“Welcome To the Neighborhood! Now leave.” (2007)
Let me assure you I am not a malcontent. In fact, I'm normally a pretty cheery guy, but of late I have begun to fret quietly about a matter of great concern to me. It is the cultural divide – dare I say chasm – that now distances the rural America where I live from the urban America where most of the country lives.
27 MINUTE READ
A Speech by James D. Petersen
Executive Director, the Evergreen Foundation
The Second Ballyshannon Fund Forum
Sponsored by the Ballyshannon Fund
Piedmont Virginia Community College
Main Building Auditorium, October 11, 2007
Good evening. It’s nice to be here in such a beautiful part of the world. As you’ve heard I am the executive director of the non-profit Evergreen Foundation and the publisher of Evergreen Magazine. Because most of my writing and speaking involves forestry and logging, many believe I am a graduate forester or perhaps a logging engineer, but I am neither. I am a writer by profession. I have a Liberal Arts degree from the University of Idaho with majors in journalism and broadcasting.
The Evergreen Foundation mission is both simple and transparent: we exist to help advance public understanding and support for science-based forestry and forest policy. To this end, we publish Evergreen Magazine, a periodic journal designed to keep Foundation members and others abreast of issues and events that impact forestry, forest communities and the forest products industry. In this endeavor I am blessed to have a Rolodex that includes the names of many of the world’s most respected forest scientists. They are the real intellectual horsepower behind our work.
The story of Evergreen’s founding is much too long to tell in the time we have together this evening, but I do want to say that I considered myself blessed to have had the opportunity to use whatever talent I may possess in defense of my culture and my heritage, for I am the son, grandson and grand nephew of loggers, hard rock miners, cattle ranchers, sawmill workers, dam builders, commercial fishermen and ditch diggers.
If you take nothing else away from my presentation the evening, remember this: there is not a job or a product on the face of the earth that is not the result of he harvest or extraction of a natural resource and its conversion to a finished product. Not one.
The title of my presentation this evening reveals a bit about my state of mind at the moment – but don’t read too much into it before you’ve heard what I have to say. My title is: “Welcome to the neighborhood, now leave.”
Let me assure you I am not a malcontent. In fact, I’m normally a pretty cheery guy, but of late I have begun to fret quietly about a matter of great concern to me. It is the cultural divide – dare I say chasm – that now distances the rural America where I live from the urban America where most of the country lives.
I would not know much about this divide were it not for the fact that my own neighborhood – the Flathead Valley in beautiful northwest Montana – has being overrun by ex-urbanites who’ve come to live in our midst.
I can hardly blame them for wanting to live where I live. It is one of the most beautiful parts of our country. It is only 45 minutes from our house to the entrance of Glacier National Park, only 90 minutes to Spotted Bear, the entrance to the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness, and only five minutes to sparkling Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, carved by advancing glaciers a brief 10,000 years ago. Who wouldn’t want to live in our neighborhood?
If I sound a bit like a Chamber of Commerce commercial, it is because Montana has been a big part of my life. The Albertson half of my heritage immigrated to southern Colorado to Southwest Montana more than a hundred years ago. My grandfather was a cattle rancher. My mother’s first teaching job was in a one-room schoolhouse in Virginia City, just up the street from the Bale of Hay Saloon, where she played piano on weekends, but that is a story for another time.
Montana is a Populist state with conservative leanings. We still curse the long dead robber barons of the nineteenth century – mostly mining magnates who made hundreds of millions of dollars in the Butte copper mines in the era before income tax. By controlling our state’s newspapers they controlled our state’s legislature. But no more: now our state legislature is a more accurate reflection of political values held by voters living in the districts they represent. Many remain conservative. Others are quite liberal. Many are more moderate than they once were.
But one thing about us remains pretty much the same as it’s been in my lifetime. We are still largely colorblind – a fact that comes as a great surprise to many people, particularly easterners who think Indian raids are still common in Montana. We are colorblind because in a state that still has less than a million people in it, there are too few of us to fight about it. Besides, we need every job and taxpayer we have. Imagine living in a state where it is still possible to drive a two-lane highway all night and never see another set of headlights.
