Earth Day's Legacy 

Fulfilling the legacy of Earth Day

After three decades of fighting, conservationists get first tastes of victory

It should have been a remarkable experience.

Three men, a research ecologist with the U. S. Forest Service, a University of Montana forestry professor, and the executive director of an institute that promotes hunting ethics, stood before a classroom of students. They bandied about ideas like the necessity of maintaining ecosystems over extracting natural resources, collaboration with a variety of opposing viewpoints, and how wilderness provides a sense of solitary and connection to oneself.

All this with quotes from Henry David Thoreau and Wallace Stegner woven throughout to boot.

But when the three men finished their talks and the lecture was opened up to a question and answer period, there was a long and painfully awkward silence. No one had any questions until a young woman finally netured up to the microphone.

Perhaps the students, raised in the era of environmental consciousness set off by the first Earth Day in 1970, had heard it all before. After all, they grew up incorporating into their lives the changes that the generation before them is still grappling with.

And so in some ways Earth Day is nothing but a yawner to the young. Just a warm and fuzzy attempt to remind people to think green and recycle their Mountain Dew cans.

It wasn't always so. The first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, kicked off a slew of regulations on both the local and federal level and has become a kind of artificial starting date for the modern environmental movement as a result. No Earth Day since has been able to muster the same effects as the first.

"Earth Day," says Darby outfitter Howie Wolke, "helps us show that we have some serious problems with the use and abuse of our planet." Wolke, a former Independent columnist and one of the founders of Earth First!, should know: He was in the thick of things in the late '70s and early 1980s, when EF! and Greenpeace were in their heydays and radical green movement was in full blossom.

But nowadays, the environmental rhetoric-which gets turned up a couple of notches every year-often slips around this time into the realm of sound bite slogans: Reduce, reuse and recycle. The Blackfoot is more precious than gold.

"I think the last few years [Earth Day] has had a lesser effect. It's been a tough time for progressive issues all across the board. We haven't gotten as many gains for all the work we've put in," says to Lila Cleminshaw of the Montana Environmental Information Center.

Still, if Tuesday night's lecture, entitled "From Multiple-use to Ecosystem Management: Wildlands Management Across Boundaries," is any indication, there seems to be a change in the wind. Government agencies that deal with natural resources give every indication that they are rethinking their roles in response to social and cultures changes that have been occurring ever since the first Earth Day.

State and federal agencies alike are gradually moving away from an emphasis on the extractive industries and more toward managing ecosystems as a whole. Perhaps nowhere are the changes more evident than in the behemoth of all natural resource agencies, the U. S. Forest Service.

With logging down 70 percent from the 1980s, the amount of timber harvested by clear cuts slashed 80 percent in the last two decades, an emphasis on a more holistic approach to managing wildlands, and a controversial 18-month road building moratorium imposed in anticipation of a new road policy more befitting the era, the Forest Service appears to be espousing ideas that even the most hardened environmentalist find comforting.

At least one long time observer of the Forest Service believes the change is a natural evolution from changes that can be directly linked to the first Earth Day celebration. Randal O'Toole, founder of the Portland-based Thoreau Institute think tank, which focuses on environmental and planning issues, says that after the first Earth Day city people with a generally strong conservation philosophy started entering the Forest Service. Before that, he says, it was mainly rural people, who tended toward a more wise use stance, who donned the green uniforms as foresters. By 1990, when the timber harvests began dropping dramatically, the new breed of foresters were in positions of power.

Whether there is actually a new generation of foresters taking the Forest Service into uncharted territory, it seems apparent that the agency is headed somewhere it hasn't been before.

Last month, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, a former fisheries biologist, outlined an agenda aimed at shifting the agency away from its traditional focus of timber harvests and toward a clean water and recreation. It could, of course, be merely lip service. But it's telling that the nation's top forester feels the need to talk the talk.

The agency's first priority, according to Dombeck, is to maintain and restore the health of ecosystems and watersheds.

"We can sit back on our heels and react to the newest litigation, the latest court order, or the most recent legislative proposal," Dombeck said in a March 2 speech beamed via satellite from Bozeman to the agency's 30,000 employees. "Or we can lead by example. We can lead by using the best available scientific information based on principles of ecosystem management that the Forest Service pioneered."

According to research ecologist Peter Landres, "Ecosystem management might just be the thing to save wilderness."

Landres outlined the differences between traditional management and ecosystem management during his part of the lecture Tuesday night.

Traditional management emphasizes the commodities that can be taken from the land, the solutions imposed by the agency often coming with a single "best" answer backed by a kind of command and control attitude over natural processes.

Ecosystem management, however, tries to find a balance between natural commodities and retaining the integrity of the land. It also embraces the uncertainty of nature and seeks collaborative solutions to problems.

"The agency knows best is just about as bad as father knows best. I think change is afoot," says Landres.

This apparent fundamental shift in the Forest Service's mission outlined by Dombeck is one that's been needed for a long time, according Tom Power, chair of the Economics Department at the University of Montana. Power has written extensively on the need for communities to move away from their dependence on extractive industries and develop more long-term viable economies based on recreation and tourism.

"The fact that timber harvests are way down is a sign that ecological and environmental concerns have carried the day. What the Forest Service is doing is playing catch up. The public will not tolerate large scale clear cuts anymore," says Power.

Power believes that while we will never go back to the historically high cut levels of the 1980s, timber companies might be able to increase the amount of wood they harvest off national lands if they embrace environmental regulation rather than fight it.

