Changing Public Values About Logging I- A Guest Post by Derek Weidensee

Note by Sharon. This is the first of two guest posts by Derek. The second focuses on Montana.

There’s an exciting new change blowing across the West these days. It bodes well for the future of forestry. “Changing public values” was a phrase the Forest Service often used to justify reducing timber harvests. I’ve read a version of the phrase in every USFS revised forest plan put out since the 90’s. Well, public values are changing back again. Across the West, the public now wants more logging.

The Mountain Pine Beetle(MPB) epidemic that’s sweeping the west and fear of wildfire are driving the change. There’s always been considerable rural support for logging, but what’s really exciting is this new attitude is coming from people who were traditionally opposed to logging. Many people who consider themselves environmentalists are now seeing logging in a positive light. Forestry is back in vogue.

Another important shift is the public’s attitude towards the so called “radical” environmentalist groups who litigate timber sales (I’m not trying to be disparaging here. I only call them “radical” to differentiate them from “moderate” groups who don’t litigate). The public doesn’t perceive them anymore as being the underdogs taking on the timber baron establishment. To the contrary, the radical enviro groups have become the establishment. How could they not be seen in that light? They won the timber wars. For twenty years the papers have been full of stories about timber sale litigation and sawmill closures. Timber harvest on National Forests has dropped by 80%. For all practical purposes, the public now perceives the radical enviro’s as controlling USFS timber harvest levels. They’re seen as the ones in charge now. The radicals are now in the position of defending the status quo.

This is a very important “role reversal” as every politician knows that policy is really based upon public perception. With every future wildfire, whether justified or not, the public won’t be blaming the Forest Service, they won’t be blaming the logger, they’ll be blaming the radical environmentalists. Being held responsible comes along with being in charge. I think a lot of radical groups in the West recognize this role reversal and are responding by halting timber sale litigation. However, there’s some groups who persist in litigating even “healthy forest” timber sales.

Another result of these changing public values is that the radicals are losing the support of the much more numerous and pragmatic “moderate environmentalists”. Those that supported them when the Lolo was clearcutting 15,000 acres/year, will desert them when they litigate a healthy forest timber sale. This isn’t lost on western Democrat politicians who have relied on the moderate environmentalist base. They can now safely take on the radicals without offending the moderates, and maybe pick up a few Republican voters as well. The radicals are becoming a political liability.

I’d like to share a few cases from around the West that I put forth to support what I’ve said above. Colorado is suffering a massive pine beetle outbreak in the heart of their ski industry from Steamboat Springs to Vail. These are very pro environmentalist counties. They shut down the timber industry in the 90’s. A major sawmill closed in 2003 for lack of USFS timber. And now they complain the Forest Service isn’t moving fast enough to remove the dead trees. It’s amazing to me how peoples environmental idealism goes out the window when their property values are threatened by pine beetle and wildfire. Nothing explains a clearcut better than a MPB epidemic or a wildfire. The city of Frisco clearcut 40 acres of park land, and the Mayor told me he had only one complaint. The USFS is now proposing to do clearcut 5,000 acres around Breckenridge. Now every local, state and federal politician is calling for greatly fuels reduction projects, including clearcutting of dead trees, around communities.

Most timber sale litigation is based on the National Environmental Policy Act. This act created the environmental impact statement. Sen. Mark Udall, who’s consistently received a 100% rating from the League of Conservation Voters, has recently sponsored legislation that would create “insect emergency areas” where NEPA review would be “expedited”. Seven years ago he proposed “taking funds from the timber sale program and reallocate it to protect fish and wildlife” in order “to protect rather that destroy our national forests”.

A part of me would like to scream hypocrisy, but a larger part admires the man for changing his mind. I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things over the years. I used to think that all MPB killed forests would burn. But researchers in Colorado forced me to acknowledge to myself that many past epidemics I could remember never burned. I didn’t like to change my mind, but I would only be lying to myself. Screams of “it’s all gonna burn” are as ridiculous as screams of “they’re gonna log it all”. I still have no doubt that it raises the fire hazard.

And there’s no more litigation from the 27 some Colorado environmental groups that I Googled. A few years ago, before the pine beetle alarm bells went off, they ended two years of litigation on a puny 600 acre salvage sale. I admire them for changing their minds in response to changing public values. Unfortunately, Colorado’s last sawmill closed a month ago. I’m sure it didn’t help that they were hauling the logs 150 miles one way.

