When Gov. Judy Martz spoke to an audience of loggers in Hamilton last week she neatly divided the Bitterroot Valley into two opposing camps: us and them. And if it was her intention to fan the flames of hostility and fear that have blazed through the valley in recent months, she was successful.
Martz spoke to about 200 loggers at the Grange Hall in Hamilton about the need to change the process involved in cutting timber on public lands.
Outside, Highway 93 was lined with fully loaded logging trucks. Inside it was a standing-room-only crowd of loggers, friends and supporters of loggers, Bitterroot National Forest (BNF) officials and three uniformed officers in case passions flared out of control.
As it turned out, the police weren’t necessary because environmentalists, or “obstructionists” as Martz repeatedly called them, made a last minute decision to stay away. With Martz “preaching to the choir,” as one man put it, there was no opportunity for angry confrontation between “us” and “them.”
As Martz walked down the aisle to take her place at the podium she received an enthusiastic standing ovation from her supporters and a hug from state Sen. Fred Thomas (R–Stevensville).
“You have no idea what that meant to me to drive up and see log trucks and see them loaded,” Martz told the crowd. “We’re not here to condemn the Forest Service. We’re not happy with the process.”
Pointing to the nearly complete timber harvest in the Sula State Forest, where different rules for harvest apply, Martz said, “We believe if we can do it, the federal government should be able to do it.”
Martz also made it clear that she wants to see an end to the environmental movement.
“I won’t call them environmentalists,” she said. “They’re obstructionists.”
With the crowd solidly in her corner, Martz told them, “I didn’t come here to fire anyone up. You guys are already fired up.” And they’ve been fired up, she continued, ever since “we” sent shovels to Nevada, referring to last year’s “shovel brigade” protest against the Forest Service in Elko.
Martz and the crowd fed off one another as one-by-one loggers reeled off their litany of grievances against the environmental movement: Federal laws regulating timber harvest on public lands are “environmentalists’ laws” and must be replaced by “common sense” guidelines. Environmentalists are flush with cash and should give some to loggers to make up for the harm done to the local economy. Judges who rule in the environmentalists’ favor should share the blame for loggers being out of work.
Martz occasionally joined in the environmentalist bashing with comments of her own. “They truly got ahead of us while we were trying to make a living,” she said, confirming a popular belief that environmentalists are gainfully unemployed.
At one point, Martz said “doing nothing” on public lands caused the fires to burn more than 300,000 acres of national forest in a month. In fact, the Forest Service has been saying the opposite for years: 70 years of aggressive firefighting caused the dangerous buildup of flammable fuels on the forest floor.
Bill Grasser, owner of Lost Trail Ski Area, suggested that Martz, as vice-chair of the Western Governor’s Association, could promote a nationwide day without wood products as a way of drawing attention to the loggers’ plight.
“There’s no paper for appeals then, is there?” she joked as the crowd laughed and applauded.
Martz’s comments had an ominous tone when she asked whether there was “one” (mean environmentalist) in the crowd, and if so to stand up and explain the environmentalist position. “No one will hurt you,” she said cheerily.
It was a chilling statement for environmentalists in Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley, who for years have experienced death threats, intimidation and general harassment for their activism.
“Calling us obstructionists, saying if you want to speak out no one will hurt you? I want to understand you?” asks Native Forest Network’s Matthew Koehler. “What are we obstructing? If we’re obstructing anything, we’re obstructing a federal agency from breaking the law.”
Martz’s inflammatory words, says Koehler, were like throwing gasoline on the flames. “Her performance down there was an abomination to the people of Montana,” he says. “I would caution her from acting towards anyone else like this.”
At least 1,000 timber jobs have been lost, says Koehler, not to so-called frivolous environmental lawsuits, but to the North American Free Trade Agreement, a figure that comes from statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor. Other federal government figures show that log exports were up in the 1980s, but timber jobs were on the decline because of automation in the industry.
But statistics don’t win the hearts and minds of the people in the way that a show of fully loaded log trucks will, Koehler acknowledges. “You could show them that information and they wouldn’t believe it.
“We live in a society where up is down, where black is white, where yes is no. In order to save the forest you cut it down. They don’t base anything on facts, just emotionalism,” he says. “The facts don’t matter.”
Todd O’Hair, Martz’s natural resources adviser, says the governor is unaware of death threats aimed at environmentalists, and in any case wouldn’t alter a message that might polarize a community already fractured by the proposed post-fire salvage sale.
“I don’t think the community is polarized,” says O’Hair, pointing to a BNF survey showing nearly 90 percent approval for salvage logging. “I think the community is on the same page.”
O’Hair says he doesn’t know whether Martz would meet with environmentalists as she did with loggers last week. A “timber summit,” scheduled for May 13 and 14, will likely include more mainstream environmental and sportsmen’s groups, like the Montana Wilderness Association and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. O’Hair wouldn’t say whether any local grassroots organizations will be invited.
Not that a meeting with environmentalists will improve the situation, says O’Hair, since environmentalists have already won the battle. “Lawsuits don’t have to end in a victory for the environmental industry,” he says. The “delaying tactics” groups use to stall and eventually halt timber sales, he says, is victory enough.