A Writer's Perspective On Forestry In The New American West
What we are – and I include all of us in this description – is a collection of small, medium and large businesses. The largest are generally public traded companies, like Weyerhaeuser, Temple Inland and Louisiana Pacific. But most of our so-called industry is family-owned. The only thing we have in common with one another is the tree itself.
38 MINUTE READ
By James D. Petersen Executive Director, The Evergreen Foundation
Annual Meeting Red River Forests Partnership Westward Look Resort Tucson, Arizona May 3. 2008
I am always a little amazed when someone invites me to speak to their group or convention, but it happens pretty regularly.
You would think after 20-some years of doing this, I’d have adjusted to it, but, alas, I have not. It isn’t that speaking frightens me. It doesn’t. It’s that I never know for sure what my audience wants or expects me to say.
The topic is always forestry – and it is at this juncture that my amazement reaches warp speed because, as you now know, I am not a forester. Nor do I own any timber, unless you count the three large ponderosas in our back yard. Nor am I a logger or a sawmill owner, but I know a lot of them, because I have made it my business to learn as much as I can about their businesses.
All that I know about forestry, logging and sawmilling I have learned by asking stupid questions of very smart people. I have a Rolodex that most anyone in my business would kill for, but it too is a product of my restless and endless curiosity. I have made it a point to get to know many of the North America’s most respected forest scientists, as well as its most successful loggers and sawmill owners. Without them, it is safe to say I would not be here with you this afternoon.
Although I’ve been writing professionally since I was in high school, my interest in forestry and its many venues dates from the mid-1980s, when I was hired by a group of southern Oregon lumbermen to develop a forestry education program designed to acquaint the public with the social, economic and environmental benefits that flow from well managed forests.
Because I am a writer and love to tell stories I started a magazine called Evergreen which they helped fund. Within five years, it was the most widely read forestry magazine in North America, with more than 100,000 readers. Not bad for a publication that did not accept advertising and existed only out of the generosity of sawmill owners who saw in it something they had apparently never seen before: a forestry education program that actually worked. In fact, when skeptics hired a national pollster to find out if we were really all that popular with the public, they found that our reader satisfaction and retention numbers were higher than those of Time, Newsweek or U.S. News & World Report.
I’d like to say that I’d planned it this way, but the truth be told, I did not have the slightest idea whether the program, which relied heavily on fact-based presentations, plus heavy doses of analysis and perspective, would appeal to the non-industry audience we sought.
What I learned in our first year – and what remains true 23 years after our founding – is that Americans of all walks of life are both very interested in what is happening in our nation’s forests, and very concerned about what is not happening. We’ll talk more about this after dinner this evening.
First, though, I like to share a bit about my background, and then if there are any of you who would like to reciprocate, I’d be very interested in learning more about you.
My days revolve around two major projects: a rebuild of Evergreen’s website, which is expected to take about six months, and a book I’m writing on the post-World War II history of the West’s family-owned sawmills. I also write periodically for the Wall Street Journal.
I published my first book, Flying Finns, last year. It is the quite remarkable story of Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters, the largest heavy-lift helicopter company in the world, and was written to help the company celebrate its first 50 years in business. Columbia and Erickson Air Crane, which got its start at Marysville, California, pioneered helicopter logging. I don’t know if either company has ever logged on your lands, but they do a lot of work in northern California. In fact, the very first helicopter logging job ever done was done on the Plumas National Forest, not far from one of your tracks. It was a joint venture between Columbia founder, Wes Lematta, and Erickson’s founders, Axel Erickson, and his son, Jack.
My second book, titled Can’t Never Could Do Anything, will be out late this summer. It’s the life-story of an Oregon sawmill owner I’ve known for many years.
My third book, titled The Independents,” which I referenced a few moments ago, will probably take another year to complete. I’ve been working on it for more than three years, and now understand why no historian has ever been willing to take on this project.
I am a University of Idaho graduate, with majors in journalism and broadcasting, two professions that, in my lifetime, have managed to make the world’s oldest profession seem increasingly honorable.
I grew up in Kellogg, a small mining town in northern Idaho. My father was construction superintendent for what was then the largest vertically-integrated lead and silver mining company in North America. Not bad for a fatherless boy with an eighth grade education who went to work when he was 13 years old, splitting firewood for a nickel a cord. For the uninitiated, a cord is a stack of wood four feet wide, four feet high and eight feet long.
My father was the smartest man I’ve ever known. His boss, a civil engineer, once told me he could work math problems in his head that some graduate engineers could not solve with a slide rule. I have no doubt. He memorized the schematic for the company’s entire water system, including the location of every shut off valve. When I asked him why he had done it he said, as only he could, “Because, when it is 10 below zero and 2 o’clock in the morning and you are up to your butt in mine waste water, it is not a good time to ask someone to drive back to the office and look for a map.”
My mother was a school teacher – a refined and educated woman who taught school in our home town for 32 years – 38 years in all if we add in the six years that she taught in Montana before she and dad met. She must have been very good at it because there was a never ending stream of youngsters on our doorstep seeking her advice long after they’d graduated. She took great delight in their visits, and in the fact that many of their children were also students in her English and literature classes. Even now, 23 years after her death, I am still in touch via e-mail with several of her former students, all of them school teachers.
