Campaign of Illusions: Where the Zero Cut Movement to Save the National Forests Went Wrong

Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging again? A quarter century after it became the banner and guiding star for much of the grassroots forest movement, and then over a decade of semi-retirement, the campaign for this legislation is trying to mount a national revival. My question is simple:  Is it the best strategy for a collapsed forest movement, daily confronting the debacle of rapidly increasing logging and roadbuilding in the national forests?

The combination of President Trump and an overtly hostile Republican-controlled Congress has shocked the grassroots, non-collaboration forest movement.  Awakening from over a decade of a sort of slumber, these forest defense activists are daily burning up internet chat rooms with news chronicling cascading losses in Agriculture and Interior Department rules, regulations, administrative edicts, and newly-passed laws and congressional riders that roll backdecadesof environmental laws and court victories.

They are stunned to see the reality that their strategy of timber sales appeals and lawsuits are no longer holding back the bulldozers and chain saws of the timber industry and its U.S. Forest Service puppet. As they ponder these mounting losses, they watch their local forests logged with increasing ferocity, a comprehensive assault on public lands with transgressions that few imagined they would live to see.

This all-out attack on public forest lands includes shrinking national monuments, extensive and expanding logging throughout the national forests, including in roadless areas – sacred places the grassroots forest movement believed had been once and for all protected. Moreover, the Trump administration is moving to allow industrial extraction from national parks.

With this crescendo of bad news, many forest activists have been shocked into action like a sleeping beehive that has been swiftly kicked. They feel the inspirational juices flowing once more, recalling the movement at its peak almost 30 years ago, when the national media channeled the movement’s dynamism that had the whole nation discussing “Ancient Forests” and the president and Congress grappling with the issue. Forest grassroots are once again busy with meetings and agendas on what to do next.

And what is a central theme to this reinvigorated movement?  The very same theme of two decades ago: “Zero Cut” / “No Commercial Logging”.  These two names are used interchangeably by many grassroots activists, yet they have different, even contradictory meanings, a problem recognized at its inception but never resolved.

The Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging campaign was created in direct response to President Clinton’s designation in 1993-94 of the “Option 9” plan for the spotted owl Ancient Forests on the west side of the Cascade mountains in Washington, Oregon and California. Option 9 allowed continued logging in Ancient Forests, so activists were furious, and disappointed that any logging was permitted in the spotted owl forests at all.

In response to what was perceived as a disgraceful sell-out of the Ancient Forests and of all the activists who had labored on behalf of full protection for the Ancient Forests, Zero Cut was a primal scream of protest.  It was created as a pure and absolute solution to all the complexities about logging in previous rules, laws and debates, about logging.  Zero Cut was created as the invincible new super weapon that would once and for all annihilate the timber industry and Forest Service, not just in the millions of acres of western Ancient Forests, but in all national forests and federal lands in the U.S. The campaign spread like wildfire and the campaign took over the grassroots forest movement quickly. By 1996, the activists focused on the core of their plan – the Sierra Club.

Aside from the alleged goal of either “zero cut” or “no commercial logging” – whatever they may mean – the other central tenet of this campaign was, at its very outset , that this small band of activists would “take over” the national Sierra Club, control the hundred million dollar annual budget, and then easily roll through the U.S. Congress, march to the White House oval office and watch the President surrender to these victorious tree-huggers by signing their Zero Cut legislation into law.  The takeover of the Sierra Club was the heart of this grassroots campaign strategy.  The campaign leaders spent large amounts of their time and efforts trying to take control of the Sierra Club.

Here is the strange conundrum at the center of this long and continuing Zero Cut ordeal. The grassroots forest activists–not just the campaign leaders but the whole grassroots non-collaboration movement–generally dislike the Sierra Club. They dislike the Sierra Club for its pro-corporate policies, for its failure to protect the national forests, particularly the Ancient Forests, for its banishment of their champion David Brower, for its financial starvation of the local chapters, and for its suppression of dissent within the Sierra Club, to name but a few reasons.  Yet the very same grassroots Sierra Club opponents placed their hopes for the future of public forests–their professed end to logging, or commercial logging – in the hands of the very same Sierra Club.

The initial energy of the Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging campaign swept it to a quick victory when the Sierra Club membership ballot initiative in 1996 succeeded in forcing the national Sierra Club – against the wishes of the Sierra Club national leadership – to endorse no commercial logging as its official, albeit long-term, goal.  Then it was off to the races to introduce a No Commercial Logging bill in Congress.

But a number of ominous events occurred at the early stages of the campaign that cast a long, dark shadow over the Zero Cut campaign’s future.  Immediately following the victorious Sierra Club ballot initiative in 1996, one of the top leaders of the Zero Cut campaign received a phone call from a well-known leader of the Sierra Club.  He told the Zero Cut leader that although “No Commercial Logging” had been voted by the membership as the official long-term policy of the Sierra Club, the Sierra Club would not spend any money promoting the No Commercial Logging bill in Congress. It was dead on arrival.

The No Commercial Logging activists spent the next few years trying to elect a sympathetic majority to Sierra Club’s Board of Directors to control Sierra Club’s policy and 100-million-dollar budget. At its peak in 1999, 7 pro-“no-commercial-logging” advocates had been elected to the 15-member Sierra Club Board of Directors. When the annual vote to elect the president of the Board of Directors took place with David Brower as a candidate for Board president as a No Commercial Logging proponent, only 3 of the 15 Board members voted for Brower. Four of the seven No Commercial Logging board members flipped sides and voted against Brower.  The Zero Cut / No Commercial Logging advocates failed to take control of the Sierra Club. After that ultimate anti-climax–Zero Cut’s Waterloo–the zero-cut campaign gradually fizzled out nationally over the next few years.

