Google Earth, viewshed, and accountability

After I finished grad school, my friend and fellow graduate Larry Alder was nice enough to invite me on a rafting trip down the wild and scenic portion of the Rogue River in Oregon (here’s another story from that same trip). This was a great treat for me, because Larry, in addition to being an excellent aerospace engineer, was also a professional river guide for a whitewater rafting company. We got the royal treatment, rafting through pristine wilderness for three days… long enough to feel that civilization was far far away. When we finally pulled the boats out and started driving home, Larry took us up an obscure and steeply pitched logging road. Just as soon as we crested the ridge, we saw the forest had been completely cut to the ground. It looked like a massive abrasion wound. The contrast was shocking, but the clear-cut area was artfully situated so as to be invisible from nearby highways and especially from the happy tourists of the Wild Rogue Wilderness area. This was an exercise in viewshed management, and it was a public relations masterstroke for the logging industry.

Here’s a Google map of the area I was in. That’s the Rogue running across the bottom right. And those yellow bald patches in the middle are clear-cut regions exactly where I remember them, just out of sight over the ridge. Try switching to the “Terrain” view to see the topography.

My trip was around twenty years ago. It’s interesting to find evidence of the same practice years later, but the obvious difference is that it’s so easy to find the evidence at all. And it’s even clearer to see what I’m talking about with Google Earth:

You don’t have to use Google Earth for more than a few minutes to see that these days a ninth grader could do an impressive quantitative analysis of clear-cut logging in Oregon for a science project. The data’s all there.

Naturally, there’s no need to stop in Oregon. Look at the corrosive effect of roads on forests along the Congo River. I look forward to hearing stories about how companies and governments are being held accountable in new ways by this new evidence. A satellite has the most expansive viewshed of all.

Bubbling Hot Springs

Larry assured me of this: each day on the river, the image of Bubbling Hot Springs got more and more appealing. In addition to being my friend, Larry was an experienced river guide on the wild and scenic part of the Rogue River in Oregon. He was also something of a storyteller, as all river guides seem to be, so as we slowly paddled downstream in the rain-swelled Rogue river one June afternoon, he told me the story of Bubbling Hot Springs.

Working as a river guide is entertaining, but the pay ain’t great, as they say, and it can be a real grind after a few weeks, particularly if you have an unpleasant customer or two. Running a raft through the rapids is one thing, but cooking and cleaning up for a pack of demanding tourists is something else entirely. Of course, what pay there is comes from paying customers, so you do what you can to keep them happy, sometimes even to the point of lending them warm clothes they should have had the sense to bring themselves. You do all that and more, and sometimes the bastards still stiff you on the tip at the end of the trip. As a result both the customers and the river guides, lying awake and cold at night, dripping with river water and rain, dirty and water-wrinkled, they both have good reason to look forward to Bubbling Hot Springs.

If you’re a paying customer, any of the guides will tell you (after some prodding) that one of the joys of rafting the Rogue river wild and scenic wilderness area is the pre-dawn hike to Bubbling Hot Springs. Normally this would occur on the fourth day of the trip, and I can tell you from experience that by the fourth day of the trip, the ice-cold waters of the Rogue have lost some of their charm. The vision of a steaming spring emptying into a natural hot tub is a tempting one.

No customer is expected or even encouraged to go on the hike to Bubbling Hot Springs; it isn’t on the official itinerary so it has to be squeezed in early. It isn’t suitable for the aged, the pregnant, the halt and lame. To make the trek you have to wake up early and hike hard and fast. You have to get up when stars are still just twinkling in the western sky, when the cool river mist is still curling around the reeds, when the birds are tuning their morning songs.

You follow the sure-footed river guides up up up on a short but steep hike during which time few people really have the energy or inclination to talk. The guides are moving fast now in happy anticipation. Scramble over a rock ledge and walk across a small clearing and there it is: Bubbling Hot Springs, bubbling and steaming just like you’d expect. The river guides hop in first without the least hesitation. In with a mighty splash and then they float blissfully up to the surface wearing contented smiles.

And well they might, too, because they’re the only ones who know that the water of Bubbling Hot Springs is only slightly warmer than the frigid Rogue itself. This information tends to become widespread rather quickly. On a bad trip, someone will stick a toe in prematurely and ruin the fun. On a good trip, two or three customers will actually hop in before the comprehension is general. In fact, one or two customers have actually been known to regain their composure as they float to the surface and emerge with a convincing enough smile to induce the rest of the crowd to jump on in. River guides really like people like this.

River guiding is hard work, and the pay ain’t great, as they say. But it has its own rewards, as Larry will tell you. Customers and river guides, lying awake and cold at night, they both have good reason to look forward to Bubbling Hot Springs. It may well be, however, that only the river guides look back on it with the same warmth.