Defender of the Forests

[Veteran forest advocate Bonnie Phillips passed away on May 4, 2015 in Olympia, Washington. This article is based on her final interview.]

Ever since she was a little girl growing up near the shores of Lake Michigan in the 1940s, Bonnie Phillips talked to trees. And it was this inborn love of our nation’s forests that inspired Bonnie to dedicate nearly half of her life advocating for their protection.

In her 20s, Bonnie left her native Midwest for Washington State, accompanied by her first husband. As soon as she laid eyes on the glowing white slopes of Mt. Rainier, she told herself “this is home.” During a brief stint living on a commune in Vermont, she had a vision that summoned her back to the temperate rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula, where she lived out the rest of her days.

Upon her return to the northwest, she found herself increasingly influenced by Buddhism. Refusing to take on any work she considered harmful, she soon found employment at the University of Washington Medical School.

During her free time, Bonnie explored the outdoors more and more, and before long she met her second husband at a rock climbing class. In 1982, at the age of forty, she decided to become the “ultimate female jock,” and began climbing, skiing, and running with a vengeance.

Unfortunately, after many months of intense physical activity, she developed serious swelling in both of her feet, which caused permanent damage and eventually forced her into a wheelchair. A couple of years and a few “medical mishaps” later, she decided that if she could no longer traverse the forests and mountains she loved, she’d do something to help them instead.

Enter, Bonnie Phillips, forest defender.

Forest Defender

In the late 1980s, Bonnie dove headfirst into the forest protection movement, volunteering with the Pilchuck Audubon Society on the spotted owl lawsuit in an attempt to stop the logging of the Pacific Northwest’s forests. In 1988, she was sent to Washington, D.C. as a part of the Ancient Forest Alliance, to speak for the trees.

At the time, the U.S. Forest Service didn’t have a good idea where the remaining old growth forests were on National Forest land, so Bonnie organized an Adopt-a-Forest campaign to map the rapidly dwindling stands. She used that information, along with the latest science in the emerging field of conservation biology, to fight timber sales and “organize all over the place.”

While the “owls vs. loggers” controversy raged, Bonnie maintained good relations with Forest Service personnel, many of whom personally shared her goal of protecting ancient forests.

Paradoxically, the worst pushback Bonnie experienced in her new role as forest activist wasn’t from the Forest Service, but from the large, national environmental groups she had assumed were her allies. These well-funded, influential organizations refused to “pay any attention” to the timber sales Bonnie and her grassroots colleagues fought in the trenches day in and day out, and focused instead on trying – unsuccessfully – to pass a wilderness bill.

Bonnie attributed most of the friction between her and the Big Greens to her hardline stance on forest protection, but also chalked it up to sexism, a common experience for female leaders in the movement in those days. In fact, years later, a retiring member of one of these organizations admitted to her that he had been specifically instructed to “marginalize” her work.

Luckily for the forests, Bonnie was unstoppable. Thanks to her ability to firmly, yet respectfully, communicate with the opposition, she helped usher in a new age of forest activism by arranging for Forest Service District Rangers to meet with – and listen to – forest advocates, a practice unheard of at the time.

By 1991, the effectiveness of Bonnie and her fellow treehuggers convinced the foundations that funded the large national environmental groups to see the value of a spunky grassroots movement. Grant money was offered to grassroots advocates in California, Oregon, and Washington, Bonnie included, to form a new organization.

Bonnie worked the fax machine and flew back and forth from Washington, D.C., where she quickly grew sick of hearing about “political reality,” which she saw as simply a lack of inspiration and courage. As it gathered momentum, the campaign began to change the face of forest politics.

This was when the foundations were still “good people,” according to Bonnie. Their approach to grantmaking was, “here’s the money, do your best, goodbye.” A model that was soon to change.


Bonnie Phillips.

Crumbling Foundations

Bonnie believed foundations “went wrong with Pew,” referring to Pew Charitable Trusts, the $5 billion foundation started by the Pew family in 1948, who inherited their fortunes from their father’s Sun Oil Company (Sunoco).

The history of the Pew family is one of conservatism and pro-free market. Early funding priorities for the foundation included the American Red Cross and cancer research, along with right wing causes such as the John Birch Society. More recently, the foundation has funded ocean advocacy, alternative energy, and certain components of the forest protection movement. Currently, seven out of thirteen members of Pew’s board of directors are named Pew.

After the spotted owl lawsuit triggered the Northwest Forest Plan compromise in 1994 – setting aside old growth reserves on National Forest land in Oregon, Washington, and California and opening much of the rest of the forest to logging – Pew dropped its funding for grassroots groups. Instead, it offered to fund a coalition, the Forest Water Alliance, with Bonnie at its helm.