In Lake Tahoe, the USFS didn’t log for decades in order to protect the lake’s famous water clarity. You needed a permit, which was seldom granted, to cut any tree on your own property. After the Angora fire burned up 200 homes, the 20 some agencies regulating the lakes environment declared “wildfires are now the biggest threat to water clarity” and “thinning the forest is now the highest priority”. Wow. Sen. Harry Reid recently introduced legislation that would spend $135 million dollars to thin the forest around Lake Tahoe. No more litigation. Changing public values.

In Arizona, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) shut down the timber industry in the 90’s with litigation. These guys are the big boys on the radical enviro block. They’ve filed hundreds of lawsuits against the USFS. After the 2000 Rodeo fire burned off a half million acres, a “collaborative” group called the “Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership(GFFP)” was formed. It bills itself as a group of “environmentalists and business people(they don’t even mention loggers)” and it’s goal is to thin the forests around Flagstaff AZ. This last summer Arizona’s Governor published a study calling for the USFS to thin 30,000 acres/year.

Of course, there’s no sawmills left to take that wood. As part of a proposal to build a $300 million dollar OSB plant, the CBD recently signed a “memorandum of understanding” not to oppose thinning on 30,000 acres/year. I admire them for changing their minds.

The problem is, and this illustrates a big problem that will emerge down the road, do you think there’s a bank in the world that would loan $300 million dollars to a mill dependent on National Forest timber? The CBD’s memorandum means nothing. More litigation is only another group away.

The three cases above have two things in common. The majority of the public consider themselves to be environmentalists and they destroyed their timber industry. So now you have a future cycle of more fires, followed by more public demand to log to mitigate fire hazard, followed by more public frustration because there’s no infrastructure to do it, followed by more public anger at the radical enviro’s because the public knows they’re the reason there is no infrastructure now, and they’re the reason there won’t be. The only way you’re going to get any infrastructure is to guarantee the supply by exempting timber sales from NEPA litigation.

Oh it might take ten years. It might take another million acres burned in Arizona, another few million burned in California, a million burned in Colorado. But it’s inevitable. Congress wrote the law, Congress can fix it. I think the reason a lot of radical enviro groups are backing off litigation is they realize that wildfires are the biggest threat to NEPA. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind’s blowing.

14 thoughts on “Changing Public Values About Logging I- A Guest Post by Derek Weidensee”

  1. This is a moronic and bigoted post that has no place on a blog that, until now, has been a place where people can express their opinions about the National Forests using FACTS and REASON, not insults, name-calling and urban (perhaps rural) myths about forests and those who work to defend them and get better management for them. Sharon, PLEASE do not post any more drivel like this. Please!

  2. Ray- I am trying to monitor and reduce the offensiveness of different pieces and would appreciate anyone’s help in terms of pointing out specifics that offend them and I will edit future posts with that sensitivity. In my most ambitious moments, I want the blog to be the proverbial “city on a hill” of people from different points of view who want to have reasoned and respectful discourse. I apologize to anyone who might be offended by this post.

    Perhaps, having that kind of rhetoric applied to the FS routinely in press releases, I have grown such a hard shell that I read right past offensive comments.

    When I read Derek’s post, I filtered it to see some questions worthy of consideration- to translate them into wonk-speak they would be like this..

    Should environmental groups be focusing on something different given that the timber wars are over? If environmental groups hire many environmental attorneys, will certain environmental problems be less likely to be addressed (illegal use of OHV’s) while others (travel management plans) are more likely to be addressed?

    If everyone thinks establishing a biomass/timber industry to reduce costs of fuel treatments is a good idea (which is an interesting idea to discuss in and of itself, what conditions of uncertainty stand in our way?

    I bet folks in intermountain West environmental groups are probably having the same kinds of conversations- “what will the issues be in 2025? How can we organize ourselves to be able to make a difference?” The people on this blog might have interesting ideas about this, just as they have about what the FS should put in a planning rule.

    Language can be hurtful and I think Derek tried to focus on the actions and not the people. Maybe a large piece of this is my fault as he made some of those points (that it’s not about the people- he agrees that the actions that they took in the past were in the right direction) in the part about Montana, but I decided to split the post. Again, I apologize to anyone who might be offended.

  3. I wasn’t offended, and Derek’s post wasn’t “moronic” or “bigoted”. Yes, it was ill-advised, as written but, it’s hard to get some ideas across without someone getting their feathers ruffled. Yes, many people are changing their minds, moving incrementally away from the extremes into more reasonable goals. However, when your goal is the elimination of the Federal timber sale program, compromise and consensus are VERY difficult. Another sign of inflexibility and stubbornness is the Forest Service’s unwillingness to even talk about new salvage logging policy, although it clearly falls under the umbrella of climate change, forest health and ecosystem integrity. Basically, it’s a big, ugly, dying elephant in the room, which no one wants to acknowledge, despite the smell.

