear 2 million years ago. The vast Arcto-Tertiary Geoflora split into distinct communities (with some species replaced or lost), and the broad-leaved trees found preferable habitat in the East while the conifers (including the redwoods) were localized to the north and west areas of North America. The redwood forest is now found only from near San Francisco north to just over the Oregon border. The temperate rain forest extends along the Pacific coastal strip into Alaska.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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