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The Cycle of Environmentalism


If there’s one thing in this world I follow more closely than any other, it’s the politics surrounding forestry in the Pacific Northwest. So I found this Michael Donnelly essay in Counterpunch fascinating, both in content and for what it says about the historical trajectory of radical environmentalism.

Donnelly rips the University of Oregon’s annual E-Law conference and the so-called “Big Green” organizations behind it for their lack of commitment to forest preservation. Taking up the mantle of EarthFirst! and the other radical organizations that came to fame during the spotted owl crisis in the late 1980s, Donnelly accuses the larger environmental organizations of hypocrisy and of selling out to Big Timber (and not the town in Montana).

A couple of general thoughts about this lengthy essay.

First, it’s worth noting that, regardless of one’s hatred of timber corporations (which I share with great vehemence), it is not responsible to downplay the damage that a century of fire suppression has created in the forest. All you have to do is look at the catastrophic fires that has ravaged western forests almost each year since 2000 for evidence. Los Alamos, New Mexico, once a beautiful dry-forest paradise, is now surrounded by ash due to fires in 2000 and 2011. To argue, as Donnelly does, that thinning forests to limit fire is a bait-and-switch and that the real problem in the forests is that “few will admit the “unhealthy” forests of today are sick because humans have already seriously diminished them by past logging,” is a bit beside the point. Donnelly’s not wrong about the impact of logging, not at all. But he is wrong in downplaying how human management of the forest to maximize the economic value of the resource by suppressing fire is also causing huge changes. Thinning projects do have the potential of providing jobs and keeping a few small-town mills alive, as well as perhaps providing a bit of renewable biofuel energy. On the other hand, this can be a slippery slope, where the timber industry uses this renewed economic activity in the forests to break down all the protections provided forests over the past decades.

Second, it is fascinating to watch how formerly radical organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity and individuals like Andy Kerr and Andy Stahl, the bête noires of the timber industry in the late 80s and early 90s, become seen as sell-outs by the next generation of environmental radicals. Certainly some of the politics have changed in the last 20 years. People change and maybe Kerr and Stahl do see more room for collaboration with the timber industry than two decades ago. But part of this is a response to the massive human cost of shutting down timber entirely, particularly to the region’s small towns. So when Andy Kerr says, “Today, I want the remaining sawmills in Elgin, Gilchrist, John Day, Klamath Falls, Lakeview, Pendleton and Pilot Rock to remain operating — because society needs their help to restore and protect those very same resources,” that makes a lot of sense to me. Elgin and John Day are small towns. There’s not much work outside of timber. To keep a few people working in the industry while trying to manage the forests back toward health makes much ecological and economic sense.

Twenty years ago, radical environmentalists were mostly unconcerned with the human cost of ending logging. Today, Kerr, Stahl, and many others see that indifference as a political mistake. In 1990, they used the same kind of language against the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society that Donnelly uses against the Center for Biological Diversity and Oregon Wild. Donnelly is an old veteran of radical environmentalism, but he represents a historical cycle in activism where the formerly hard-core are seen as selling out over time, to be replaced by a new cadre of the real activists. Donnelly equates Oregon Wild with the Sierra Club, suggesting that the former’s willingness to think about collaboration with the timber industry is equivalent to the latter’s extremely unfortunate embrace of fracking as a bridge fuel. I guess from one perspective any compromise with industry is a sell-out, but these two examples are of wildly different magnitudes.

But Donnelly is also right about some things. His passion for the forests is something we need, even if his arguments are misguided at times. He’s also 100% correct in noting the hypocrisy of the environmental movement for flying by jet to Eugene every year for this conference, creating a massive amount of climate-change producing carbon dioxide emitted high in the atmosphere where it’s damage is maximized. There’s no way to get around this. Of course, I am as guilty as anyone of not wanting to give up the “American way of life” as Donnelly calls it. Humans are social animals and like to see people who share their interests. While there’s nothing wrong with this, there is a real environmental cost that can lead to dark humor and outrage when the people doing so are changing the climate to talk about saving the climate.

