For most of America’s history, trees were seen as crops, and the plan was to log the country’s last virgin forests and replant them with de facto tree farms. We see forests very differently today. How did things change so quickly?
We follow the small group of contrarian scientists who fought to study the old growth before it was all cut down. They were the first to climb up into canopies 30-stories in the air and to burrow into the soil to discover to a network of flora and fauna that works together to grow the tallest trees on earth. In the process, they caused a paradigm shift in our perception of forests, from a collection of trees to a complex ecosystem.
Their work inspired environmentalists, but it wasn’t enough to stop the chainsaws.
Hosted and produced by OPB’s Aaron Scott in collaboration with 30 Minutes West (“Bundyville,” “Outside Podcast”), and with original music by the singer-songwriter Laura Gibson, “Timber Wars” is a seven-part podcast series from Oregon Public Broadcasting that tells the behind-the-scenes story of how a small group of activists and scientists turned the fight over ancient trees and the spotted owl into one of the biggest environmental conflicts of the 20th century. Episodes are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, the NPR One app and most other podcast apps.
In addition to the podcast, OPB is releasing an accompanying e-newsletter series that combines the podcast with further OPB reporting to take readers through the history of this epic battle — and explores the ways it’s playing out still — in stories, images, videos and more. You can explore the series here.
Related: ‘Timber Wars’ episode 3: The owl
Episode 2: The ancient forest transcript
AARON SCOTT, HOST: It’s almost like Jerry Franklin’s fate was sealed the moment his parents gave him his middle name: Forest.
AARON: What’s the story behind your middle name?
JERRY FRANKLIN: My mother used to talk about how when I was born there was a forest fire threatening the town that I was born in. And I guess maybe, you know, Forest sounds like a good name.
AARON: His dad worked for a paper mill in Camas, Washington.
JERRY: Oh, Yeah. And I worked there too. So I’m a timber industry kid.
AARON: But Jerry knew he wasn’t meant to work inside, ever since his family’s camping trips to the Columbia National Forest, now called the Gifford Pinchot.
JERRY: And I was playing in these big tree and swinging from the vine maples. And I discovered that people got paid to work in the forest. And I thought that’s what I want to do.
AARON: In 1957, Jerry got a job as a researcher at a place called the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. It’s on the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. And it was used by the Forest Service to study the fastest, most efficient way to cut down those big trees Jerry used to play in and to replace them with young, vigorous saplings.
JERRY: The older the forest, the highest on your list of priority to cut, because from the standpoint of wood production, the old forest wasn’t growing any more wood. Thought decaying and rotting away.
AARON: In fact, no scientists at the time thought very highly of the old growth.
JERRY: So the foresters referred to them as cellulose cemeteries.
AARON: Even the wildlife biologists saw them as dead zones. After all, deer and elk preferred the bushes and browse that grew in meadows and recently logged forests.
JERRY: The wildlife people called the old growth forest a biological desert, because there wasn’t anything out there much that you could shoot.
AARON: You have to put yourself in the mindset of the time. Most states didn’t have Fish and Wildlife departments, they had Fish and Game departments. And the Forest Service was, and is, part of the Department of Agriculture. It was in the business of raising trees as a crop. And no one wants a crop that’s past its prime.
JERRY: We were going to cut all the old growth on the national forests for all practical purposes. That’s where we were. Nobody had any intention of conserving any significant amount of old growth outside of national parks.
AARON: By the mid-1960s, the Forest Service and university folks running the Andrews Experimental Forest decided they’d learned all there was to learn about replacing the old growth, and they decided to give it back to logging.
But Jerry had been captivated by this stuff since he was a kid. So he and a couple colleagues said, “wait a minute. We don’t really know anything about this forest, other than how to cut it down and replace it.”
JERRY: We argued and fought to keep it as an experimental forest, but the problem was if we want to keep it, somebody has to be using it. Uh, if we don’t have people that are using it and advocating for it, we’re dead.
AARON: They found a cutting-edge international program focused on studying the earth’s major ecosystems. Their preposterous pitch, at least in the eyes of their supervisors? To study the old growth not as a crop, but as an ecosystem. And this, it turned out, was a very dangerous idea.