It was this way in the Flathead Valley when I arrived in 1967, but no more. In fact, the change that has swept over our valley in the last decade is difficult to put into words. So difficult in fact that I’ve been forced to devise a short monologue that humors some and makes others think me a cynic, which I hope I am not. To do my monologue I’ll need a prop and, with her permission, I’ll use Mary Jane King.
“Now Mary Jane, just because we like you, and only because we like you, we would be willing to sell you a building lot this evening, and this evening only, on Big Mountain at the north end of our valley. It’s a lovely ski area and has become very popular with lots of movers and shakers, including the Hollywood set.”
“Now Mary Jane, please understand that this is a building lot, not acreage. It’s a nice size lot with wonderful views, but we don’t want to leave you with the impression that we’re selling you half of Montana for this price.”
“Now, again, because we like you and think you’d fit into our neighborhood, we’re willing to give you this lot tonight and tonight only for the low, low price of only one point five million dollars. Now, we presume you have your checkbook with you and can pay cash, because if you hesitate it’s likely the 20 or so folks standing behind you in this line with their checkbooks open will trample you.”
“Now of course you’ll want to come out and see your lot just as soon as possible. And by all means bring your architect because we’ll want to talk with him about the kind of home we want you to build. We’re surely hoping you won’t be building one of those two or three-million-dollar economy homes.”
“Now Mary Jane, if you’re like many of your new neighbors you’ll be arriving by private jet. Our Edwards Jet Center is very nice. But we surely hope you’ll be jetting in on a Gulfstream Five or maybe even a Falcon 50, because if its one of those crappy little Lear jets we’ll have to park it in the hayfield at the far end of the ramp to make room for our better customers. We hope you understand.”
Here, I exaggerate a bit for its intended effect, but I do not exaggerate when I tell you that on any given summer weekend you will find as many private jets parked at our Glacier International Airport than you will find parked in Palm Desert, California. To put this in its proper perspective, these folks probably spent more money on jet fuel getting to the Flathead than our average valley wager earner makes in a year.
Our new neighbors come from Hollywood, the Silicon Valley and Wall Street. They give meaning to a phrase I’m sure you’ve heard said in jest: “The billionaires are running the millionaires out.”
Big Sky Journal LLC, a Bozeman, Montana outfit publishes two gorgeous lifestyle magazines that are mere reflections of what we are becoming. Big Sky Journal honors our state’s immense natural beauty. Its finely illustrated features cover topics ranging from Indian pottery to cowboy artistry and fly fishing, always with a generous helping of our state’s rich and colorful history. Big Sky Home is new and is a monument to mountain living and architectural design.
My cattle rancher grandfather should see this. He’d be immensely amused by what the well appointed ranch house contains today: fine oil paintings, bronzes that cost more than our house cost, wine cellars that hold thousands of bottles gathered from all over the world, leather couches so expensive you wouldn’t want anyone to sit on them, hand sewn and hand died western blankets, hand made lamps featuring wildlife fashioned from ornate wrought-iron, huge buffalo, beaver and bear rugs [does anyone actually walk on these?], massive stone fireplaces that tower two or three stories over the main floor and – everywhere – hand hewn log homes the size of small hotels crafted from old growth timber that is now only available in Canada.
My grandfather would also be astonished by the real estate ads that grace these two magazines. Folks from Hollywood, the Silicon Valley and Wall Street think nothing of slapping down $10 million for a 900-acre ranch with views of the Rockies. I shutter to think what a friend’s place in central Montana would be worth. He owns 300 sections. For those who do not know how big that is, it’s 192,000 acres. In simpler term, 300 square miles of the finest winter wheat range in the West.
