Felt Necessities: Engines of Forest Policy, No. 11

Felt Necessities: Engines of Forest Policy, No. 11

Part 11 of this series is a lecture that Evergreen Founder James D. Petersen presented to a graduate-level forestry class at the University of Idaho in January 2020.

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 1-10 of the series. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8  Part  9 Part 10


Good morning. It is my understanding that Chelsea has made my 10-part “Felt Necessities” series required reading.

I am sorry for that, but since she did I should tell you that this project got underway in February 2017 when Dennis Becker invited me to speak to students who were enrolled in his Forestry 484 class.

Thus began my nearly three-year effort to catalogue the social forces – the felt necessities – that have been driving forest policy and public concern for the environment in our country since George Perkins Marsh published “Man and Nature” in 1864, the year before President Lincoln was assassinated and the South surrendered to the North at Appomattox Courthouse.

Most people are surprised to learn that concern for the environment did not begin with the first Earth Day in 1970. Quite the contrary, it began with Marsh’s epic work and has come forward through the crucible of social change that has driven our nation forward for that last 156 years.

I borrowed the phrase “felt necessities” from The Common Law, a book of essays assembled by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and published in 1881, toward the tail end of his service as editor of the American Law Review.

Holmes was a Civil War hero – wounded at both Antietam and Chancellorsville, two of the war’s bloodiest battles -  and later a maritime lawyer in Boston. He also taught briefly at Harvard Law and held a seat on the Massachusetts Supreme Court before Teddy Roosevelt nominated him for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1902.

Known as “the great dissenter,” the eloquent and sometimes outspoken Holmes held his Supreme Court seat for 30 years. Here is what he wrote in his Common Law about the historic underpinnings of our nation’s legal system:

“The life of the law has not been logic. It has been experience: the felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, institutions of public policy, avowed or unconscious - even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow men have had a good deal more to do with the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed. The law embodies the story of the nation’s development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics.”

If you follow what passes for news today you know that the great social forces that have defined the nation’s manifest destiny for more than 300 years are alive and well in our public discourse, most notably in the impeachment proceedings, the climate change debate and the red state-blue state brouhaha concerning media fairness in reporting issues of political and social import.

I don’t doubt that the climate is changing – it has been for millions of years – I simply oppose the effort to turn climate change into a publicly-funded pinata that only benefits people whose agendas don’t acknowledge the role science-based forestry plays in alleviating the underlying causes of change.

My marvelous lawyer friend, Leonard Netzorg, acknowledged the presence and impact of our felt necessities in a 1990 Evergreen Magazine interview. He was the best lawyer the timber industry ever had, but he began his movie-like career as a United Auto Workers Union organizer at the Ford Motor Company’s Rouge plant in Detroit in 1935. When war broke out in Europe, he signed up to spy for British codebreakers – hiding by day and monitoring German troop movements at night.

Ben Cohen, the most influential lawyer in FDR’s New Deal brain trust, admired Leonard’s fearlessness so much that he tucked him away in the Solicitor’s office in the Department of the Interior for safekeeping. While at Interior, Leonard wrote the federal government’s reciprocal rights of way agreement governing private landowner ingress to and egress from publicly-owned lands.

Stripped of its formalities, Leonard’s handiwork said that private timberland owners could not haul their logs over Forest Service and BLM road networks unless they allowed federal timber purchasers to haul logs over connecting private roads. Private timbermen who had hoped to monopolize the federal timber sale program after World War II were incensed – but expediency soon became the better part of valor.

As up and coming foresters, you will soon learn all about the intricacies of reciprocal rights of way – if you haven’t already.

Anyway, here is what Leonard said about Holmes’ felt necessities:

“There are great invisible leveling forces in society. When society decides that this or that group is being too grabby without regard for the consequences, it slaps them back into the corner.”

This is precisely what happened to the West’s monolithic timber industry in the aftermath of the first Earth Day. In my opinion, they are still struggling to get back into the public’s good graces – and may never get there because they absolutely refuse to accept the fact that forestry education is a cost of doing business - but that’s a story for another time.

Leonard also said something more specific about the great leveling forces that came into play when the northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species in 1990. He said, “We are not governing wildlife. Our decisions are all in print and animals do not read. We are, in fact, governing people for the purpose of affecting wildlife. The direct impact of our decisions is upon people.”