AARON: From what I gathered, the forest service wasn’t exactly excited about your research though?
JERRY: They hated it. The dean of the forestry school literally hated it. He thought the Andrews was a whole waste. The whole notion that you would give 15,000 acres of pristine forest to a bunch of scientists was…and then what I had done was to get a whole bunch of his faculty involved in this controversial and useless topic of old growth. He couldn’t wait to get me out of town.
AARON: For much of human history, trees were seen as a resource. And dark, dank forests? There be monsters. Just ask Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, or pretty much any other fairy tale character. Cutting the woods down made them safe. And built our towns in the process.
Yet here in the Northwest, people saw the forests as so valuable, they were risking their lives and going to jail, just to protect them. In little more than a generation, there’d been a complete flip in how we see the forest, from Brothers Grimm to “Fern Gully.” How did that happen? And since when does science actually change anything?
From Oregon Public Broadcasting, I’m Aaron Scott, and this is “Timber Wars.”
If the farmer fed the American dream and the cowboy wrangled it, it was the logger who built it—or at least provided the building blocks. It took two centuries for early colonists to chop through the hardwood and white-pine forests of New England. But then they swarmed West, leveling forests across the Midwest in little more than a generation and leaving farmland in their wake.
When the lumberjacks reached the Pacific Northwest in the 1800s, however, things slowed down. Here were forests they couldn’t fell so quickly. Each tree—the Sitka spruce, the Douglas fir, the western hemlock—was the biggest of its kind in the world. And then there were the coastal redwoods. Towering 300 feet and more into the sky, growing ten feet across, some of these trees were as old as the Roman Empire. It seemed like they’d last forever.
But then World War II happened.
JERRY: The great timber race started in the post war period. All the returning veterans, all the families, all the towns building up.
AARON: A booming economy requires a lot of wood, so every year, Congress set aggressive targets, billions of board feet of timber, and the Forest Service sold it.
JERRY: The Forest Service prided itself: “you give us some money, we’ll get this job done.” They were the “can do.” They were the, the civilian Marine Corps and um, there was this tremendous momentum that built up.
AARON: By the mid-80s, and this blew me away, timber was the highest valued crop in the United States. It outsold corn in the Midwest and cotton in the South. And the national forests in the Northwest were pumping out a quarter of it.
So it’s no surprise that timber was king here. It provided local companies with monster profits, and they in turn funded politicians who supported the industry. And timber funded local counties, who received hundreds of millions of dollars each year for schools and roads. The whole economy depended on the Forest Service keeping the logs flowing.
So these were the currents Jerry and those early Andrews researchers were about to swim against.
[SOUND OF THE FOREST]
AARON: Where are we now?
JERRY: We’re at the Andrews experimental forest and we’re in a patch of old growth Douglas fir, western hemlock forest.
AARON: I went to meet Jerry at the Andrews on a cold January day, where the incessant Pacific Northwest rain splatters on his wide brimmed felt hat. At a spritely 83, he still checks the time on the pocket watch he wears in a suit vest underneath his fleece.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
He leads the way into a patch of giant trees and stops at a Douglas fir that rises like a colossus covered by a fur coat of moss and lichen. It’s probably 6-feet-wide and so tall I can’t see the top.
AARON: What do you see when you look at a tree like, like one of these before us?
JERRY: Well, it just, all the standard words: magnificent, immense, unbelievable. How does something like that grow and exist for a thousand years? How does it do that?
AARON: Because, when you think about it, there’re so many things that seem impossible about something growing that big, and living for that long. So these were some of the mysteries they wanted to figure out. The trouble was, no one knew where to begin.
So they spread out in every direction and just started to describe and measure things, trying to figure out how the forest worked.
JERRY: The minute you went out and started doing something, you discovered things like, “Oh shit, there’s a lot of big dead wood out here. I guess we’re going to have to include that in our carbon budget, aren’t we?”