Near Bozeman, Tim Blixeth, who made his billions in Oregon timber, is developing the Yellowstone Club. If you are a Wall Street Journal reader you’ve seen the Club’s full page ads in the Friday real estate section. Blixeth is building a $130 million spec house there that will have its own tram leading from the living room to the top of the Club’s member-only ski slopes.
On Flathead Lake, which we can see from our back deck, lake-frontage now sells for $20,000 a front foot – meaning a 100-foot lot will cost you $2 million – more if it has a view of the Rockies, which rise on the eastern rim of our valley. On the off chance that you want to move in right away, we have very nice spec homes on the market in the $20 million range. On one of our lake’s many islands one of our new neighbors is building a home that I would conservatively say is somewhere north of 40,000 square feet, not counting the guest quarters, which are easily twice the size of our home. Both structures will have copper roofs on them when they are finished. I do not know what the power source is but rumor has it a mile of electrical cable was laid in the bottom of the lake.
Home values in the Flathead are rocketing through the sky, so while the rest of the country has a case of the sub-prime lending blues our home building industry is enjoying an unprecedented boom. So what’s to complain about? Well, it depends on who you talk to, but the litany goes something like this:
“We are losing all of our farmland and with it a great deal of bird and wildlife habitat.” And this is true.
“We are losing our way of life, our heritage in farming and sawmilling.” And this is true too.
“We are losing our quality of life.” Yes, we are.
“We have all the drug problems they have in big cities.” Yes, we do.
“We never used to lock our house and we always kept the keys in the car.” So did I; but not anymore.
“We’ve lost most of our family-wage jobs. All that’s left are low paying service sector jobs.” This is true.
“With all the new people our social services budgets are skyrocketing and so are my taxes.” So are mine.
“All of the things that made this valley such a beautiful place are disappearing before my very eyes.” Yes, they are.
“Can’t we do anything to stop this?” No, we can’t. Change is inevitable and we have to make the best of it.
In describing what is happening in the Flathead Valley have I also described what is happening here in the Charlottesville area and throughout rural Virginia? Then we have much to talk about.
What is happening here and in the Flathead Valley is also happening in northern Arizona, in southern Oregon, around Lake Tahoe in northern California, on the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington, on the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, in the Ozarks and Appalachians, on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, here in Virginia where my son lives and works, even in the dingy little northern Idaho mining town where I grew up and where, tonight, you can buy a nice two bedroom condominium at the base of the tramway leading to the Silver Mountain ski area for a mere $800,000. Let me assure you my whole neighborhood – three blocks distant from the tramway - wasn’t worth $800,000!
People living in our nation’s great urban centers want what we have and are clearly willing to pay big bucks to get it. And they are moving to our neighborhoods in record numbers. Not since the gold rushes at Virginia City and Bannock, has Montana witnessed such an onrush of people in such a short period of time. It is mind-numbing to say the very least.
In tiny unincorporated Bigfork where I live it is not possible to find a place to park on either of our two streets from July 4 through Labor Day weekend. It is a godsend for our art galleries, jewelry stores, real estate offices, restaurants and t-shirt shops for whom the summer season is a make or break proposition; but for the rest of us summer has become one long nightmare. Most of us simply avoid going downtown for six to eight weeks.
Our home sits on an 80-acre plateau overlooking Flathead Lake. I’m told it was homesteaded in the 1880s. When we bought our home seven years ago ours was one of about a dozen homes on the overlook. Since we moved in, 31 more homes and five multi family dwellings have been constructed in our neighborhood. Three building lots remain. When they are sold what was once a field plowed with horses will be gone – and where those horses plowed magnificent ponderosa pines once stood. I know this because we blessed to have three of them still shading our back deck.
We are indeed in danger of losing the very things that have made the Flathead Valley such a special place, though I hasten to add that those who jet in from their other homes in other states or countries aren’t experiencing this heartbreak. They live behind iron gates and have commercial kitchens and their own chefs, housekeepers, maids and gardeners. They have no idea what is going on in the valley below – and wouldn’t care if they did. They are here because the Flathead is on destination’s “A” list at the moment. Once we slip a notch or two they’ll be gone.