Leonard took considerable exception to the spotted owl listing decision – I think because it reminded him of his hellraising days in Detroit, especially the working conditions in Ford’s Rouge plant. He was only five-feet-nine, so to be seen and heard he got into the habit on jumping on lunchroom tabletops before berating Ford’s sweat shops. He could be fiery as hell. Listen now to what he had to say about the spotted owl listing:

“What the hell have loggers done to deserve this? Absolutely nothing. To whom or what are we sacrificing these families? Where is it written into law that the government has the right to trash the lives of decent, honest, hardworking families? Who has pressured the government to do these things and why? The government must be held accountable for what it is doing here because what it is doing is wrong and unfair and inconsistent with the values our society places on human rights and human dignity.”

Colliding felt necessities: the public tide that rose higher and higher following the first Earth Day and Congress’ belated attempt to balance the scales of justice with taxpayer-funded Secure Rural Schools payments to western counties that were economically devasted by the listing decision and the subsequent collapse of the federal timber sale program.

You may be surprised to learn that the federal timber sale program was largely a post-war phenomenon. Wars consume great amounts of timber – some 90 billion feet in the Second World War. Most of that timber was harvested from private lands in the Pacific Northwest and Southeast – the reason being that our western national forests were still largely inaccessible and there wasn’t sufficient time or money to build a road system after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. So with Franklin Roosevelt’s reluctant approval, private lands took a huge hit during the war years.

By 1944, the Roosevelt Administration was certain Allied Forces would prevail in Europe, so post-war planning began with the formation of two think tanks. The one we know most about produced the Marshall Plan for European economic recovery following the war. Lesser known was a group that set about planning for our nation’s speedy transition from wartime to peacetime footing. One of the questions that had to be answered was whether we had sufficient domestic supplies of natural resources – minerals, timber, coal and oil - to sustain our own post-war transition from wartime to peacetime footing while helping our European allies get back on their feet.

An old economist friend named Dan Goldy, who had been heavily involved in assessing wartime labor efficiency in factories, was up to his eyeballs in post-war domestic planning by late 1944. It was Goldy who saw the enormous economic potential sequestered in western national forests. And because Dan was all about Dan, he saw to it that he played important federal and state roles in opening the West’s national forests to logging.

If this all seems too one-sided to you – with insufficient concern for the environmental impacts – remember that our nation’s felt necessities were very different then. Understand, too, that President Roosevelt’s greatest post-war fear was that the nation would fall back into the Great Depression. Returning veterans standing in bread lines and loitering around soup kitchens would be a political disaster for Democrats and he knew it. Forestry, logging and wood processing jobs provided employment for well over one million returning GIs. And timber, harvested from western national forests fueled the unprecedented post-war housing boom and a period of economic prosperity much like that which we are enjoying today.

Goldy - a lunch bucket Democrat to the depths of his soul - was deeply disturbed by the rise of the litigation-driven environmental movement and its now largely successful effort to drive the timber industry from national forests. But their success remains a very important felt necessity for millions of Americans who know little about nature and even less about forestry’s role in forest conservation. This is the world you are about to enter. Welcome – and good luck.

In Goldy’s post-war era, public support for harvesting timber from our national forests was a felt necessity shared by every American: Republicans, Democrats, Independents – it did not matter. Everyone understood that logs meant jobs and homes and replanting and a new forest and more jobs and homes and on and on in a reoccurring cycle to which the country was totally committed.

Americans also understood that extinguishing forest fires as quickly as possible was key to forestry’s economic and environmental advancement.

Running smoke out of the woods became a felt necessity in the years following a series of enormous and deadly wildfires in the Great Lakes States – most notably the October 8, 1871 Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin. The same year - in fact the same night - the Great Chicago Fire killed 300 and left 100,000 homeless. Some 1,500 Peshtigo lives were lost in a firestorm that drove thousands more into the Peshtigo River and wiped out the entire town and neighboring Brussels.

But it was the Great 1910 Fire that put the Forest Service into the firefighting business alongside three privately-funded firefighting cooperatives that had been set up in Idaho and Washington state following the 1902 Yacolt Burn. I suppose you’ve heard something about both fires – but the 1910 Fire is notable because in remains the largest wildfire ever to burn in the United States. Three million acres of virgin timber were lost in northern Idaho and western Montana in a wind-driven 48-hour firestorm that destroyed several small towns.

