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The History Channel's A-Historical "Ax Men"

Clearcutting the History of Forest Destruction

by JOHN BOROWSKI

(An open letter to Nancy Dubuc, Executive VP and General Manager of the History Channel)

Dear Ms. Dubuc,

While standing in a clear-cut a few minutes from my home in Philomath, Oregon, I pondered the role of your new show, "Ax Men." Once a forest, gone are ancient trees, replaced by rows of Douglas Firs replanted to be cut again in a few decades, maybe less. Exotic weeds now grow on eroded soils and a native forest will not regrow in this monoculture farm of trees. I watched "Ax Men" hoping to see an articulate and honest assessment of forestry in Oregon: does a tree farm mimic a forest? Will disease and fire danger increase as we alter the ecological succession of these forests? Do the timber multinationals truly worry themselves with the sustainability of Oregon’s rural timber towns? Why cut native forests when "Ax Men" could cut timber grown on private, industrial forest lands targeted for wood production? Should logging even occur on public held forests (state and federal), lands held in trust by taxpayers to filter the air of carbon dioxide, hold medicinal treasures, provide habitat for our nation’s endangered species and provide underground reservoirs of the purest water in the nation? After watching three episodes: the answer is a clear-cut no!

Ms. Dubuc, your program has the opportunity to illuminate millions of viewers of the true history of logging here in the Pacific Northwest and you fail to even broach that subject in the most miniscule fashion. Even a greater tragedy is the absence of documented facts about the liquidation of forests here in Pacific Northwest. "Ax Men" celebrates hard work and that is admirable, but by ignoring the word that your own "channel" is prefaced by: history, your viewers are left with the impression that forests are little more than fiber farms and humans can magically grow forests. This is a dangerous and false precedent.

Before I continue, I want to make one point crystal clear beyond a shadow of a doubt: my objection to your show is not a reflection on the workers depicted and I refuse to participate in the "us versus them" or "spotted owls versus timber worker" demagoguery that clouds critical issues. The corporate timber industry thrives on these polarized arguments, pitting citizen versus citizen, creating endless attacks on people who have more in common with each other than they do with corporate raiders who see forests in terms of "green gold" and nothing less.

Sadly, just glance at the dialogue on "Ax Men" discussion pages. And see the polarization due to a lack of facts, played out. A viewer posted his/her comments titled, "This program makes me sick." Maybe, the initial post should have been less inflammatory. Any criticism is interpreted by many as a slight towards workers highlighted in your programming. That is not fair. I say "maybe" about the title of the post, because I know and lived through the experience of workers losing employment due to environmental protection (my Pop along with hundreds of others lost their jobs because of a company’s refusal to protect water). It is confusing and in those moments when the inability to pay a mortgage or even purchase food occurs, sound assessment of ecological dilemmas gives way to fear. Fear is a great motivator and a great "blinder" as well.

The person who made the post was assaulted verbally, no meaningful discussion. He/she was termed: eco Nazi, eco terrorist and tree hugger. Corporate timber companies seize on these moments, gleefully manipulating fear, creating a "straw man" for resource workers to blame: here in Oregon, it is anyone who questions logging policy. The replies were vitriolic and littered with well repeated terminology that made me cringe. The History Channel’s discussion pages were helping to fuel more of the same here in Oregon: finger pointing.

I live in the woods. I have cut down trees. I have no reservations in stating that standing in that clear-cut on Monday, I was sickened. Converting native forests, trees hundreds of years old and forest systems that we cannot even comprehend their intricacies, into phone books or even structural timber is a folly: economically as well as scientifically. And after watching last night’s "Ax Men" I was angered and dismayed by the focus on "extraction" and nothing else. I value and recognize facts and I value historical perspective. "Ax Men" is skewing history and is perpetrating the worst type of educational sin: omission.