My mother’s father was a cattle rancher and a fisher of men who devoted much of his life to shepherding lost souls. Mostly they were broken down loggers and railroad workers for whom time had run out. He’d hire them to do odd jobs around his ranch. I got to know many of them, and it was from them that I first learned about the joys of common labor. My grandfather also saw to it that I learned to respect them for who they were, even though most of them could not read or write. He was my hero – and in many ways he remains the best friend I ever had. In both literal and figurative senses, he taught me how to ride hard and shoot straight.
My paternal grandfather was a millwright. We never met. He died of pneumonia in 1928 and was buried on my father’s thirteenth birthday. It so broke dad’s heart that he could never bring himself to talk about him. But I suspect my grandfather was a giant in the Petersen clan because, when I was a boy in the late 1940s and early 1950s, his cousins were still talking about him as though he’d just stepped out of the room and would be back in a moment.
He emigrated from Norway in 1902, and built his first sawmill at the confluence of Eagle and Pritchard creeks, gin-clear tributaries to the Coeur d’Alene River, where I grew up and learned to fish with flies in the company of my great aunt, who cooked in logging camps for nearly 50 years. A few years ago, I went to Ellis Island because I wanted stand in the Great Hall where he had stood on the day he recited the Oath of Allegiance to our country. It remains one of the most moving experiences of my life.
My grandmothers were tough-as-nails ladies who wore work gloves at home and ladies’ dress gloves and hats when they went to town. Ivy Smith Petersen came west from Drywood, Wisconsin by wagon and train. She could do anything around a saw mill that my grandfather or his crew could do. Alice Lawrence Albertson was born in Newark, New Jersey but grew up in an orphanage in Twin Bridges, Montana, where she landed after typhoid fever killed her parents. They were actors on Broadway in the 1880s and 1890s. She scrubbed floors on her hands and knees and cared for smaller children in the orphanage, including her brother. She and my grandfather were soul mates for nearly 50 years. His world began on the back porch. Her world ended there. And when he was killed in an accident on the ranch in 1961, her world ended again.
I worked my way through college as an underground miner. As you might imagine, my school teacher mother was not thrilled with the idea or the dangers it involved, but I loved the work and those with whom I worked. They were tough-as-hell men in a tough-as-hell world. But they all seemed to enjoy living vicariously through the “frat boy” who worked on the 2300 Level in the Bunker Hill Mine. I’d regale them with stories about life in a fraternity house and they’d tell me stories about their own hell-raising exploits.
One-eyed Sam Taylor, a stump of a man who wore farmer’s bib overalls to work, took a keen interest in my grades which, thankfully, were always good, because he once threatened to beat the hell out of me if I got “C’s” in any of my classes.
Sam loved chicken and dumplings, so every day his wife would fill his lunch bucket to the brim. No Tupperware container or anything like that, just a lunch bucket full of congealed chicken and dumplings. I tried not to watch him eat, but he talked constantly, and he was always saying things like, “Look at me when I talk to you.” You know the rest of the story.
Sam also threatened to come to my parent’s house if I did not show him my grades every semester. I have no doubt that he would have. Sam had three kids of his own. More than anything else, he wanted them to follow in my footsteps, not his. It was sad in a way, but I understood. Like all fathers, Sam wanted something better for is children than he had.
I’ve thought about Sam many times over the years since I left home. The old Bunker Hill Company, where my dad worked for 41 years, is gone, a victim of Wall Street’s first hostile takeover. The company’s collapse cut the heart out of my hometown. It also put men like Sam Taylor, who had no other skills, on the streets with nowhere to go and no hope of ever finding a job that paid as well as the one they had lost.
Now the same thing is happening in logging and sawmilling towns. The reasons are different, but the end result is the same. Men like Sam and my father, who own logging companies or sawmills, or work in mills or for logging companies, are actively discouraging their sons and daughters from following in their footsteps. If you own timberland, this developing trend is not good news, because if there are no mills to buy your timber, it won’t be worth the cost of hauling it to town.
Such a far reaching conclusion may seem a little over the top to some of you, but consider this: it is competition between sawmills that want to buy your timber that makes a market for it. With fewer competitors, it is unlikely the surviving mills will want to pay as much for your timber as they would have when there were more competitors in the marketplace. Just be thankful you do not own timberland here in Arizona or in neighboring New Mexico, where no infrastructure remains save for three small mills owned by two struggling Indian tribes. I know of no story that so powerfully illustrates the importance of ample infrastructure than the story of what happened to the Arizona’s White Mountain Apace tribe after the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire. I’ll tell you the story this evening.
After dinner, we’ll also talk some about the importance of breathing new life into our forestry culture. I want you to know about my involvement in a career outreach program that will target junior high and high school students who profess an interest in saving the planet. In my opinion, these youngsters are perfect career candidates for our industry and I’ll tell you why when we meet again this evening.