Until then, Congress had been reluctant to fund a proper firefighting apparatus for the newly created Forest Service. But after Gifford Pinchot finished his very public congressional shellacking, Congress bent to the will of felt necessities they could not ignore. Listen to what Pinchot told an unsuspecting reporter from Everybody’s Magazine, a popular publication of the day.

“For the want of a nail, the shoe was cast, the rider thrown, the battle lost. For want of trails the finest white pine forests in the United States were laid waste and scores of lives lost. It is all loss, dead irretrievable loss, due to the pique, the bias, the bullheadedness of a knot of men who have sulked and planted their hulks in the way of appropriations for the protection and improvement of these national forests.”

Remember that Pinchot was no longer Chief of the Forest Service when his Everybody’s rant was published. President Taft fired him for insubordination in November 1909 – 10 months before the 1910 Fire. His friend, Henry Graves, had replaced him - and apparently with Graves tacit approval, Pinchot continued to behave as though he was still in charge. His magnetism made him a press favorite for decades.

I’ve had my own share of good luck with quotable interviews that I still revisit from time to time. I was out walking on the Cumberland Plateau one beautiful fall morning in 1996 with a very personable PhD wildlife biologist named Alan Houston when he turned to me out of the blue and said something so unforgettable that I can still quote it from memory. He said, “When we leave forests to nature, as so many people today seem to want to do, we get whatever nature serves up, which can be pretty devastating at times, but with forestry we have options and a degree of predictability not found in nature.”

Or how about this from, Alston Chase, a well-spoken academic who has three PhD’s and wrote a blazing criticism of environmentalism in a book called “Playing God in Yellowstone.”

When I asked Chase what the message was in “Playing God,” he said, “The message is that there is no such thing as leaving nature alone. People are part of nature. We do not have the option of choosing not to be stewards of the land. We must master the art and science of good stewardship. Environmentalists do not understand that the only way to preserve nature is to manage nature.”

Then there is this from Vic Kaczynski, a jarringly blunt PhD fisheries biologist from Beaverton, Oregon. “No single forest practice, not timber harvesting or even road building, can compare to the damage wildfires are inflicting on fish and fish habitat. It is a paradox that the very fish we are trying to protect from extinction are now being threatened by fires many so-called environmentalists believe should be allowed to burn unchecked.”

Or this from Bill Libby, an unceremonious PhD forest geneticist at the University of California at Berkeley. “Plantation forestry saves more endangered species in a month than most American conservationists save in their lifetimes. As federal logging in the Pacific Northwest has slowed to a virtual standstill, species extinction in tropical forests has accelerated at a thunderous rate. Is saving the spotted owl or the marbled murrelet worth the loss of 8,000 to 10,000 species in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia or Madagascar? Not in my opinion!”

Or this gentle wisdom from Sally Fairfax, a forest policy analyst at Cal Berkeley, on the regulatory morass that continues to defeat the Forest Service.

“Far from achieving a rational decision-making process, RPA and NFMA may well result in stalemate and indecision as the Forest Service turns from managing land to simply overseeing a convoluted, ever more complex set of congressionally mandated procedures. The tradition of land stewardship, if indeed it survived the 1950s and 1960s, may have died in the 1970s. RPA and NFMA take the initiative from experienced land managers – those revered people on the ground, the folks who have lived with the land and their mistakes long enough to have developed wisdom and a capacity for judgment – and gives it to lawyers, computers, economists and politically active special interest groups seeking to protect and enhance their own diverse positions. This shift in initiative will result from the layers of legally binding procedure that RPA and NFMA foist on top of an already complex and overly rigid planning process. Constant procedural tinkering does not, I fear, lead to efficiency or simplicity. Rather it promises a proliferation of steps, sub-steps, appendices and diverticula that makes the Forest Service susceptible to the ultimate lawyer’s malaise: the reification of process over substance.”

Quotable quotes aside, I often feel that much of the last 34 years of my life has been a complete waste of my time and treasure. Apart from the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, ratified by Congress in 2003, I can’t share a single success story with you. The family-owned logging and lumber manufacturing businesses that helped me start the non-profit Evergreen Foundation in 1986 are long gone and the companies that survived the 1990 spotted owl listing are now much larger technological marvels owned by people who see little or no benefit in a revived federal program that would roil price stability in private log markets. Who could have predicted this would happen? Certainly not me.

