Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me:
the Politics of Nature
Our house sits on the rim of a canyon
sheathed in Douglas-fir. The creek
down below is roaring this time of year. Chinook salmon still
torrents. Spawn and die. We find their carcasses, picked over
There are fewer dead salmon every year. This is not a good sign.
Osprey twist in the air on bent wings
nearly every morning, cruising over
the creek bed for live fish. Year after year they rear new broods
craggy top of a broken hemlock, the nest an inverted igloo of
material-a model of organic architecture. The creek flows into
Clackamas River a couple of miles away. At the confluence is
an old mill
site. The ground is saturated in creosote and PCBs, leaching
into the water, the flesh of salmon, the blood of osprey.
At least one cougar still prowls the
canyon. Some nights we awaken to its
eerie moaning. Dogs have gone missing. Big ones. But we hear
the cat less
often now. The city advances, glowing with light. The canyon
is an island
eroded by sprawl.
On clear days the stark pyramid of Mt.
Hood flashes into view on the
eastern horizon; its flanks draped with glaciers, pink as coho
glaciers are in retreat. The history of the forest is written
on the face
of those mountains, sixty miles distant. In winter, the clearcuts
with snow, thousands of them, separated only by thin veins of
trees. This land is a battlefield. Perhaps, the largest in the
sprawls over millions of acres. There have been so many losses.
twelve feet across stand as headstones of the fallen. Still it
the blood boils.
In 1990, Kimberly and I moved our family
from the hill country of southern
Indiana to Oregon. We were looking for someplace green, wet and
were told such weather was good for the skin, not a purely narcissistic
consideration given the daily shredding of the ozone layer. There
other considerations, too: thousand year old trees, six-hundred
waterfalls, salmon, spotted owls, black bears, free-flowing rivers,
progressive politics. The essentials of life.
Of course, the essentials aren't that
easy to come by. The New Physicists
have a saying: the map is not the territory. The conundrum is
for sub-atomic matter that rearranges itself so quickly that
of its traces becomes obsolete before it is even drawn. When
we arrived in
Oregon, the Pacific Northwest was in the midst of the Great Change.
Oregon still offered most of what we imagined, but there was
less of it
every day. In a word (Ed Abbey's), Oregon was being "Californicated":
paved, smogged, subdivided, dammed, logged, mined, spiked with
towers, bankrupted schools, malicious rightwing politicos in
ascendancy. It even sported an ailing nuclear plant named after
Trojan. But there was nothing remotely prophylactic about that
When you think of Oregon, you probably
think of forests. The highway maps
help pump the mystique, splashing wide swaths of green across
It's another illusion. Two-thirds of the Oregon is desert, high
parched, austere, beautiful and vulnerable. The other third of
a thin 150-mile wide band from the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific
harbors the mightiest forest on the continent. Now it too is
kind of desert, a biological desert, an ecological dead zone.
A century of unbridled clearcutting
has taken its toll. By 1980, the
Cascades, that lush volcanic range running from British Columbia
northern California, had been transformed into a patchwork of
thousand clearcuts, a sight so surreal that stunned even President
when he flew over Mt. St. Helens to survey the damage. Carter
scars of logging for the blast of the volcano. There's a difference.
forests flattened by Mount St. Helens are starting to come back
The land leveled by the timber cartel isn't.
Many frail coastal mountainsides, punctured
by logging roads and the
forests shaved to the bedrock, simply collapse each winter in
landslides, burying some of the world's most fertile salmon streams
mega-tonnage of rock and mud. This is the pillaged landscape
Kesey's Sometimes A Great Notion. Never give an inch. Don't stop
until you reach the bone. Suck out the marrow and move on. There's
been a better guide to Oregon than that strange muddy novel.
But now the ravaged land of the Coast
Range, in a kind of death spasm, is
beginning to lash back. With a fearsome regularity, the winter
have begun crushing the new houses and trailers that regularly
on logged-over forests. These days the clearcuts are killing
salmon and owls.