    Oops! I got carried away a bit, there. Eastern politicians don’t care about dead and dying trees. They do, however, care very much about dying people. I’d also bet that some judges feel the same way.

  4. Sharon:

    His article does not lead to your filters at all, but I like what you posted as “filters.”

    I fail to see how calling those who (like me) sue to enforce the law of the land “radicals” is focusing on the actions and not the people. Are those who enforce child labor laws “radicals”? Those who enforce racial anti-discrimination laws “radicals”? Those who enforce domestic violence laws to protect women “radicals”? Are those who are unwilling to enforce such laws called “moderates”?

    NO! Only in the area of the environment is it acceptable to call those who wish to see our nation’s laws followed “radicals.” And saying that it is “not disparaging, only meant to illustrate” is as STUPID as calling women “femi-Nazis” just to illustrate, not to disparage. Do you not know what people like Rush Limbaugh do with these labels? I do not see how this guy’s stuff is much different.

    And do not get me started about his failure to rely on FACTS in his piece. Prove to me that CBD or anyone has “changed their mind” because they now support good forest management that complies with the law when before they opposed bad forest management that did not comply with the law. I have NEVER changed on this. I sued over illegal, bad management, and I supported good, legal management. Did in 1992, still do today, no change at all. This is a straw-man, a false dichotomy that has no basis in fact. It is evidence of this guy’s lack of understanding of the reality here. When you can’t win an argument on the facts, you have to win on your fantasies or on scary myths that people will react to. This guy’s piece is full of that type of “logic.”

    Also, in no way is the claim that lawsuits against ILLEGAL forest Service actions shut down all, or even any of, the mills supportable. It was the demand, or lack thereof, anyone knows that. Supply, too. Economics 101. Mills elsewhere (Canada and US South here) that undercut the marginal-to-begin-with economics of having huge sawmills feed off the slow-growing forests of the interior West. Sure, lots of mills liked to blame their failure to compete on the few lawsuits that had an impact on their supply, but there are no supportable facts for this on any scale. Most of the timber industry in the inter-mountain West was as unsuitable as the illegal and unsupportable cutting on the forests was. It was going to crash and burn anyway, enviro lawsuits or not. Arguably, if anything, the Forest Service killed off those mills by not giving them a REALISTIC and sustainable supply to begin with, so that the timber infrastructure fit the capacity of the land instead of this huge overbuild of mills that mined the prior centuries of growth until it was gone. This is why we have to get biomass sized right or we will repeat those same mistakes again.

    And further, his focus on “actions” is so off the mark it would be ridiculous, if it wasn’t so insulting at the same time. The slamming of the chance at new industry is laughable. We have hundreds of millions of board feet coming off the national forests in the South — GUARANTEED — that loggers and mills owners ARE taking to the bank and getting loans. Why? Because the Forest Service COMPLIED with NEPA. This guy does not understand that an EIS, once signed and NOT appealed, IS a guarantee of supply off that forest. Hello! NEPA, if complied with, gives certainty, whereas gutting or sidestepping NEPA has never done so, ever. Anyone who advocates eliminating or gutting NEPA lacks imagination, knowledge and integrity, as well as credibility.

    And, moreover, painting all of us with a board brush that only applies to those few, marginal groups that do sue over anything, including good projects, that is beyond lame. How is that different from enviros who painted all Forest Service employees as timber w****s (a word that is pejorative, and, ironically, associated with women, of which there were very few during the Timber Period- edit by SF) due to the bad actions of a handful? I had hoped we were past all that. I do not know who this guy is or why his rants deserve your voucher, but I am sorely disappointed. Really!

    Okay, that is all off my chest. Apology accepted. Thanks.

  5. I don’t recall calling anyone “bigoted or moronic” in my post. I’m sorry if I’ve offended you Ray. But now you’re thinking about it.

  6. Ray- you raised a couple of intriguing points.

    The use of the R word. Radical, that is. I just finished Douglas Bevington’s book “The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear,” and I have some quotes about how he thinks of the R word. This book is generally recommended to all for the historical insights and insider stories of tensions between the self identified “radicals” and moderates.

    Also the I-word (illegal) and how that has word lost its power in the FS- environmental context, from my perspective.

