Our Own Private Wilderness

By 5AM the sky is getting light and the birds and squirrels restart the symphony the coyotes and owls began around sunset. I awake in my bed in the tall grass and flowers in the middle of the 40-acre meadow and scan the 200-square-mile view. Two Barred Owls, a large female and her smaller mate, make a final sweep across the meadow; passing three times just over my head on their way home to the awakening forest.

The sun crests the mountains and illuminates the east-facing slopes across the deep, still dark creek basin. The full moon hangs above the ridgeline. A mule deer ends his night grazing and disappears into the brush at the edge of the meadow. A flicker squawks, flies overhead, lands on a nearby large snag and begins to hammer away for her breakfast.

The meadow, forest and creek are all part of the Yarrow Land Trust, a Washington State non-profit group. I am its president. Yarrow has eleven dues-paying members. Established in 1974 with 80 acres, the trust has been able to expand to 165 acres, with an adjacent 40 acres owned by one of the members.

The trust is bordered by the Colville National Forest and timber-giant Boise Cascade. The Colville NF cut much of its adjacent forest in the 70s and it has since grown back — an even-aged clone forest, but a green carpet on the facing ridges nonetheless. Boise butchered its holdings ten years ago and it’s still a blight on the landscape — a jarring reality of industrial forestry — the sole stain in the view. To this day one can stand in the meadow at night and look out over those 200-square miles and not see a single light — not even any of the (in)Security Lights that ubiquitously dot rural America.

The Setting

The Yarrow Land Trust is located in Ferry County. It is part of the Okanogan Highlands bordering Canada in the Northeast region of the state. The county came about in 1899, after its northern half was taken from the Colville Indian Reservation as illegal prospecting found gold. It was named after Elisha P. Ferry, the first governor of the state. The Colville Nation was reduced to the southern half of the county. Over two-thirds of the northern half is public land–National Forest (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and State Forests.

The population has remained around 7500, yet sprawl, mostly in the form of unrestricted placement of mobile homes, has blighted some areas. This growth of housing while the population has remained steady is the result of local kids of the ranchers, loggers, miners and 70s back-to-the-landers moving out and retirees moving in. Still, population density is but 3.2 persons per square mile, the lowest of Washington’s thirty-nine counties, if not the entire 48 states.

The Rural Oligarchy

Ferry County is also number one amongst Washington counties in poverty rate AND in the size of land holdings. The average ranch size is 3,876 acres. The persistent unemployment rate hovers around 15%. Welfare cases as a percentage of population is also number one for Washington. Just as one sees a mass of peasants and a few wealthy landowners in a Third World country, Ferry County has a mass of poor laborers and a few large land barons.

The county has always had an all cattleman and logging operator Board of Commissioners. The County Commission is the power throughout the rural West. Ferry County was the second county to adopt the “Custom and Culture” ordinances made famous in Catron County, NM. The ordinances seek to enshrine the “custom and culture” of extraction–a culture that dates back just over a hundred years, at best; a “culture” that conquered and blithely dismisses the preceding (and still tenuously hanging on) one that was around for almost 30,000 years.

The County Seat is Republic, a town of about 1000. It is located in the area gold was first discovered. It is named after the Republic Gold Mine. The mine went through many ownerships before closing down a decade ago as the Hecla Knob Hill Mine. Over 2 million ounces of gold were extracted over the mine’s lifetime — a point celebrated by a huge metal (painted gold) block in the town’s park. Very little of the money generated from the 2 million ounces stayed in the area. Hecla is a Canadian mining giant, as is Kinross Gold which still operates two smaller mines in the county.

The town’s only lumber mill (Vaagen Brothers) closed two years ago, blaming the closure on environmentalists restricting “supply.” Of course, the mill’s owners conveniently forget to mention that they have another state-of-the-art mill located in Colville, fifty miles away where they have consolidated operations. That mill has a ten story log deck with an immense crane that can be seen from twenty miles away. “Supply” is obviously no problem there judging by the fully stocked log decks and twenty-four hour operation. (I worked in the Republic mill in the mid-70s when it was called the San Poil Lumber Company. One summer, we were all given two weeks non-paid vacation. When we came back, 90 of the 270 jobs had been automated away. Again, environmentalists were blamed for that job loss.)