Empires were built off the rape of these
Georgia-Pacific, Louisiana-Pacific, Willamette Industries, International
Paper and, mightiest of all, Weyerhaeuser. These corporations
two-step game. Most of the companies owned millions of acres
of their own
land, acquired for pennies an acre through the Railroad Land
Grants of the
nineteenth century. Each one those acres harbored tens of thousands
dollars worth of trees, mainly Douglas fir, the wood that built
America. Billions were made unfettered by law or morality or
sense. A kind of capitalist anarchy swept through the woods;
cut and run
was its mantra. It is a theme that replicated itself across the
with the mercilessness of the parasitic beast in Ridley Scott's
consuming its host forest and moving on to fresh ground.
In the early 60s, the timber behemoths
had blitzed through their own vast
holdings and turned their sights on the national forests. They
By 1970, logging on the public lands in the northwest had more
doubled. The writing was on the wall for the spotted owl, marbled
murrelet, coho salmon and 800 other species that depend on old-growth
forests. By the time we arrived in Oregon, the timber industry
clearcutting more than 256,000 acres of national forest land
in Oregon and
Washington each year. Nationwide, the logged-over acres topped
annually. These are national forests. Public lands. Your forests.
The timber barons are masters of the
art of corruption and for decades
they've had every politician in the Northwest firmly pocketed,
Democrats and rightwing Republicans, alike. It's served them
indeed. When pesky laws like the Endangered Species Act blockaded
way, they had their politicians declare the logging exempt from
constraints. When federal judges ruled against them, they got
overturn the injunctions. When Forest Service employees, such
as my friend
Jeff DeBonis, blew the whistle on illegalities, the timber industry
them transferred, demoted or fired. When Weyerhaeuser came under
by the Justice Department in a multi-million dollar timber theft
timber giant prevailed on the Clinton administration to quash
Similar investigations into bid rigging, fraud and monopolistic
got terminated from above.
With legal avenues of protest routinely
annulled by Congress, forest
defenders adopted more creative tactics. Along the Brietenbush
Herd buried himself up to his neck in a pile of boulders to block
logging road. Julia Butterfly and others took to the trees themselves,
living in them as human shields against the chainsaws. At Warner
the High Cascades, Earth First!ers built a makeshift fortress
forest to fend off the loggers, squatting there through a winter
more than 500 inches of snow fall. George Atiyeh, a Vietnam vet
of a former Oregon governor, held off Forest Service timber sale
with a shotgun as they tried to mark for cutting the thousand
trees at Opal Creek. A decade later, and despite all odds, those
still standing, now fully protected as a wilderness area.
Still the lost acres stagger the mind.
Ninety-five percent of the primary
forest, the ancient trees of the Northwest, had been liquidated
the year of the Earth Summit in Rio. At the global pow-wow, one
politician after another (except George Bush the First, who snubbed
entire show) rose to chastise Brazil for the destruction of the
where 75 percent of the primary forest remained intact. These
politicians, led by Democratic Party luminaries such as House
Foley, had underwritten the looting of the temperate rainforests
Northwest and tried to crush any environmentalists who stood
in their way.
Of course, Foley is gone and greens helped to bring the titan
there's reason for hope.
We were somewhat prepped for the great
struggle for the Northwest's
forests, but nobody told us anything about Hanford. The last
stretch of the Columbia River cuts through a place of death and
the place where they assembled hydrogen bombs: the Hanford Nuclear
Reservation. The bomb making there is largely over. But the horrific
echoes of that age will never go away. It may be the most polluted
in the world, seething with tons radioactive waste that will
entire Northwest for millennia to come. There are easy no answers
Hanford crisis. Indeed, there may well be no answers at all.
technology that built the bombs has no idea how to clean up the
the meantime, the downwinders from Spokane to Portland pay the
price is cancer of the thyroid, of the lungs, of the blood. The
Union is kaput, but the atomic clock is ticking in the middle
American outback. Some Hanford investigators warn that the leaking
of radioactive debris may get so hot they'll explode-if the worst
it will be a dirty bomb we've dropped on ourselves.
The West is a vast place, but not nearly
vast enough to handle all the
demands laid upon it. Drive down any road in the Interior West
ongoing ruination passes by your window in a grim montage: open
a mile wide and a half a mile deep, leach piles of cyanide, bombing
ranges, nuclear labs, and the internment camps known as Indian
reservations. The interior West is America's own version of the
World, a resource colony to be pillaged and abandoned. The timber
minerals are extracted as fast as possible and rendered into
course, the money doesn't stick around these parts. The boom
towns that sprouted up during the frenzies, never boomed that
big and when
they busted they descended into a gloom as terminal as any Kurt
song. Want a taste? Try the asbestos wasteland of Libby, Montana
mining towns Elko, Nevada and Wallace, Idaho. Places that might
David Lynch, director of Twin Peaks, the creeps.
