Eastside activists feel scarce and don't back down

  • Activist Kevin Scribner leads a tour in Ore. of Blue Mtn. forests

    Kathie Durbin

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, Ambitious ecosystem management advances east.

They know their turf. Often they're all alone in their attempts to rescue public lands from overcutting, overgrazing and overappropriation of scarce water essential to native fish.

In the Northwest, inland from the Cascade Mountains, environmental activists can't hide behind the anonymity that big cities provide. They're out there, in ones and twos, a highly visible minority in isolated communities that live or die by logging, grazing and farming. Their adversaries stand in line next to them at the grocery check-out stand. Their allies are hundreds of miles away.

Tonia Wolf works alone in the central Oregon town of Prineville to speak for the wildlife and unlogged old-growth pines of the nearby Ochoco National Forest. One of the reasons activists east of the Cascades are so committed, she says, is that they see themselves as the only line of defense against exploitation of public lands.

"I'm the only one doing this on the Ochoco. If I leave it, it will die." Not just the campaign, she means, the forest itself.

Melodramatic, somewhat desperate, but the sentiment is echoed by Susan Prince of the Bend-based Central Oregon Forest Issues Committee: "You feel like if you walk away, they'll cut it all down."

Still, Wolf says, if she isn't talking to a reporter on the environment beat, her life in a rural community generally requires avoidance of inflammatory rhetoric. "You're more circumspect. I'm really aware of the consequences of the requests that I make. I have to keep checking my position to make sure I'm not on some self-indulgent trip."

To be effective, Eastside forest activists get out in the field, making forest managers look at consequences of specific decisions.

From her base in Walla Walla, Wash., for instance, Judith Johnson directs the National Audubon Society's Eastside Adopt-a-Forest program. She organized a successful partnership project with the U.S. Forest Service that enlisted environmentalists to conduct the first-ever inventory of old-growth forests east of the Cascades.

The project revealed that the national forests of the Eastside had significantly less old growth in dedicated old-growth areas than the agency had estimated - 20 percent to 50 percent less, depending on the forest. In some cases, areas marked as old-growth reserves in forest plans had been logged years earlier.

Those findings, combined with other research and threats of a lawsuit, spurred the Forest Service to study eastside forest health and sharply reduce logging until a new Eastside ecosystem plan is developed and in place.

Grass-roots environmentalists like Wolf and Prince are now monitoring each proposed timber sale to make sure stringent standards known as "screens" are followed.

"Our people have been on every unit of every sale," Johnson says. "We've walked the ground. It's been an education for the ranger district people. They've had to walk these units too, and suddenly they've had to focus on old growth, riparian zones and wildlife. The whole process has enabled Forest Service employees to do their jobs better."

Working face-to-face with officials and opponents, instead of interacting by long-distance mail or phones or legal pleadings, sometimes leads to an atmosphere of fear that has to be conquered, says Jere Payton of Oroville, Wash.

Payton is an out-front environmentalist who monitors the Okanogan, a forest abutting the Canadian border, where roadless areas contain some of the last chunks of wilderness large enough to support wolves and grizzlies. Pushing for habitat protection, she's been the target of an intimidation campaign waged by the wise-use movement, which locally is in full battle dress supporting logging and grazing and a controversial proposed gold mine.

The campaign against Payton has included verbal death threats and a fax alert that drew 152 of her opponents to a meeting where she and local officials discussed her proposal for an international park. There has also been an orchestrated effort to deny Payton meeting space in public buildings. Local wise-use groups have boasted of victories in their newsletters.

"I admire my neighbors and like them," says Payton, who has lived in Okanogan County for 20 years. "However, my neighbors have been radicalized by their trade press, which paints (all environmentalists) as radicals." She says wise-use propaganda tells her neighbors "we're trying to steal their children's future."

The intimidation took different shape elsewhere in northeastern Washington. Two activists discovered loosened lug nuts on their car as they headed into a snowstorm, and a school board was pressured to remove two teachers from their classrooms because they espoused environmental causes. (One teacher was Payton's husband.)

Forty activists and outside experts came together in Okanogan County in late August to discuss survival and coalition-building strategies.

"We're talking about folks who were already isolated in their communities," said Tarsa Ramos of the Western States Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides technical assistance to progressive grass-roots groups. "All this is combining to create an atmosphere of social sanctions for intimidation, harassment, even violence against environmental activists."

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