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  • Murc

    Los Alamos, New Mexico, once a beautiful dry-forest paradise, is now surrounded by ash due to fires in 2000 and 2011.

    In my mind, the problem has always been less when and how the fires take place than what happens afterward.

    Los Alamos being surrounded by ash isn’t a big deal in the lifecycle of its forests; sixty or seventy years from now, an eyeblink in terms of the ecology that exists there, you wouldn’t be able to tell. Similarly, if we had simply let a lot of smaller fires burn naturally, they would have created a lot of ash-y areas that needed time to grow back.

    Assuming, of course, we LET them grow. “We need to preserve this beautiful old dry forest” is something that a non-trivial number of people will support. “We have to preserve this ash-choked wasteland from developers because when everyone in this room is dead, it will be a forest again” is a much harder sell, especially when people are putting money on the table.

    • Well, Los Alamos surrounded by ash is a big deal because the fires that have traditionally burned in those forests were relatively small and frequent. The 2000 and 2011 fires were crown fires that burned everything. It’s one of the most visceral examples of terrible fire policy in the 20th century we have.

      • Michael H Schneider

        the fires that have traditionally burned in those forests were relatively small and frequent

        That’s not true, according to a study linked from a link in the post you linked *.

        I’d always thought it was true, and I’d certainly been out with my chainsaw on the dense stands of 3 inch diameter ponderosa that are 75 years old on my 20 acres of dry high forest. But the study says otherwise. I wish I were smart enough to actually understand the study. I’d love to see an evaluation by someone who is smart enough.

        *the study (pdf) is linked from here: http://ncfp.wordpress.com/2012/02/23/new-study-challenges-forest-restoration-and-fire-management-in-western-dry-forests/

  • David Kaib

    I don’t know if I buy this particular hypocrisy argument. Climate change is structural, not simply a product of individual choice. Not flying to a conference has little impact on it’s own.

    • DocAmazing

      However, organizations scheduling conferences to which numbers of people will predictably need to fly…

    • Njorl

      I’ve also never seen this:

      “creating a massive amount of climate-change producing carbon dioxide emitted high in the atmosphere where it’s damage is maximized. “

      backed up by anything. Lots of people say it, then other people refer to them as experts, but there is no good science behind it that I can find. There are competing processes which would make high altitude CO2 more harmful and less harmful. I’ve seen no good analysis of the resultant effect.

  • JoyfulA

    So the Sierra Club supports fracking. That’s about as disgusting as it gets.

    • They are backing away from it. They supported it originally as a bridge fuel to get us off oil and toward renewable. It was a very bad decision.

      • Murc

        … how the hell does NATURAL GAS get us off oil?

        Natural gas is used to heat homes (excellent) and generate power (bad). What’s that got to with oil?

        • joe from Lowell

          There was a push to change over the vehicle fleet to CNG.

          Natural gas makes much more sense as a bridge from coal than from oil.

        • Josh G.

          Why is using natural gas to generate power a bad thing?

          • Murc

            Because natural gas is much, much better utilized to heat homes. It’s less that its ‘bad’ to use natural gas to generate power as that using it for heat is far more efficient and cleaner.

            Granted, if your choices are ‘coal or natural gas’ for power, you should choose natural gas. But all things being equal, you want that stuff being used to heat homes and businesses.

  • Barry Freed

    May I respectfully request a “The Lorax movie sucks ass” post so I can vent. That’s all because otherwise I just won’t be able to stop.

  • Colin Day

    Taking up the mantle of EarthFirst! and the other radical organizations

    Wouldn’t it be better to take up the crust? The mantle doesn’t support that much life.

    • Hob

      I’m actually surprised that neither the Panglossian (“if the atmosphere heats up, we’ll just enjoy more picnics on the beach”) nor the techno-positivist (“the environment won’t matter so much once we’re all downloaded into robots”) subgroups of wingnuts have yet argued that if we ruin things too badly on the surface, we can just all move to the center of the earth.

      • Njorl

        I’m sure that many right-wingers would be happy to become morlocks if they were allowed to eat hippie-tree-hugger-pacifists.

