Sunday, March 29, 2009

Economic Transition and Environmentalism in the Pacific Northwest

William Yardley's piece in today's Times on the shift in the Pacific Northwest away from a logging economy and its effects on the timber industry is worth reading. As the much-in-demand expert on logging here at Alterdestiny, I figure I should probably comment on it. And I do have a few points to make:

1. These changes are the back side of a process that started decades ago. After World War II, the United States Forest Service decided to serve timber companies over all other users of the forest. Combined with the postwar housing crisis, there was little incentive to treat the forest as a sustainable resource, thus leading to massive overcutting. The decline of virgin forests coincided with the rise of environmentalism and with the development of ecology as a respected scientific field. In the 1980s, these scientists documented the decline of the northern spotted owl in the forests, widely believed to be an indicator species. At the same time, the Reagan administration ordered full speed ahead cutting in the forests, placing the future of the species in doubt. The environmental groups took the scientific information and sued the timber companies and federal government, eventually ending most logging in the National Forests.

The larger point here is that the changes Yardley describes have a long history. Ever since the late 1980s, timber towns have dealt with a new economic reality, one without limitless logging. Many of them have faded, suffering economic depression and declining population. There is nothing new about any of this and I'm surprised Yardley didn't reference this past except in passing.

2. Not surprisingly, the loggers are reacting in a variety of ways to these changes. In the 80s and 90s, there was widespread hostility toward environmentalists. Much of this was irrational hate and misplaced anger, but much was also a result of openly hostile and anti-humanist behavior by the environmental community. Those days are long gone though. And while many loggers long for the days of unregulated logging, others are seeing the economic opporutnities of a post-logging economy, where the trees make you money in ways other than cutting them down. This is interesting and I think touches on a very important issue deep within many loggers' souls--love of nature.

In my not soon to be forthcoming (2013 maybe?) book, "The Battle for the Body: Work and Environment in the Pacific Northwest Lumber Industry," I argue that loggers cared about nature and that their relationships with nature shaped their lives and especially their labor relations. But of course, while they might have loved nature, they had to eat and that meant cutting down trees. Loggers frequently expressed sorrow over their actions. But what were they to do?

Today, there's other alternatives. See this quote by Harold Jones, of Lowell, Oregon. This town, 10 minutes from where I grew up, has long been under total control of the timber industry. But today, Jones says:

“The only money I’ve ever made is cutting down trees,” Mr. Jones, 75, said just after coming in from thinning the stand of Douglas firs he has planted on 125 acres he owns here in Lowell. “So what I’ve tried to do in my retirement is to try to bring back and repay the Earth for a lot of the devastation I’ve caused it.”

Mr. Jones started logging in 1948 and has long rolled his eyes at “countercultural types” who protest timber sales. Yet in front of his property now are signs saying “Certified Family Forest.”

This is interesting. It's my contention that loggers, even as they love nature, do not fit into traditional environmentalist categories of "conservationist" or "preservationist." In fact, I think these categories are extremely limiting and should be tossed out, yet most environmental historians still use them. The problem with these terms is that they only describe people who are in the environmental movement in some way. What about the millions of people who aren't "environmentalists?" How do we characterize their relationship with nature? In Jones' case, here is a man who loves nature and who admits that he has caused great damage to the planet. But he had to eat. He's 75 and the only way he's ever made money is by cutting down trees. Now he sees a different way and is embracing it, even while he shows clear contempt for "environmentalists." This kind of feeling is common among loggers, many of whom, past and present, love nature while also being dismayed at the culture of environmentalists, with their dismissal of the need to work in nature and their embracing of the counterculture.

3. Finally, a word needs to be said about consumption. I am glad logging has declined in my home state. It's a beautiful place. Clearcuts are horrid scars upon the land, designed to maximize profit for large corporations. This kind of logging well-served neither nature nor working-class people. But while the environmental community did good things by ending the ravages of logging upon the land, they said little about consumption. Recycling was always mentioned but that's limited and really is about reuse rather than outright declines in consumption patterns. Restriction without less consumption simply means that the logging in Oregon moved to other places--Indonesia, Brazil, Canada, Alabama, Alaska, New Zealand, etc. Those forests are still getting destroyed by logging. Why? Because we demand two-ply toilet paper, endless supplies of printer paper, etc., etc. I love my Oregon forests. But I love all forests in the world just as much. I don't want to destroy virgin boreal forest in Canada or rain forest in Brazil for my consumer demands. Yet we don't talk much about this 900 lb. gorilla. And that I think needs to be the next frontier in environmental communities--the fight against consumption.