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George Wuerthner: A Bold Voice for Wild Nature

Environmental writer George Wuerthner is receiving the Fund for Wild Nature’s Grassroots Activist of the Year Award for 2017.  Through his writing, George has consistently been a bold voice in defense of wildlife and wild places, and his work has had a real impact.

George was selected for the award this year in part to celebrate the creation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine’s North Woods in October 2016. The idea for this monument can be traced back to George, who wrote a series of articles proposing new national parks in New England. His writings caught the attention of wilderness advocate Michael Kellett. Together, Michael and George founded a group called RESTORE the North Woods to advocate for a big new national park in Maine.

RESTORE’s outreach inspired Roxanne Quimby, the co-founder of Burt’s Bees, to buy large amounts of land in the North Woods with the goal of helping create the proposed national park. These forests, which are part of one of largest undeveloped areas in the US outside of Alaska, are home to black bears, lynx, martens, and moose.  Despite many obstacles created by anti-environmental forces in the region, Roxanne was ultimately able to donate 87,500 acres to the National Park Service as the Katahdin National Monument. In short, this monument is a great example of how a bold idea can ultimately have a big effect.

Beyond the Katahdin accomplishment, George writings (many of them published by CounterPunch) have often been ahead of the times in terms of exposing a variety of controversial threats to wild places. He has written and edited 38 books addressing topics such as the harms to public lands from livestock grazing (Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West), off-road vehicles (Thrillcraft: The Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation), fossil fuel extraction (Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth), and the suppression of forest fires (Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy). George’s writings are based intimate first-hand experience with North America wildlands.  He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and hundreds of proposed wilderness.

The damage he has witnessed from livestock grazing in wildlands has been a particular concern to George. This concern first arose in the 1970s when he was studying ecology at the University of Montana.  As George explained, “I kept seeing the negative impacts of grazing on fish, plants, etc. It lead me to an ‘ah-ha’ moment where I began connecting the dots and realized that ultimate cause of many problems for wildlife was livestock.”

George began writing candidly about the harms from grazing, which earned him the enmity of the livestock industry. The Montana Stockgrowers Association called George the “Ralph Nader” of the environmental movement in Montana. He faced death threats and other harassment. For example, one rancher wrote a letter about polluting the Yellowstone River with George’s blood.

Perhaps more unexpected were the difficulties George faced from some of the larger environmental groups in Montana. As he explained, “A recurrent problem was when environmental groups allowed big ranchers to be on their board of directors— in  a way that they wouldn’t have allowed an oil executive—and then these groups would muzzle staff from speaking publicly about the ecological damage from livestock.”

One key group not afraid to challenge harmful grazing is the Western Watersheds Project, and George was invited to join their board of directors– a role that he continues to serve to this day.

George’s research on grazing ultimately attracted the interest of Doug Tompkins, a former business executive turned philanthropist who created the Foundation for Deep Ecology. Tompkins asked George to co-edit a massive book documenting the ecological impacts of livestock—Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West. George was then invited to become the Foundation for Deep Ecology’s Ecological Projects Director.

In that role, he produced a series of other large-format environmental books, including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. Wildfire has been another long-term interest for George. He first explored it in a book tilted Yellowstone and the Fires of Change, which was written shortly after the large forest fire in Yellowstone National Park in 1988. While the fire was occurring, the media generally presented it in negative terms. Instead, George decided to look deeper and identified the great wildlife habitat that was created by the fire. His book was ultimately at the forefront of a larger shift in understanding of fire ecology as the public saw that the fire had revitalized Yellowstone in many ways.

Wildfire has become an even more prominent issue since then. Faced with widespread public opposition to commercial logging on national forests, in the 1990s and 2000s the Forest Service increasingly repackaged its controversial logging projects to instead be portrayed as being done to reduce large wildfires. This narrative has depended on presenting large, intense fires in negative terms, rather than seeing them as natural and beneficial ecosystems processes. George’s writings have helped turn those fire-phobic mischaracterizations on their head. Whereas some reporters present fires as getting “worse,” George famously described a particularly active year as the “Best Fire Season Ever!”

George has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of fire science, and has often highlighted the deep divide between the latest research on the ecological importance of mixed-severity fires in western forests and the fire-related logging promoted by the timber industry, Forest Service, and even some environmental groups. He has written extensively on this subject (including numerous pieces published in Counterpunch) and frequently gives public presentations.

To continue this work, George founded a new organization in 2016 called Public Lands Media—a project of Earth Island Institute—that focuses on getting the best available science regarding wildfires and other issues affecting public lands protection into the hands of reporters, policymakers, and the public. Amid the ramped up assaults on public lands occurring under the Trump administration, this work is even more important now. We need clear and direct voices like George’s— people who will stand up for ecological science even when it is not easy to do so.

George embodies the boldness in defense of the earth that the Fund for Wild Nature seeks to help nurture. The Fund for Wild Nature was created by grassroots activists to help fund the boldest grassroots groups working to protect wildlife and wild places, knowing how difficult it can be for these groups to get assistance from large foundations, and also recognizing how even a small amount of money for these groups can lead to big results. Unlike most other foundations, the Fund for Wild Nature depends entirely on annual contributions from the public, which it then redistributes to support worthy grassroots biodiversity protection groups throughout North America. In addition to providing grants, the Fund sponsors the Grassroots Activist of the Year Award as another way to promote bold activism. We are honored to have George Wuerthner as the recipient of our award for 2017.

Douglas Bevington is a member of the board of the directors of the Fund for Wild Nature and is the author of The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear.

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