Indeed, environmentalists have been trying since 1976 to gain Wilderness protection for the spectacular, yet undiscovered, Kettle Range. (The land trust sits at the base of Mt. Leona, one of the range’s main peaks.) The Kettle Range Conservation group (KRCG) was founded by Dick Slagle and friends. Republic native Slagle courageously did it despite his own business being the sole pharmacy in the county. To all their credit, the millworkers and loggers did not cease to do business with the genial Slagle. In fact, when the owners posted a picture of a Spotted Owl in the mill’s lunchroom with the statement “This is what’s costing you your jobs,” the workers immediately covered the owl with a photo of a fully loaded log export ship, knowing full well the truth, including the fact that spotted owls reside far to the west of the area.

The Actual Economy

Republic also has a Food Co-op with a main street store. It was founded as a buying club in 1975 and still is going strong. The KRCG also has a main street office where folks tirelessly work to preserve the public lands. Both entities have done a lot of work on the necessary economic transition for the area.

In the 80s, a number of the town’s original Victorian buildings, including two hotels and a church, burned down. The replacement buildings leave a lot to be desired. Republic’s main street was repaved just in time for the Fourth of July. It had been torn up for two years as sewer, water, sidewalks, etc., were updated, setting back the transition to a tourism-based economy for that time. A couple years ago, the County Commission turned down state tourism funding that would have paid for stylish new streetlamps for the main street; disparagingly dismissed by the stuck-in-extraction fantasy Commissioners as a “waste of money” as it had nothing to do with their fading industries. But, now the picturesque town can hope that visitors will stop and stay awhile rather than just drive through on the scenic state highways — one north/south and one east/west.

Despite all the Custom and Culture posturing and the undue political influence of the cattle industry, the state of Washington’s own employment figures show that these are the actual employment figures in the county: Educational, health and social services (20.1%), Public administration (16.6%), Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and mining (11.5%), Retail trade (10.6%). Take out “fishing and hunting” and the combined extraction industries fall below 10%.

Private Property Rights and Wilderness

I got number 32 in the first Draft Lottery and was promptly stripped of my Student Deferment and drafted into the Army. After a year in limbo, appearing before various bodies as I declared myself a Conscientious Objector, I was discharged. Discouraged by Nixon’s reelection later that year, I became quite interested in the back-to-the-land Communities movement. Soon, I and friends were actively searching for the place — the further from Babylon; the better. That’s how we came upon Yarrow, where I lived until 1980. Over time, us originals had children and moved away to find a better place for their education and the vision changed to that of a preservation trust.

A decade ago, Jeffrey St. Clair and I were on a panel discussion at the University of Oregon’s annual Environmental Law Conference (E-LAW). The panel remains the best attended panel in E-LAW history. Over 1200 people crammed into the sweltering auditorium to hear…not Jeffrey and I, but Ron Arnold, the Wise Use architect, who was on the panel with us. Jeffrey gave a rousing speech and Arnold then put everyone to sleep with a quite accurate yet numbers-heavy damning analysis of the Big Greens.

Later, I went to lunch with Arnold and we got to talking about his views on the Commons–he doesn’t believe in it. When he found out about the land trust he said, “That’s exactly how it should be done. If you guys want land for wilderness values, then you should buy it. I’m all in support of your private property right to do so.”

When I think just how many millions have been spent by the collective environmental movement (over $100 million alone on Ancient Forests since 1988, with just 28,000 acres at Opal Creek actually gaining Wilderness status) I realize Ron Arnold is quite correct in a way.

A Movement

Not everyone is a multimillionaire like Doug Tompkins and his friends who have been buying up huge chunks of Chile and Argentina and setting up Wilderness parks (Parque Pumalin). Nor are there many Ted Turners out there buying up western range land, tearing out the fences and roads and reintroducing Bison.

But, as I’ve spent my adult life proving, small groups of like-minded folks can pool resources and buy and protect lands. Rick Klein of Ancient Forest International has done so all over the place. Klein was instrumental in gaining a Sanctuary Forest in Northern California, a land trust there and preserves in Chile <http://www.nativeforest.org/campaigns/gondwana/> . Klein, Dave Walsh, Tracy Katelman and their allies have used their talents to gather folks together behind worthy protection proposals internationally. John Seed and friends have done the same in Australia and elsewhere.

The state of California has taken the lead in providing funds for Conservation Easements on lands — often the only way to keep ranches intact and out of then hands of subdividers, as ranchers age and find they need to sell. Even if they stay on the land, the easements protect the Open Space nature of the landscape.

