Excerpts from our interviews with former governor John Kitzhaber

(Interview dates: 12/3/04 and 7/7/05)


[In a nutshell...]

JK: I think the forests today, at least the public forests, are managed according to stakeholder politics. They're based on who happens to have the upper hand in the white house, in the state house, in Congress and as state legislators and who happens to prevail in court on a given day. And those change, the policies change dramatically based on which administration happens to be in power. So that the objective of the stakeholders is to influence the political process or the legal process, not to engage with one another and see where the common ground is and see how they can find solutions that meet both ecologic and economic needs. I think that's in a nutshell.


[On polarization...]

JK: The West in general, certainly the Pacific Northwest, has a long history of development based largely on the extraction of natural resources, whether that's the use of water for agriculture, whether that's fish, whether that's timber, whether it's minerals -- that's really part of who we are. That's one of the reasons that we expanded out here, because of the land, because the natural resources.

Since probably the middle of the last century, there's been this growing conflict between, on one hand, the extraction and utilization of those resources and the people who depend for their economic livelihood on those activities, and, on the other, this concern about what we're doing to the larger environment that ultimately we all have to share and depend on.

That concern led to the enactment under the Nixon administration, interestingly enough, of the Clean Water Act, The Clean Air Act, and The Endangered Species Act.

What's significant is that the conflict remains unresolved. It continues to be a source of polarization among communities, among individuals, even within families. and we've reached a point where I don't think the values of any of the stakeholders in this debate are actually being achieved. The timber industry, for example, doesn't have a sustainable, predictable supply of timber, particularly off of public lands. We continue to see the destruction of habitat, we continue to see forests that are tinder boxes, inviting catastrophic wildfires each summer. We've got rural communities that are drying up, because there's not a predictable supply of natural resources, and of course more and more species listed on the endangered species act.

The premise is that a natural resource-based economy is mutually exclusive with the sustainable management of a sound and healthy environment. And I don't believe that. But that's how the debate's been set up.


[On obstacles to resolving the issues...]

JK: We're still using a mid-20th Century problem-solving paradigm, which is a conflict model, with no evidence whatsoever that it actually gets us where we want. So we've created a situation where the parties in conflict don't even have to engage one another. Think of the public hearing on front of a legislative body. You represent the timber industry, I represent the environmental community. We don't have to hear from each other at this public hearing. We appeal to a third party. And that third party makes a decision based on who knows what, a campaign contribution? Who knows? It's not based on an effort to resolve the underlying conflict.

I think the Forest Service in many cases has been paralyzed with fear. If they do one thing they get attacked by the timber industry, if they do something they get attacked by the environmental community. And they get sued by everybody - it's not an environment that encourages innovation and risk-taking and actually trying to figure out new ways to do things. I think you also have organizations, national organizations, both environmental organizations and trade organizations that depend for their livelihood on conflict. You can't get membership up if there isn't a crisis. I call it the culture of conflict. There're organizations that depend for their institutional survival on having an enemy, on having a challenge of some sort.

I think there is greed involved. I think there are entities in this country that are interested in making the fastest, quickest dollar they can, regardless of the long term economic or environmental consequences. So greed's apart of it. But by the same token, there are people who believe that any tree that's cut is an adverse outcome and will litigate on anything. So you've got those two sides of the equation. What's missing, I think, is the broad center, where I think most people are. I think most people are very concerned about a healthy, sustainable natural ecosystem that our kids are going to have to live in, and they are also interested in jobs and job security. But they don't really have an outlet. The debate is really dominated by the extremes, and the system is set up to facilitate that domination by the extremes.


[On dueling sciences...]

JK: One of the problems of course is that we've never had a discussion about what do you actually have to have to sustain a healthy forest ecosystem. What is the real science say about the impact of harvesting trees, on the ability to generate old growth forest structure. Or to ensure that you have a forest that begins to look like more a forest looked 100, 150 years ago. And so since we don't have a good body of science, we buy our own science. Each side has its own science that justifies its previously adopted political ends. And I think that's a big part of the problem.

In the aftermath of the Biscuit Fire, you had several different bodies of science thrown at the problem [and based on who commissioned those studies, they were based on different assumptions and they came to different conclusions. And you know the recommended cut levels [for salvage logging] ranged from extraordinarily low to extraordinarily high.

What's lacking in the natural resources world is something that is very well established in the medical world and that's called a "systematic review of the evidence," which is a very rigorous process where all of the studies are run through a common set of criteria, to winnow, to get rid of bias, to distinguish the good solid studies from the bad studies.

So this involves framing a research question, identifying all the studies that have been done pertaining to that question and then evaluating all of that science based on the criteria to get the good science and then make a conclusion about what the evidence shows.

And that kind of objective filter could be extraordinarily useful in the "dueling science" that's come to characterize these natural resource issues: Everyone's got their scientists, and everyone pays lip service to science, as long as the science supports a previously-held political position.

I'm actually trying to get funding to develop that kind of process for natural resources. The courts might rely on this, it might keep things out of court. Because right now, we're asking the courts to make judgments on science, when that's not really the area of expertise of the federal judiciary.


[On the Healthy Forests Initiative...]