Don Beatty recently gave me a copy of your Red River Forests Sustained Yield Plan. It is very impressive. You deserve high praise for staying the course at a time when our industry is again re-inventing itself. As you no doubt know, the silvicultural and ecological challenges you face in northern California – overstocking, insects and diseases, drought-related mortality and wildfire are the result of seeming mistakes made by earlier generations of Americans. It’s said that we should not have excluded wildfire from our forests and that we should not have harvested all of the best trees. Viewed in light of what we now know, or think we know, both criticisms have merit. But history does not happen in a vacuum and life is not perfect.
Our nation made the decision to exclude wildfire from forests in 1924. In June of that year, Congress ratified the Clarke-McNary Act, which put the federal government in the firefighting business along side privately-funded fire cooperatives that had been established around the turn of the century. Many historians mistakenly believe the only reason the Congress took on wildfire was because big fires had been raining death and destruction down on rural towns since the 1870s.
Protecting communities and lives was surely part of it, but the main reason was because by 1924 it had become clear that the West’s rapidly growing lumber industry was not about to invest a dime in forestry or reforestation until the country stuffed the wildfire genie back in the bottle. Until then, land and timber were of little value – and cutover lands were frequently abandoned, to be reclaimed by county tax collectors.
It is thus my opinion that the Red River Forests Partnership would not exist today had it not been for a federal forest policy decision made in 1924 – that being the decision to exclude wildfire from forests or as early-day foresters used to say, “Run smoke out of the woods.”
Your lands would surely be here, and one can always speculate on what their condition might be, but this much is certain: the West’s sawmilling and logging industries would never have found their economic footing after the Second World War had it not been for the success of Clarke-McNary-funded fire fighting cooperatives. There would have been no foundation on which to build because no landowner in his right mind would have invested in reforestation as long as big wildfires still ruled the West. And yes, I know that T.B. Walker favored prescribed fire and opposed attempts to exclude fire from his lands. We’ll talk about “Piute fire” after dinner too.
As to the matter of high-grading, I want you all to remember that in that long-ago era when only the biggest and best trees were harvested, there was no market for small diameter logs because there were no mills that could handle trees smaller than, say, two feet in diameter on the butt end. No one knew what the hell an ecosystem was and no one cared. Forests had to pay their own way, and if they couldn’t, that was too bad. The best trees were coming down anyway because the country needed them. What happened to the forest after the logging was done simply did not matter, except to early conservationists, whose main worry was that the country might run out of timber or destroy its navigable waterways.
Suffice it to say, advancing technologies in forestry, sawmilling and logging has made life much easier for Don Beatty and his associates than it was for men like Bill Greeley and David Mason, who were among the first to advance the principles of sustained yield forestry and improved utilization of wood fiber. I’ll have more to say about Mr. Greeley after dinner.
Before I close out this portion of my program, I’d like to run down the list of topics I’ll be discussing this evening. Here they are:
What the public wants from its forests Why wildfire is still Public Enemy No. 1 Why prescribed fire gets no respect Tribal forestry as a model for the country Infrastructure and what happens when it’s gone Career outreach in the Green Revolution A few things I have learned in my 23 years on the road
Is there anything anyone would like to add to this list? Otherwise, I’m done until this evening. Are there any questions at this point? ______________________
As a beginning point, I’d like to introduce you to this thing we call “the forest products industry.” I’ve spent much of the last 23 years of my life touring our country’s forests and timber communities. In fact, my wife and I traveled full time for two years because it was the only way I could think of to efficiently see all that I thought I needed to see.
It’s been my great pleasure to get to know a lot of people who make their livings growing, managing, harvesting, transporting and processing timber. If there is a more fascinating, or at times frustrating business, I do not know what it is. Not even Shakespeare could do justice to the myriad twists, turns, fabrications, betrayals, denials, dramas, comedies, miracles, triumphs and tragedies that I have witnessed in the years I’ve been writing about forests and forestry.
But this much I know for sure. The forest products industry is not an industry in the same sense as the steel, oil or automotive industries are industries.
What we are – and I include all of us in this description – is a collection of small, medium and large businesses. The largest are generally public traded companies, like Weyerhaeuser, Temple Inland and Louisiana Pacific. But most of our so-called industry is family-owned. The only thing we have in common with one another is the tree itself.
Some grow trees Others manage them Some plant them Others cut them down Some buy them Others sell them Many manufacture lumber Some cut studs Others cut dimension lumber Some make veneer Others make plywood A few do all four Some re-manufacture lumber Others make pulp from whole trees or sawmill residues Some make newsprint and cardboard Others make paper in myriad finer grades Many produce power from biomass Some own timberland Most do not Some are engaged in plantation forestry For others, timber is a by-product of their management objective Many bought federal timber for decades Now almost no one does A few mills still process large diameter logs Most process smaller, uniformly-sized logs harvested from second or third-growth Tree Farms or forest plantations Some mills cut fir Others cut pine Some only cut cedar Others cut oak, maple, cherry or walnut Some cut alder or poplar Some sell their products through distributors A few still have in-house sales departments Others market directly to Home Depot or Lowe’s There are very few generalists left Today, almost everyone is a specialist Competition is brutal and unrelenting, but then it always has been The industry is reinventing itself – again, still It is slicing and dicing itself in ways I never thought I’d see.
