Consensus even came to Washington, D.C.

  • Cartoon of consensus table in the shape of the Western United States

    Greg Siple

Jim Jontz, feisty director of the Western Ancient Forest Campaign, showed up at the seventh American Forest Congress in Washington, D.C., planning to stomp out in protest.

Scores of other environmental activists, all passionately opposed to the "logging without laws' timber salvage rider, planned to join Jontz's demonstration at a conference its organizers called the greatest gathering of forest users in the history of the world.

That over 1,000 people stayed for five days in a windowless room says as much about the Forest Congress as the multi-page report the organizers will eventually disgorge for posterity. Whether it was worth it should matter to everyone who cares about America's forests.

The congress, held Feb. 20-24, was born out of failure. Policies for managing both public and private lands have become so savaged by the political war between environmentalists and the timber industry that decisions sometimes have almost nothing to do with natural resources. The hostilities have paralyzed an already polarized Congress and left the public confused and often bitter.

To break the gridlock, a group of national timber industry, academic and environmental leaders reached back to a tradition that began in 1882, the year of the first forest congress. Six previous gatherings have assembled since then and all were influential; the 1905 congress resulted in the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service.

But unlike earlier exclusive meetings that starred Yale intellectuals, Weyerhaeuser executives and U.S. presidents, the seventh American Forest Congress was designed to be inclusive; everyone with an interest in the nation's forests was invited. A couple of hundred got scholarships from a dozen groups to attend, but most paid their own way.

From all over the country, people responded - 1,300 citizens from the backwoods of Maine to the mesas of New Mexico. Seated at 147 assigned tables under the crystal chandeliers of the Sheraton ballroom were the usual timber lobbyists and their environmental counterparts. But they were vastly outnumbered by Washington, D.C., first-timers: a Georgia tree farmer, a Seattle sawmill worker, a Nez Perce tribal leader, a Baltimore garden club president. Most looked as if they'd be more comfortable walking in the woods than sitting under chandeliers. Their assigned goal was to develop a vision for America's forests and establish principles to guide forest management into the next century.

It was a daunting task given to an uneasy assemblage. Minutes into the opening session, an intense young man jumped up and yelled, "Point of order! How do we define forest?" No one had an answer. But they went to work on that and related controversies, talking from morning to night, each with nine other people who shared nothing save their commitment to forests.

At times exasperation was obvious. Shaping a vision for America's forests is much harder than debating whether a dead Douglas fir has more value settling into the ground or being milled into boards. Listening for the truth in someone's words is more challenging than picking out the weakness of an argument.

Each day brought more intensity and intimacy to the table discussions as members became protective of their time together, even booing at interruptions from the podium. They took over the process, emphasizing the table communication and de-emphasizing quantifiable results.

They also rebuffed the agendas of both the timber industry and the environmental lobbyists, refusing to back repeals of either the Endangered Species Act or the timber-salvage rider. In fact, the simple-minded zealousness of each side offended many participants. They wanted to work toward their own conclusions.

By day four, Jontz had abandoned his protest plan. "We came to stay for one day and leave if nothing happened," he said. "Things were happening - not in the congress leadership but in the dialogue."

What was happening was what social scientists call consensus building - the imprecise process of establishing minute areas of agreement among people with cavernous philosophical differences.

The pitfalls of this process are enormous. Most of the 61 principles which emerged as one of the few tangible products of the Forest Congress are so general they are all but meaningless. And in the excitement of embracing former enemies as new-found friends - in the relief of the peace that comes after years of fighting - these principles may give way to even more watered-down agreements.

At worst, the forest congress may have been no more than what Native Forest Council director Tim Hermach, a veteran of the timber wars, called "a bullshit compromise feel-good session."

Staying at the seventh American Forest Congress instead of walking out was an act of faith for forest users more interested in what happens in the woods than counting political coup.

Changing America's forests will take all of us speaking out along with - and in spite of - the traditional voices. We will have to shout, even scream, and we will have to do it for years, even decades, to make sure the dialogue that developed grows and finds its way out of meeting rooms. To know if that is happening we must look to the laws that develop. Look to the local economies. Then go to the woods for the truth.

For more information, contact one of the congress sponsors, the American Forests Association, Box 2000, Washington, D.C. 20013 (202/667-3300) or e-mail, [email protected]

Jane Braxton Little is a freelance writer based in Plumas County, California.

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