    But unfortunately that as well of the rest of my long, thoughtful post, got lost in computerland (note to self- always write blog posts in Word)and it is late. I will rewrite and post as other activities permit.

  7. I enjoyed Derek’s post. I did not find it the least bit offensive. I appreciate the wide range of views posted in this blog. Please keep the guest posts, they add to the discussion, broaden the point of view, and adds interest to an often dry subject.

  8. Ray, thanks for your posts and raising this issue here on this blog. I brought up the same issue to Sharon about a month ago and posted my thoughts on this blog.

    I highly doubt pieces such as this one by Derek (who goes by the anonymous name “logger”) are the types of posts that Martin Nie, the University of Montana’s College of Forestry and Conservation and the Bolle Center envisioned when this blog started. It’s a real shame that this blog has largely just turned into another place where people like Derek and Mike D can rant and vent.

    For those who don’t know, Mike D(ubrasich) is with the Western Institute and runs a blog called SOS Forests. In the past he wrote stuff like, “If you know a Sierra Club member, please feel free to set their home on fire.” (

    He also wrote this gem on his blog, titled, “Gail Blows it Bigtime.” SNIP: ” “[Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell] also has promoted, not canceled, the whoofoo program, and deliberately burned down millions of acres of forest in her own Region in her very first year. That kind of malice aforethought with no regrets afterwards is pure evil, treason, and certainly a hanging offense, in my opinion. Gail Kimbell should be indicted, tried, convicted, and incarcerated for the rest of her natural life, if not put to death by lethal injection, in my opinion.”

    And then there is this:

    Too bad…because this blog could have become a place for intelligent discussion about Forest Service management issues….instead of yet another place in the blog-o-sphere where people can just about say another in their never ending attempt to blame enviros for everything. Thanks.

  9. wow! what a tempest. looks like our teapot has a little steam in it. As this applies to the attempt to get a new planning rule that works ….it looks like emotions are still on the surface. I’ve been working for years to help a spotted owl forest “get to” ecological restoration in R-5…by establishing a community-based ngo, doing worker retraining for ecosystem management, piloting stewardship projects, working on CWPPS, etc. Planning has been a problem, since the current forest plan, even tiered to the Northwest Forest Plan for the recovery of the owl, still had the wrong standards and guides for ecological restoration in a frequent fire forest. As the agency has tried to get “legally defensible” NEPA done, they have had to use the same old ID team structure and “assess,treat and mitigate” processes of old. We have all been constrained because the current forest plan doesn’t recognize ecological restoration as a goal. Furthermore, the strategy of the northwest plan and the forest plan is to protect the environment by having large areas set off limits to management while the remaining areas have standards for sustainable timber management… it turns out, neither of those have proven to be very useful in protecting habitat and biodiversity or sustainable forest products. That is why Derek’s post intrigued me. It isn’t just the environmental community that is stuggling to figure out the best thing to do, but we are seeing similar fractures in the industry, in forest service personnel, and in scientists. Basic assumptions about forests, management, people, organizations and policy are being challenged…a humble forest planning rule is certainly in order. NEPA was created in a very naive time. We DO need to do better.

  10. Matthew,

    I understand and share some of your concerns. I also dislike the tone and quality of some comments. I also fear that we could become yet another blog where little learning and intelligent dialogue takes place. But we also want to have a venue where multiple perspectives are considered. We’d welcome a post or two from you, just as we would from others. To be honest, we’ve had a hard time getting some conservationists and academics to post short pieces—and I understand their reservations.

    Another option is to just ignore some comments from people who you know are incapable of engaging in open and serious debate. That’s what I do. I go straight to the comments made by people who seem pretty open-minded and smart—even when I disagree with them. A fair share of drivel gets through to the blog, but by and large it’s still a place with some pretty intelligent discussion going on. I’m still learning a lot—and its sharpened my thinking about a few things.

    And we do filter for things, so such comments as he made in the past wouldn’t be acceptable here.

  11. It is always a challenge for me to keep things civil when I post on other blogs, as the quality of the opposition elsewhere is…ahem….lacking. I will admit to having some of that mindset leak over here. Some forums prefer to use real names, and I have my reasons for not using my real name here. Many anonymous posters will throw caution to the wind, posting “trollish” vitriol, not backed up with facts or actual experience. My only desire, as an internet activist, is to share what I have seen and to pull the extremes back closer to the middle. Many have been disappointed that I don’t fit their stereotype, and I absolutely revel in that. I’ve been sarcastic my whole life. I don’t think that’s about to change, anytime soon. ;^)

    The truth is that we need to be smart about how to treat our public forests. That means not using one-size-fits-all solutions that don’t fit the ground. I’ve had such high hopes for the new Planning Rule but, key things are not being addressed and it is looking more like a band-aid, instead of the big fix our forests currently need.