JK: There is a lot of rhetoric in the president's Healthy Forest Bill about streamlining processes. There is a more fundamental question you have to ask: Is the process getting us to the outcomes you want? Because if it isn't, all you're doing is speeding up the rate at which you get to the wrong place. So we have to look beyond just streamlining the processes, we have to look at what is the goal that those processes are serving. And the goal ought to be having a healthy, vibrant forest ecosystem that produces the healthiest vegetation possible, whether you're going to use that vegetation for commercial logging, or whether you're going to use it to turn into old growth structure.


[On natural resources, "the lost stepchild"...]

JK: We seem to view natural resources as the lost stepchild of public policy. Look at the amount of money we are spending now to rebuild the infrastructure in Iraq. That's an investment, and the administration would tell you that's an investment in our security, that it's important for us to make sure we spend those resources so we have a free, democratic government in that part of the world. We're talking about the same basic thing here in terms of people's economic security, and the security of knowing they're going to have clean water for their kids to drink and they're going to have a healthy environment for them to live in. That's an investment, and I would argue that it's just as important if not more important , because if we waste our environment, if we don't have clean air, if we don't have clean water, if we don't have open spaces, that's going to have a huge impact on us.

So I think it's a matter of political will, it's a matter of recognizing that this isn't about us as "environmentalists and the timber industry." It's about us as a society and what we value. And if you look at the costs of not making those investments, it's the incredible amount we spend every year fighting fires.


[On our problem-solving structures...]

JK: I've become increasingly convinced that our legislatives institutions and our political process in general has pretty much reached the limit of its capacity to respond in a timely and effective manner to the complicated problems it faces in the 21st century. And I don't mean just in the area of environmental stewardship, but let's stick to that one. And I think the reason isn't the people. I think the reason is that we've set up a structure that makes it impossible to resolve these issues. We use a set of tools that are based primarily on compelled behavior, on law regulation and enforcement. That's what we do - it's "the stick."


[On the Endangered Species Act...]

JK: The problem with the Act is the process of actually doing the recovery. Because the states manage the water, and they manage the habitat until a species is listed -- at which point the state is really taken out of it, including all the people who are going to have to change their behavior in one way or another, to solve the problem. At that point those people ought to be directly engaged in the process, and incentive should be provided, and support should be provided to actually take care of it. The system doesn't offer that alternative.

The Endangered Species Act basically waits until a species is on the brink of extinction, then puts the vast majority of the resources into listing it. Very little actually goes into the recovery plans.


[The trick is to...]

JK: If you start talking about a recovery plan, if there's a proposal put on the table to try to create a vision of what this is going to look like, the economic stake holders react based on whether they think it's going to disadvantage them economically or not. So they don't want to talk about it. So you can't ever get anything on the table.

The trick, it seems to me, is to create some kind of safe forum that has three steps:

First, it requires trust. It requires some kind of convening authority, where people put their "stakeholder hats" at the door and they convene first as citizens, second as stakeholders. Let's say, "If we wanted the healthiest possible river from an environmental standpoint, what would that look like? What are all the things we'd have to do?"

The second step then is to say "Now, let's put our stakeholder hats back on. How would that affect me as a stakeholder?" And make the politics and the economics legitimate, acknowledge them.

And the third step is to say "How could we mitigate those economic impacts without reducing the ability to improve the water shed?" So it changes the debate from back here [gestures], where we avoid talking about anything that might hurt us, to "How do we actually mitigate that, so we're not hurt economically, but so we can also achieve this other value?"

That's the process that we need to advance. It can happen, it doesn't require an act of Congress, it doesn't require Salem to do anything, it doesn't require a court order, It requires citizens who are interested in being citizens -- who are interested in the common concerns they have as a region and as a people -- to begin to come together. There's nothing to prevent that. We're limited only by our own imagination and the depth of our concern for one another in this place we call home.


[On models and tools...]

JK: I consider myself a solid member of the environmental community. And I think that the gains that we've in the last half of the 20th century, especially the last 35 or 40 years, were based on a regulatory model -- were based on regulation, conflict, regulation and enforcement. And that's what all those federal laws are about. It made some sense, I think, at the time.

To me, it's not the purpose of the environmental movement, to win in court. It's to actually solve the environmental problem, and at some point we have to step back and say: "Our cause is just, our philosophy is just. The tools through which seek to achieve it are not working, and it's achieving more polarization."


[On lessons he'd most like to share...]

JK: The first lesson is: You cannot separate environmental issues from economic issues and community issues. You cannot deal with them in isolation. The politics of the 21st Century have got to recognize the interdependence of these values. If you want a really sustainable solution, you can't isolate the economics from environmental stewardship.

The second point, and I've come to this really over the last five years of my administration, and that's after a 14 year legislative career on the front end of that: The governing structures, the problem-solving structures through which we seek to solve the inevitable differences that arise in communities where not everyone agrees, are broken. They were designed in a different era. They were designed in a time of perceived abundance, they were designed to manage problems, not really solve problems. They were designed to empower third party decision-makers, as opposed to bringing people together to solve those problems, And we cannot fix these problems unless we're willing to go back and have a conversation about the structures through which we seek to solve them.

And the third point is: We are powerful, as individuals and communities, and we need to reclaim that power. And to reclaim that power, we need to not let ourselves be constrained by the structures we have today. We need to be willing to take risks, we need to reach for the possible and to openly acknowledge that sometimes, the familiar is not doing the job for us.

« Back to Explore More