PROFILING CAN SOMETIMES LEAD TO PROBLEMS

by Whit Gibbons

July 15, 2002


Twenty-five years ago I heard a man say that any of us in the room who were opposed to clear-cutting forests were against the American flag. Now why he said the "flag" part instead of just "America" I have no idea. But he did. He was a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) official.

Some individuals in the old guard of the USFS vocally supported clear-cutting large acreage of forests, if for no other reason than to aggravate environmentalists. And they were successful, whether intentionally or not. Many embittered battles between timber cutters, both government and private, and environmentalists ensued.

Such profiling works in all directions and can sometimes backfire. About the same time Flag Man made his comment, I led a group of Sierra Club members on a tour of the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site. Most forests on the site are managed by the USFS, and most members on the field trip were opposed to the agency's policies. I have many friends in both the Sierra Club and USFS who are reasonable, rational, environmentally clear-thinking people. I do not profile either group as all good or all bad. However, one Sierra Club member was particularly vocal and antagonistic toward the USFS. She had nothing good to say about their approach to managing southeastern ecosystems. Although presumably well meaning, she began to wear on everyone's nerves. Although I was trying to point out both the good and the bad on the federal site, this woman was intent on bad-mouthing the USFS and began to attack me when I said something positive about them.

"You mean the land-scalping tree pirates," she asked, for clarification.

Then came the scene that delighted us all. Ms. Forest Guardian practically yelled at me from her throne midway back in the van. "Why are you not pointing out the giant clear-cut off to our left?" The fact is we had not passed a clear-cut during the whole field trip, but the time had come to lay this issue to rest.

I pulled the van over and asked people to step out and follow me through the woods. Sure enough, a 50-acre clearing could be made out approximately 200-feet away through the big pines and oaks that margined the highway.

Ms. Forest Guardian began what I assumed was a well-rehearsed liturgy about the perils of turning our forests over to the chain-saw-wielding marauders. "Just look at that big opening they've left in the forest," she explained.

I trekked through the woods, followed by a group of mostly embarrassed Sierra Club members who had been enjoying the trip but were obviously a bit tense about the tongue thrashing they assumed I would receive from their colleague. In fact, I was already getting a fair lip-lashing about the issue before we entered the edge of the clearing. But then everyone stopped because our feet were starting to get wet. The woman looked puzzled. I tried to look impassive. The rest of the tour group looked amused.

"This is a Carolina bay," I said, "one of the natural wetlands characteristic of this region." We gazed over what could have been an aquatic flowering plant scene from the Okefenokee. "I had planned to stop here, and I'm glad you pointed it out so I didn't miss it. This particular wetland has nesting green herons, two species of giant salamanders, and a population of the unusual long-necked chicken turtle. A fabulous place."

Ms. Forest Guardian was stunned. She spoke in what for her was a meek voice. "It looked like a clear-cut."

"Yes, ma'am. Sometimes nature makes a footprint that can look like our own until we find out the whole story. And thanks again for pointing it out."

Profiling a group based on the words or actions of a few is almost always unjust. But it takes less effort than uncovering the facts. Back then the USFS was an easy target for environmentalists because of outspoken individuals like Flag Man. And some environmental groups were equally vulnerable because of rash comments by a few of their members. Things have changed over the last few years. The USFS has become dramatically more sensitive about the environment, and environmentalists are more pragmatic about the need to consider economic impacts. Let's hope they continue on that trajectory.



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