CAN SOMETIMES LEAD TO PROBLEMS
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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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