To be honest, these folks aren’t much of a problem for the rest of us. We don’t see them and we don’t know them. But they are a convenient metaphor for what is happening in the valley below – where drugs, traffic, crime, poor wages, soaring taxes, urban sprawl and a declining quality of life are problems the rest of us must confront and solve.
Our drama plays itself out on in the Letters to the Editor section of our daily newspaper. Folks who’ve been here for a long time are heartsick and wonder when or if they will awaken from their long nightmare. Many fear they will lose their homes to soaring property taxes. Some already have. Folks who are new to the Flathead Valley decry the loss of farmland, which is the most visible sign of the urban onrush we are facing. They wonder – out loud sometimes - if, now that they’re here, the gate can’t be closed so no one else can get in and spoil what we have. No, it can’t.
One subdivision north of Kalispell, our largest community, will have 3,000 homes in it when it is completed. You do the math. That’s about 9,500 new people in a town of 17,000. And there are two more subdivisions of similar size on the drawing board. Where farmers plowed fields not too many years ago, pavers are now blacktopping some of the richest top soil in our state.
Every major big box store in the country has come here. What do they know that the rest of us don’t know? Or what might we know that they don’t know? In the 40 years that I’ve been around the Flathead I’ve witnessed two boom and bust cycles. People literally walked out of their houses, got in their cars and drove away, never to return.
What are our new neighbors doing to earn a living? No one seems to know the whole answer to this question, but clearly the folks who come and go in their own jets and live behind iron gates no longer need to work.
We do have some light industry in our valley, but my guess is that many – like me - aren’t dependent on our state’s historic boom and bust economic cycles. We are telecommuters. We make our living on laptops linked to the Internet. Some of us are writers. Others are stockbrokers or consultants. We even have a couple of Fox News military analysts in our midst. Whatever we telecommuters do, there are now enough of us in the Flathead to support six airlines: Delta, Alaska, United, Northwest, U.S. Air and Big Sky, an intrepid commuter those of us who fly frequently fondly call “Big Scare.”
We also have a retiree population here, though I suspect it is not as large as many people think. Flathead winters can be harsh. Most folks I know who are older don’t like shoveling snow much less driving in it. So I suspect most of our retirees are long time residents who can’t afford to move to sunnier environs for the winter. They sit home, collect their Social Security and clip coupons.
As for the rest of the onslaught, my guess is most of them work at least two service jobs to make ends meet. They wait tables in restaurants, make beds in motels, hustle cocktails in bars, work in our burgeoning fast food industry or at Wal-Mart, Lowes, Home Depot, Borders, Bed Bath and Beyond, or any of our jillion cell phone stores or drive up coffee windows, Starbucks included. Like everyone else, they are here for the scenery – which isn’t what it once was.
I could go on, but won’t. You get the picture.
The question I bring before you this evening is what can any of us do about what is happening in our rural communities? How do we cope with our new neighbors whose views and values are so very different than our own? How can we collectively protect what we have so that there will be something left to share with the next generation?
At the risk of oversimplification, I think it is time for rural America to start a long overdue conversation with the rest of the country – and the best, easiest and cheapest place to start this conversation is with our new neighbors. Most of them want the same things we want – otherwise they wouldn’t be here - and most of them now share our worries about the loss of social, cultural, historic and natural amenities we treasure.
In fact, some of our new neighbors have already become front line spokespersons in the battle to “save” what’s left from the onrushing hordes. That’s the good news. The bad news is that many of these well meaning folks don’t know what they’re talking about – and that’s not their fault. It’s ours. We are the ones who need to share our history and culture, we are the ones who need to say what we know is true about our farms and forests, about our wild places and our wild creatures.