      • Hogan

        Pellucidar here we come!

        A philosophy best embodied by the Waitresses song “They’re All Out of Liquor, Let’s Find Another Party.”

  • Yosemite Semite

    I grew up in Lakeview, Eric. When I was a kid, just down the street from my house was the American Box Factory, and across town was the White Pine Lumber Company. The American Box Factory cut the pieces for flats in which the orchards in California packed fruit: wooden boxes with 3/4″ thick ends and thin slats of wood for sides, tops and bottoms. They were shipped as pieces and assembled as needed in the field. White Pine Lumber cut mouldings. Both companies needed clear (i.e., knot-free), straight-grained wood to make their products. In the mountains around Lakeview, that was — as the eponymous mill implies — white pine. The mills cut all the white pine, and then went out of business. That is to say, their assets were transferred to other businesses that are cutting other species, mostly ponderosa pine. These mills are cutting dimension lumber for construction (along with Lakeview Lumber Co., which always cut dimension lumber), where there isn’t a requirement for clear wood. They’re also cutting smaller and smaller logs, and cutting lots of 2x4s.
    So the white pine is gone, the ponderosa pine is going. That part of the timber business is never going to come back. The Lakeview Working Circle, a regulatory mechanism adopted during the World War II to require timber from certain areas to be cut in Lakeview to maintain the population, is an anachronism. With improved transport, both vehicles and infrastructure (logging roads — that I spent summers surveying — and highways), logs could be hauled to mills in Klamath Falls, for instance, and maintain some jobs there, rather than propping up small, marginal operations in Lakeview. Many of the mills have changed hands several times since I left the town in the 1960s because they’re marginal. Much of the timber in western Lake County is as close to Klamath Falls as it is to Lakeview.
    The best thing that could happen for the forests would be for all the mills to shut down. Yes, people would have to move, but that wouldn’t be the first time. Many of the loggers and millworkers there came from the country around Broken Bow, Oklahoma, after World War II, after all marketable timber there had been cut. It would have been good to have had better stewardship of the woods around Lakeview in the last century, to maintain sustainable harvests. It didn’t happen, and dreams of maintaining the industry there are pipe dreams.

    • OzarkHillbilly

      It would have been good to have had better stewardship of the woods around Lakeview in the last century, to maintain sustainable harvests. It didn’t happen, and dreams of maintaining the industry there are pipe dreams.

      Just wanted to say that it can happen. We have a long ways to go. But when walking in the Pioneer Forest you would not believe it was actually a for profit enterprise. Of course, the fact that it is run by a non-profit foundation makes it easier to live with a smaller profit margin, unlike the National Forests which are managed for the Timber Industry.

      And that is where the problem is. Not the loggers or the mill workers, but with the share holders.

  • Matthew Koehler
  • Michael Donnelly

    Good critique. We just disagree on how serious collaboration is in this age of ecocidal Carbon and how lame the collective “Green” response. The Sierra Club dalliance with corporations is not just “unfortunate;” it’s a clarion call, as are the rampant “collaborative” management schemes…hence, my “lengthy” warning essay.

    The great thing about E-LAW is that it is a fabulous source of what’s going on re: Gaia. One can find out 1) what the corporations and government Agencies are up to (the relevant ones are there as they hire young environmental attorneys to undo the work of other eco-attorneys and activists); 2) what the corporate foundation-funded environmental groups are up to (the smartest of the spokespeople from these groups are there – that’s why I always quote Kerr – he’s the most articulate for that position even if I often strongly disagree); and 3) what the front lines activists are faced with and what they plan to do about it (many seasoned activists attend).

    The one thing you do have wrong is the part about me and others not caring about the “human cost of ending logging.” I am a former mill worker as are a number of forest activists. Of course, my sympathies lie with timber workers. Kerr, who you see as so sensitive now, was very snidely about timber workers back when I was on the ONRC Board and he was Conservation Director – the very time you cite 20+ years ago.

  • Michael Donnelly

    PS I’m writing a follow-up on E-LAW…what I learned, etc.

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