I have been swapping email notes with Society of American Foresters editor, Steve Wilent, for years. Mainly we commiserate about the unending string of political defeats that have held federal forestry hostage for decades. I am probably more cynical than he, mainly because I’ve been “at it” longer. How much longer I don’t know, but I have been a working journalist for 55 years, long enough to have developed a respectable nose for news and good trap-line.
Guys like me never run out of story-lines, so when Steve asked if I’d like to write something for this month’s Commentary, the only questions I asked were how many words, and what’s my deadline. “May 15 and 1,200 words,” he replied. “Done.” I said.
I took time out from writing for money in the early 70s, after discovering that you could starve to death between paychecks. So, I hung out my public relations shingle and made a killing for about 12 years. Life was good.
I’d probably still be at it if a friend hadn’t asked me to help the Board of Directors of the old Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association think through a strategy for addressing the first decadal forest plans the Forest Service developed. The story is too long to tell here, but in June 1986 we published the first edition of Evergreen Magazine.
I’m still here 32 years later, though there are mornings when I ask myself why. The job doesn’t pay me a dime, and hasn’t for years, but being Evergreen’s founder has opened some very large doors, so I have no complaints.
I know most of the West’s lumbermen, many personally, which is its own reward. I admire their work ethic, creativity, and devotion to their communities more than words can say. I try nonetheless, partly out of my own sense of duty, but more recently because my gut tells me that we who have been wandering through forestry’s bloody battlefields for decades are on the cusp of a significant breakthrough.
It is this breakthrough moment, on the trailing edge of the Spotted Owl Wars, that had me jump at Steve’s invitation to write this month’s Commentary. The stars in our forestry universe are beginning to line up, and I sure as hell don’t want to miss the show.
What I see – and maybe you see it too – is a convergence of political, economic, environmental and technological forces so strong that no opposing power source can reverse them. Here I reference the never-thought-possible three-minutes-to- midnight coming together of lumbermen and conservationists who, when finally confronted with the visible reality of the ecological collapse in the West’s National Forests, concluded that they needed to find a way to bridge the philosophical and cultural divides that have distanced them from one another since Congress ratified the Wilderness Act in 1964.
The way forward turned out to be nothing new at all. Folks in New England call them “Town Hall meetings.” Here in the Interior West we call the process “forest collaboration.” The goal is the same: bring diverse groups of people together to find solutions to commonly shared problems. The problem here being a wildfire crisis fueled by possibly billions of dead and dying trees that are the product of misguided federal forest policies that I trace to the Clarke-McNary Act.
Ratified in June of 1924, Clarke-McNary put the Forest Service in the firefighting business alongside privately-funded firefighting cooperatives that quickly formed in Idaho, Oregon and Washington following the 1902 Yacolt Burn, a 239,000-acre conflagration that burned across northwest Oregon and southwest Washington.
But it was the three million-acre 1910 Fire – and Gifford Pinchot’s subsequent and very pubic temper tantrum – that forced congressional action, first in the form of the 1911 Weeks Act, and then the 1924 Clarke-McNary Act.
What no one knew for the next 90 years was that it isn’t possible to stuff the Wildfire Genie back in her bottle. Like it or not, we must learn to live with her. I think it was Earl Wilcox, a BIA forester in eastern Washington in the 1950s, who first told us that we needed to learn how to get along with the Wildfire Genie. We chose not to see what Earl saw: too damned many trees for the carrying capacity of the land.
Worse, we compounded our problems by not paying enough attention to society’s felt necessities. Steve has a copy of an essay I’m writing about issues and events that shape and reshape society’s shifting values and priorities. At 9,000 words, I’m about half done. I think it vital that Congress better understand the quagmires we create for ourselves chasing our country’s meandering and often conflicting perceptions and misperceptions and from one generation to the next.
The take home message here, which fits neatly within the collaborative framework, is that the coming together of lumbermen and conservationists has opened the door to the formation of at least 75 and possibly 100 collaborative groups in the Interior West. The work they are doing with the Forest Service has, in turn, inspired federal and state legislative action that will increase both the pace and scale of forest restoration work in collapsing National Forests.
I think Congress sees forest collaboration as its get-out-of-jail free card. Rockwellian images of citizen stakeholders divining democratic solutions at forestry’s great impasses have lots of elected folks doing the happy dance.
But restoration congers up many visions, some useful, some not. To me, it means restoring natural resiliency, so forests can right themselves when insects, diseases and drought strike. Thinning and prescribed fire are the safest, most reliable tools for maintaining resiliency in our region’s mixed-conifer, dry-site forests.
Add in Paul Hessburg’s big ideas about herding mega-fires across landscapes that need help before we can possibly get there, and our forestry stars are in close alignment. He calls this herding “managed fire.”
Paul is a world-class landscape ecologist with the Forest Service’s Wenatchee, Washington experimental station. He has been studying fire-dependent forests for nearly 40 years. Even so, the first time he described managed fire to me, I thought he was nuts.
Now, nearly a year after Paul and I talked – having had time to reconsider the damned mess we’ve created, and our sad lack of manpower and money – I have reluctantly concluded that Paul is right. Where we can safely herd big fires, we should let them do the housecleaning work we can’t possibly finish in the 20 rescue years Paul figures we have before time runs out.
Blessed technology gets us over the last hurdle – pushes the stars in our forestry universe into near-perfect alignment. The force is a new product called Cross-Laminated-Timber. So much has already been written about the wonders of CLT and its veneer version – Mass Plywood Panels – that there isn’t much more to be said here, except to emphasize the fact that CLT and MPP are made from small diameter trees – the very trees that are choking the life out of our National Forests.
Only two technological innovations rival their significance: computerized sawmills, a Fred Sohn triumph of nearly 60 years ago; and high strain band mills, perfected by Aaron Jones in the 1960s. I knew and admired both men. It is also my honor to know those who are doing the heavy lifting now. I think of them as outriders for the angels.