An unabashed green's snapshot of Northwest forest activism

  • Clearcut in the Olympic National Forest

    Trygve Steen

Tree Huggers: Victory, Defeat, and Renewal in the Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign

Kathie Durbin. Seattle, Washington: The Mountaineers Books, 1996. 303 pages, illus.; foreword by Charles Wilkinson. $24.95 hardcover.

In 1993, 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?

The dispute 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 movement.

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 pure.

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.

Tree Huggers 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 it.

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.

Durbin 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 of employees.

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.

Without 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.

Durbin 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.

They 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 decades.

Randal O'Toole directs The Thoreau Institute in Oak Grove, Oregon.

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