14 Dec 2007, 1:27pm
by admin

Your Political Will Does Not Mean A Damn Thing

Petersen, James D. Your Political Will Does Not Mean A Damn Thing. Speech to the Lolo Resource Advisory Council, Hamilton, Montana, November 27, 2007

James D. Petersen is Executive Director, The Evergreen Foundation [here]

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:

Good evening,

Thanks for inviting me to join you.

Before I get started, would everyone in this room who works in the forest products industry please stand.

My message to the rest of you in this room is that if western Montana’s already teetering sawmilling infrastructure collapses – as it already has in Arizona and New Mexico – you can forget about your dreams for restoring western Montana’s beleaguered national forests, including those here in the Bitterroot Valley…

But radical environmentalists will tell you a very different story. They will tell you that the dead and dying trees that need to be removed from national forests… should be removed at taxpayer expense – that the trees that need to be removed from overstocked, diseased and dying forests should then be piled and burned or simply buried in the ground – at costs exceeding $1,000 per acre. Let me assure you, there is not enough gold in Fort Knox to pay for all of the restoration work that needs to be done in the West’s national forests.

Why would any environmentalist take such a bizarre stand, when everyone knows that some of the trees that need to be removed… have commercial value – and that some of these thinning projects could actually pay for themselves?

The answer is both simple and direct: radical environmentalists hate the free enterprise system more than they love the environment.

And the law is on their side. All of the angels in Heaven are no match for the astonishing power Congress has granted to environmental extremists – and until Congress finds the courage to stuff the litigation genie back in the bottle, there is nothing that you or anyone else can do to reverse the eminent ecological collapse of the West’s federally-owned forests. So a fairly strong case can be made for the fact that I wasted my time driving down here to talk to you – and you are wasting your time listening to me…

My question is this: Should this kind of environmental devastation be acceptable in an advanced industrial society where safer, less environmentally disastrous, time-tested alternatives are available? Keep in mind we have nearly 100 years of fire research and restoration strategy we can call on. The visible results can be seen in experimental forests scattered all over the West – including Lick Creek only a few miles from here.

You know this devastation well – having witnessed it here in your own beautiful valley, perhaps even in your own backyard or just beyond your living room-window view of the valley. But how do you feel knowing you are powerless to stop what is happening? Does it make you angry? It should – because only your anger will stop the madness in Washington, D.C.

Is what you see dying on the mountains in western Montana the heritage you want to leave to your children and grandchildren? Are you content to cede your political power to the publicly-subsidized Conflict Industry? I assume you know that the taxpayers in this room are a major source of funding for their litigious activities…

Until the Congress finds the political will to right its wrong, your political will does not mean a damned thing. Your vote does not count – and will not be counted. But shouldn’t you have as much to say about the future of these forests as anyone else? I think you should, but you don’t.

Wayne Hedman asked me to tell you how I think we got into this mess. It depends on which mess you are talking about. There are two of them: one is environmental, the other is economic.

The economic mess is easily explained. After the northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species in 1990, the federal timber sale program that had for 50 years been the economic lifeblood of most of the rural west began to collapse. Practically speaking, the program no longer exists. It is history…

Meanwhile, the unspoken and awful truth is that what is left of the timber industry in western Montana is a house of cards. It will not stand much longer. Whatever happens in the future will be determined by people like you sitting in rooms like this all over the western United States. If you can find a way to come together around two or three themes that are so simple that even members of Congress can understand them, you might in time reverse the tide. But it will take time and cost a good deal of money…

Speaking of decisions, how do you feel about the fact that decisions concerning the fate of western Montana’s national forests are now made in behind-closed-door meetings chaired by a federal district court judge? Who represents you in these proceedings? Are there public meeting laws in this state? If there are, why aren’t they being enforced? Remember, these forests are public assets, public property. They are not the exclusive playgrounds of malcontents and their lawyers – or are they?…

I said there were two parts to this problem. There second part is ecological.

Environmentalists would have you believe the wildfires you are witnessing in western Montana and across the entire west are natural events – ecological responses to a century of timber harvesting that left forests incapable of sustaining themselves. But there is no ecological evidence that supports this claim…

The problem is that the fires we are facing today are larger, more frequent and more destructive than any for which we can find ecological evidence anywhere in the West.

This is because these fires are burning in forests that are far denser than they once were. In some mixed conifer forests in the Intermountain West, tree density today is more than a hundred times what it was before white settlement began after the Civil War. We know this because the ecological evidence of past natural disturbances, some of them dating from the time of Christ, tells us it is so. We also know it because we have anecdotal accounts written by early explorers and westward bound pioneers describing the look of the forests they saw. There weren’t nearly as many trees in these forests and there were many more grassy plains and savannahs…

First, natural wildfire fire is a natural feature of the western landscape and has been for eons.