The old vertically integrated companies that owned timberland and manufactured lumber, plywood, pulp and paper are passing into history.
Weyerhaeuser is the last one, and my guess is that it will move its fabulous timberland base into real estate investment trust before much longer. It can’t compete in North America, much less globally, if it doesn’t.
Real estate investment trusts and timber investment management organizations are the new thing. They offer a tax efficiency that “C” and “S” corporations do not offer, but I think the jury is still out as to whether or not they are good for forestry. Quoting an old forester friend, “Never let anyone wearing a green eyeshade get near an acre of timberland.”
I think I agree with this declaration – but I am withholding judgment until I see what REIT and TIMO investors do when they discover that their lands are no more immune to lousy lumber markets than anyone else in the supply chain that leads from forests to Home Depot. My guess is many of them will fold up like cheap suits.
What I find so fascinating about this slicing and dicing – this reinvention of ourselves - is that it hasn’t changed the core nature of the business one iota. It’s true that advancing technology has made us more efficient and more productive in myriad ways, but manufacturing lumber is still all about turning cylinders into rectangles, forestry is still all about growing trees and logging is still all about cutting them down.
What has changed – profoundly so – are the public’s perceptions of forests and forestry. Gone are the days when Americans looked upon their forests as timber factories.
Make no mistake: people still want lumber, lots of it. And quality is very important to them, as is price. Increasingly, there is interest in buying lumber that has been third-party certified as having come from sustainably managed forests. But few consumers have thus far been willing to pay more for such lumber. Nor have the Lowe’s and Home Depots of the world been willing to pay more. They expect landowners to eat the cost of certification.
Consumers also expect landowners will provide lots of fish and wildlife habitat; protect domestic water supplies that rise in forests; guard against soil erosion, protect scenic vistas and allow the general public to roam freely through “their” forests – even though “their forests” are often privately owned.
This is what has changed. Our parents and grandparents were more utilitarian and more practical in their view of forests – and they never would have sanctioned the regulatory onslaught that timber landowners face today. It would not have occurred to them to demand that you provide them with what they want without the slightest monetary compensation for your sacrifice.
In my opinion, this is wrong. Habitat, water, soil and scenic vistas all have economic value and there are costs associated with protecting them. At the very least, you should be able to deduct these costs from your tax returns as your investment in protecting assets the public requires that you protect.
A few years ago – as part of Evergreen’s role in advancing the Bush Administration’s Healthy Forests Initiative – I was privy to some very interesting opinion and focus group research conducted by Frank Luntz, one of the country’s most respected pollsters. Actually, I was a member of the committee that hired Frank. We asked him to find out what Americans want from their forests; also what they thought about the merits of thinning in overstocked western federal forests that are dying and burning in wildfires unlike any for which fire ecologists can find evidence in old trees or soil layers
We insisted on two things that I think give the polling results we got real and lasting validity. First, we concentrated on big cities from coast to coast, and avoided rural areas in the West where people tend to be more supportive of logging and forestry. We also let Frank design the questions because we didn’t want to bias the result with our own values and opinions.
Based on Frank’s analysis of polling and focus group results, here are the four forest values Americans treasure most:
Clean air Clean water Abundant fish and wildlife habitat A wealth of year-round recreation opportunity
Support for thinning – a focal point of every focus group - runs in the absolutely astonishing 80 to 90 percent range, a bit lower when wildfires are not in the news and a bit higher when they are.
Had it not been for Frank’s work, there is no way on earth the Congress would have ever ratified the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, in my mind the most important piece of forestry legislation passed by the Congress since it ratified the 1924 Clarke-McNary Act.
Its importance rests in two facts: first, it acknowledges that federal forests cannot be left to nature’s devices, and second, it accepts the fact that federal lands that are overstocked and dying pose a serious risk to communities and to privately-owned forests from which most of the nation’s timber is harvested.
It is still too early to know what long term benefits HFRA may yield, but the fact that the law enjoys overwhelming public support will certainly help in the long run – and believe me, pulling the West’s federal forests back from the brink of ecological collapse is a long run proposition.
In its support for HFRA, Americans said – again for the umpteenth time – that they still consider wildfire to be Public Enemy No. 1.
Many special interest groups have tried to dismiss wildfire by claiming that it is a natural occurrence in forests, which is often true, but most people reject this claim – and to understand the reason why you need look no further than the Luntz survey results. Even people who don’t know the first thing about forestry can sense that clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildfire habitat and a wealth of year-round recreation opportunity they desire are not by-products of wildfires. They are by-products of forest management.
What about prescribed fire? Well, most folks don’t like it any better than they like wildfire; first because it generates smoke, often lots of it; and second because they’ve all read the horror stories about prescribed fires that blew up in the faces of their handlers. Increasingly, the public believes there is something ominous in the warnings of fire ecologists who say there is nothing natural about the outsized forest fires that now roam western landscapes from May through October.