I am reminded of wisdoms shared with me a few years back by Alston Chase and Alan Houston. Some of you may know Dr. Chase by reputation. He wrote a fascinating book titled “Playing God in Yellowstone,” in which he exposed the philosophical underpinnings of the radical environmental movement now living in our midst. I interviewed Chase for a cover story in Evergreen Magazine in the September 1990. Among the quite remarkable observations he shared with me was this statement:
“Environmentalism increasingly reflects urban perspectives. As people move to cities, they become infatuated with fantasies of land untouched by humans. This demographic shift is revealed through ongoing debates about endangered species, grazing, water rights, private property, mining and logging. And it is partly a healthy trend. But this urbanization of environmental values also signals the loss of a rural way of life and the disappearance of hands on experience with nature. So the irony: as popular concern for preservation increases, public understanding about how to achieve it declines.”
In the 17 years since I interviewed Dr. Chase, the demographic shift that had people moving to cities has reversed course. Now many of them are moving to rural environs in pursuit of the same fantasies Chase referenced in our discussion.
If you’ve not read “Playing God in Yellowstone,” I recommend that you do so. Only then will you begin to understand how vital it is for rural Americans to reach out to their new neighbors. Here is what Chase said when I asked him about the take home message in his book:
“The lesson in ‘Playing God’ is that there is no such thing as leaving nature alone. People are part of Creation. We do not have the option of choosing not to be stewards of the land. We must master the art and science of good stewardship. Environmentalists do not understand that the only way to preserve nature is to manage nature.”
This from a man with impeccable environmental credentials, the holder of three doctoral degrees including philosophy and literature, a man who was hired to write a book extolling the wonderful work environmentalists had done in Yellowstone National Park. But in the course of his research Chase came face to face with a different reality, with the fact that modern day environmentalism had nearly destroyed Yellowstone. Few in his position would have had the courage to tell the truth – but he did, and now we know that environmentalism – like all great causes - has its dark side.
I mentioned my old friend Alan Houston a few moments ago. Alan has a PhD in wildlife biology. He runs the habitat conservation program on the Ames Plantation in middle Tennessee. We were out walking the Cumberland Plateau one crisp fall morning in 1996 when he turned to me suddenly and said something so memorable I can repeat it verbatim to this day.
He said, “When we leave forests to nature, as so many people seem to want to do, we get whatever Nature serves up, which can be pretty devastating at times, but with forestry we have options, and a degree of predictability not found in nature.”
Over the last 20 years the Evergreen Foundation has been a national leader in the so-called “forest health debate.” In fact, some say the forest health concept was invented on Evergreen pages. This isn’t true. Forest health became a topic of conversation in the early 1950s when a few sharp-eyed foresters first noticed subtle changes in the species composition of mixed conifer forests in the Interior West. Fire-resistant species, like ponderosa pine and western larch were giving way to thinner-barked shade tolerant trees species like white fir.
It took more than 30 years for the problem to become so obvious that it could not be ignored, which was about the time we produced the first in a series of eight Evergreen reports in which we sought to explain why these great forests were dying and burning in wildfires far larger and far more destructive than anything for which we could find evidence in the west’s natural history.
I call the forest health crisis to your attention because it has fostered a good deal of polling and focus group work – some of it designed by us. What is most interesting and hopeful about this work is its result. In major urban centers from coast to coast public support for the kind of forest thinning that would reduce the risk of catastrophic fire runs well above 80 percent. And when asked to name the forest values they thought were most important, focus group respondents consistently named four: Clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of year-round recreation opportunity
If these results aren’t a conversation starter, I don’t know what is. But how do we get this conversation started? Do we invite our new neighbors over for a glass of wine or do we stage a town hall meeting or engage them in conversation after church? Probably all of these and more; what’s most important is that we get the conversation started; then sustain it long enough to learn something from one another. How can we possibly move forward together if we can’t find common ground – a set of common values and goals that bring together the sum of our facts and our fears.
