Felt Necessities: Engines of Forest Policy, No. 10

Felt Necessities: Engines of Forest Policy, No. 10

This is the tenth part of "Felt Necessities: Engines of Forest Policy," a series of essays tracing the history of the conservation movement in the United States, and its influence on the nation’s ever-shifting forest policy.

The series expands significantly on a half-day lecture Evergreen founder, Jim Petersen, delivered to a graduate-level forestry class at the University of Idaho in February 2017.

The term “felt necessities” is taken from The Common Law, a book of essays assembled in 1881 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in which he explains the historic underpinnings of the nation’s legal system. President Theodore Roosevelt thought so much of Holmes’ essays that nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1902.

We hope you enjoy this series and find it informative. Your comments are most welcome. "Felt Necessities" will subsequently be available in book form. Click on the number to be directed to Parts 1-9 of the series. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9


By now, I suspect many of you have figured out that there is no end to the story about our nation’s ever-evolving felt necessities.

My telling, which began with public reaction to George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature, published in 1864, ends with somewhere between 80 and 90 million acres of our federal forest estate in what fire ecologists call “Condition Class 2” and “Condition Class 3.”

“Class 3” lands are said to be “ready to burn” and “Class 2” lands soon will be. How our felt necessities led us to this environmental precipice is a story with many twists, turns and unexpected outcomes. The phrase, “It wasn’t supposed to end like this” comes immediately to mind.

But here we are – and minus swift and significant cultural, economic and environmental course corrections – it is likely that at least half the West’s federal forest estate will be lost to insects, diseases and inevitable wildfire over the next 30 years. There are some signs that a course correction in our felt necessities has begun with a series of congressional legislative fixes, but whether it has come in time will remain an open question for 10 to 15 years.

Following the end of World War II, America immersed itself in the greatest economic expansion in its history. You may recall that one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s persistent worries was that the nation would lapse back into a Great Depression following the war. Young men would again be seen standing in bread lines and hovering around soup kitchens – and this time Franklin and not Herbert Hoover would be blamed. Democrats would lose the White House and possibly Congress. It thus fell to a handful of the President’s closest advisors to figure out what might be done to facilitate the fastest possible economic transition from wartime to peacetime footing. We are thus introduced to Crowe Girard Davidson, Roosevelt’s No. 2 man in the Interior Department, and his erstwhile assistant, Dan Goldy, an exceptionally skilled political plotter and schemer, an economist by training and an acerbic New Jersey Jew by culture and avocation.

I can say these things about Dan because I knew and admired what he did to affect the peaceful transition Roosevelt hoped for but did not live to see. While touring western Oregon with Rusty, his new wife, Goldy, recognized that western Oregon’s towering Douglas-fir forests - and by inference the Douglas-fir forests of western Washington and northern California – were the economic engines the Roosevelt Administration needed to facilitate the transition.

Goldy’s discovery – if we can call it that – seems improbable given that he knew nothing about forestry or sawmilling, but he had worked in war production during the war, organizing factories that were building tanks and airplanes and making sure the plants operated efficiently and had everything they needed to meet military deadlines. He thus understood manpower and manufacturing.

Goldy also understood raw material – and in western national forests he saw a raw material supply that, if efficiently managed, could prove two of the nation’s most urgent peacetime needs: jobs and enough lumber to meet post-war demand for housing. Few private home were built during the war because almost every stick of lumber manufactured went into the war effort.

Goldy knew that this had to change and change quickly to meet the needs of millions of GI’s who were homeward bound with dreams of a job, education, home, marriage and family. Democrats had taken care of the home and education part with 1944 passage of the GI Bill – more formally known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act. Proposed by the American Legion, it offered low-cost home loans, low-interest business loans, one year unemployment compensation and the promise of a free education: high school diploma, vocational training or a college education – living expenses included.

Goldy filled in the blanks on the Roosevelt Administration’s wish list by connecting the dots that linked the West’s vast federal timber supply  with homebuilding and the jobs that would be created in forests, sawmills and home construction. I asked Dan about his calculus many times during the many years we knew one another. He could be egotistical to the point of arrogance at times, but about this he was humble and crystal clear. He had simply put two and two together and come up the beginnings of a plan he felt certain would succeed. He was right.

