What If We Abstained from Generalization?

Listening to the Forest Service and new roads discussion, and the points made about generalized statements about “enviros” in our discussions last week, I was thinking perhaps we should adopt an additional civility goal. Maybe as part of our continuous improvement program in civility.

t seems like our first goal was “don’t call people names”. To be hard on the ideas, not on the people. So instead of “Tiffany, you are a termagant”, you could say “Tiffany’s ideas are stinking pile of foolish innuendo enwrapt by lies and malfeasance.” (if my language is archaic, I’m reading medieval history so there is some language leakage).

I think we are fairly good at this, most of the time . The next step, though is to move toward “I don’t think that ecosystems behave the way you suggest, Tiffany, because in my experience….or these publications indicate…”

I’ve been blessed by people helping me with relational counseling at work and home; the literature they use agrees that communication is improved when you are specific, more than general, and use “I” language.

Here’s a work example: “you always give me the worst projects.”
In that case, it is said to be helpful to ask instead “I wanted to work on the XYZ project, why did you assign Frank instead?”

I think this is relevant to our discussion here for a couple of reasons. Let’s take generalizing about a couple of things as examples:

The Forest Service builds too many new roads and they can’t afford to keep up their current road system. So I think,” when I worked for the FS we weren’t building new system roads. Energy people pay for their own roads. Temp roads don’t need to be kept up.. so .. what is this person talking about?”

When David said, “a specific project in Alaska” I figured..”well that could be, Alaska Is Different (the FS mantra)”.

Similarly, when folks say “enviros think”, they, like the FS, are really too diverse to be considered one entity. If I were, say, a member or staff of the organizations collaborating on Colt Summit, I might resist be lumped with Mr. Garrity’s group. Even “some enviros” or “frequent litigators” would be better.

What I think we should go for is something I call “irritating practices and behaviors” without generalization.

So let me give an example. When I worked on Colorado Roadless, there was a group XXXX. For reasons that have been mysterious to me and others, XXXX seemed to be able to influence both R and D administrations in Washington. So any time over the seven years we worked on it, we received the message that we needed to pay serious attention to what they said. The problem was that for each of the however many comment periods, they would “up the ante”. I even had a table that showed 2005, XXXX wrote they wanted Y, so we gave them Y in 2006 they wanted Z so we gave them Z.. and so on all the way to 2011 (when I stopped working on it).

As Roadless was nearing its end, I attended an excellent Partnership Training (about the partnership with the Union). One thing they talked about with regard to employee grievances, was the idea of “negotiating in good faith.” At that point I realized that was what irritated me about XXXX, is that they did not seem to be negotiating in good faith. Unless you think that each opening is an opportunity to get your way.. which is a philosophy that is different from the idea of collaboration. More like international trade than a local stakeholder group.

Now, I could identify XXXX, but I don’t think it’s necessary. If we only were specific to the extent that we not name them by name but name the behavior or practice that’s irritating, but ascribe it to a specific entity rather than globally, I think we would be able to engage and understand each other more deeply. Also we can go deeper into why we find this behavior or practice to be irritating.

The same thing with “science.” Anytime someone says “the science shows” it makes me wonder, because different disciplines, different framings, different species, different areas of the country all may be different. The scientific process, by it’s very nature, tends to raise questions, not to settle them.

I like Roger Pielke Jrs’ quote in the post here that was excerpted below:

The risk of such an approach is reminiscent of the old saw about the drunk and the lamppost – expertise can be used more for support than for illumination.

So what do you think? Can we attempt to abjure generalizations.. about the FS, enviros, science? Can we be specific about scientific studies, and examine why we find the behavior or practices of specific groups to be irritating?


  1. Nicely put, Sharon! I think you’ve outlined some valuable points to help raise the conversation here another notch.

    With apologies to Archimedes…

    “Give us a conversation great enough, and a blog on which to share it, and we’ll move the world!”

  2. I have used “enviros” to refer to “envionmental groups” or “the environmental community,” not in a pejorative way, but as shorthand. But thanks, Sharon, for a reminder of the dangers of generalizations.