Where are the "fly-overs" in "Ax Men" that show the fragmentation of millions of acres of forests? Where is the simple and scientifically accurate description of a forest? In Western Oregon, after a disturbance, a Fir/Hemlock forest initiates its "recovery program." Red alders, a deciduous tree, reclaim the sun filled environment and set the stage for the mighty Douglas fir trees to follow. As the alders give way in the shade of the Douglas fir trees, standing dead trees form (called snags) providing habitat to numerous species. Hemlock and Cedar fills the under story of the Douglas fir canopy, with downed trees called "nurse logs" scattered on the forest floor. These nurse logs are soil reservoirs. Finally, the Hemlock, a "climax species" fill the canopy with a vast variety of species occupying this "true forest." You cannot explain the complexity of a forest as I just did in four sentences, covering a span of over a thousand years! Yet, the History Channel owes their viewer an in-depth explanation of forest growth and even more crucial, explain how a cut forest is not allowed to become a native forest. The timber industry doesn’t want the public to know the succession of a tree farm is not a natural progression:

* After replanting Douglas firs, the Red alders are sprayed with herbicides to prevent shading of the replant. What dangers does this create?

* The huge logs cut and hauled away represent literally millions of tons of soil. A forest "grows on itself" and how is this soil regenerated?

* The rotation of cutting is growing shorter, in some cases; replanted tree farms are cut down after twenty years! Fewer and fewer snags and nurse logs along with reduced habitat provisions mean loss of forest dependent species.

* Trees planted in tight spacing means greater forest fires, ability for disease (like Swiss needle cast) to spread more easily and repeated clear cutting acerbates erosion and landslides.

* Hemlocks and Cedar trees rarely are represented in these tree farms and the forest never comes close to containing magnificent trees 250 feet tall and 30 feet in circumference and standing tall for 10 centuries!

* A one thousand plus year cycle of forest growth is reduced to 20 years with dire ecological consequences.

Italy, England and Greece along with Turkey and Lebanon were once heavily forested. There are sections of this planet that forests may never return. History has taught us this lesson all too well. While it is true that the Pacific Northwest has a wonderful climate for forest growth, the debate about proper use of forests is long overdue on a national scale. The History Channel seemingly prides itself on content, constructing a sequence of facts that illuminate "a historical" event or situation. This is absent in "Ax Men." This program is akin to creating a program about coal miners called "Coal Men" without tackling the issue of climate change or the underreported story of "mountain top removal" where hundreds of feet of mountains are virtually stripped to get to coal seams. Damn the ecological truth.

I urge readers to email Nancy Dubuc at contact@mediavillage.com. Ask her to give the whole story from the forests of Oregon. I will email Nancy and invite her to come out here to Philomath, I will give her the best Polish meal she has ever eaten and I will gladly show her the "history" of the logging legacy that is absent from "Ax Men" television screen: brutal salvage logging, replanted "tree farms", eroded hillsides and ecosystems in failing health. I will quote Nancy Dubuc’s own words form an interview by Jack Myers and ask her if her vision is coming to fruition:

"We have a powerful brand message. Our vision for History is clear. We reflect the human experience. History connects the dots for our viewers and provides them a sense of belonging and comprehension of the world around them. We take our responsibility seriously in recording history. We tell powerful stories that forge a deep connection with our audience. In this ever changing fast paced world sometimes it is important to ask questions like "What kind of world do you want."

To answer Ms. Dubuc, I think of an anonymous quote I admire. "Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up." The ecological toll of repeating history is not the kind of world I wish on our children’s children. We can only make these decisions in light of all the facts, history is a bond with those who live now (the present becomes the past as soon as that minute passes) with those who be challenged with comparable questions in the future. "Ax Men" can be a defining moment in the resource management debate, a parable of what should and should not be done to America’s forests. As we annihilate native forests, we are repeating history, losing jobs to mechanization and exports while ecological commonsense gives way to fleeting profits. Boom and bust: with local communities and workers forgotten.

What history will the History Channel give Americans?

John F. Borowski is a teacher of 27 years in Oregon and can be reached at jenjill@peak.org