Given today’s environmental felt necessities it will probably be hard for you to believe that a bi-partisan felt necessity shared by Congress and the U.S. Forest Service following World War II was the deliberate and orderly liquidation of stagnating old growth forests and the establishment of vigorous new tree plantations. The West’s national forests were to become tree factories.

That view – the prevailing view – held until 1970 when, seemingly, the whole country started to come apart at the seams: Vietnam, Woodstock, psychedelic drugs and the Summer of Love. I was too old by then to have any interest in the social upheaval that paraded across the front pages of morning newspapers and nightly television newscasts. After I graduated from college in 1966, I wrote for newspapers for several years before starting my own fairly successful advertising agency. It wasn’t until I founded Evergreen Magazine in 1986 that I began to give much thought to what was happening in our country. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it’s true. I was too busy to put attention to the events that were actually shaping and influencing my own felt necessities.

I had no long-term plan for Evergreen. The southern Oregon lumbermen who helped fund my startup wanted a vehicle that could encourage southern Oregon residents to respond favorably to the U.S. Forest Service’s first decadal forest plans, a felt necessity embedded in the 1976 National Forest Management Act.

Seven federal forest plans loomed large in southwest Oregon and northern California: the Siskiyou, Rogue, Umpqua, Klamath, Six Rivers, Winema and Siuslaw. My job was to read the plans – they weighed about 14 pounds – then explain what they meant in plain English in a series of Evergreen reports. Suffice it to say it was quite an education, but I did it.

What I did not realize or appreciate at the time was how deeply divided our nation had become during the 1970s. The cultural chasm that distanced urban America from its rural roots grew wider and wider with each passing year – and with the widening came the very real possibility that none of the preferred forest management alternatives recommended by the U.S. Forest Service would ever be implemented as proposed.

Urban Americans, their elected representatives and the federal court system repeatedly pushed back every attempt to continue managing our national forests the way Congress and the Roosevelt Administration had envisioned at the end of World War II. There had been a sea change in felt necessities and none of us – me included – had seen it for what it was. All most living in the rural west saw was a federal court system that seemed to be rigged against them and a fast growing  urban populace that had disenfranchised them at the ballot box.

All of the ugliness and despair – the public hearings, the timber community rallies and the federal court cases argued in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco – came to a head with the federal government’s June 1990 decision to list the northern spotted owl as a threatened species.

The science behind the listing decision was sketchy at best – so sketchy that, even now, 29 years later, we don’t know why spotted owl population numbers are still in freefall. The listing premise had been that population numbers would begin to increases as soon as logging ceased in old growth forests. It didn’t happen and we don’t know why.

But we do know two things with absolute certainty. First, the listing decision triggered the loss of about 60,000 jobs in forest products manufacturing sectors. Second, a felt necessity to chart a major course correction in the management of our national forests was secured.

Some years ago, I interview a PhD statistician at Rutgers University concerning the population model owl biologists had built that led to the listing. He told me it was statistically invalid – meaning that it drew conclusions not supported by data.

The National Forest Products Association had hired Ed Green to review the model’s statistical reliability. The day before he was scheduled to appear at a press conference in Washington, D.C. he called to say that he wasn’t coming.

To this day, no one knows why, but in the course of my investigation, I learned that Forest Service Chief, Jack Ward Thomas, had been on the Rutgers campus the day before and that he had issued a warning that the still untenured Green took as a threat to his career. When I later asked Jack – who was a friend – if he had threatened Green he said he hadn’t. And when I asked Green if he would be willing to analyze a new owl plan if one were developed, he said he would, You can draw your own conclusions. Mine is that the listing science was flimsy and politically contrived and that, as a result, we are still chasing rabbits down holes in an effort to cover up the original political sin.

We published two or three Evergreen reports focusing on owls and owl science, but by 1990 I had turned my full attention to what I saw as a far greater threat to our western national forests: the forest  health problem we see in standing dead trees – billions of them – that are fueling killing wildfires across the west for which we can find no precedent in known ecological history.