  3. I certainly agree that there are too many generalizations made…and often. I am not as well travelled, nor do I have the field background in Calif. or Colo. or Ariz that a few bloggers seem to have. But I do know the northern Rockies fairly well, and I do know that a lot of the “generalizations” made about thinning and prescribed fire and the role of native Americans in pre-history burning don’t always apply up here. And these generalizations keep recurring, in a very high percentage of issue discussions.
    I try to refrain from commenting on issues where I have limited field background. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for all!

    • Ed: Which generalizations about prescribed burning and the role of precontact Indian burning are you talking about? I did a lot of reforestation work following the Sundance Burn in northern Idaho in the late 60s and early 70s and have generally found that most people have very little idea as to the potential role of prescribed burning — or the role of precontact and early historical Indian burning — in the environment. Mostly these ideas are dismissed because people don’t have a clear grasp of what they are and why it is important to understand them, wherever they live and work in forested environments (and where Indians used to live).

      In particular, what is it about Indian burning generalities that you disagree with? Personally, I’m in favor of the entire range of forestry tools, including thinning, planting, herbicides, trapping, fire suppression, salvage logging, road and trail maintenance, clearcuts, etc. — depending on location and objectives. Indian burning patterns exist wherever there were Indians. What generalities have you read here regarding those tools and reference conditions that don’t apply where you live? Who is your authority on Indian burning patterns, and how do they (generally) differ in your neck of the woods?

      These topics are of particular interest to me, and I am very interested in your thoughts on them.

  4. The reality is that there ARE preservationists like Chad Hanson out there, who have an ultimate goal of stopping ALL logging. Those are the kind of people we need to display as real opponents, against reasonable forest management. We cannot pretend that such people don’t exist, and have to be prepared for such opponents who subscribe to the “whatever happens” strategy. Other more progressive and open-minded people just have to be convinced of the value of proposed projects. Education can go a long way towards consensus.

    I know who Ed is talking about, and yes, I have worked on thinning projects in Montana. Yes, I know that thinning in some stands up there has limited value. It’s all site specific, and restoration activities can vary widely, according to the site.

    • Larry, at this point I’m just arguing for “some environmental groups such as the John Muir Project, seem to be trying to stop all logging.”

      this gives them a chance to say “no you are mischaracterizing our positions because our position really is… ” or not, but the specificity is meaningful.

      For example, when I worked in the Forest Service we used to have group announcements like “tell all your employees to be careful with their credit cards.” This is not as meaningful for understanding or change as saying “6 people on three staffs abused their credit cards.”
      It’s about targeting the irritating behavior and not wasting ammunition (and offending the innocent).

      • Actually, he HAS stated that as his ultimate goal. Several of his postings reinforce that mindset. Even the Sierra Club thought he was too extreme when he left it to form his own pair of eco-“groups”. (I say that because his wife is the lawyer and he is the activist.) Ma and Pa litigation.

        “JMP believes that the federal timber sales program must be ended in order for ecological management of our national forests and other federal forestlands to occur.”…. http://www.johnmuirproject.org/about.html

        • That’s my point…Sierra Club wants no commercial timber harvest. JMP wants the same thing.

          They may be the only ones…I think it’s fascinating because my understanding is that the Sierra Club is still against commercial timber production on national forests. But not commercial oil and gas or ski areas?

          If we had a taxonomy of groups and their positions, we might find that an open philosophy of “no trees sold” was unique to these groups. Then when we see the Administration or Congress following these views, we could inform them of this position taxonomy. As in “70% or whatever of environmental groups support the sale of timber where done in an environmentally responsible manner.”

          Note, in Colorado where decks of dead trees sit around by roads waiting to be burned.. the “we shouldn’t sell trees” would probably not get a lot of traction.

