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Music and memories of wildfire

Tillamook Forestry Center opens its doors for the tourism season and kicks off with a folk jam

For thousands of years, alongside a wild array of creatures, people have inhabited Oregon's Tillamook Forest, from early Native Americans, the Tillamook and the Kalapuya Indians, to explorers, land surveyors, road builders, homesteaders and loggers.

A tangled mass of moss-dripping Douglas firs, hemlock and cedar trees, the temperate rainforest - stretching 40 miles west of Portland to the Oregon coast - has sometimes been referred to as a 'fairy-tale forest.'

However, life under its canopies has not always ended so happily.

The Tillamook Forest Center, located off the Wilson River Highway (Highway 6), was created in 2006 to commemorate the forest's history and the series of devastating wildfires that blackened its landscape from the 1930s to the 1950s, sparking the largest reforestation project of its kind.

Since its opening, around 200 people a day visit the sustainably-built, indoor and outdoor exhibit. As summer rolls along, the center offers plenty of events to the public including a free music jam in celebration of the forest's historic settlers on the first Sunday of every month at 1 p.m.

'It was created to provide an opportunity for local musicians to bring their instruments and play music,' said Denise Berkshire, program specialist at the Tillamook Forest Center. A small group of folks frequent the exhibit to play bluegrass and country-folk for all those inclined to join.

People of the forest

When settlers arrived in the 1800s, Native Americans fought disease, dislocation and the death of their tribes. Their counterparts weathered harsh journeys and bleak living conditions before surveyors mapped new routes, trails and roads to connect the Willamette Valley and the coast.

A growing settler population drove up demand for timber. Railroads were laid and logging companies moved deeper into the woods, carving a patchwork roads into the countryside to gain access to the forest's rich supply of 'green gold,' leaving in their dust stumps, sawmills and logging camps.

While Eastern investors counted their money, lumberjacks broke their backs by lamplight. As expressed in a Finnish logger's poem in 1890, life as a logger was less than comfortable:

A wretched home, this cheerless camp;

And finer people sneer, make cracks;

'You ruffians, bums, bearded lumberjacks!'

Our wages are the rags we wear,

Our scraps of food no one digests.

Our beds are bunks,

And fleas are our only guests.'

In the summer of 1933, the friction of one logger's load sparked a wildfire that burned until 1951 on four separate occasions. Known as the Tillamook Burn, its flames blackened 555,000 miles of forest, scorched soils, trees and wildlife. The burn killed six people, and left the landscape so scarred it failed to regenerate naturally.

A brutal loss of land, jobs and revenue piled on woes for frontier families struggling in the Great Depression. With the value of landowner's property up in smoke, the 1939 Forest Acquisition Act foreclosed most forest land to the state and U.S. government.

Today, the Tillamook State Forest exists as a result of a monumental reforestation effort undertaken in the '50s and '60s. More than 72 million seeds were planted by volunteers like the Civilian Conservation Corps., South Fork prison inmates, students and school children.

For generations to come, the Oregon Department of Forestry, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, the non-profit Tillamook Forest Heritage Trust and more than 400 individual and business donors, spent 10 years planning the forest center until funding was reached in the 1990s. Its goal? To teach history, the power of wildfire and to celebrate the art of today's sustainable forest management.

At the 13,500-square-foot exhibit, visitors can by walk through time at the center's indoor exhibit and view artifacts, personal stories, photos, film and hands-on models.

Outside, visitors can climb a 40-foot replica of a forest fire lookout tower and walk a 250-foot long suspension bridge from the center across the Wilson River to nearby trailheads. There are guided wildflower walks, mushroom hunts, amphibian finds and tours of a settler's life.

If that's not enough, visitors can watch the award-winning 15-minute film, 'Legacy of Fire,' at the Tillamook Burn Theatre. 'There really is a lot to offer for all types of folks,' said Berkshire.