We’ve published maybe 10 Evergreen editions featuring wildfires on the cover, but it has been slow going against a tide of public opinion that, until very recently, favored leaving our national forests to “nature” rather than mechanically thinning trees in forests that have grown so dense they’ve become both insect magnets and fire traps. The fear has been that thinning – even if it helped - might invite a return to the bad old days when old growth timber was harvested from western national forests.

I frankly doubt that such a scenario will ever appear because the felt necessities of forest products manufacturers in the West had undergone profound change in the years since the owl listening. Hundreds of small family-owned companies that were totally dependent on federal timber have gone out of business – including all of the companies that funded Evergreen in its early going. The survivors have grown larger through acquisition and the investment of their own capital in wood processing technologies that enable them to operate more efficiently.

These technologies have ushered in a new era in wood processing. I never thought I’d see the day when architects who once frowned on forestry would be engaged in lively discussions about the feasibility of building skyscrapers from advanced engineered wood technologies. Clearly, mass panel plywood and cross-laminated timbers are revolutionizing the way in which wood is manufactured and used. I wonder what Dan Goldy would think if he could see this.

For that matter, I wonder what my father would think about these new-age products. Plywood was in its infancy when we remodeled our home in 1950. He refused to use it, so the subfloors in our house consist of two layers of 1-inch by 6-inch tongue-and-groove boards laid diagonally. You could safely run a freight train across the floors at 106 West Mission in Kellogg, Idaho.

There are a handful of family-own wood processing businesses that hope to capitalize on the yet unknown magnitude of society’s change of heart as it concerns killing wildfire and the fact that the wildfire risk could be reduced if federal environmental laws looked more favorably on active forest management and less favorably on the kind of thumb-twiddling that has gone on in the Forest Service over the last 30 years.

Congress is more interested in active forest management than it has been at any time since the spotted owl was listed – and so are many of the Forest Service new recruits – but many of the Clinton era holdovers aren’t the least bit interested and the clock is running and I am not sure the government can stem the wildfire tide in time to reverse it.

I think trust is the main sticking point for small family-owned businesses that are interested in helping the government corral its wildfire pandemic. They’ve seen too many good ideas quashed by federal judges who would be greatly offended by foresters who attempted to practice law, but aren’t the least bit concerned about their own sorry attempts to practice forestry.

Probably the best example of the loss of trust that I can cite involves the Nature Conservancy’s attempt to find a partner financially and technologically capable of helping it build and operate a sawmill somewhere near Wenatchee, Washington. The Conservancy’s surprising interest in wood processing stems from three facts. First, most forestland east of the Cascades in Washington is federally-owned and most of it is in Condition Class 3 – meaning it is ready to burn. Not good given that outdoor recreation is a big deal in central and eastern Washington. Third, the only sawmill east of the Cascades that is capable of helping to solve this problem is Vaagen Brothers in Colville in the far northeast corner of Washington. The Nature Conservancy would like engage with Duane Vaagen and I think he’d like to engage with them but he doesn’t trust the federal government and he is thus unwilling to risk is capital on a sawmilling venture costing upwards of $100 million that would be solely dependent on a stable and reliable supply of federal logs harvested from central Washington national forests. Who can blame him for his felt necessity? This is the same government that deliberately rigged its spotted owl listing. It has repeatedly demonstrated bad faith in its dealings with communities and businesses that did business with the feds for decades following WWII.

Evergreen is now solely supported by financial and in-kind donations from my wife and me. We continue to look for innovative ways to re-connect the federal government and our urban population centers to the rural communities and businesses turned upside down and inside out by our nation’s ever-shifting felt necessities. It is challenging and expensive to say the very least.

I sometimes wonder why I still do this but then I remember than I have been a working journalist for 50-plus years and I am chasing the story of a lifetime. You can remind me that my only obligation is to report, not justify or convince, but then I will feel obliged to tell you that, until very recently, damned little truthful reporting has gone on in my Evergreen years and I believe the public deserves to know the truth about what has gone on in our western national forests since the 1970s. Now we are annually losing millions of western national forest acres to insects, diseases and wildfire and everyone wants to know why.