Yet after twenty years, the cry of Zero Cut and No Commercial Logging can still be heard around campfires and seen lovingly emblazoned on large banners hung in forest defenders’ offices. Zero Cut/No Commercial logging are still used as tag lines in articles on national forest logging.  It is more than just popular among grassroots activists.  It is an article of faith. And that is the most interesting thing of all. Clearly, after 25 years, the Zero Cut – / No Commercial Logging has not stopped logging on the national forests, it has not even slowed it, it has not passed Congress and become law, it has not even had one congressional hearing.

Logging is mushrooming nationwide.  Yet for many, the absolute belief in Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging is undiminished, and the Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging is “ready to rumble” once again.

Is there not one of the Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging flock who disagrees with the strategy now? In fact, there are many former Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging proponents who now do not support it. Twenty years ago, some of them believed the No Commercial Logging bill in Congress had a very good chance of becoming law, because the Sierra Club officially supported it.  Two decades later, they realize it did not have a chance then and does not have a chance now, and they now want a different approach.

Others who supported it twenty years ago actually never believed that it had a chance of passing Congress, but thought it was good to just have a bill in Congress that made a Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging “statement.”  Now, this segment of former supporters sees clearly that a “statement” bill was not the wisest use of everyone’s time, money and efforts.  As much as these former Zero-Cut acolytes want legislation that can become law, they express their changes of hearts and minds in whispers, and off-the-record, fearing the stigma of no longer supporting Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging.

That stigma is no small thing. In fact, for grassroots activists, it can represent an enforced excommunication from the forest community.

When the Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging campaign began in the mid-90s, there was no discussion, no debate permitted by the campaign leaders between different schools of thought. Those who questioned or disagreed are labeled a heretic, dismissed as a forest “sellout” and traitor, on par with those who threw the Ancient Forests under the bus for money and political gain.  Meetings among Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging devotees were filled with great optimism, joy, certainty, and a sense of unity.  Any who questioned or doubted were excluded.

Twenty years later, there is still fear about questioning, let alone opposing Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging. because of the certainty of being ostracized. Fear of being attacked for appearing to deviate is widespread.

Here is an example of the kind of increased logging that is now happening and has the grassroots forest movement stunned and dismayed.  This particular example is chosen because it is the very region where Zero Cut was born, in the center of the Ancient Forest old growth in Oregon, the famed Breitenbush watershed. The Forest Service is conducting major logging in an LSR (Late Successional Reserve) Old Growth, directly adjacent to federal wilderness areas.  They are conducting “thinning” to prevent fire, as well as CLEARCUTS (aka “regeneration harvests”), “sugar pine restoration” and “meadow restoration.”

Look at this map and try to hold back your tears.


The Zero Cut crowd boasted at its birth that types of logging, –thinning, clearcut, volume, board feet–were outmoded, obsolete terms and concepts, useless battles that no longer needed to be fought. They claimed that the Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging campaign ushered in a new age, a new era, where these old concepts would fall away like ghostly apparitions and the light of No Commercial Logging would shine on the national forests and magically transform it into a wilderness wonderland.

Gaze at that map and see with your own eyes if the thinning, and other types of logging, clearcutting, volume and board feet have disappeared a quarter of a century after Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging first appeared on the scene? The timber industry is gobbling up the forests using every trick and tactic.  But the grassroots still keep repeating Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging as a magic ritual.  Can the activists smell the burning chainsaw oil as the trees are falling?  Do they still think that repeating this mantra will magically halt the dramatic increase of logging any time soon, if ever?  Do they think the members of Congress are on the verge of reversing their positions, and will support Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging with just one more concerted grassroots push? Can the forests afford another quarter century of Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging?

Sure, it hurts, really hurts, to give up illusions, to admit losses, to make honest assessments of where one actually stands in life when things go wrong.  It is comforting to cling to a group where everyone says they are together, a group with magical beliefs that transcend reality, makes promises of easy, certain and total victory, and to follow leaders who have had “visions” that divinely lead them forward knowing with absolute certainty they are in the right. This certainty and purity wins emotionally over the messiness and uncertainty of real world politics hands down.

In the grassroots forest movement, there is the belief that the public forests are owned by the people, that the grassroots activists have the Forest Service under control, that they are winning the battle, and that total victory – Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging – is just around the corner.  This belief still gives great comfort to the “movement.” But the last quarter century would seem to show it is an illusion, no truer today than it was decades ago, as the daily forest news attests. The grassroots do not have the Forest Service under control. The timber industry, not the public, is primarily in control of the public forests, and total victory as defined by Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging does not seem likely now or any time in the foreseeable future.

Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging was spawned in anger and despair out of the failure of the Ancient Forest campaign to completely protect the forests, and gave great energy to the movement at a dark hour, but it was not based on reality.  After so many years, the results that are obvious in the Breitenbush map –and almost every other national forest across the country–should give thinking activists pause about continuing down this same path.

This article barely scratches the surface of the Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging issue.  It is not written to give “the answer,” but to ask the question: will the grassroots forest movement finally, after 25 years, have the courage to break the silence, begin to ask the necessary questions, and challenge the enforced “unity” of Zero Cut/No Commercial Logging?

I challenge the forest movement’s clergy to allow, even encourage, an open discussion and debate. I think it’s time for self-evident truth (reality) to confront these longstanding core beliefs.  Will any leaders who are thinking these thoughts too finally muster the courage to openly voice them, even in the face of initially being attacked as traitors?

As has been said many times before, the forests, the animals and all of nature’s priceless gifts cannot speak for themselves.  We must forcefully, and honestly, speak for them. Doesn’t all of nature deserve a plan that will actually stop the killing, rather than a movement that saves them only in our dreams?

Steve Kelly is a an artist and environmental activist. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.