  5. I think Sharon raises an interesting and useful point here. In my view, as long as the conversation is focused on the “what” and “how” (which most conversations on this blog are) then I do think its really important to stick to the specifics and not over-generalize. The underlying questions, which rarely are addressed on this blog, have more to do with the “why”‘ of public lands and public lands management as a whole. For me, the entire subtext of the on-going debates on this blog and elsewhere have to do with how we see ourselves as a species, communities and individuals in relation to “everything else” (i.e. non human constructed environments). If we were able to move the conversation more toward these foundational questions, I do believe there would be an appropriate place for generalizations. Ironically, however, the more conversations are centered around foundational values, the more difficult it becomes to make a generalization about others, without the same being true for yourself (e.g. “Environmental groups deeply value nature and wild places”. Does this mean that others don’t share this value? Or is the difference all a matter of perceived importance, relative to other values? My sense is for anyone participating on this blog, it is likely more the latter than the former, and the opposite is quite likely the case if we made other types of “value” statements).

    Obviously we couldn’t take every issue and start from scratch with questions concerning the underlying values that influence our perspective (maybe we could…), but if it were possible to re-visit these questions more regularly, we might better remember our basic civility when getting into the “specifics” of the “what” and “how” of a given issue.

  6. Bob and Larry,
    My comments previous allude to the constant refrain over the months as we discuss wildfires and particularly monster fires which we seem to have more of (particularly in the southwest and marginally productive fringe forests such as in the Beaver Fire now burning in southern Idaho) where the “prescription” outlined here too often is more thinning or prescribed fire. Regardless of the fact that funds are very limited to do much of either.
    I know Bob that you firmly believe that Indian burning was prevalent almost everywhere. I accept your expertise and experience and qualifications as much greater than mine, and I have no science or studies that support my opinions on this subject. But my wanderings in the forests of northwest Montana, northern Idaho and northeast Washington has taken me to high elevation, very steep, rugged subalpine country where no thinking human would ever venture (unless you were looking for sawlogs), let alone set afire for some reason. That is where I differ from you on this.
    I have worked for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe for several years on water quality issues and got to know a few of the tribal old timers, have read much about their history and usage of this area. From this experience I feel that much of this rugged country was not used by them, nor did they venture into some of more rugged terrain except to “pass through” on the way to some specific destination on the other side. I have no proof, no studies or research, just gut-instincts.

    • Ed: Thank you for brinigng up the Beaver Fire near Ketchum and Hailey, Idaho as part of this discussion. You are 150% correct when you refer to the forest burning as part o the Beaver Fire as “marginally productive fringe forests.”

      I just uploaded a couple of satellite images showing the general location of the Beaver Fire, which is burning west of Hailey and Ketchum, Idaho. As anyone can clearly see, Ed’s description of this landscape being “marginally productive fringe forests” is right on the money.



    • You should have noticed that I posted a picture taken from the top of Bald Mountain (top of Sun Valley Ski Area), showing the kind of forests in the area. Actually, that picture has more forest than the southernmost part of the fire. Much of those forests have thick forests on the north-facing slopes, and grass and sagebrush on the south-facing slopes. Derek said that those forests had severe insect mortality, which is consistent with a lack of salvage logging after the 2007 Castle Rock Fire.

      When I worked on the Bitterroot, I was told that American Indians couldn’t endure the harsh winters there. That might be why there isn’t evidence of their burning in the form of more extensive P. pine forests. However, many things have changed since those historical days, and humans now are permanent residents of much of Montana. Thinning overstocked forests are the best way of making the forests safe for human beings, in today’s world.

      • Ed and Larry: The Big Change came about the 1770s or so, when local Indians got horses and mules and guns. Grazing lands became a lot more important, and “passing through” country became a lot more accessible. Sure signs of Indian occupation include persistent patterns of edible plants such as huckleberries, strawberries, pine nuts, currants and camas. People tended to follow valley floors (where fire travels uphill) and ridgelines (“firebreaks”) if water sources were available. I don’t know if they had snowshoes in that country, but they had domesticated dogs (Palmer said they were identical to prairie wolves, which traveled in the hundreds, in 1845) that could be used for hunting sheep, elk, deer, and bear. Firewood was needed daily, but shrubs and buffalo chips could be used in desert areas. But yes, most of that country was uninhabitable for most or all of the year, but people followed bulbs, seeds, berries, and game on foot (a man can run down an elk if he is in good shape) or, later, on horseback. Burning patterns were directly related to travel routes and modes of travel. And population, of course. Everybody was pretty much an expert with fire, even children. Generally speaking, of course.