"Either you can change the way you harvest trees or you don't harvest any," says Power

Even die hard environmentalists are grudgingly giving the Forest Service a bit of credit. "Dombeck is saying a lot of the right things. The roadless moratorium is a right step," says Wolke. But loopholes in the moratorium, he adds, keep the order "pretty weak."

Having stepped out of the activist limelight for the last decade, Wolke's spent his time getting to know his backyard. One of the most knowledgeable folks around on the Salmon-Selway ecosystem, Wolke says it's imperative that the Forest Service get out of the timber harvest business altogether. Small-scale logging operations, aren't inherently bad, but, he adds, "I want the big logging companies off our lands period. The national forests produce only 3. 9 percent of all the wood used in this country. If we can't afford to do without that then we are in serious trouble."

Wolke is also skeptical of the suggestion that the Forest Service isn't vulnerable to political whims. A Republican president, he suggests, could quickly undo these first few tentative steps by the agency.

Two things have to happen, says Wolke, before the Forest Service can claim it has made a real change. First, there has to be permanent protection of roadless areas, old growth timber and other critical habitat.

Second, the Forest Service has to start to look at large scale wildlands restoration. A good place to start such a process, Wolke thinks, is to take out at least half of the nearly 400,000 miles of roads that lie in the national forests.

"I think at this early stage, it is too soon to say that there is a genuine sustained change. There is a long ways to go."

Dombeck's predecessor, Jack Ward Thomas says that the changes occurring within the agency have been unfolding for at least the last 10 years, if not longer, but that no one has noticed until recently.

"Everyone wants to act like this just happened," says Thomas.

And it's come about for a variety of reasons, Thomas says; not just from the public's greater environmental awareness. A bit of a history lesson helps put the changes in the agency into some perspective.

For instance, in the 1970s the agency started hiring a battalion of specialists from disciplines other than forestry. Biologists, ecologists and landscape managers began to expand the agency's vision of what its role was.

Another historical tidbit Thomas offers to give the debate perspective is that the three to five billion board feet of timber coming off national forests annually today is right in line with the historic average, and is unlikely to increase in the future.

"Frankly, the easy roads have been built and the easy timber harvested," says Thomas, who now is the Boone and Crockett Professor of Wildlife Conservation at UM's School of Forestry.

Thomas, who was the first wildlife biologist made chief, is frustrated by what he sees as highly complex issues with huge social, cultural and economic impacts, often reduced to sound bites. Changes that bring about sharp cutbacks in timber harvesting, for instance, may not have much of an impact on national and regional economies, but they can be devastating to local communities, he says.

"You have to remember that regional public opinion and national public opinion usually aren't copacetic. The smaller the scale, the larger the impact."

But as the brawl on the road building moratorium has shown, any direction the Forest Service takes is becoming increasingly political. Pressure continues to mount as Congress and the administration attempt to micromanage the agency, say Thomas. Implementing long-term forest plans on a four-year election cycle is nearly impossible, he adds.

"The Forest Service has always been one of the most outstanding government agencies," Thomas says. "They do beautifully when they know what it is the people want. They flounder poorly."

Stewart Brandborg weaves a bloodline with a lifetime of experience that gives him a rather unique take on how the Forest Service is evolving. Brandborg is an old time environmentalist and former executive director of the Wilderness Society. He's been active in the movement since long before its semi-official start in 1970. He's also a fourth generation Montanan raised in the Bitterroot Valley with a forester for a father.

In a phone interview with the Independent from his home in Darby, Brandborg spoke with unbridled enthusiasm about the changes taking place.

"The people in the last 25 years have been really protesting, screaming their heads off about the travesty of cutting and over-cutting and roading of the national forests," says Brandborg.

As an example, he points to the devastation that took place in the Bitterroot when the Forest Service increased the cut in the late 1960s and early '70s from 15 million board feet to 80 million board feet. He says that has a result a third of the streams in his valley have been "knocked out by the damn silt." The remaining streams that produce viable fisheries habitat all come out of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area.

The Forest Service used to have "a strong sawdust orientation," says Brandborg. "People in the higher levels of the Forest Service felt they had to justify their presence in the bureaucracy by increasing the cut."

But Brandborg is quick to give the agency a nod of support, saying that it's heading in the right direction. "The Forest Service is to be supported and commented on the roadless area moratorium."

The Earth Day tradition can take much of the credit as the impetus of change.

"We should stop and celebrate ourselves, celebrate our progress and recognize that we have the bastards who despoil the environment on the run."

But Brandborg believes the standard of living in this country is something that environmentalists have to start looking at with a critical eye.

"Maybe that's a central theme we should strike for an Earth Day in the future. How do we change our standard of living to conform to what makes sense?"

While it's not likely that Earth Day '98 will pack the wallop it did 28 years ago, enviros like Brandborg still believe that it can carry enough of a punch to remain a viable celebration well into the future.

Many credit radical groups like Earth First! for moving the environmental dialogue in the U.S. forward through the last two decades, creating discussion where none existed before. (File photo)

Former U.S. Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas says changes in the agency which are getting a lot of press now have been in the works for a long time. Photo by Jeff Powers.

Howie Wolke, a Darby outfitter and founder of Earth First!, says the new Forest Service chief is saying the right things, but believes the agency would shift directions again under a Republican president. (File photo)


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