Tree Huggers: Victory, Defeat,
Renewal in the Northwest
Seattle, Washington: The Mountaineers Books, 1996. 303 pages,
illus.; foreword by Charles Wilkinson. $24.95
Northwest environmentalists were fractured over President Clinton's
Northwest forest plan. While the plan seemed to save millions of
acres of old-growth forests, Clinton wanted to save at least some
of the timber industry.
So his staff pressured
Northwest environmentalists, who had most old-growth timber sales
tied up in court, to "release" 200 million board-feet of timber
sales from court injunction. This led to the classic dilemma:
Should environmentalists give up a few trees today to save more
tomorrow? Or should they hold firm?
centered around the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC) and its
two charismatic founders: James Monteith, whom journalist Kathie
Durbin, in her new book, accurately calls the "visionary," and Andy
Kerr, the "strategist."
Untypically, they were
on opposite sides of the debate: Kerr supported release of some
timber, but Monteith - who with Andy Kerr's help had recently been
forced out of ONRC - labeled any release the "deal of shame."
The confrontation between Monteith and Kerr at
a supposedly private environmental strategy meeting forms the
climax of Durbin's Tree Huggers. Although she was a reporter for
the Oregonian, Durbin's sympathy with environmentalists was
well-known enough that she was accepted at that meeting. Her
stories on the environmentalists' decision to release 83 million
board-feet of timber upset many insiders, but they also shed a rare
public light on the divisions that strain the environmental
The best-known are those between
national groups willing to compromise on one issue in order to be
players on other issues, and local groups who won't compromise on
the one issue they care about. Less known is the division between
staffed and volunteer groups. The former must spend time and shape
strategy to raise money; the latter can remain
Another division is between technocrats
and biocentrists. The technocrats see every problem as a scientific
one with an economic, ecologic, or other technical solution.
Biocentrists are more concerned with values and are more inclined
to sweeping solutions to problems.
records these divisions as a part of the daily reality for
Monteith, Kerr and others struggling to save the Northwest's
old-growth forests in the late 1980s and early 1990s. ONRC's great
victory was in getting the national groups to pay attention to old
growth. Besieged by the Reagan administration, worried about such
things as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the last thing the
nationals wanted in the late 1980s was a new issue.
Monteith and Kerr were counseled by the
nationals not to make waves. Instead, they went for a tsunami,
appealing 235 timber sales in one day. It was only when ONRC
demonstrated that old growth was a great fund-raising tool that the
nationals began to devote significant resources to
But even the nationals and locals working
together could not have saved the 7 million acres of forests (2
million of them old growth) reserved by the president's forest
plan. Part of the credit must go to another seemingly monolithic
organization: the Forest Service.
describes how the agency's biologists, hydrologists and other
specialists increasingly worried that national forest timber sales
were destructive and unsustainable. Initially, they were fiercely
resisted by the agency's timber staff. But that staff was shattered
by the industry's refusal to cut trees during the timber bust of
the early 1980s. No trees cut meant little income flowing into
timber management budgets, forcing the agency to lay off thousands
Top Forest Service officials began
to conclude that the agency could no longer hitch its wagon to a
boom-bust industry. So no one stood in the way as agency scientists
Jerry Franklin, Jack Ward Thomas and others proposed increasingly
stringent old-growth protection plans.
pressure from environmentalists, those plans might never have been
written. But without support from scientists and other agency
officials, the final plan would have saved far fewer acres.
Environmentalists who think they can duplicate the Northwest forest
results in other parts of the country without such agency and
scientific support deceive themselves.
covers the Northwest forest disputes from the early 1970s through
the recent sales under the 1995 Salvage Sale Rider. She writes as a
reporter, giving the reader a "you are there" feeling rather than,
as with Steven Yaffee's The Wisdom of the Spotted Owl, "this is
what it all means."
And unlike Alston Chase,
whose In a Dark Wood imagines all sorts of devilish conspiracies
behind the environmental movement, Durbin is an unabashed
environmentalist who dedicates her book "for the forest." For this
reason, some readers may take the alarmism with which she concludes
the book with a few grains of sawdust.
should be patient; the definitive history of the old-growth dispute
has yet to be written, partly because it is still going on.
Meanwhile, Durbin provides a good snapshot of what it was like to
be an environmental activist in the Northwest during the last two
directs The Thoreau Institute in Oak Grove, Oregon.