  7. I just wish I’d stop reading and in the newspapers that “fire is good for the forests”.
    I have never been in a burned over forest that seemed the better for it.
    Dead trees and rocks make for a more desert like environment, compared to a lush, cool, green, shaded, live forest.
    Sure the trees usually grow back, but I can’t help but see what is lost.
    I have seen too many burned old growth forests here in Oregon where almost every single tree has been killed.
    These are same trees you would have tree sitter in protesting if you wanted to harvest one or two of them, but somehow it is ok for a fire to kill thousands of them in an afternoon.
    I could go on and on, but my point is, there is nothing good about forests fires that I can tell.

  8. Thanks Sharon. I salute your stated intent, and again, recognize I have much to learn. In response to your question:

    ” Can we attempt to abjure generalizations.. about the FS, enviros, science? Can we be specific about scientific studies, and examine why we find the behavior or practices of specific groups to be irritating?”

    First, there are certain inherent obligations to this disparate grouping you’ve assembled as somehow being equal. They are not at all equal. The FS employees are supposedly public servants (yes, how quaint), but incontestably, taxpayer paid. This in contrast to your oft-used slur, “enviros,” who are voluntarily fulfilling unpaid or underpaid roles of necessary citizen oversight, (aka, participatory democracy) in the face of irrefutable agency and regulatory capture which has resulted in systemic, and systematic large-scale NFS mismanagement even the agency acknowledges exists. (“science” will be touched upon later…)

    Second, there is a lot more than mere generalization undermining dialogue and good faith going on here at NCFP.

    Having recently unsubscribed from NCFP with an overwhelming feeling of frustration, in afterthought, I signed back in, feeling it necessary to complete my train of thought by responding to Doctor Zybach’s personal attacks on me. I’m still trying to decide if it is worth my carefully applied time and energy invested to participate here.

    I will list two recent examples as to why I again, find myself in this position.(btw, I am inured to Doctor Zybach’s personal attacks you freely allow as moderator of his role as the resident junkyard dog, as his barks offer the balm of intense comic relief. My concerns go far deeper than his literary and psychoanalytical critiques though I question his scientific and academic credentials in those fields.)

    The reason I unsubscribed was the following response you gave my comment in the Udall/biomass post:

    “David, these are not “science” in my opinion. They are sets of assumptions made by a bunch of scientists. So they make assumptions and publish a paper. Those are simply quantified assumptions.”

    I disagree, and contend they are — qualified professional conclusions — based upon 64 separate, referenced peer reviewed published research papers, many of which I am quite familiar with. Calling them quantified “assumptions” (def. “a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof:”) is disingenuous (in that science is anything but precise, but like subatomic particle physics relies upon probabilities), erroneous (in implying if we don’t have access to the Ultimate Truth, then there is nothing to discuss), and absolutist, (which constitutes systematic dismissal of the validity of my points.) Further, there is a professional, ethical, and political negligence being perpetrated here to discuss or promote biomass as a “renewable energy solution” (especially referencing the monuments to forest mismanagement vis a vis standing dead trees and the slash heaps of once intact, resilient, forests), by refusing to acknowledge the human health and socioeconomic consequences of biomass combustion in the discussion. Also derided, of course, was the following example of so called, “not science”, but, “simply quantified assumptions” (hooboy):

