(An excerpt from Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature.)
Our house sits on the rim of a canyon sheathed in Douglas-fir. The creek down below is roaring this time of year. Chinook salmon still climb its torrents. Spawn and die. We find their carcasses, picked over by ravens. There are fewer dead salmon every year. This is not a good sign.
Osprey twist in the air on bent wings nearly every morning, cruising over the creek bed for live fish. Year after year they rear new broods in the craggy top of a broken hemlock, the nest an inverted igloo of found material-a model of organic architecture. The creek flows into the mighty Clackamas River a couple of miles away. At the confluence is an old mill site. The ground is saturated in creosote and PCBs, leaching remorselessly into the water, the flesh of salmon, the blood of osprey.
At least one cougar still prowls the canyon. Some nights we awaken to its eerie moaning. Dogs have gone missing. Big ones. But we hear the cat less often now. The city advances, glowing with light. The canyon is an island eroded by sprawl.
On clear days the stark pyramid of Mt. Hood flashes into view on the eastern horizon; its flanks draped with glaciers, pink as coho flesh. The glaciers are in retreat. The history of the forest is written on the face of those mountains, sixty miles distant. In winter, the clearcuts shimmer with snow, thousands of them, separated only by thin veins of ancient trees. This land is a battlefield. Perhaps, the largest in the nation. It sprawls over millions of acres. There have been so many losses. Stumps twelve feet across stand as headstones of the fallen. Still it rages. And the blood boils.
In 1990, Kimberly and I moved our family from the hill country of southern Indiana to Oregon. We were looking for someplace green, wet and foggy. We were told such weather was good for the skin, not a purely narcissistic consideration given the daily shredding of the ozone layer. There were other considerations, too: thousand year old trees, six-hundred foot waterfalls, salmon, spotted owls, black bears, free-flowing rivers, progressive politics. The essentials of life.
Of course, the essentials aren’t that easy to come by. The New Physicists have a saying: the map is not the territory. The conundrum is a metaphor for sub-atomic matter that rearranges itself so quickly that any depiction of its traces becomes obsolete before it is even drawn. When we arrived in Oregon, the Pacific Northwest was in the midst of the Great Change. Sure, Oregon still offered most of what we imagined, but there was less of it every day. In a word (Ed Abbey’s), Oregon was being “Californicated”: paved, smogged, subdivided, dammed, logged, mined, spiked with cell-phone towers, bankrupted schools, malicious rightwing politicos in the ascendancy. It even sported an ailing nuclear plant named after a condom: Trojan. But there was nothing remotely prophylactic about that demonic tower.
When you think of Oregon, you probably think of forests. The highway maps help pump the mystique, splashing wide swaths of green across the state. It’s another illusion. Two-thirds of the Oregon is desert, high desert: parched, austere, beautiful and vulnerable. The other third of the state, a thin 150-mile wide band from the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Coast, harbors the mightiest forest on the continent. Now it too is becoming a kind of desert, a biological desert, an ecological dead zone.
A century of unbridled clearcutting has taken its toll. By 1980, the Cascades, that lush volcanic range running from British Columbia to northern California, had been transformed into a patchwork of a hundred thousand clearcuts, a sight so surreal that stunned even President Carter when he flew over Mt. St. Helens to survey the damage. Carter mistook the scars of logging for the blast of the volcano. There’s a difference. The forests flattened by Mount St. Helens are starting to come back to life. The land leveled by the timber cartel isn’t.
Many frail coastal mountainsides, punctured by logging roads and the forests shaved to the bedrock, simply collapse each winter in monstrous landslides, burying some of the world’s most fertile salmon streams under mega-tonnage of rock and mud. This is the pillaged landscape of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion. Never give an inch. Don’t stop cutting until you reach the bone. Suck out the marrow and move on. There’s never been a better guide to Oregon than that strange muddy novel.
But now the ravaged land of the Coast Range, in a kind of death spasm, is beginning to lash back. With a fearsome regularity, the winter landslides have begun crushing the new houses and trailers that regularly sprout up on logged-over forests. These days the clearcuts are killing more than salmon and owls.
