Monday, October 25, 2004

People and the environment

I've recently read 2 books on the interactions between people and the environment that are worth comparing. Both are older books, William Dietrich's The Final Forest: The Battle for the Last Great Trees of the Pacific Northwest, was written in 1992 while John McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid, came out all the way back in 1971. Despite their age though, both books make us think seriously about how we interact with the environment and about how environmental concerns often clash with the reality of resource use.

Dietrich, who at the time was a reporter for the Seattle Times, went to the logging community of Forks, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula, to exam the effects of the spotted owl crisis. Dietrich writes sympathetically of all sides of the battle: loggers and environmentalists, Forest Service employees and scientists. Forks was at the center of the Forest Service's extreme overcutting schemes after World War II and thus were shocked when all of sudden, protection of the northern spotted owl shut down the forests almost at once. What's really interesting about the story of the spotted owl crisis to me is the lack of understanding by people of where products come from. People make the connection that homes and paper comes from trees, but at the same time don't want any trees being cut. However, lest one think I am anti-environmentalist, the environmentalists were essentially right about everything they said on the spotted owl issue. The timber companies and Forest Service had overcut dramatically after World War II (for more on this, see Paul Hirt's book A Conspiracy of Optimism), the Forest Service was attempting to turn ecologically complex forests into a monoculture, and the continued cutting of old growth timber would have made the spotted owl virtually extinct by now.

The people of Forks are really caught in the middle of this problem--they don't hate the forests but the timber companies have spewed rhetoric into their head for years, and they think the environmentalists are evil, as opposed to the big timber companies themselves, who used the spotted owl crisis as an excuse to move their operations out of the Pacific Northwest, and to British Columbia, the American South, and the Third World because they had basically cut out all of the good timber from the Northwest since 1900. Part of this rhetoric is that the trees are a crop that can be harvested and replanted. In a certain sense, that may be true, but that idea is what is so wrong about the lumber industry in this nation and around the world. By treating the forests as a crop, we overlook and undervalue the complexity of those ecosystems, which is bad on a spiritual level (certainly a less managed forest is more spiritually renewing than a monocrop) but also on a concrete level. For instance, the Pacific yew tree, long considered worthless by the lumber industry was found to have significant cancer-fighting agents in the 1980s, leading for awhile to illegal harvesting of the tree. To monocrop our forests means we will likely lose out on the many undiscovered benefits that a complex forest may bring us.

All this being said, we still rely on trees and the worldwide harvest of wood continues to rapidly increase. Where does this wood come from? What does it mean for the rainforest? Are there alternative building materials we could use? Do we really need to wipe our asses with trees? I don't have the answers to these questions except to say that, like with petroleum products, the government needs to invest in finding alternative technologies that we can use instead of wood. As for the book itself, it's a bit long but is by far the best overview available of the complex issues and history surrounding the protection of the northern spotted owl.

John McPhee considers some of the same issues in Encounters with the Archdruid. I can't recommend the books of John McPhee enough. He is a wonderful environmental writer, having penned such classics as Coming Into the Country, and his 4 book series driving along Interstate 80 with geologists that has recently been complied into the 1 volume Annals of the Former World. He writes with grace and beauty, has sympathy with all sides of the environmental debates, and can make complex scientific questions understandable to a lay reader, a skill that is all too rare and should be lauded.

In Encounters with the Archdruid, McPhee sets up Sierra Club leader and radical environmentalist pioneer David Brower with three icons of development. McPhee and Brower hike through the Glacier Peak Wilderness of Washington with mineral engineer Charles Park, who believes that we should mine minerals wherever we find them, including a giant copper deposit at the base of Glacier Peak. They visit with Charles Fraser, who developed Hilton Head, and who bought up much of what became Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia that he also wanted to develop. And perhaps most importantly, they raft the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon with the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, Floyd Dominy, who designed many of the West's most infamous dams, including Grand Coulee and Glen Canyon and who wanted to dam the Colorado through the Grand Canyon as well. McPhee details the discussions and fights that Brower has with these men as they travel together. Amazingly, Park and Dominy will talk about how much they love nature while having no compunction about radically alternating it as well. To some extent, this is generational--part of a time where human material use of nature was seen as its highest value. But Park and Dominy have a point as well--both state truthfully that modern society is dependent on minerals and water respectively, and that without mining and control over water supplies, our standard of living would fall. Brower has no problem with that. I'm not sure how many environmentalists can say that with confidence. We want to save land and get rid of dams, but do we know the cost of this to our economic well-being and if we do, how many of us are willing to make that sacrifice? Ultimately, it seems that Brower gets the best of both Park and Dominy as it's really hard to justify damming the Colorado or mining Glacier Peak. It's interesting to see how these 2 conversations have dated--we need far less copper today than in 1970 because the rise of fiber optics undermined the need for copper wiring. The dam issue is still very contentious but on the Colorado is starting to become a bit moot because the river is so low with the drought and increased demand for water that many of the side canyons that Glen Canyon flooded are starting to repair themselves as the water level has drastically declined in Lake Powell. I was at Hoover Dam some days ago and it was amazing to see how low the water was compared with pictures of the lake at its height. The Colorado has supply problems that no dams will fix.

Brower does less well with Charles Fraser, who was a pioneer in somewhat responsible development by making Hilton Head both green and incredibly expensive. Fraser really dominates Brower who doesn't have a clue about Cumberland Island. In fact, Brower comes across a something of a nut who used false facts when convenient and was really rather uneducated. But at the same time, his passion personally made the Sierra Club into a force to be reckoned with, and he personally stopped the building of the dam at Dinosaur National Monument, so God bless him. But even if Fraser got the better of him through his well-thought out development schemes, the public got the message because before the book came out, public support forced Fraser to abandon his project and the federal government took Cumberland Island over and placed it under the auspices of the National Park Service.

Both of these excellent works really make us think about the balance between environmental protection and resource use. We need a smart plan to allow both on the same tracts of land and to place technological innovation at the forefront of our efforts to live in the 21st century. Suffice it to say that we are not getting that right now with the current administration.