'Timber Wars': OPB looks back at environmentalists vs. timber industry
Thirty years ago, the course of our state's economic and conservation future changed forever when the northern spotted owl was listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Environmentalists used the listing as a linchpin to try to prohibit national forest land from being logged in the ensuing years — and it worked.
Timber industry folks watched their way of life slowly disappear, even with the Northwest Forest Plan, implemented under then-President Bill Clinton, supposedly introduced to help secure their livelihoods.
Now, 30 years later, memories of the struggle still exist and the story has been documented in Oregon Public Broadcasting's seven-part podcast "Timber Wars."
It was a yearlong endeavor for producer Aaron Scott to put together "Timber Wars," including scores of interviews and research, and it couldn't have been released at a more (unfortunate) time, with wildfires raging in southern Oregon and the Willamette Valley putting the spotlight again on forest management — and an ambitious argument about an issue distinctively 21st century, climate change.
Six parts of the podcast were launched last week, the seventh was set to be finalized this week, and it's available at www.opb.org, and on NPR One, Spotify and Apple platforms.
Scott reflects on what he has learned about both sides of "Timber Wars" — environmentalists vs. loggers — and said he has "respect" for both of them.
"I definitely have a deeper understanding of both sides," said Scott, a Steamboat Springs, Colorado, native who moved to Oregon in 1989, which serves as the start date for the podcast.
"I have incredible respect for early environmentalists. They were a lot of people — college kids and hippies, scrappy folks who loved the forests who put lives and jobs on the line to protect things they love that we now take for granted.
"Yet, at the same point, I have definitely newfound respect and empathy for those who spent their lives working on land and from small towns, and in some ways they paid a big price. Could there have been a better way to transition economics and retrain people? But, they had a way of life and didn't want to change."
The podcast features original composed music by Laura Gibson, a singer-songwriter who grew up in the Oregon logging town of Coquille.
Scott began the "Timber Wars" project having already accumulated knowledge about the Oregon timber industry and environmental movement through his work as OPB science and environment producer and on OPB's "Oregon Field Guide" program.
And, he admitted that his background in Colorado included spending time in forests where people went to camp, hike and play — "not a huge timber industry where I lived in Northwest Colorado."
Scott moved to Oregon and "seeing my first clear-cuts … 'Oh this is very different.'" He saw that old-growth forest was seen as decaying and rotting and the Northwest "turned into tree plantations. It blew my mind."
So, he wanted to look at how Oregon's economy and conservation practices changed; really, it's the story of such movements from Alaska, through British Columbia to California. In Oregon it started with the inclusion of the northern spotted owl as threatened on the Endangered Species List in 1990. (Although its habitat became more protected, it's still listed as threatened partly because of an invasion of the stronger and more aggressive barred owl).
Suffice to say, "it was never about the spotted owl, it was a linchpin to protect the old growth," Scott said.
The movement began to protect it. President Clinton, then-Vice President Al Gore and many members of Clinton's Cabinet visited Oregon for a forest conference in Portland.
"That blows me away," Scott said. "The idea that the president would fly half his Cabinet to a corner of the country seemed so functional, it's how government should work."
And, the Northwest Forest Plan came to fruition, although it originally was meant to balance environmental and industry wants and needs. It protected millions of acres of forest, but it also derailed people's livelihoods.
"The question is, 'Did it work?'" Scott said. "It's never delivered the amount of timber it was supposed to. (Clinton) very much wanted this to work for timber communities."
Scott said because of Oregon's rate of tree cutting in the early days of the industry, it left modern-day loggers with fewer options.
The podcast examines "just how intensely our understanding of the forest flipped from crop to ecosystem. It changed the landscape and slowed down logging, and it turned us into the green Northwest paradise that we're now known for," Scott said.
Scott said the bitterness and divide still exists, even if unnoticed by people in cities.
"If you didn't live through it, you might recognize the spotted owl and know there were tree-sitters," he said. "The fact that it was something on the nightly news, and it was tearing apart the region, that's largely forgotten.
"But, people in rural communities, who live with the Northwest Forest Plan and the spotted owl, it's very much alive. Like Mill City and elsewhere (in Santiam Canyon, southern Oregon, etc.), they look at forests and say they are overgrown and dangerous (for fires). 'There's a lot of wood out there.' They were stewards of the forests, keeping it clean and healthy in their mind. It's evolved into the fight over wildfire forest management and climate change."
Mill City was one of the small Oregon communities devastated by recent wildfires. Several subjects interviewed for "Timber Wars" were affected, and some lost their homes, Scott said. "It's been devastating to watch," he added. "The forest we start the series in, around Breitenbush, has been deeply impacted."
The divide manifested itself last year when protesters descended on the state Capitol in Salem to protest cap and trade legislation, which they saw as further damaging their livelihoods because of carbon restrictions and taxes. Republican legislators protested by walking out rather than be subjected to voting on the issue.
Scott acknowledged that the debate about forest management rages. Thin more forest land and reduce the threat of wildfires, timber industry folks say. Leave the national forest land alone, it's a science and climate change problem, environmentalists say.
"Both sides believe we need more management," Scott said.
The battle has raged over federal land, but it also includes timber sales from private land, state forest and Bureau of Land Management property. Scott said it's not the timber industry that has been leading the charge, but more incorporated real estate investment trusts that have found loopholes to continue extracting the natural resource.
It's still a timely topic.
The fear is "fires will cause both sides to retreat to 'Do not log anything' or 'The way to prevent fires is more logging,'" Scott said.
"This reminds us that retreating to trenches didn't work last time. This is the landscape we live in, we need to protect it, and we have to learn together and talk to each other, have grace and humility."
The "Timber Wars" podcasts and OPB's descriptions:
• Episode 1: "The Last Stand"
When loggers headed into the forest on Easter Sunday in 1989, they found a line of protesters blocking the road. The battle that ensued would change lives on both sides, help catapult old-growth forests into a national issue, and become known as the "Easter Sunday Massacre."
• Episode 2: "The Forest"
For most of America's history, trees were seen as crops, and the plan was to log the country's last virgin forests and replant them with tree farms. We see forests very differently today. How did things change so quickly? It started with a bunch of contrarian scientists in an Oregon forest.
• Episode 3: "The Owl"
Depending on who you are, the northern spotted owl is either the hero of this story, or the villain. And the Endangered Species Act is either an incredible conservation shield, or the hammer used to smash rural economies. But those beliefs miss the fact that it was a single sentence in an entirely different law that locked up the forests. The podcast tells the unlikely story of how a reclusive bird halted the march of chainsaws.
• Episode 4: "The Town"
Mill City was one of dozens of flourishing timber towns, where a job in the woods could support a good life. But the protesters and the court cases upended that, leaving locals to ask: Which is the true threatened species here?
• Episode 5: "The Plan"
The timber wars grew so hot that one of President Clinton's first acts in office was to fly half his Cabinet to Portland to resolve the conflict. From a Capitol Hill bathroom-turned-office to a presidential lunch buffet, the podcast tells the behind-the-scenes story of the most sweeping conservation plan in U.S. history: the Northwest Forest Plan.
• Episode 6: "The Backlash"
Before the Northwest Forest Plan had a chance to succeed, Congress threw it out the window. With old growth back on the cutting block, the fight to defend it grew both more mainstream and more violent, seeding the ground for many conflicts to come.
• Episode 7: "The Collaboration"
Is the Northwest fatally divided, or can differences be overcome and sides work together? This is the story of loggers and environmentalists who have found some semblance of common ground. But it didn't come easy. And no one knows how long it'll last.
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