Coordinating that group was the “biggest mistake of my life,” admitted Bonnie, who watched in dismay as groups battled one another over Pew money at the expense of a successful campaign. A year later, the movement changed so much that she wanted to resign, but was told that if she did, Pew would cut off the funding. Bonnie didn’t want to see her friends and colleagues lose their jobs, so she stayed on.

And that’s when Pew went “really wrong” in her eyes, as it concentrated on the Roadless Area “fiasco,” an effort to protect the last large, unlogged forested parcels from logging, while allowing the timber industry to access the remaining acres.

“Dangerous,” is how Bonnie characterized Pew’s new practice of negotiating with the timber industry, no longer content with leaving the advocacy work to the groups they funded.

Bonnie watched the grassroots groups take the “big plunge,” as they came to terms with the new reality that the only way they could get funding – not just from Pew, but from most of the well-endowed foundations – was to “give some to get some.” This practice of endorsing logging in some forests in exchange for the protection of others, has become the norm among foundation-funded environmental groups today.

The same drive to avoid harmful work that got Bonnie involved with the medical school and forest advocacy, encouraged her to end her relationship with Pew.

But her work on behalf of the forests was far from over.

New Threat to Forests

Bonnie spent the next several years with the Olympic Forest Coalition, a nonprofit based in Olympia, which focused on the protection of what’s left of Washington’s forests.

Around 2008, she got a whiff of a few biomass energy proposals, facilities that would burn trees for heat and electricity.

An asthma sufferer, Bonnie had given up using a woodstove years before due to health concerns, and now they were “hitting me in my own backyard.”

Wary of biomass energy as an emerging threat to Washington’s forests and air quality, Bonnie joined a campaign to successfully oppose a biomass heating facility proposed for Evergreen College in Olympia. She also networked with citizens from Port Townsend and Port Angeles in their fights against biomass proposals (Port Townsend won, Port Angeles lost).

Bonnie strongly supported the work of organizations like 350.org to call attention to the climate impacts of fossil fuels, but it “appalled” her when they ignored or, worse, supported the burning of biomass for energy, which is even “dirtier than coal.”

In 2014, Bonnie joined took her biomass opposition to the national level, and joined the steering committee for the Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign, a grassroots coalition of over 50 groups across the U.S. that opposes “all industrial, commercial and institutional burning of biomass and biofuels for energy.” In 2015, Bonnie was hired on as campaign coordinator, the last of her many contributions to the environmental movement.

Before she left us, Bonnie had some advice for the anti-biomass movement in particular, where she urged organizers who have won or lost battles against biomass facilities to stay engaged with the national campaign. Future success, she said, is dependent on “fighting as a coalition of strong environmental groups that aren’t going to give.” Individual groups, she pointed out, can only do so much.

Bonnie stressed the need for grassroots leaders to stick to their guns in difficult situations and refuse to compromise core principles. As she used to tell activists who sat on Aubudon Society advisory committees, “if you aren’t comfortable being the only S.O.B. in the room when necessary, then you shouldn’t be on this committee.”

No less important, Bonnie urged forest advocates to step away from their computers and get out in the woods.

Don’t Mourn, Organize

Bonnie took the role of forest advocate very seriously, yet she always maintained the importance of personal relationships. She firmly believed you could find common ground with people and still not “give up your principles.”

For instance, when Bonnie took part in nonviolent civil disobedience to protect the marbled murrelet, an endangered seabird that nests in old growth forests, the local carpenter’s union let the activists use their hall to organize. Another time, she worked closely with the labor movement in an effort to oust a particularly “awful local Congressman.” She learned to be “open about who might be an ally, sometimes they might be unexpected.”

Bonnie told a story about a flight back from a Washington, D.C. lobbying trip where she sat next to a lobbyist for Plum Creek, one of the biggest timber companies in the U.S. Instead of being adversarial, the two of them had the “best conversation about when we were young hippies.”

Bonnie understood that even if you disagree with someone’s politics, once you start connecting as individuals, it makes it almost impossible to demonize them. “Not that there aren’t some people who deserve it,” she added.

The Wobblies – the International Workers of the World (IWW) labor union – was one of Bonnie’s great inspirations in her advocacy, in terms of “being strong, being out there, and being courageous.” She was particularly fond of their saying, “don’t mourn, organize.”

Good advice, for sure. And while many of those lucky enough to have known Bonnie are still organizing, it’s safe to say they’re mourning her passing, too.

Josh Schlossberg is a freelance investigative journalist, member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and editor of The Biomass Monitor, the nation’s leading publication covering the health and environmental impacts of biomass energy. He lives in Boulder, Colorado and can be contacted at thebiomassmonitor [at] gmail.com.

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