Working the land back to health

  • Central Ariz.'s ponderosa pine forest in 1926

    American Lumberman Magazine

Note: this front-page essay introduces this issue's two feature stories.

The two major stories here open long after crushing environmental defeats occurred. The magnificent ponderosa pine forests around Flagstaff, Ariz., were heavily logged during the past century, and the cut-over land has now sprouted into fire-prone thickets. To the west and north, the once-healthy grasslands of the Trout Creek Mountains in eastern Oregon were long ago grazed almost bare, degrading the land and the streams that depend on it.

Can those two very different landscapes be restored to health, or are the defeats permanent? The first story, by staff writer Michelle Nijhuis, examines a consensus effort to thin the ponderosa trees and bring back fire. The second, by freelance writer Tom Knudson, reports on efforts to restore the watershed and save the Lahontan cutthroat trout by improved methods of grazing. Here, too, consensus is at the center of the effort.

But why should we pursue restoration by involving the very industries and often the same individuals that damaged the land in the first place? The best answer is that in a time of tight public money, restoration depends on creating economies that can produce healthy land and profits, and creating economies is not something environmentalists are very good at.

Environmentalism is a big-picture movement, valuable when it comes to imagining a different kind of world than the one we live in, but usually incapable of implementing that vision. Implementation takes people who work the land, who can invent machinery and logging and grazing techniques, and who can put together capital and labor and markets to restore the land. Environmentalists need to be at the table because we understand what the land should look like. But others must translate that vision into concrete achievements.

Those environmentalists who participate in consensus efforts aren't doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, or because they are foolish and overly trusting. They do it because they need help to get their way.

The same enlightened but selfish reasoning brings ranchers, loggers and federal land managers to the table. They join consensus efforts because it is the most efficient way for them to do business today. Even with a hostile Congress and a pale-green president in power, environmentalists have so changed the laws and society's values that we have a veto over much of what happens in the West.

The challenge is to accept the reality of our power, and to turn from a total concentration on opposition to some problem-solving. This issue of High Country News paints a picture of people who are doing that.

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