Defending Forests in a Time of Climate Chaos

Twenty-five years ago, Darryl Cherney remarked that he expected tree-sitting to become a national pastime. From his high perch in a fragment of the decimated coastal forests of the  California northcoast, he was exulting over how many  young people from all over the country   came to help. Even before the fear of climate catastrophe was a headline issue, they were aware of the enormous value trees provide for Earth’s air, water, biodiversity, and spiritual tranquility.

Determined to lead honorable lives, they sprang into action.

Three decades later, young people all over the world are rising to defend their inheritance. New Zealand, India, Pakistan, elsewhere, children are surveying a future of fire and floods with sinking hearts, and reacting.

A group of children in Colombia calculated the increasing mass of rain forest being destroyed annually, its price in carbon, in carbon generating capacity, in water, and in biodiversity. Then they sued the government for the theft.

Here in the US, 21 children watched increasingly worldwide chaos, and growing threats to survival. In 2015 they brought a lawsuit against the United States for failing to protect their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, citing the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution. Their own parents, they said, their parents’ generation, was destroying their future. Although their case, Juliana vs the United States, lost this year at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in an opinion which confessed craven impotence (“any effective plan would necessarily require a host of complex policy decisions entrusted, for better or for worse, to the wisdom and discretion of the executive and legislative branches”), they set an inspiring example.

Similar suits have emerged around the country, in which children are claiming their right to a habitable environment. Today, Judge Kathy Seeley ruled that a Constitutional climate suit against the state of Montana must be heard in court.

Here in Humboldt County, recognition grows that the tree-sitters of the 90s were right to defend the forests, which protect air, water, and wildlife, reduce fire risk and, as photosynthetic engine, remove 1/3 of the carbon humans generate.

They failed.  The destruction continues, with atmospheric carbon increased to 70 ppm between 1993 and the present. Catastrophic fires rage. The population of Northern Spotted Owls, an indicator species, has decreased 30% over the same period, due to habitat loss.

However, these young people left a legacy. Respect and reverence have grown, over the passage of time, for forests, as an indispensable element in the functioning and structure of earth’s biosphere. Indigenous peoples know this, through the traditional knowledge bequeathed to them by their forebears, who managed the danger fire posed to themselves with frequent cultural burns in carefully and seasonally selected areas.

Industrial extraction has destroyed the forest.  Because it demolishes forest infrastructure, and desiccates undergrowth on the forest floor, logging has intensified the destructive power of fire severity to its present terrifying scale.

The atmosphere must be recognized as part of the public trust. Forests are working lands, and their “high value forest product” is a habitable climate.  This product is vastly more valuable than the inferior quality wood they provide in their currently degraded state.

Administratively, forest management belongs in the Department of Conservation, where foresters can learn from the highly developed management skills once employed by their indigenous predecessors.

Public understanding also has evolved since the 90s. It is unlikely that locals will sport bumper-stickers with the inflammatory “save a logger, eat an owl” slogan. People must support themselves. But they want their lives to mean something. They want to restore, rather than destroy, their children’s futures.

Like the coal industry, logging has become obsolete. Other building materials are being developed which do not externalize the costs. Like the rubber and palm plantations, which have devastated the forests of Indonesia, South America and Africa, young even-age conifer plantations are being relocated from the forest to agricultural areas where they do not pose fire risk and can be treated as fiber farms.

The Laytonville School System is not likely to make reading the Lorax a crime anymore, and the children, many of whom see themselves as the hero kid of the book, know these words virtually by heart:

And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
Was a small pile of rocks, with the one word UNLESS.
Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn’t guess……

Ellen Taylor can be reached at