Empires were built off the rape of these forests: Boise/Cascade, Georgia-Pacific, Louisiana-Pacific, Willamette Industries, International Paper and, mightiest of all, Weyerhaeuser. These corporations played a two-step game. Most of the companies owned millions of acres of their own land, acquired for pennies an acre through the Railroad Land Grants of the nineteenth century. Each one those acres harbored tens of thousands of dollars worth of trees, mainly Douglas fir, the wood that built suburban America. Billions were made unfettered by law or morality or even common sense. A kind of capitalist anarchy swept through the woods; cut and run was its mantra. It is a theme that replicated itself across the mountains with the mercilessness of the parasitic beast in Ridley Scott’s Alien, consuming its host forest and moving on to fresh ground.
In the early 60s, the timber behemoths had blitzed through their own vast holdings and turned their sights on the national forests. They got them. By 1970, logging on the public lands in the northwest had more than doubled. The writing was on the wall for the spotted owl, marbled murrelet, coho salmon and 800 other species that depend on old-growth forests. By the time we arrived in Oregon, the timber industry was clearcutting more than 256,000 acres of national forest land in Oregon and Washington each year. Nationwide, the logged-over acres topped a million annually. These are national forests. Public lands. Your forests. Pissed off yet?
The timber barons are masters of the art of corruption and for decades they’ve had every politician in the Northwest firmly pocketed, liberal Democrats and rightwing Republicans, alike. It’s served them very well, indeed. When pesky laws like the Endangered Species Act blockaded their way, they had their politicians declare the logging exempt from such legal constraints. When federal judges ruled against them, they got Congress to overturn the injunctions. When Forest Service employees, such as my friend Jeff DeBonis, blew the whistle on illegalities, the timber industry got them transferred, demoted or fired. When Weyerhaeuser came under scrutiny by the Justice Department in a multi-million dollar timber theft case, the timber giant prevailed on the Clinton administration to quash the probe. Similar investigations into bid rigging, fraud and monopolistic practices got terminated from above.
With legal avenues of protest routinely annulled by Congress, forest defenders adopted more creative tactics. Along the Brietenbush River, Lew Herd buried himself up to his neck in a pile of boulders to block a logging road. Julia Butterfly and others took to the trees themselves, living in them as human shields against the chainsaws. At Warner Creek in the High Cascades, Earth First!ers built a makeshift fortress in the forest to fend off the loggers, squatting there through a winter that saw more than 500 inches of snow fall. George Atiyeh, a Vietnam vet and nephew of a former Oregon governor, held off Forest Service timber sale planners with a shotgun as they tried to mark for cutting the thousand year old trees at Opal Creek. A decade later, and despite all odds, those trees are still standing, now fully protected as a wilderness area.
Still the lost acres stagger the mind. Ninety-five percent of the primary forest, the ancient trees of the Northwest, had been liquidated by 1990, the year of the Earth Summit in Rio. At the global pow-wow, one American politician after another (except George Bush the First, who snubbed the entire show) rose to chastise Brazil for the destruction of the Amazon, where 75 percent of the primary forest remained intact. These same politicians, led by Democratic Party luminaries such as House Speaker Tom Foley, had underwritten the looting of the temperate rainforests of the Northwest and tried to crush any environmentalists who stood in their way. Of course, Foley is gone and greens helped to bring the titan down. So there’s reason for hope.
We were somewhat prepped for the great struggle for the Northwest’s forests, but nobody told us anything about Hanford. The last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River cuts through a place of death and terror, the place where they assembled hydrogen bombs: the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The bomb making there is largely over. But the horrific echoes of that age will never go away. It may be the most polluted place in the world, seething with tons radioactive waste that will haunt the entire Northwest for millennia to come. There are easy no answers to the Hanford crisis. Indeed, there may well be no answers at all. The technology that built the bombs has no idea how to clean up the mess. In the meantime, the downwinders from Spokane to Portland pay the price. The price is cancer of the thyroid, of the lungs, of the blood. The Soviet Union is kaput, but the atomic clock is ticking in the middle of the American outback. Some Hanford investigators warn that the leaking tanks of radioactive debris may get so hot they’ll explode-if the worst happens, it will be a dirty bomb we’ve dropped on ourselves.
The West is a vast place, but not nearly vast enough to handle all the demands laid upon it. Drive down any road in the Interior West and the ongoing ruination passes by your window in a grim montage: open pit mines a mile wide and a half a mile deep, leach piles of cyanide, bombing ranges, nuclear labs, and the internment camps known as Indian reservations. The interior West is America’s own version of the Third World, a resource colony to be pillaged and abandoned. The timber and minerals are extracted as fast as possible and rendered into cash. Of course, the money doesn’t stick around these parts. The boom and bust towns that sprouted up during the frenzies, never boomed that big and when they busted they descended into a gloom as terminal as any Kurt Cobain song. Want a taste? Try the asbestos wasteland of Libby, Montana or the mining towns Elko, Nevada and Wallace, Idaho. Places that might even give David Lynch, director of Twin Peaks, the creeps.
