An open letter to Andy Kerr in rural Oregon

  • Workers from sawmill gather, moments before being told it would close

    Rick Swart

ENTERPRISE, Ore. - I don't know you, Andy, although we've met a couple of times. You came into my bookstore 12 or 15 years ago, then we met again the evening of Allan Savory's grazing talk.

I've heard your voice on TV and seen your face in the newspapers over the years. I remember one article about your trading in Levis and work shirts for a coat and tie as you learned the ropes of professional lobbying. I think that article pointed out that you grew up in a timber town, maybe even in a logging family.

And of course I remember your being "at the table" during the Clinton Timber Conference in Portland. More recently, I picked up the quote about those of us in eastern Oregon learning to live with more cappuccino and fewer barbed wire fences. And more recently still I've read about your - actually some family member's - purchase of the log home outside of Joseph.

I'm certainly not a good judge or accountant of what you've done with your life over these past 15 years. I'm not even, as some people have supposed, a member of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. I have followed the environmental battles to a certain extent. In one way this following has been at a distance - the distance that we are from the halls of government and from big city newsrooms. In another way it's been at closer range.

Friends and neighbors are ranchers, loggers, foresters, fish biologists, packers and builders. And all of us who live in this place live next door to designated wilderness and lumber mills, to streams and rivers, forests and open land that have been the objects of environmental concern.

It occurs to me as I write this that it is not so much a letter as it is a meditation. It's the things that come to my mind and those that come up in conversation with people who live here. I send it to you - and to anyone else who reads it - not as a prescription for behavior, but as thinking points in how we relate to our places in the world and to each other.

I'll begin with the log house. People have criticized you for buying a log house on the one hand while you advocate a "zero cut" on national forest lands on the other. And you have replied that you live in a wood frame house in Portland and no one has made an issue of that. My take is that the irony of it being a log house is a small one; the big issue is the size of the house (some 2,600 square feet) and how that relates to resource use.

I've long thought that the huge houses we live in are an extravagance that is environmentally unsound, and that it is a serious contradiction in values for people who are advocates of cutting less timber to live in houses that use more lumber. If we all reduced - in our next exchange of houses - the square footage of our homes by 20 percent rather than increased them by 20 percent, it might actually have an impact on lumber demand. Look what happened with smaller cars and Detroit.

Your Wallowa County purchase points up another and more subtle area of conflict, one that is more urban-rural than it is environmental-resource user.

The house you bought is one that most of us who live here could not afford to build or buy. And when city folks whose income is not tied to the place buy such homes, it drives up the price of property.

For a time, it seems that everyone is a winner in this kind of transaction. Rural builders get work, retiring farmers can afford to sell land and go to live in warmer climes, local stores get more traffic, and urban buyers have their "homes in the country."

But ultimately the system unravels. In Aspen and Jackson Hole and Sisters and Hood River, rising property values have forced local residents to abandon agriculture. The service industry that they often become a part of has moved up or down the road several miles. In my own mind, development and not cattle is the biggest threat to the land and the lifestyle that we enjoy in Wallowa County.

I certainly don't condone the harassment of a house-sitter living in your new log home (HCN, 3/7/94), or the Spokane TV station crew's intrusion onto your property. But I understand the fear and frustration of people whose livelihoods depend on cattle and timber harvest. I understand their hatred of you and others they see as "in-your-face" environmentalists.

Your credo seems to be "We want to conserve resources and act in a globally responsible way, but I should be able to live in as large and as many houses and in other ways consume as many things as my means allows."

We all wonder why you chose the town of Joseph, and why that particular house. Hopefully, there are sincere longings for the things you valued about growing up in a small timber town. If that's the case, your moving here might be good for all of us. A friend of mine who lives on the west side suggested that.

"In the city," he said, "Andy can go to meetings and be as confrontational as he wants, knowing that everyone will walk away to their own private spaces." In a small town, everyone uses the same post office, drug store and market, and we often need each other to watch our houses, pets and children when we are gone, or to plow our roads and rototill our gardens.

It's hard to be an "in-your-face" anything for very long under those conditions.

The Pendleton East Oregonian hit a similar note as it welcomed you to eastern Oregon. It concluded that: "... residents of eastern Oregon represent much diversity of thought. There is no one mindset that "reflects the community." Kerr has every right to be part of this healthy mix of opinions.

"If you don't like his views, then engage him in debate. But don't run him or anyone else out of the country. Surely residents of eastern Oregon are not so thin-skinned as to fear one man and his ideas."

I note that on the front page of last week's Chieftain, you say you have dropped your suit against the news station, which had camped out on your front porch, in exchange for an apology, and that you expect the investigation of the county commissioners will be dropped by the State Police as well. "In the spirit of reconciliation," you said, "I consider this matter closed."

I congratulate you for that, and look forward to talking to you at a ball game or across the supermarket aisle. I wonder what you did think about the Allan Savory evening, about the kind of forestry that award-winning foresters such as Bob Jackson, Leo Goebel and Howard Johnson and others are practicing here, and about this idea of building and buying smaller houses.

Rich Wandschneider's "Main Street" column appeared Feb. 24 in the Wallowa County Chieftain, which was founded in 1884. The author is an organizer of The Fish Trap gatherings of writers and thinkers about the new West. Its address is Box 38, Enterprise, OR 97828 (503/426-3623).

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