Second, Indian fire has also been a feature of the western landscape for thousands of years. This second fact is very important because it leaves no doubt in my mind that the forests early pioneers described in their diaries were not natural forests, but were in fact the products of widespread human-caused disturbances that may well date to the end of the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago.

Third, these fires, regardless of their source, had great ecological value because they kept insects and disease in check, favoring fire-adapted tree species like lodgepole, Ponderosa pine, western larch and Interior Douglas-fir, while holding at bay fire-sensitive shade intolerant tree species like white fir, which today is a major source of increasing forest density throughout the Interior.

Fourth, as per acre forest density increases available sunlight, moisture and soil nutrients must be divided between thousands of trees, where once these necessities of life were shared by as few as 15 or 20 trees per acre. The trees we see in these thickets today are killing each other.

Fifth, wildfire frequency began to increase first as a direct result of the nation’s shameful reservation policy. As tribes were driven from their native lands onto distant reservations native fire disappeared from the landscape…

The question now is, “What should we do about the problem we face?” Should we stand by and watch the West burn to the ground, as many environmental groups advocate in the misplaced name of naturalness – or should we launch the large scale, long-term thinning projects most fire ecologists say would be the best thing to do under the circumstances?

Keep in mind that this question is currently moot because you and I have absolutely nothing to say about what happens or doesn’t happen in the west’s publicly-owned forests. Congress has ceded our authority to malcontents, their lawyers and judges.

But for the moment let’s assume Congress has come to its senses. What now?

My fire ecologist friends tell me that tossing a match over our shoulder on our way out of the woods offers no assurance that the next forest will be the forests pioneers described in their diaries. It fact, it is likely that it won’t be. I say this because we know that Indians used fire to manage these forests for eons. The forests early settlers saw and wrote about were not natural. They were managed landscapes.

So could we use fire again in the same way Indians used it? Perhaps, but not initially, because our forests have grown much too dense to safely permit the widespread use of prescribed fire. A great deal of thinning work has to come first…

I think these are very real and very legitimate questions. Unfortunately, no one is asking these questions. The press isn’t paying attention. It isn’t doing its homework. It isn’t asking the hard questions of the judges, lawyers and malcontents who have total control over this situation. We are ignoring history, ecology and the needs of generations yet unborn…

There is not one person in the United States Forest Service today – including Gail Kimball, who many of you know - who should be telling you that the public involvement process works, because it doesn’t. If it did we would have at least one large scale, long term thinning project in place on every national forest in the West – two would be better.

Instead, what we have is one such project in the entire western United States. That project, in the White Mountains in northern Arizona, is probably doomed because there is not enough sawmilling and marketing infrastructure left in the Southwest to profitably support it. And profitability is key because – again – there is not enough gold in Fort Knox to pay for all the forest restoration work that needs to be done across the West…

As you may have already concluded, I don’t have much in the way of good news to share with you this evening, but I do have a little – and it may come as a great surprise. Did you know that public support for doing the thinning and stand tending work necessary to pull the West’s federally owned forests back from the brink of ecological collapse runs in the mid-80 percent range?

Let me repeat that because it is important. Polling and focus group work done two and three years ago in major urban centers around the country reveals public support for thinning in the West’s desperately ill federal forests is in the 80-85 per cent range. By any measure you care to apply, this is a political landslide…

My old friend Tom Bonnicksen knows something about nature. He’s a PhD forest ecologist, author and former naturalist with the National Park Service. Here’s what he had to say when I asked him what would happen if timber harvesting were banned in federal forests:

“The proposed ban on timber harvesting in federal forests – however well intended – chases an unachievable ideal. It says that if we leave forests alone the result will be a more natural landscape. But reality presents a much different picture. Our forests are byproducts of 12,000 years of dominance by Native Americans, mainly through their use of fire. Removing human influences – by imposing a harvest ban in national forests – would have horrendous impacts on native forests and species. Many early and mid-succession plant and animal communities would be lost, creating very unnatural landscapes, a significant decline in biological diversity and a significant increase in the size and frequency of wildfires, resulting in further losses to native forests.”…

My friend Bob Lee, a PhD sociologist, biologist and author who teaches at the University of Washington talked about this upheaval in an interview we did in the mid-1990s:

“Preserving and maintaining this nation’s cultural diversity is as important to the survival of America as is preserving and maintaining biological diversity. What we are preserving in rural farm and timber communities is people, not abstractions or symbols, but real people who embody basic values which are fundamental to our nation’s history and its traditions.”…

But for its sheer magnitude, no one can trump the insights of my old friend Leonard Netzorg…

“The American Revolution is still going on. We are still changing, still learning. If some of us were not constantly tearing away at what others of us think we know, we would all still think the earth flat. What is science today is witchcraft tomorrow.”

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