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Tillamook Forest Center

by Grant McOmie

Bio | Email | Follow: @KGWNews

kgw.com

Posted on May 1, 2009 at 1:00 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 2:35 PM

One of the great pleasures about travel across Oregon is that there is an endless supply of fascinating stories waiting to be told.

One of the most intriguing stories was born in the forest just off Portland's front step - the Tillamook State Forest.

That's where four successive and devastating fires - collectively called the Tillamook Burn - destroyed over 400,00 thousand acres of ancient forest in the last century.

WATCH VIDEO VERSION

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You can see and hear and get a real hands-on flavor for that story at a place you may have missed along State Highway 6, the Tillamook Forest Center.

As seasons change, the signs are clear and close at hand - at long last, spring has arrived to the Oregon outdoors!

Recently, I journeyed to experience the early signs of spring in the nearby Tillamook State Forest, about an hour's drive from Portland to reach the sprawling Tillamook Forest Center.

The center's education specialist, Kristin Babbs, joined me for a walk through the stunning $11-million complex that opened two years ago along the banks of the Wilson River.

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As we strolled across the grounds, Kristin noted, "Oh yes, as soon as the warm weather hits, there's just a ton of things to do out on the forest. It's always putting on a show in any season, but right now, this is the peak for our wildflowers - it's just a spectacular show of color."

When you step inside the center, history roars to life - literally!

You are greeted with an invitation to sit and enjoy an 18-minute film titled, "A Legacy of Fire," that was produced for the center and tells the story of the forest's destruction and rebirth.

It is compelling stuff for sure, but the film is only a part of the center's mission to tell the history of the region.

A topographic "land-sat" map also greets visitors inside the timbered hall and gives perspective on how the many fires changed the Tillamook.

"You can't really understand the future until you understand the past and
this forest is rooted in fire. That's our story here."

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It's the story of how four devastating fires in the 1930's, 40's and 50's claimed hundreds of thousands of acres of old growth forest, how thousands of men battled the flames to protect what they could and how an army of volunteers brought the forest back to life.

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Kristin explained to me how many interactive lessons teach the forest's natural and cultural histories.

For example, inside the "Four Corners" exhibit area, you will see and touch what life was like during varied periods of the past 120 years. Photographs, clothing and even household items are right at home at the different vignettes.

"From homesteading to early logging, to railroading and the stagecoach era, the stories are very personal through personal journal entries. It really comes to life in here; even the stove gets hot!"

Kristin added that one of the goals of the Tillamook Forest Center is to find a balance between taking the visitor by the hand and allowing them to find stuff on their own:

"The discovery, of interaction, of playfulness and of learning is something that was core to the whole design process here. We have programs and events and great hands-on activities inside that will help people learn more about the forest and then serve as a gateway to the forest and more exploration."

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When you're ready, you can leave the center's main exhibit hall and climb up into the clouds - in fact, 72 steps up - to the top (40-feet high) of a replica fire lookout tower that is adjacent to the center.

"Not a lot of people get to see a fire tower," noted Kristin. "This is really the only one between Astoria and Florence that you can actually drive up to, get out, climb up and explore."

Back in the 1950's fire lookout towers were common. In fact, 15 of them dotted the high country in Oregon's north coast range. The towers were manned - not by men - but by women looking for a different sort of adventure. They were called "The Cloud Girls."

"Well, it was a lonely job," said Kristin. " But there were a lot of college women who worked in lookout towers in the Tillamook forest at that time. They were basically working all of the time too. I mean, you're in your office, you're in your bedroom, and you're in your kitchen. Each life was lived right here in this small 14x14-foot space."

The fear of fire was constantly there too. Especially in hot, dry summers that kept crews on their toes and their eyes on the sky.

"If they would see smoke, they would use the fire finder to find the area. They would triangulate it, get on the radio, report it in and then the fire crew would come out to put it out."

The fire lookout tower stands at one end of the complex, a spectacular wooden bridge rests at the other - like bookends, with two 200-foot long exhibit halls in between.

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Once I learned my history lessons inside the Tillamook Forest Center, I decided to head out onto a network of nearby trails - many of them with wonderful overlooks to the Wilson River.

In fact, the Wilson River Trail is now a work in progress. So far, crews have completed more than 20 miles of trail that you can access from the center and the nearby Jones Creek Campground.

"You can either walk along the river to the west and have that kind of experience or you can hit the trail on the east side and that takes you into the forest a little bit more...more of a quiet experience that way," noted Kristin.

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The Tillamook Forest Center is a perfect base camp for a day's adventure - or during the summer, a longer stay at the nearby Jones Creek Campground.

"The Tillamook State Forest is a gem," said Kristin. "That's what we want people to remember. Hopefully, they'll come back and enjoy the forest and take it in again and again. Learn something inside - get your curiosity peaked - and take it outside and see what it's all about."

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