Nor could I have predicted that the day would come when I could make a strong case for the fact that the West’s billion-dollar outdoor recreation sector is more dependent on development of a new forestry program for our national forests than most of the West’s lumbermen. Depending on which estimate you care to accept, somewhere between 90 and 100 million national forest acres in the West are now in Condition Class 3 or 2 – meaning they are ready to burn or soon will be. That’s half of our entire federal forest estate. Half.

If we fail in our quest to encourage Congress to fund a more active national forest restoration program, it is tourism – not timber – that will suffer the most because it is outdoor recreation – not the timber industry – that is most dependent on protecting and managing that natural assets that our national forests offer.

Talk about an earth-shattering felt necessity that no one saw coming.

I referenced the Healthy Forests Restoration Act a few moments. We conducted opinion surveys and focus groups in several eastern and midwestern cities before the Act was debated in the House. Much to the surprise of some – not me – the four most often cited forest necessities were [1] clean air [2] clean water [3] abundant fish and wildlife habitat and [4] a wealth of year-round outdoor recreation opportunity.

I need not remind you that these natural assets are not found amid the black sticks that survive stand replacing wildfires. But they are found in abundance in private, state and tribally-owned forests. We who live and work in the rural West know this but most Americans don’t.

To liven up the public discourse, I have written a book titled First, Put Out the Fire! in which I explain how our wildfire pandemic developed and what we must do now to work our way out of it. We should have books from the printer in time for the Idaho Forest Owners annual meeting here in Moscow in late March. If you have not attended this conference before, I encourage you to do so. You’ll get to rub elbows with about 400 family forest owners here in Idaho. Who knows, you might even find your first job.

My book in brief: It isn’t political. It is history with a good dose of science-based forestry. I explain the difference between Good Fire and Bad Fire and how vastly improved stand tending work – thinning – can – when used in combination with Good Fire - help stuff the Bad Wildfire Genie back in her bottle.

My target audiences are students like you, the working press, federal, state and local elected officials and stakeholder collaborative groups engaged in helping the Forest Service design and execute forest restoration projects that are less likely to be litigated by the malcontents who live among us.

Congress has blessed our volunteer stakeholder collaboratives by giving them some very good tools and greater latitude in terms of the size and duration of the restoration projects they choose to tackle. We are definitely moving in the right direction where our wildfire pandemic is concerned but we have a long way to go and a short time to get there. Congress could help immensely by insulating forest collaborative projects from the well-meaning but deeply flawed Equal Access to Justice Act. We shall see what the debate brings.

I personally favor baseball-style arbitration. You bring your best idea and we’ll bring ours and we’ll let an arbitration panel decide which idea offers the best blend of forest science and felt necessity.

Our quest to increase public and congressional support for science-based restoration of our national forests desperately needs your ideas, your energy and your commitment. Forestry’s advocates – me included - are continually out-hustled by well-funded and politically well-connected bullshit artists who see the West’s wildfire pandemic as nature’s response to mismanagement of our national forests. I don’t. The history – the felt necessities that have driven our nation’s forest policy mechanisms forward since the National Forest System was created in 1905 - are far too complex to be dumbed down by the aforementioned bullshit artists. The paper trail here is easily followed and quite well documented.

I sincerely hope you will read all 10 – now 11 – installments of my felt necessities series. I have been encouraged to turn them into a book but first I want to see what additional progress Congress makes on the Forest Service funding front following this November’s general election. My back-of-the- envelope estimate informs we that the agency is still two of three billion dollars short in its near-term budget. Wildfire costs are soaring, meaning there is less money available for the on-the-ground work that would eventually reduce fire-fighting costs. This is the economic side of the wildfire paradox.

The Forest Service’s boots-on-the-ground ranks have been decimated over the last 15 years. Lots of new people will need to be hired and trained. It will take at least a decade to restore the skill sets needed to do the necessary forest restoration work at the required pace and scale.

Fire ecologists I know tell me we have a 30-year window before wildfire takes what we have not treated. If we accept 90 million acres restored as our 30-year target, we need to thin three million acres annually. We aren’t even close – and the Bad Wildfire Genie doesn’t give a damn about society’s felt necessities.

So, as I said a few minutes ago, welcome aboard! Again, we need your energy, commitment, ideas, knowledge and passion. I’ve enjoyed this immensely. If any of you have questions, I’d be pleased to try to answer them.

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