My View: Oregon forests are at a crossroads
Today, with signs of spring coming on fast, I watched fresh fir shavings shoot out from my sharp saw as it cut through a blown-down log. Between bucking the logs for our sawmill, I periodically checked in on the latest news from Salem. With important work to be done, the functioning of our legislature had been stopped by the Republicans once again, choosing not to do the jobs they have been elected and paid to do — crafting solutions to problems and representing their constituents.
Reflecting on this and related news, I was reminded of two things: my home state is at a crucial crossroads, and as a citizen and an owner of a forest business, I know that the path we will choose is critically important to everything I care about.
Though the immediate impasse is climate legislation, the deeper issue is the future of democracy and the character and culture of this state.
Our chosen path from this crossroads will be shaped by how we answer four questions.
Will we learn?
Struggle over public policy questions, like the pending climate legislation, is inevitable and healthy. I applaud the recent forest agreement as a good example of working within structures designed to manage these struggles. The struggle becomes dangerous and destructive when our systems for finding common ground fail. The form of learning described by Ernst Haas crystallizes what is most needed today in Oregon and beyond: "Learning is ... the establishment of shared meaning among parties that may be active antagonists but that find themselves condemned by their interdependence to negotiate better solutions than they had created in earlier attempts." Whether in the legislature or elsewhere, we are challenged to acknowledge our interdependence and to become better learners.
Will we balance?
A weathered Wallowa County logger got it right when he said in reference to forests: "I guess it boils down to this — we need to learn to take care of what we've got." For thousands of years this work of "taking care" of this place we call home has been part of our legacy. Like all people, Oregonians balance this responsibility of care with another central legacy: taking profit. Both make us who we are, but must be balanced to ensure that we follow the old logger's advice by not letting the pursuit of profit overrun our duty to take care. As a forest business owner, I have a responsibility to take care of many things, including our land, our community and our family business. Additionally, long-term profitability depends on taking care of what we all share in common, including the atmosphere.
Will we act?
The science is clear — climate is rapidly changing, and we are into the critical decade where changing our behaviors might help us avoid the worst outcomes. "Later" is no longer an option. The question is whether Oregonians will accept that the risks of inaction are greater than the risks and challenges of taking leadership to help solve the problems and prepare for the changes. Our forest-owning family strongly supports passage of the legislation. Owners of over 1 million acres of Oregon forests agree with us, as do a strong majority of Oregon citizens and those we elected. Our forests provide a unique and underutilized pair of superpowers: some of the earth's highest potential to catch and hang onto carbon and the ability to become systems able to remain economically and ecologically productive while adapting to changing conditions.
Where's our allegiance?
It is human nature for us to juggle a hierarchy of allegiances — whether it is to family clan, ethnicity, gender, sports team or, yes, political party. I was born into a 1950s Oregon where we disagreed on plenty, but had a core identity grounded in what we shared in common. This environment allowed and encouraged us to learn and solve problems. I fear that our identities have shifted such that the focus is on where we disagree at the expense of losing sight of our many shared commitments. Hidden in the folds of this state are inspiring models of effective communities where hardworking citizens rank the building of better human and ecological communities high in their hierarchy of allegiances. Let's learn from and follow their example.
By now you know that this forest owner badly wants us to learn, to balance in ways that take enough care while also meeting our needs, to take effective action on climate and to show unshakable allegiance to our home places. I invite and challenge you to think about and discuss what legacy you will create and leave behind — and to take actions — today, this week, and in coming years to build a positive pathway from this critical crossroads.
Peter Hayes and his family own and care for Hyla Woods in the Northern Oregon Coast Range. Hayes served on the Oregon Board of Forestry from 2007 to 2011.
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