I’ve enjoyed telling the stories of a dozen or so collaborative groups that have formed in northeast Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana over the last few years. The groups, which bring together the viewpoints of almost every imaginable forest user group including wilderness advocates and lumbermen, are working hard to help the Forest Service resolve some of its more contentious local and regional issues. The shared goal is to “increase the pace and scale” of restoration work in at risk forests – those in Condition Class 2 or 3.

Restoration work generally involves thinning in forests that are too dense for the carrying capacity of the land and then prescribed fire – fires that are deliberately set in thinning forests to do the rest of the cleanup work.

Where the trees are too small to have any commercial value, they are often chipped on site and where there isn’t much but brush where there was once a forest, it is masticated – chewed to bits – by machines that do that sort of work. Then the replanting work begins.

There is a lot of confusion about what forest restoration does. We can’t turn back nature’s clock but we can give nature a helping hand. Thinning and prescribed fire increase resiliency – the ability of a forest to more naturally fend off insects and diseases. It becomes more difficult for forests to do this on their own as stand density increases and trees must to compete for growing space, soil nutrients, moisture and sunlight. The felt necessities of a growing forest.

We – the public, our society - created this insect-disease-wildfire problem in the course of addressing one of our own great felt necessities – the widely held desire to extinguish forest fires in their earliest stages before they kill anyone or destroy a forest we love just the way it is or burn up a lot of valuable timber.

If we seem conflicted, it is because we are. We love nature but only the pretty parts. Maybe the great lesson that wildfire teaches us is that we can’t preserve nature is a jar, no matter how hard we try. There is no steady state in nature, no perfect balance, no harmony and very likely no web of life that connects Part A to Part Z. Environmentalists have invited us to believe in these things for a long time, and many of us do believe all parts are connected and that – if we’d just leave nature alone – there would be perfect harmony and balance in all things.

The problem with this lovely line of thinking is that it conflicts with our need the basics: food, clothing and shelter. As disquieting as it probably seems, the things we need come from the soil or deep in the earth. The timber, mining, energy and agricultural industries provide the basics for our every human need. We seek to regulate these industries out of felt necessity. We don’t want our Earth despoiled. We want things to be pretty. Makes sense to me. But all of us still have other felt necessities that must be met daily: food, clothing and shelter.

Back to our forest collaboratives for a moment. These groups function with congressional blessing. They function as “get out of jail” cards for members of Congress and the Forest Service – those who created our regulatory nightmare and those who administer it.

Many environmental groups hate the collaborative process and refuse to participate in it because it undermines their business model, which is to stir up conflict whenever and wherever they can by suggesting that collaboration rigs the game in favor of forest management. I disagree. It rigs the game in favor of action versus standing pat while nature burns down forests that could be restored by human hand.

Stirring up conflict is a good money-maker for environmental groups that prey of people who don’t understand that nature doesn’t give a damn about their wants and needs. Also people who object to businesses that “profit” from the work they do in federally-owned forests. I don’t know what’s immoral about making a profit from one’s labors, but for some people it is a bridge too far.

Some environmental groups make a quite profitable living by suing the Forest Service under the aegis of the Equal Access to Justice Act, a federal law intended to give poor people access to the federal court system. I’m fine with that but I’m not fine with the idea that deep-pocketed environmental groups are abusing EAJA in the name of saving the planet.

I wish Congress would put some sideboards on Equal Access to Justice so that radical environmentalists could not abuse it. Perhaps require binding arbitration instead. If you don’t like the plan a collaborative group has developed in concert with the Forest Service, bring your own plan to the table and we’ll the arbitrators can decide which plan is best for Mother Earth.

