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Merle Haggard and the Politics of Salmon

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During the battle to save the pristine salmon and steelhead habitat of Headwaters Forest in 1998, I got a phone call one morning from Mike Sherwood, then the California Director of the Sierra Club. He told me that country legend Merle Haggard (who passed away on his birthday, April 6) and actor Woody Harrelson would be appearing at the State Capitol for a noon time rally.

“Thanks for the information,” I told Sherwood and drove from Elk Grove to the Capitol to check the event out. I arrived about a half hour early, so I went to a small circle of a dozen activists standing around and talking on the capitol lawn.

I scanned the area around the capitol on the lookout for Haggard, Harrelson and the folks from the Environmental Protection Center of Garberville, the event’s organizers.

I was ready to ask the guy next to me, a short, laid back, bearded man, about when Haggard and Harrelson were supposed to appear when suddenly realized that he was Merle Haggard.

“Please to meet you, Merle,” I said as I held out my hand and got a hard, firm shake from the country bard, known for the outspoken lyrics of “Okie from Muskogee,” the “Fightin’ Side of Me,”and many, many other songs.

Haggard explained to me that he was there to stop the logging of redwood and Douglas fir forests on the North Coast by Pacific Lumber Company, the once sustainably run timber company that had been bought by the corporate giant Maxxam in a hostile takeover.

Haggard, a long time angler and hunter who lived on Lake Shasta and started the first bass tournaments on that reservoir, was there to urge the Legislature to not fund the Headwaters Forest deal between the federal government and Pacific Lumber unless measures protecting forest watersheds were adopted. He also recommended the removal of state and federal officials responsible for the destruction of forest habitat.

“Clear cutting is rape,” said Haggard. “Several years ago I drove along the coast from Coos Bay to Crescent City and the destruction I saw made me sick to the stomach. I’ve fished in the streams of the North Coast since I first came to Eureka to work in a plywood mill in 1955. The problem is that many of the people who work in the mills aren’t aware of what logging companies like Pacific Lumber are doing.”

Haggard continued, “The people responsible for this destruction (government officials and timber company owners) should be taken out of their positions. These forests support the grandest life on earth; to have no feeling for it is criminal. Only money is being heard now, not the voice of the people.”

Haggard spoke his mind like a true sportsman and environmentalist in his simple, but powerful and poetic way that made him such a great songwriter.

During the event, Haggard, Harrelson and others in the group listened, via a cellphone with a speaker, to Julia Butterfly, who had begun a sit in a giant redwood tree, “Luna,” owned by Pacific Lumber Company, on December 10, 1997.

They expressed their strong support for her persistence in taking direct action to stop the clearcutting of the tree. She didn’t come down from the tree until December 18, 1999.

Haggard’s appearance there was very important because he demonstrated the necessity for environmental groups and sportsmen to work together in the cause to protect our fisheries from destruction by the timber industry, agribusiness and oil and chemical industries. Haggard realized that to restore fisheries, anglers must work with environmental groups, Indian Tribes, family farmers and others to achieve common goals, even though they may disagree at times.

Haggard definitely had his own opinion about everything — and his views on issues covered the gamut from the populist right to the populist left.

When his anthemic song “Okie from Muskogee” was released in 1969, it became a hit on both AM country radio and FM counterculture alternative rock stations. The country fans thought it was Merle’s musical statement of his opposition to hippies and the 1960s counterculture — and the rock fans thought it was a tongue-in-cheek satire about rednecks.

Actually, it was neither, as Merle explained in a Coast to Coast interview with former late night talk shore host Art Bell in 2000.

Haggard said his purpose for writing the song was to portray the viewpoint of his father during the 1960s.

“I consider myself pretty politically liberal,” Haggard told Bell in the interview.

An associate of mine used to do videos for Haggard and my work partner also made a fishing video, accompanied with the words to an anti-war song by Haggard, in a salute to the country giant about a decade ago.

Haggard was also outspoken in his defense of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

In an article published on Counterpunch on September 7, 2002, the late Alexander Cockburn said:

“On the home front the war on the Bill of Rights is set at full throttle, though getting less popular with each day as judges thunder their indignation at the unconstitutional diktats of Attorney General John Ashcroft, a man low in public esteem.

On this latter point we can turn to Merle Haggard, the bard of blue collar America, the man who saluted the American flag more than a generation ago in songs such as the Fighting Side of Me and Okie from Muskogee. Haggard addressed a concert crowd in Kansas City a few days ago in the following terms: ‘I think we should give John Ashcroft a big hand …(pause)… right in the mouth!’ Haggard went on to say, ‘the way things are going I’ll probably be thrown in jail tomorrow for saying that, so I hope ya’ll will bail me out.’” (The Tenth Crusade)

While I love his songs, the most memorable thing about Haggard to me is how he stood up against clearcutting and environmental destruction — and for the restoration of salmon, steelhead and other fisheries.  Haggard, with all of his life’s ups and downs, was definitely a man of the people who believed that the “voice of the people” should be heard over the voice of those with money and power.

Rest in Peace, Merle Haggard.

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Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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