    “However, a recent study suggests that more carbon would be harvested and emitted in fire risk reduction than would be emitted from fires (Hudiburg et al., 2011). Furthermore, policies allow thinning of mesic forests with long fire return intervals, and removal of larger merchantable trees to make it economically feasible for industry to remove the smaller trees for bioenergy. These actions would lead to even larger GHG emissions beyond those of contemporary forest practices (Hudiburg et al., 2011).
    Increased GHG emissions from bioenergy use are mainly due to consumption of the current carbon pool and from a permanent reduction of the forest carbon stock resulting from increased biomass harvest (Holtsmark, 2011). When consumption exceeds growth, today’s harvest is carbon that took decades to centuries to accumulate and results in a reduction of biomass compared to the current biomass pool (Holtsmark, 2011; Hudiburg et al., 2011). Hence, it is another example of ‘slow in and fast out’ (Korner, 2003). Consequently, reduction in forest carbon stocks has been shown to at least cancel any GHG reductions from less use of fossil fuel over decadal time spans (Haberl et al., 2003; Mckechnie et al., 2011).”

    (And your “opinion” is that this body of qualified evidence isn’t “science” and doesn’t support my position? Then what “science can you offer which supports your position?)

    I would add, taxpayer subsidies inflating and risk-proofing private investments in a biomass combustion facility being used to profit off of forest mismanagement at the cost of human health consequences is the quintessential example of Disaster Capitalism. To defend this in light of the above facts, is using the lamppost of personal credentials more as support of personal biases than for illumination of human health consequences in the publics’ best interest, and in my view, it is a morally reprehensible rhetorical tactic.

    There is nothing more offensive to me than being treated with routine summary dismissal of incontestably valid concerns, supported by ethically and earnestly presented, professional scientists’ conclusions citing published research and whom represent a great deal more accumulated expertise on the subjects of human health consequences of biomass and the contestation of false carbon accounting assertions of biomass proponents than even YOUR expertise allows, (and certainly less so than my meager applied studies.)

    This facile waiving of the validity of evidence presented while also ignoring the liberally referenced and cited power point presentations of four scientists testifying to Congress on the human health consequences of biomass combustion, is employing the tactic of systematic dismissal. This perpetrates its own subtle intellectual, professional and dialectical subterfuge. The fact that it was physically impossible to digest these dense items and respond (or not respond and simply deliberately disappear) the offered evidence supporting my position in the time interval between our posts made it self-evident that deliberate subterfuge on your part was taking place.

    So, given that I returned to the blog and accidentally discovered this latest post with my name being invoked, I decided I’ll try once more, because you’ve provided an excellent example to start with, as to why I face this quandary and as to whether I should consider continuing to participate here.

    I quote you: “When David said, “a specific project in Alaska” I figured..”well that could be, Alaska Is Different (the FS mantra)”.

    Besides the fact that my position was well supported by Joseph Mehrkens, a retired USFS Regional economist — your response and treatment of factual evidence supporting my points of agency capture in response to JZ goes well beyond mere generalization. It falsely portrays and eclipses my reality with your own personal biases. They constitute biases accrued as an agency careerist and resident of Colorado (and formerly other NFS locales of the Lower 48.) Nonetheless, I thought we were talking about the National Forest System on NCFP. Allowing the discussion to be dominated through the lens of blog-administered parochialism is not my idea of a fair dialogue. I hope you can appreciate its effect on participants attempting to be treated in good faith on your blog.

    Further, repeating the “Alaska is Different” “mantra” is not just a generalization, it is fundamentally false, and undermines one’s faith in dialogue and fair play. It minimizes what I know to be true, and falsely inflates the assumed validity of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest somehow being the “exception” to what NCFP (and primarily you) want to allow as pertinent and valid to the discussion. You’ve used this tactic many times in the past to great effect (impact) on me. That effect being, invalidation of what I know (and likely even what you sense) — to be irrefutably true. As long as the Tongass remains a national forest, it is irrefutably pertinent to the discussion as it pertains to the issues of National Forest Planning and the captured state of the agency.

    The USFS “mantra”, “Alaska is Different,” is only held as true by those who choose to see these issues through a deliberately discriminatory and selective lens. A lens only held by those who validate and embrace systematically inverted logic and appraisals of utterly failed applications of land ethics claiming to “Care for the Land and Serve People” while being servile to Disaster Capitalism’s captured agencies imposing regressive neoliberal policies.