You can graph the damage in tables and
bar charts, but it doesn't do it
justice. For that you need to get out there and witness the roughened
edges of the West yourself: the orange flow of Iron Mike Creek,
stream defiled by mining; the sound of F-16s screeching across
Superstition Mountains; the omnipresent smell of cowshit in the
Wilderness; the feel of your fingers skimming over 800 growth
rings on the
stump of a Douglas-fir along the Umpqua River.
There were fervent hopes that the election
of Clinton and his slime green
sidekick Al Gore would apply the brakes, pass new laws with sharp
prosecute polluters, set aside wildlands from the dozers and
chainsaws, turn away from oil, uranium and coal and toward the
Instead, the Clinton/Gore era turned out to be a short-lived
ended in the environmental equivalent of date rape. For eight
forests, deserts and rivers took a beating, but the real loser
environmental movement itself.
Oregon was a hotbed of environmental
activism in the 1980s and early
1990s. It's a big state with a small (though not small enough)
But Oregon boasted more environmental groups than any other state,
more than that golden tragedy to the south of us, California.
This was not
merely a sign of an elevated consciousness. It was, to deploy
breathless language of Ashcroft, an indication of the dire threat
The threat hasn't diminished by any
means, but the number of groups has
shriveled. They couldn't survive the Clinton ice age. Many of
groups simply flatlined. Meanwhile the mainstream groups got
bigger and less and less effective. By the mid-1990s, mainstream
environmentalism had become fattened and tongue-tied by foundation
(many originating from the fortunes of big oil) and blindered
reflexive loyalty to the Democratic Party. The new green executives
sported six-figure salaries, drove around in limos and worked
out of DC
offices as plush as the headquarters of Chemical Manufacturer's
Association. But the movement lacks heart and guts.
Along the way, I've come to disdain
institutional environmentalism, as
little more than soft-soled courtiers to entrenched power. Once
environmental movement was seen as a public interest movement
unimpeachable integrity-trusted by the left, despised and feared
corporate right. After Clinton, many people rightly saw professional
environmentalists as just another special interest lobby, obedient
puppets of the DNC. The great Southwest writer and desert rat
Bowden says he'd never belong to any tax-deductible group, since
tax status serves as a kind of seal of approval from the government.
got a point. When the Sierra Club got too demanding in the 1960s,
threatened to take away its coveted tax status. It promptly settled
As my old friend David
Brower warned: "When we prevail, it's just a stay
of execution. When the corporations win, they win forever. That's
must be eternally vigilant." But eternal vigilance is wearying.
life of a grassroots green (as opposed to the DC subspecies)
corporations is grueling and filled with vicissitudes. There
rewards and many, many defeats, each one bitter and inconsolable.
hard not to be worn down by it all. Now wonder so many enviros
sound like glowering prudes, freighting a rhetoric of doomsterism.
must fight against it, because it's unhealthy and no way to build
Brower himself never surrendered to
the grave pessimism that is standard
fare in the direct mail appeals of his former employer the Sierra
the other Beltway greens. Indeed, the last time I saw Dave was
months before he died. We were in a parking lot overlooking that
of evil: Glen Canyon Dam. Hundreds
of young activists had joined us in the
broiling Arizona sun, united in a single cause: the liberation
Colorado River and the restoration of Glen Canyon. "Hell,
I think we've
really got a chance now," Brower said, his eyes sparkling
Cling to that optimism that fired Brower's
soul for 85 years. And remember
Abbey's admonition to be a part-time warrior, sparing time to
offerings of the planet you're fighting to preserve. And it's
okay to have
a sense of humor. In fact, it's mandatory. At CounterPunch out
be as radical as reality. Fight fiercely for what you feel passionate
about, no matter how long the odds seem. But don't fret so much
meta-crises, such as global warming or ozone depletion. It'll
you down and drive you toward nihilistic despair.
There's a war going on just outside
your window. It's a battle for life
WILDNESS WITHIN US
itself. So stow away this silly book and come join it. Remember:
is not the territory. So burn the maps and get lost in the territory,
while you've still got a chance.