I tell a story in many of my speeches that illustrates why I think the public prefers thinning to other forestry tools, including prescribed fire. On my first trip to northern Arizona, in the mid-1990s, I spent a day with a logger who was working in an experimental thinning at the Forest Service’s Fort Valley Research Station, southwest of Flagstaff on the Coconino National Forest. He was just getting started when I arrived on his job just before six in the morning. It was late July so the sun shone brightly – except where we were; and where we were the trees were so thick that sunlight had not reached the forest floor for many years. Until he started his mechanical harvester, there was not a sound to be heard, not a squirrel, not a bird, nothing but silence. No deer or rabbits either; just the logger and me.
The change that occurred in that stand of ponderosa in the next three hours was astonishing. As trees fell in the path of the harvester, sunlight fell on the forest floor. We no longer needed the cab lights to show us where we were going. And when we shut down for our mid-morning coffee break we could hear birds. They were swooping down in the pathway behind us, catching bugs. By noon, deer were following us up the hill eating the moss off tree limbs. On Day Three, long dormant seeds began to germinate in the soil the harvester had turned up as it went.
I re-photographed that same stand the following spring. It had wildflowers in it – and it was beautiful. There is no way on earth that prescribed fire could have produced the same wonderful result in such a short time. Why? Because there were too many trees and many of them were dead or dying. One match and it would have all been gone. But now that the stand has been thinned, prescribed fire would be an excellent tool for maintaining forest health and keeping competing vegetation in check.
There is another side to this whole question of what the public wants from its forests that I find fascinating, Although not an outright contradiction of the Luntz data, this “other side” suggests that the public may be more pragmatic about forestry that Frank’s polling would seem to indicate.
A few years ago a very wealthy Connecticut financier backed a very expensive anti-clearcutting measure in the State of Maine. I was asked to report on the issue in Evergreen. In the course of my on-scene investigation, which took several weeks, I interviewed several landowners who told me that if they lost the ability to profitably manage their forests, they would put up gates, subdivide their properties and sell them to developers.
My report and similar reports in dozens of Maine newspapers caused such an uproar that voters overwhelmingly rejected the measure; not once, but twice. Clearly, voters were willing to accept clearcutting, which can be a temporary eyesore, in exchange for the right of free access to Maine’s industrial forest plantations where they hunt, fish, camp, snowmobile and hike.
Maine’s experience repeats itself in Oregon where, again, voters have twice rejected clearcutting measures because they feared the alternative would be worse. And to see the alternative, one need only come to Northwest Montana where Plum Creek Timber Company has entered the real estate business, and is selling its best timbered parcels – those with development potential - to deep pocketed folks who can afford to pay several million dollars for their slice of the New West.
But what the Maine and Oregon experiences teach is that same public that wants you to protect natural resources that they value also wants you to have every opportunity to make a good living from your investments in “their” forests. The fact that they are able to make this distinction leads me to believe that it is at the apex of their values and yours that your public relations efforts should be concentrated. And here I assume that you have some sort of public relations program that keeps your neighbors up to date on what you are doing in your forests. As an old newspaper publisher friend used to say when calling on past-due advertising accounts, “I can understand anything but silence.” The same holds true for those who live on the periphery of your forests. They can be your most ardent supporters or your worst enemies. The choice is often yours.
Let’s switch gears for a few minutes. We’re in Arizona, a state that once had vibrant forestry and sawmilling sectors. Not anymore. Most of the state’s sawmills were gone by the late 1980s. Southwest Forest Industries and Kaibab Forest Products were both almost totally dependent on federal timber harvested from northern Arizona’s national forests. The slow motion collapse of the federal timber sale program left them with no alternative but to shut down permanently.
Save for Flagstaff and a few surrounding sawmill towns, I doubt that anyone in Arizona noticed the loss or much cared that the mills were gone. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most folks – certainly those living in the greater Phoenix area – were glad when the harvesting stopped. Then came the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire and public opinion, once again, turned on a dime. It happened that I was in Arizona and the time working on yet another Evergreen project, so let me tell you how events unfolded.
The fire was a colossus. It was actually two fires in the beginning, both human caused. The Rodeo fire was started by an emotionally disturbed young man near the White Mountain Apache tribe’s rodeo grounds, while the Chediski fire was started by a woman who was lost and lit a signal fire hoping someone would find her. Amid awful drought, low humidity and high winds, it did not take long for the two fires to become one. Before it was over, slightly more than a half-million acres of timber and range land had been incinerated. For a time, it appeared that two communities, Show Low and Pine Top might be lost. In fact, had the wind not suddenly and unexpectedly switched directions, both towns would have been destroyed.
The fire was a significant wakeup call for Phoenix-Scottsdale residents, many of whom own summer homes in golf developments that surround Show Low and Pine Top. Their homes, some worth millions, are nestled in trees around the fairways – trees that grow much too close to one another to offer any protection from stand-replacing wildfire. Suffice it to say, the thinning lesson was not lost on those whose homes were saved by fire breaks the Forest Service had created around both communities – breaks that were often completed over the howls of protestors who claimed that “their” forests were being “destroyed.”