Fortunately, meeting the new neighbors isn’t difficult for me. Although I certainly lament the passing of natural beauty in parts of our valley, I tell them Montana is still a big place, still high, wide and handsome, with plenty of room to grow. But we need to make sure that we grow the right way, and that is going to take planning on an order and a scale never before seen in the Flathead. It will not be easy because in some quarters of our valley planning – otherwise known as zoning and regulation – is thought to be a communist plot. Elsewhere, folks think nothing of trampling on the other guy’s property rights.
One of the reasons I enjoy meeting our new neighbors is that we share the same forest values – clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of year round recreation opportunity. But what I know that many of them do not know is that good science and common sense can deliver all of these amenities in abundance. We use the pages of Evergreen to translate complex peer-reviewed science into plain English, and we show the visible results of applied science in pictures that tell a before and after story.
Although I’m not a forester, I’ve made it my business to learn all I can about forestry. Imagine my astonishment when, nearly 20 years ago, I discovered there are government-funded experimental forests in the United States that date back to the early 1900s. One, the Fort Valley Experimental Station near Flagstaff, Arizona, just celebrated its 100th birthday. Here, amid tall ponderosa pines, it is possible to see the very revealing results of thinning and prescribed fire – fires that are intentionally set to clear away forest debris and control insect and disease populations.
It is also possible to see what happens when forests are not thinned and fire is absent. In these thickets – which are sometimes so dense walking is not possible - you can find ponderosas a hundred years old with trunks no bigger around than your forearm. Deprived of moisture, soil nutrients and sunlight these trees are destined to die and burn in stand replacing fires that kill everything in sight, including the grand old ponderosas that often grow hidden in their midst.
These experimental forests – and the very visible research they display – are very important teaching tools for me. Many of my new neighbors aren’t sure they trust this thing called forestry. They are inclined to believe that timber harvesting in our country’s forests is still an unregulated, willy-nilly activity. They’re always relieved when I tell them that both timber harvesting and reforestation have been well regulated since the early 1940s. In the West’s major timber producing states - Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho and Montana - harvesting and replanting success are carefully and closely regulated by state and federal agencies. This is as it should be in a modern-day industrial society. And the reason why regulation is necessary goes well beyond the esoteric. 80 percent of all municipal water consumed in the West comes from forests.
About 70 percent of all forest land in the West is federally owned – meaning that you and I own it together with about 300 million of our best friends. As you might imagine, finding common ground as to its manner of management has never been easy. After World War II the West’s national forests provided about 15 percent of the nation’s softwood timber harvest, used mainly in home construction. But this historic trend came to a screeching halt after the northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species in 1992. The program has shrunk by some 90 percent and is probably headed toward zero, which is fine with environmental groups that oppose timber harvesting.
The slow motion collapse of the federal timber sale program began around 1990. It devastated hundreds of small rural western communities. Many have never recovered. Feelings run deep and hard in these towns – and with good reason; the widely held belief that loggers were laying waste to the last of the West’s great forests isn’t true.
While I mourn the loss of more than 50,000 family-wage timber jobs, there isn’t a thing I or anyone else can do about it. My focus now is on doing all I can to convince my new neighbors that rescuing the West’s great forests from the ravages of fire and disease is a worthy endeavor for all of us who live in forests – those whose livelihoods depend on their productivity and those who love them for their great natural beauty.
The polling and focus group work I described a few moments ago offers reason for hope that the west’s wildfire crisis is the common ground on which we will discuss and debate the future management options for forests that are the cornerstone of our lifestyle and the magnet that continues to bring new neighbors to our communities. Plainly stated, Americans do not like wildfire or its aftermath. Even the most obtuse among us seem to understand that the amenities we find most enjoyable – clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of year round recreation opportunity - are not readily available amid thousands of acres of black sticks. Even worse, stand-replacing wildfires, which are now the norm across much of the West, often incinerate the organic layer from which plants and trees draw their nutrients. It can take hundreds of years for this layer to rebuild itself. Only then can forests re-establish themselves. Most of us find this time frame unacceptable. Moreover, we’re not particularly fond of the dense, choking smoke that lays low in our valleys in the summer. For most of August we drove around with our headlights on all day long. Outside activities – boating, hiking, golf and bicycling – were virtually impossible.