You can graph the damage in tables and bar charts, but it doesn’t do it justice. For that you need to get out there and witness the roughened edges of the West yourself: the orange flow of Iron Mike Creek, a Montana stream defiled by mining; the sound of F-16s screeching across the Superstition Mountains; the omnipresent smell of cowshit in the Gila Wilderness; the feel of your fingers skimming over 800 growth rings on the stump of a Douglas-fir along the Umpqua River.
There were fervent hopes that the election of Clinton and his slime green sidekick Al Gore would apply the brakes, pass new laws with sharp teeth, prosecute polluters, set aside wildlands from the dozers and the chainsaws, turn away from oil, uranium and coal and toward the sun. Instead, the Clinton/Gore era turned out to be a short-lived romance that ended in the environmental equivalent of date rape. For eight years, the forests, deserts and rivers took a beating, but the real loser was the environmental movement itself.
Oregon was a hotbed of environmental activism in the 1980s and early 1990s. It’s a big state with a small (though not small enough) population. But Oregon boasted more environmental groups than any other state, even more than that golden tragedy to the south of us, California. This was not merely a sign of an elevated consciousness. It was, to deploy the breathless language of Ashcroft, an indication of the dire threat level.
The threat hasn’t diminished by any means, but the number of groups has shriveled. They couldn’t survive the Clinton ice age. Many of the smaller groups simply flatlined. Meanwhile the mainstream groups got bigger and bigger and less and less effective. By the mid-1990s, mainstream environmentalism had become fattened and tongue-tied by foundation grants (many originating from the fortunes of big oil) and blindered by a reflexive loyalty to the Democratic Party. The new green executives sported six-figure salaries, drove around in limos and worked out of DC offices as plush as the headquarters of Chemical Manufacturer’s Association. But the movement lacks heart and guts.
Along the way, I’ve come to disdain institutional environmentalism, as little more than soft-soled courtiers to entrenched power. Once the environmental movement was seen as a public interest movement of unimpeachable integrity-trusted by the left, despised and feared by the corporate right. After Clinton, many people rightly saw professional environmentalists as just another special interest lobby, obedient hand puppets of the DNC. The great Southwest writer and desert rat Charles Bowden says he’d never belong to any tax-deductible group, since the very tax status serves as a kind of seal of approval from the government. He’s got a point. When the Sierra Club got too demanding in the 1960s, the IRS threatened to take away its coveted tax status. It promptly settled down.
As my old friend David Brower warned: “When we prevail, it’s just a stay of execution. When the corporations win, they win forever. That’s why we must be eternally vigilant.” But eternal vigilance is wearying. The daily life of a grassroots green (as opposed to the DC subspecies) fighting big corporations is grueling and filled with vicissitudes. There are few rewards and many, many defeats, each one bitter and inconsolable. It’s hard not to be worn down by it all. Now wonder so many enviros these days sound like glowering prudes, freighting a rhetoric of doomsterism. But we must fight against it, because it’s unhealthy and no way to build a movement.
Brower himself never surrendered to the grave pessimism that is standard fare in the direct mail appeals of his former employer the Sierra Club and the other Beltway greens. Indeed, the last time I saw Dave was a few months before he died. We were in a parking lot overlooking that monument of evil: Glen Canyon Dam. Hundreds of young activists had joined us in the broiling Arizona sun, united in a single cause: the liberation of the Colorado River and the restoration of Glen Canyon. “Hell, I think we’ve really got a chance now,” Brower said, his eyes sparkling with optimism.
Cling to that optimism that fired Brower’s soul for 85 years. And remember Abbey’s admonition to be a part-time warrior, sparing time to enjoy the offerings of the planet you’re fighting to preserve. And it’s okay to have a sense of humor. In fact, it’s mandatory. At CounterPunch out motto is: be as radical as reality. Fight fiercely for what you feel passionate about, no matter how long the odds seem. But don’t fret so much about the meta-crises, such as global warming or ozone depletion. It’ll only weigh you down and drive you toward nihilistic despair.
There’s a war going on just outside your window. It’s a battle for life itself. So stow away this silly book and come join it. Remember: the map is not the territory. So burn the maps and get lost in the territory, while you’ve still got a chance.