The great tragedy of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire is that the White Mountain Apache Tribe lost more than half of its forest – much of it old growth ponderosa the tribe needed to sustain its mill at White River, a mill that exists for only one reason – to employ tribal members who have a hard time finding work off the reservation.
You might think that the tribe pocketed a bundle from the massive salvage logging job they initiated after the smoke cleared, but you would wrong in that assumption. And why would you be wrong? Because the White Mountain Apache mill at White River is the only sawmill left in the state and it could not possibly handle the millions of board feet of pine that had to be quickly harvested before it lost its value. Sierra-Pacific, a company I suspect buys some of your wood, bought virtually all of the logs, which they railed to two of their mills in California.
I spent several days observing the salvage operation as a guest of Columbia Helicopters. All of the big ponderosa was moved by helicopter because the tribe’s road network was insufficient to handle all of the log trucks that would have been needed. Between the cost of helicopter logging and the cost of railing logs to California I doubt seriously that the tribe made a dime. Sierra Pacific probably made a little money, but they managed to dump so much ponderosa on the pine market that prices plummeted. My conclusion is that the big money went in Union Pacific pockets.
It was interesting being in Show Low during the salvage operation, Motels, restaurants and gas stations did very well on the flood of loggers that rushed in to participate in the salvage. They came from Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, California, Alaska and Wyoming – states that still had enough sawmill and logging infrastructure to be able to share some with Arizona.
The Show Low newspaper carried several stories about the salvage operation, as well as a few editorials and a slew of letters to the editor. Most wanted to know why the tribe’s wood wasn’t being processed locally. And then it finally occurred to the locals that there were no mills left – save for the tribe’s mill at White River. I believe it is still operating, but a second tribal mill at Cibique had been shut down for lack of wood.
There is a short story that goes with the second mill. It was a small log mill – meaning it was built to handle small-diameter logs, which exist in great abundance along northern Arizona’s Mogian Rim. A few years back I got curious about how much new wood fiber grows annually in forests in Arizona and New Mexico. I asked a Forest Service friend in Albuquerque if he could quantify it in a way that would be meaningful for ordinary folks who don’t know much about forests. His answer astonished me. Here it is:
“If all of the new wood added to forests in Arizona and New Mexico could be consolidated in a single, solid block of wood it would be the dimensions of a football field and stretch a mile into the sky.”
Think about this for a moment: this isn’t a mile high block of wood; it’s a block of wood that grows another mile into the sky every year: one mile this year, two miles next year, three miles the year after.
No wonder so many living in northern Arizona now wonder when sawmills will return. They won’t, not next year or the year after, not ever in my opinion. They won’t because, save for the White Mountain Apache lands, all timber in Arizona is owned by the federal government – and it is not for sale. What has not already died and burned in increasingly ferocious wildfires soon will. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone – and certainly better for the forest – is these small trees were going to the tribe’s now idle mill at Cibique? As I said earlier, be very glad you do not own timberland in Arizona.
The same is true of New Mexico, despite the pleadings of New Mexico’s state forester, who would do almost anything to bring back the state’s sawmilling industry. Without it, there is no hope for thinning in overstocked and diseased forests that will most certainly continue to fuel terrible wildfires in and around the state’s destination resorts, its watersheds and its publicly owned recreation areas.
At last count, there were two small mills in the state, both of them owned by the Mescalero Apache Tribe. The tribe manages its forests for elk habitat. You can go there and hunt trophy elk if you wish. A permit will cost you $10,000 or more, but I believe it comes with a guide. In any event, the tribe’s thinning program rings the cash register twice: first when the mills sell their lumber, and second when someone buys a permit to hunt elk in their well cared for forests.
I have made no secret of the fact that I am a huge fan of tribal forestry. We have twice published quite large issues of Evergreen extolling the virtues of – and the science behind – forestry in Indian country. And I have twice spoken publicly in favor of giving the nation’s federal lands back to Indian nations from whom we stole them more than 100 years ago in the apparent belief that our manifest destiny mattered more than theirs. What has surprised me is how few people oppose my suggestion that our country think very seriously about righting this wrong. Our government has over the last 30 years repeatedly demonstrated that it is no longer capable of protecting these lands.
As all forms of active management have fallen out of favor with most special interest groups, there are compelling reasons why our national forests should be returned to their original owners. Begin with the fact that it is now costing taxpayers more than one billion dollars a year to put out the wildfires that now frequent these crumbling forests. They have become a health and safety hazard. We should free them from the crazy quilt of environmental laws that prevents their proper care, before it is too late.
I would like to give them back to the Indians because I know they will care for them, and because tribes are sovereign nations, no one can stand in the way of their proper care. Indians will care for these forests the same way they care for their own forests, devoting time and attention to every nook and cranny, every cultural site, every historic site, every habitat niche, every lake, stream, pond and meadow. Nothing is overlooked. Nothing is of less value than anything else. Tribal forestry is both art and science; it is what forestry should be, but cannot be, in a world run by special interest groups whose motives are not in synch with nature’s rhythms.