    First, Alaska is a mighty big place. Simply lumping its prodigious land mass all together in the most crudely generalized geographic terms, robs the place I am referring to, (and my experience living here) of its identity and character, (and me, of my personal truths as experienced here). The same tactic forms the basis of all predjudicial biases. Such is the dynamic of racial slurs and the mindset of those who breezily cast aside the individual identities of victims of any human rights issue as, “them.” (and I’m being carefully restrained here for the slurs are too lurid and too many to list.)

    My point of reference is a tiny fraction of a tiny corner of Alaska which happens to have the largest forest in the NFS. Though you have dismissed them, the following references should be your points of reference too. The Tongass NF is (dominantly) geographically isolated from the massive landmass of Alaska as an archipelago of an inland sea. That cluster of islands being a tiny vestige of tectonic fragments of several former continental masses originating thousands of miles away — some, in the opposite hemisphere of the planet. Even though this makes it arguably the most geographically unique part of Alaska there are two things to consider: EVERY place in our NFS has (and sadly, once possessed) idiosyncratically unique place features and biodynamics worthy of value; and, secondly, these places therefore must be recognized, managed and valued as such. That your former USFS professional capacity and current capacity as NCFP blog administrator is infused with such lasting institutional biases, is regrettable.

    The acceptance of the premise of “Alaska is Different” perpetuates the intellectual slur as an institutional lie justifying the implied notion that USFS policy hasn’t quite reduced the whole of the Tongass to the same (moot) predicaments we now face across much of the rest of the NFS.

    In other words, there is still time to intervene on behalf of the publics’ best interests by applying the lessons of the rest of the NFS policy debacles to the Tongass. There is still time to save what little remains of the extant ecologically intact oldgrowth forests of the NFS. The gross political (historical and ongoing) interference of Alaska’s delegation in NFS policy is no different than the Democratic Party’s sellouts such as Testor’s, Wyden’s, Udall’s, Wirth’s, et al.’s gross interferences in responsible management applied across the rest of the NFS.

    For example Chief Tidwell and Senator Wyden (D!) agreeing with Alaska’s Delegation standing solidly behind biomass and Murkowski’s legislation repaying her campaign debt to Sealaska Inc. — creating an unprecedented privatization and deregulation land grab of the highest value timberlands of the nation’s largest forest, the Tongass NF!

    How the Chief of the USFS can legally “strongly endorse” pending legislation to privatize the most valuable timberlands on the Tongass when in fact, the final entitlements have already been selected by Sealaska Inc., consistent with the laws of ANCSA and the Alaska Lands Transfer Acceleration Act is contrary to my understanding of the professional limits of federal employees. How the Chief can reconcile his political position as an advocate of privatization and deregulation of any part of the NFS with his official capacities as Chief is stunning in its implications! This sets the stage for an unprecedented “Seller’s Market” of Public Lands Everywhere, if ever there was one.

    (http://www.krbd.org/2013/08/09/usfs-chief-touring-southeast-with-murkowski/ Matthew, please post!!)

    Political subterfuge at this level of interference drives the perennial phenomenon of the persistent state of agency capture — a condition you have regularly if not obliquely, denied as a central causation to NFS mismanagement.

    I beg to differ — the evidence is overwhelming.

    (For instance, your absent comments on my example of agency capture being the shortfall of funding for road maintenance was deliberately eclipsed and disappeared by the “Alaska is Different” slur, and supplanted with funds for temp road building.)

    In conclusion, as someone who has attempted dialogue in good faith, frankly, I expected more. As blog administrator, (not unlike in your former professional capacity in which the best interests of the public should have been the “North” end of your ethical compass), there are certain reasonable expectations from the public, such as freedom FROM your personal biases. As a member of the public, I think it is reasonable to expect that if you are going to invite discussion by the owners of NFS on its policy matters, that you are obliged to avoid the practice of talking past or disappearing the points of science, ethics and law being raised by them in the discussions you invite and administer. Until that is realized, your contributions to, and administration of, NCFP are little more than a neoliberal facilitator — and the public owners of the NFS be damned.

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