Congress doesn’t seem willing to pull the trigger on an Equal Access fix but it is doing some things that are helping increase pace and scale in forests that need help. Because the U.S. Forest Service is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Farm Bill has become the favored vehicle for legislative fixes. Among them: encouraging the formation of collaborative groups, stewardship contracting, large-scale long-term Collaborative Landscape Forest Restoration Projects and Good Neighbor Authority, a nifty piece of work that allows the Forest Service to contract with state forestry departments to get more work done on the ground.

The big kahuna and the least understood of these innovations is something called Cooperating Agency Status. The enabling authorities are imbedded in the 1970 Environmental Policy Act, signed into law on January 1 by President Nixon. NEPA allows other governing bodies – principally states, counties and municipalities – to assume participatory and decision-making seats at the table where NEPA projects are designed and implemented. As their name implies Cooperating Agencies have Status. They aren’t rubber stamps and federal agencies can’t circumvent them. Why more such entities haven’t formed is beyond me, but I suspect public interest in collaboration simply overshadowed them.

Evergreen isn’t a member of any collaborative groups. Joining one has been tempting but my journalist’s instincts tell me our participation would be seen as a conflict of interest. Better that we report and let others decide.

Over the 30-plus years we’ve been publishing Evergreen, our “go to” data base has been one run by the Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis[FIA] group. FIA personnel have been collecting and analyzing forest data for all ownerships in the United States since the early 1930s. You would think every working journalist would be using FIA data, but most have never heard of it. Harder to believe is the fact that there are people in the Forest Service who’ve never heard of FIA.

We are currently working on a project with FIA to raise its public visibility. We want everyone to know how FIA collects data and how they present it in quite usable formats easily accessed on the Internet. No matter the forest value that interests you – wildlife habitat, noxious weeds, tree species, watershed health, insects, diseases, wildfire, urban forestry - FIA has quantitative and qualitative data you can use to become better informed.

We have found a ready market for FIA growth, mortality and harvest data. There isn’t much harvesting going on in national forests, but mortality is off the scale. In fact, mortality exceeds growth in most western national forests – a direct result of insect and disease infestations that began to overrun forests as the regulatory noose has tightened around the Forest Service’s neck.

I want to think that our growth, mortality and harvest bar graphs are having the desired impact on Congress because only Congress can loosen the Gordian knot it tied around the Forest Service’s neck after the northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species in June of 1990. It has been a long road, but the emergence of the collaborative movement and the other management tools and authorities Congress is giving to the Forest Service, governors, state forestry departments, collaboratives and Cooperating Agencies are hopeful signs.

To help nail the door shut on the west’s insect-disease-wildfire pandemic, I have written a fast-paced book titled, First, Put Out the Fire. With more than 100 years of history as my backdrop I explain how we got ourselves into this wildfire mess and what we must do to get out of it. Resolving our wildfire conundrum requires a forester’s classic one-two punch: more aggressive forest management will begat more successful fire management. The book is filled with charts, graphs and website links that document and further explain.

My goal is to bring the bipartisan political pot to a boil as quickly as possible. It’s simmering pretty well at the moment, but it needs to boil. All this talk about a Green New Deal needs to be focused on doable things – the low hanging felt necessities that is so often ignored by the dreamers.

So there you have it. A journey that began with George Perkin’s Man and Nature and ends with First, Put Out the Fire. Felt necessities that serve as bookends on the evolution of forest conservation in America.

I have no idea what the future will bring but my sense is that where our national forest heritage is concerned, we have a long way to go and a short time to get there. Nor do I know what lies ahead for Evergreen Magazine or our website. In a recent discouraging moment, I began to think of my book as the last hurrah. But before I pull that trigger I’m going to see if can build a better digital platform for sharing the news that occurs where forest policy collides with forest practice.

We need to build a more diverse audience composed of people who recreate in our national forests and people who would if they didn’t live thousands of miles away in places like Manhattan and Washington, D.C. Somehow, we need to find ways to close the cultural chasms that have distanced urban American from its rural roots – our shared heritage.

You can stay in touch with us via my email address jim@evergreenmagazine.com or through our website http://www.evergreenmagazine.com. Thanks very much for putting up with me through this lecture series. I’ve enjoyed it immensely and hope you enjoyed it, too, and maybe even learned a few new things.

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