This afternoon I referenced “Piute fire” – a culturally crude term early explorers and foresters used to describe fires they observed that had been deliberately set by Indians.
Historians and ecologists have only recently recognized the role our Native Americans played in manipulating so-called “pre-European” or “pre-settlement” landscapes from coast to coast. As recently as 20 years ago, it was widely assumed that the western landscapes first observed by white settlers after the Civil War were products of natural disturbance regimes, mainly wildfire. Now we know this was not true. Indians had been using what we call “prescribed fire” for thousands of years to clear land for crops, to create habitat for game animals, to keep trails clear of underbrush, and to set up defensible perimeters around their settlements. Here in the Southwest, they even developed water diversion systems to irrigate their crops.
One of the earliest white settlers to observe “Piute fire” and its therapeutic benefits in ponderosa pine forests was T.B. Walker. Mr. Walker became a quite vocal advocate for its use at about the same time that the old Bureau of Forestry – forerunner of the Forest Service - was forming its own opinions as to the advisability of fire of any kind in forests.
Bill Greeley, who went to work for the Bureau in 1904, and became the Forest Service’s third Chief in 1920, rode horse-back through much of the country where your lands are concentrated. He believed that deliberately setting fires in forests was a form of what he called “juvenile vandalism” – and a colossal waste of future timber.
But the “Piute fire” debate – like so many episodes of the last century – must be viewed in the context of the times. Wildfires had destroyed hundreds of small towns, killed thousands of people and incinerated millions of acres of timber the country needed. Few were in a mood to listen to presumed crackpots like T.B. Walker. Moreover, a few keen observers - Greeley included - had already noticed that the meandering light burns that frequented dry-site pine forests in California and the Southwest every few years were very different from the stand-replacing infernos that had been less frequently observed in Douglas-fir forests and in the northern reaches of the Intermountain West where I live.
Faced with such widespread fear and hatred for fire, Mr. Walker and his fellow “light burners” didn’t stand a chance in the court of public opinion. The door was shut, largely through Greeley’s efforts, when the Clarke-McNary Act became the Law of the Land in 1924. That door has only recently been cracked open again – despite the fact there is very little public support for it.
Someone recently asked me if I thought there would ever again be a federal timber sale program. I said I did not think so, at least not the kind of program that we once had that supported schools, built roads and provided family-wage jobs for hundreds of thousands of people. But I do think the day of reckoning is coming in Congress. On that day there will be a great desire to get caught up on the thinning and reforestation work that is going by the boards because there is no money to do the work.
What I cannot tell you is whether there will be anyone left to do the work that needs to be done. The intellectual and financial capital may be gone by then. In fact, the financial capital is almost gone now. I cannot name a single mill owner who is making infrastructure investment decisions based on a hope that the federal government will ever again manage our national forests. Not one. Capital is fleeting. It seeks out opportunity. There are few here at the moment. This is why the pulp and paper industry is moving its capital into the southern hemisphere, where trees reach mean annual increment in five to seven years and regulatory costs are a fraction of what they are here. As I said earlier, this is not good news for private timberland owners who need infrastructure to make markets for their logs. Without infrastructure, your timber is worthless.
This afternoon, I mentioned a career outreach program that I’m helping to develop. We aim to produce an Internet-ready DVD that describes career opportunities in forestry, logging and sawmilling in a language and format that will appeal to young people who are caught up in the so-called “Green Revolution.” The “we” in this instance is the non-profit Pacific Forest Foundation, and offshoot of the Pacific Logging Congress, the oldest such organization in North America. I was president of both PLC and PFF last year – and I made this career outreach program my main mission.
PLC conducts a live, in-the-woods logging equipment show every four years. Our 2006 show was conducted on Longview Fiber land near Kelso, Washington. Ed Hanscom, who was then our president, and is a logger friend of some 20 years, asked me to survey equipment dealers and manufacturers in attendance to find out if they were happy with the show and if they had any ideas for improvement. For reasons I cannot explain, I decided I would also ask them one more question. I wanted to know if any of them could tell me who was going to be sitting in the cabs of their quite sophisticated machines in 10 years. Not one of them could.
My survey – informal and unscientific though it was – confirmed a nagging suspicion I’ve held for many years. Put simply, few young people are entering our world – and they aren’t because they don’t see opportunity, because they think we are bad people because we cut down trees, because too few people are trying to correct their misperceptions about us, because, at the end of the day, most of this nation’s school-aged kids don’t believe there is a future in the work we do.
I beg to differ. The world is not using less wood, nor will it. In fact, demand for wood products is soaring and will continue to increase. Those of us who are old enough to remember that the computer was supposed to usher in a paperless society have a pretty good idea what is going to happen once computers are as ubiquitous in the developing world as they are in industrialized societies like our own.