We thus turn our hopeful eyes toward the benefits of thinning in at risk federal forests. According to the Forest Service, we have about 140 million acres in Condition Class 2 and 3 – meaning these forests are ready to burn or soon will be. The multiple benefits of thinning are well documented in science. It is the scale at which thinning will occur that is being contested across the west. Some, like me, want to see thinning work done on physical scales large enough to be ecologically and economically meaningful. But others who fear and distrust industry want the work done on scales that are too small to invite capital investment in wood processing infrastructure. Those in this camp would rather see taxpayers fund the thinning work, which would include burying the logs or burning them. That the billions of tons of debris collected would also produce billions of tons of carbon-laden smoke is not a problem for people who hate capitalism more than they love the environment.
I long ago decided to ignore these malcontents and to instead focus my time and energy on neighbors who are more open-minded and more solution-driven. Frankly, we see great opportunity in rescuing our forests from catastrophic fire.
Imagine for a moment how wonderful it would be to be able to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in forests we love while also reducing the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels. The key lies in perfecting technologies that can transform these thinnings and other woody biomass into cellulose-based bio-fuels and bio-products: clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of year round recreation opportunity while also reducing the nation’s dependence on oil imported from countries that like our money but not us.
The goodness and beauty of structurally superior, carbon-dioxide absorbing, oxygen producing cellulous – grown by the free non-polluting energy of the sun – is an idea that excites me to my core.
Frankly, I am not sure where all of this is headed yet. The family-owned sawmills that were for decades on the frontlines in this battle have given up on trying to deal with the federal government. They’ve secured new, more reliable sources of logs – including imports from other countries – and no longer have much interest in the dialogue. It’s hard to blame them given the losses they’ve suffered since the early 1990s. We’ve also lost a good deal of the intellectual capacity that was at the forefront for so many years after the Second World War. More recently, we’ve also lost some of the wood processing infrastructure we will need to supply fiber to the bio-fuels industry we envision. But if the opportunities return so will the investment capital.
Meanwhile, we are laying up new intellectual capital in our conversations with our new neighbors. At times the work is exhilarating – and at other times it is exhausting, if not downright discouraging. When I need to bolster my own spirits I dig into the boxes of letters we’ve received from Evergreen readers over the last 20-some years, or I thumb through the pages of memorable interviews. I’ve learned so much:
This from my old friend Tom Bonnicksen, PhD forest ecologist, author and former naturalist with the National Park Service:
“The proposed ban on timber harvesting in federal forests – however well intended – chases an unachievable ideal. It says that if we leave forests alone the result will be a more natural landscape. But reality presents a much different picture. Our forests are byproducts of 12,000 years of dominance by Native Americans, mainly through their use of fire. Removing human influences – by imposing a harvest ban in national forests – would have horrendous impacts on native forests and species. Many early and mid-succession plant and animal communities would be lost, creating very unnatural landscapes, a significant decline in biological diversity and a significant increase in the size and frequency of wildfires, resulting in further losses to native forests.”
Or this, from Bob Lee, a friend and PhD sociologist, biologist and author who teaches at the University of Washington:
“Preserving and maintaining this nation’s cultural diversity is as important to the survival of America as is preserving and maintaining biological diversity. What we are preserving in rural farm and timber communities is people, not abstractions or symbols, but real people who embody basic values which are fundamental to our nation’s history and its traditions.”
Or this from Dr. Robert Buckman, professor emeritus at Oregon State University, former Director of Research for the U.S. Forest Service and past president of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations:
“Conservationists need to consider a broader range of land management options. There is currently a significant bias favoring old-growth related research. It is undermining our more complete understanding of how the pieces of nature fit together. For every old-growth related research project, there should be companion research involving young and middle-aged forests. Biological diversity is the sum of all ecological processes, not just those we can observe in old-growth forests.”