  12. Martin, Thanks for your response. But just to be clear, it wasn’t so much the “comments” on this blog that Ray and I found lacking and offensive. It was the actual authored posts featured on this blog run by the UM College of Forestry and Conservation and Bolle Center that was the problem.

    I mean, seriously, would Derek’s opinion piece be published and prominently featured by the University of Montana in the glossy magazine? Of course not. The UM would never publish anything like it. I believe that for this blog to be successful a similar standard should be applied.

    It strikes me as entirely odd that all facts point to the truth that appeals and litigation of national forest logging projects are on a huge downward trend and have been for some time. So too, some decent “collaborative” work is on a huge upward trend. So it gets a little tiresome for some people to still act all sophmoric calling people names and making stuff up about how the agency supposed can’t move a pine cone without getting sued. I mean, would you and Sharon publish a featured article from Ray or myself if we just referred to the timber industry as “radical” or “tree terrorists” or “wilderness obstructionists”…ie the same way Derek refers to enviro groups?

    I guess I just expected more from this blog. But maybe a civil blog just can’t be achieved on these issues.

    • Matthew,

      We’re trying to provide a venue for constructive, lively, and informed debate—and get multiple perspectives along the way. Its beyond the capacity of Sharon and myself to subject each post, by core contributors or guest authors, to a rigorous fact-checking process. Reader comments seem to do that for us. Nor am I sure we want every statement made by people to be accompanied by a reference. But maybe we should start asking for more references by contributors—we’ll talk about this.

      As an academic, I’ve had serious reservations about the blog thing from the beginning. We are generally a cautious lot, always afraid of saying something that can’t be substantiated or referenced—so I understand where you are coming from. But at the same time, there is a need to engage in these debates, and to mix it up with all sorts of folks.

      But try to empathize a bit here Matthew, partially because I’ll get the same headache from folks who will complain to me when you write your guest post. (and now readers will inevitably want you to substantiate every fact and claim you make in it).

      Looking back at Derek’s piece, it’s too bad that some key questions and issues get lost because of the tone. There are, for example, some important issues to be discussed regarding the necessity and limitations of litigation as a conservation strategy. Or the role that litigation plays in leveraging collaborative approaches. Or the limits of litigation in getting the USFS to go above and beyond what is required by law (e.g., road removal, watershed-based restoration, etc.). All important questions in my mind.

      And then there is the issue of how the word “radical” is used in the post. One approach is to ask the contributor not to use the word before it goes online. But another is for us to let it go through so that readers can take issue with it and create an Obama-like “teachable moment.”

      For example, I don’t like the label either, mostly because it is being used incorrectly. We’re not talking about civil disobedience here. Instead, some groups are using the basic democratic process—which includes the judicial system—to effect social-environmental change. They are working within basic political institutions, not outside of them. How is this radical? Wouldn’t a more accurate label be simply “litigious.”

      We’ve heard one perspective on these matters, now its time for you and others to give us other perspectives and superior arguments. I’ll trust our readers to be smart enough to figure out the best arguments for themselves.

  13. Again, I want to say it was my fault that the piece was posted. I knew Derek had some interesting ideas I wanted to post.. I was planning to post them.. but a vacation (dispersed camping in bark beetle country- more on that later) intervened and I looked and knew I could edit the tone but I just didn’t take the time. I was pulled by conflicting responsibilities and commitments and made a bad choice.

    Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. As penance, I am taking the second half of Derek’s post and editing the tone, because I think his points are interesting and worthy of consideration. And, honestly, I don’t think there are many other places where both points of view are given an opportunity to write posts (High Country News? New West? the private property blogs? NOT).

    I also believe that the public lands are bigger than the FS employees and our controversies are fundamentally about how we are all to live together and best honor this most wonderful heritage. The roles of the Forest Service, interest groups, communities of place, Congress, the judiciary, I hope will be all open to criticism and debate. This includes both positions and tactics, as long as the rhetoric to data ratio is not too high.

    After some reflection, I agree with Matt that our guest posts should called to a higher editorial standard. In terms of comments, people will say what they will, however snarkily – but other readers don’t need to read them if they are from someone who annoys them.

    On the other hand, the posts are a different story and I thank Ray and Matt for calling me to account for that. That’s what makes meaningful community- one whose members call each other to be the best we can be.


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