My friend Wink Sutton, who has PhD’s in chemistry, botany and biometrics, believes scientists will soon break through the molecular barrier that holds wood’s deepest secrets. Once we do, cellulous can replace fossil fuels, including the fuel we burn in our cars. What youngster interested in the environment or climate change or air quality would not want to be part of such a discovery?
There is a reason why schools are not opening these windows of opportunities to their students – and the reason is that we are not showing up to explain ourselves, much less defend ourselves against our special interest adversaries. In our silence, we do our children and grandchildren no favors. We are depriving them of a litany of challenging opportunities in forestry, logging and sawmilling.
Someday, someone is going to unlock the last of the genetic codes that determine why some trees grow faster and produce better quality wood than do the trees standing right next to them.
Someday, someone is going to figure out how to saw logs without saws, eliminating wood waste altogether.
Someday, someone is going to build a mechanical harvester that operates off solar panels and leaves no footprint in its path.
Someday, someone is going to perfect a wood composite that is stronger and lighter than steel or aluminum – and it will revolutionize not only the building industry but the transportation industry.
Why can’t that someone be one of your children or grandchildren, or that nice girl across the street or that nice young man down the block?
It won’t be if we don’t tell them who we are or what we do and why cellulous is the hope of the world, because it is renewable, recyclable, bio degradable and far more energy efficient in its manufacture and use than any other resource or product.
Now you know why I believe career outreach is so bloody important to my future and yours. And now you know why I get so upset at companies that believe the next generation of workers is going to magically show up on the doorstep because they need a job. It isn’t going to happen because kids have choices today – and none of them are going to choose to work in a business they don’t believe has a future – or is morally corrupt.
My wife and I also volunteer our time in a program called Provider Pals. It’s a cultural exchange program started a few years back by a logger friend, with some very generous support from the Ford Motor Company and Caterpillar. It gives city kids a chance to experience life in rural environs and rural kids a change to sample life in cities. The Provider Pals are loggers, ranchers, commercial fishermen, farmers, miners and oilfield roustabouts who also donate their time. Kathleen and I work mainly in a junior high school in Washington, D.C. and at the Center School in midtown Manhattan. My wife is a New York girl.
A couple of years ago, after a long day at the Center School, we were loading up all of our props – gold pans, shark jaws, and a display of different types of grain. We all figured someone else had loaded up the chain saw, but no one had. Fortunately, our wheat farmer, who was the last to leave, spotted it in the parking lot. He picked it up and walked out in front of the school to hail a cab. When he got back to his hotel room, he called with the breathless details about his return trip to the hotel. He said, “Do you have any idea how damned hard it is to get a cab in New York City when you are packing a chain saw!”
His story didn’t end there either. When he got to the hotel, they wouldn’t let him in. Finally, the concierge took pity on him and put the saw in the locked storage room where luggage is kept.
As you may have surmised, we have a long way to go our effort to acquaint Americans with what it takes to put a roof over their head, food on their table and clothes on their backs.
I’d like to close out my time with you this evening by sharing a few wisdoms that I’ve picked up along the way from all those people I’ve met who are a lot smarter than I am. These are points to ponder that I hope you’ll consider as Red River moves from this generation to the next – hopefully still owned by the heirs of T.B. Walker.
My first wisdom is my best wisdom. It comes to you from my old friend Alan Houston, a PhD wildlife biologist who runs the Ames Plantation in middle Tennessee. We were out walking on the Cumberland Plateau on a brilliant October morning in 1996 when he turned to me out of the blue and said something so profound that I can still repeat it from memory.
He said, “When we leave forests to nature, as so many people seem to want to do today, 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.”
Our world would be a much better and certainly a much happier place if more people had Alan Houston’s wisdom.
Alston Chase, an Ivy League professor who wrote a fascinating book titled Playing God in Yellowstone, shared a quite remarkable observation in a 1990 interview.
“Environmentalism increasingly reflects urban perspectives,” he observed. “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.”
Playing God in Yellowstone is a book about environmental values, some of them fairly bizarre – including the notion that rocks have feelings and therefore deserve representation in court. When I asked Chase what the lesson was in the book he shared another wisdom I like to pass along whenever I have the chance.
“The lesson in ‘Playing God’ is that there is no such thing as leaving nature alone,” he said. “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.”
I especially like this observation from my old friend Bob Lee, a PhD sociologist and biologist, who recently retired after a long teaching career at the University of Washington. This is from a 1995 Evergreen interview in which I asked him for his thoughts on social upheaval in communities brought low by the collapse of the federal timber sale program.
“Preserving and maintaining this nation’s cultural diversity is as important to the survival of America as is preserving and maintaining biological diversity,” he observed. “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.”
Then there is this from Dr. Robert Buckman, professor emeritus at Oregon State University College of Forestry, 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.”
You’ll enjoy this one from Dr. Bill Libby, a world-renowned forest geneticist and professor emeritus from the University of California at Berkeley. This is from an early 1990’s Evergreen issue.
“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.”
I also like this one from my old friend Dr. Jim Bowyer, Professor Emeritus at the 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.”
But for its sheer magnitude, it would be hard to trump this wisdom from 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.”
Thank you – and good evening