Or this from Dr. Bill Libby, a world-renowned forest geneticist and professor emeritus from the University of California at Berkeley:
“Plantation forestry saves more endangered species in a month than most American conservationists save in their lifetimes. As federal logging in the Pacific Northwest is slowed to a virtual standstill, species extinction in tropical forests has accelerated at a thunderous rate. Is saving the spotted owl and the marbled murrelet worth the loss of eight to ten thousand species in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Madagascar? Not in my opinion.”
Or this from my friend Dr. Jim Bowyer, professor emeritus, University of Minnesota Department of Bio-products and Bio-processing and Director of the Responsible Materials Program for Minneapolis-based Dovetail Partners:
“A nation that consumes more than it produces is exporting its environmental impacts to other nations that provide what is consumed. It is like shipping your garbage to another town that needs the money and is willing to put up with the stench. Most of the raw materials consumed by the industrialized world – including the United States – come from impoverished countries that lack the money, technology and political will needed to regulate their own extractive industries. In the emerging global economy, nations should be increasing, not decreasing their dependence on wood fiber because wood is renewable, recyclable, biodegradable and far more energy efficient it its manufacture and use than are products made from steel, aluminum, plastic and concrete. Furthermore, growing forests and the lumber they provide store large amounts of carbon dioxide that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere, adding to the potential for global warming.”
Or this, from my old friend Hal Salwasser, a PhD wildlife biologist who spent many years with the Forest Service before being named Dean of the Oregon State University College of Forestry.
“It is not unethical to grow and cut trees in ways that leave soil, water and ecosystems in a healthy condition for the future. What is environmentally unethical and globally irresponsible is to use amounts of wood we are not willing to produce as prudent land stewards – or to think that we can get by with wood substitutes that use far more energy to produce and are not as recyclable or biodegradable as wood. What good does it do to conserve biological diversity in our backyard forests if society merely depletes the same in some else’s forests to satisfy their wants and needs. The ultimate challenges may not be what we think they are – old growth, jobs, spotted owls, roadless areas, endangered species or even biological diversity. These are important issues we must address, but they are only symptoms of the real challenges: human population growth, consumption and pollution. The real challenge is not to see whether bio-centerism can overcome homo-centerism as the paradigm of the 1990s, but to develop a new and more useful paradigm: eco-centerism, where people and nature are seen as interdependent parts of the whole.”
In case you haven’t guessed, there is much I want to share with my new neighbors. No wonder then that I don’t want them to leave. I need them in the battle to save the West’s great forests. And you need them here to help protect the things that are the building blocks of your history, heritage and culture. They are the new source of intellectual, political, and perhaps even financial capital the rural parts of America so desperately needs. But before they can help, they need to know what you and I know; they need to know what is true about this place we call home.
My new neighbors are also a constant reminder of a wisdom shared with me in 1991 by my old friend Leonard Netzorg. Leonard was a union lawyer in Detroit in the 1930s. He went on to become the best lawyer the forest products industry ever had. In one of our many long conversations – which were always made more spirited by his homemade plum sherry - he said something I’ve never forgotten In fact, I wrote it down – and will close out this evening by sharing it with you.
“There is no perfect truth that can guide us forward. The larger issues of our time, including those swirling about our forests, require separating society’s material wants from its spiritual needs.”
“Society has demonstrated an unwillingness to vest in scientists the final authority to make decisions that affect the rest of us. We insist that our non-scientific views be heard, that we whose lives are affected have the right to participate in the decision-making and policy processes that flow from today’s scientific facts.”
“Meanwhile, the timber industry is going to have to learn how to share these forests with others who have different values and want different things from the forest. Frankly, I welcome it and I rue the day when polarized factions no longer tear away at the fabric of our society.”
“The American Revolution is still going on. We are still changing, still learning. If some of us were not constantly tearing away at what others of us think we know, we would all still think the earth flat. What is science today is witchcraft tomorrow.”