George Atiyeh tirelessly fought off USFS plans to log the public’s Opal Creek and even got the Shiny Rock Mining Company to donate its private holdings in the area to the Friends of Opal Creek–a group he and I helped create. FOOC now runs the old mining camp we restored as an Ancient Forest Educational Center. <www.opalcreek.org/>

My brothers and sisters and I inherited our parents’ place on Loon Lake in Michigan which we’ve set aside in perpetuity. We’re negotiating right now about buying an adjacent 14 acres with a spectacular wetlands which itself is adjacent to a 257-acre former YMCA camp, with a mile and a half of pristine shoreline, including some of the only old growth trees left in Michigan’s Southern Peninsula.

The 14 private acres and the camp have been protected by Homer and Dot Roberts for over 50 years! They are now 91 and 87-years old. Homer is one of the founders of Outdoor School, which was first a thing for “gifted” students, but now has been made available to all students and is present in most states. He also founded the Michigan Audubon Society, served as its president for 50 years and drew many of the birds in the group’s publications. He was able to gain the state’s first private Nature Preserve designation for the camp. (Clearly I owe my own conservationist beliefs to Homer and Dot, as they first mentored me about ecosystems when I was eight-years-old and the term hadn’t even been created yet.) The Lutheran Church now owns the camp and has been meeting with people concerned with its preservation. The camp is adjacent to the Huron National Forest.

The Breitenbush Community in Oregon’s Cascades started out in 1977 with 86 acres of private land within the Willamette National Forest. The founder, Alex Beamer, used an inheritance to buy it and get the ball rolling. He admirably sold the land to the Breitenbush Community in 1984 for exactly what he had in it. A few years ago, an additional 67 acres (the sole other private piece in the watershed) was purchased with the financial help of former community members. The Community runs a hot springs retreat center as its economic base employing over 60 people. The entire property has been declared a Nature Preserve, with no dogs allowed, development restricted, etc. <www.breitenbush.com/> (I’m sure there are plenty of other examples. Please feel free to send me info.)

How to Do It

Each state has different organizational rules, as does the federal government. Some groups are organized as private (Yarrow, Loon Lake) some are federal non-profits (Friends of Opal Creek) and some are for-profit businesses (Breitenbush Retreat and Conference Center) and some have even used the Fraternal Organizations laws to buy and protect lands. It doesn’t have to be that costly, either. Yarrow members pay but $50 per month in dues in addition to donating labor to projects on the land. Most trusts don’t have the resources to buy large chunks of land at first. There are many options already out there. Here is a fine summation of how to do it and where to get help: http://www.possibility.com/LandTrust/>

It’s not at all easy to get help from the big groups like the Trust for Public Lands or The Nature Conservancy, however. Yarrow members’ biggest regret is that when we had the opportunity to buy the land Boise did buy and cut, we could not afford it. Even though the aging owners were willing to sell it to us at a very decent discount, we could not get any of these large groups to help out. It just wasn’t spectacular enough for them. I even negotiated with the Washington State Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher on it, willing to trade development rights to Yarrow for the state buying it and adding their existing parcels to it and ours and using it as an Eastside Forest study project. That also went nowhere. In the end, we regret we didn’t buy it and log it ourselves, as we could have done that with a much lighter touch, maybe even providing a model of proper logging.


However one pulls it off, the rewards are sweet. We like to note when in a wild place without others around, “There’s six and a quarter billion of us on the planet and we’re here.” A group of us climb the ridge to Yarrow’s Sunset Hill. We look out over the landscape and a sky so big one can only see a small part at one time. The sun slowly sets and splashes its palette across the billowing cumulus clouds and forested mountains. Birdsongs abound from the meadows which have been grazing free for years now. A deer bolts from the aspen grove, startled by something — maybe a cougar, maybe a bear. A Golden Eagle floats overhead, the last rays shimmering off her huge wings. One can almost feel the Earth turn. Tomorrow we all leave the land to its permanent inhabitants. All is right with the world.

MICHAEL DONNELLY of Salem, OR hopes his compatriots won’t be too upset that he let their secret out in hopes of seeing it replicated all over. Donnelly is a contributor to CounterPunch’s forthcoming book on the 2004 elections, Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Politics of Lesser Evils. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com

MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com