AARON: They realized that much of what they’d taken for granted was wrong. For instance, it was forestry dogma that you were supposed to remove all the rotting logs, and dead, standing trees, because they were dangerous for loggers, and they could feed forest fires. But when they looked closely, they discovered these rotting logs also stored massive amounts of carbon and nutrients and they regulated the flow of water by soaking it up like a sponge. They also served as habitat for all kinds of creatures, including the next generation of trees.
JERRY: Well, you know, that for me it was one of my first epiphanies, as I call them, you know, where I saw something for the first time in a totally new light.
AARON: Before too long, they started to figure out which questions to ask. And one of the first big mysteries they had to solve was: where does the forest get nitrogen? Because only some plants can pull it out of the air, and those plants didn’t grow in old growth.
JERRY: And interestingly a major source takes place in dead wood.
AARON: They figured out that some of it came from rotting trees. But that couldn’t explain it all, because eventually the system would run out. Then a botanist named Bill Denison started collecting scraps of a strange lichen that just seemed to show up on the forest floor, and he discovered these lichen pulled nitrogen from the air.
But where were they coming from? It was another puzzle. And in trying to figure it out, he looked up, to the canopy above, and accidentally kicked off a whole new area of forest research.
JERRY: And we really knew that there was a great deal going on up there, but, it was so difficult to access.
AARON: On old growth Doug firs, the lowest branches don’t even start until 10 or 15 stories in the air. So first they thought they could cut down a tree to study the canopy. Of course, the branches shattered everywhere when the tree fell, so that didn’t work.
Then two women from Oregon State University figured out they could use rock climbing gear to climb a tree like a cliff face.
JERRY: And, of course, that’s really well-developed today, but it had never been done before. And, you know, one of the things, again, that we really learned to appreciate is that the big old trees are not simply young trees enlarged.
AARON: It turned out the canopy was an entirely different ecosystem. They found a whole village of animals: spotted owls, marbled murrelets, flying squirrels, even families of voles that hadn’t touched the ground for generations. They also found Bill Dennison’s mystery lichen.
JERRY: And also it turned out there were some of the lichens, some of these, foliose-lettuce-like things growing up there on the branches that were essentially converting elemental nitrogen from the atmosphere into the forms that could be used by the rest of the plants, ammonia nitrate, and, again, you know, a very important part of the nutrient budget that sustains that system.
AARON: And they would just kind of rain down on the forest floor from the limbs, right? It was almost kind of like a fertilizer that kind of drifts down.
JERRY: Absolutely. It’s like a persistent rain of nutrients.
AARON: Up in those branches, they encountered a second mystery: how could these ancient trees keep up in the evolutionary arms race? After all, a Doug fir can grow for more than a thousand years, and a redwood for more than two thousand. But insects that like to devour the trees’ needles? Some can cycle through multiple generations in a year. So insects get hundreds of chances to evolve new weapons for every one chance the tree gets to respond. It was a question that baffled scientists. Until a guy named George Carroll started looking into it.
JERRY: And yes, he was studying the scuzz on needles—communities of microorganisms on the surface of needles that develop.
AARON: George Carroll discovered that these microorganisms, especially the fungi, acted like micro weapons factories, producing insect-killing toxins. And those fungi could evolve just as fast as the insects.
JERRY: You have organisms that are very diverse in character and are able to evolve much more rapidly than the trees themselves.
AARON: Their discoveries inspired scientists around the globe to climb into their own canopies, ascending by everything from construction cranes to balloons.
AARON: So in a way, I mean up hundreds of feet in the air, there’s a whole kind of coral reef system that we didn’t know anything about.
JERRY: Sure. And it’s very well developed in a structurally complex forests, like an old growth forest. And it never really gets much of a chance to develop in a plantation cause you don’t leave it there long enough for it to develop.
AARON: And it’s not just individual trees and fungi that harmonize. It’s a full-on cellulose chorus. Because they also figured out that, below ground, the roots of neighboring trees fuse together. They can share water and nutrients and chemical signals warning of insect invaders. This was a revelation about the fundamental way a forest works. The trees we think of as inanimate objects, it turns out they’re engaged in a giant conversation. We just can’t hear it, so it’s easy to think it doesn’t matter.
JERRY: But it also emphasizes why it’s so important to sustain the green plants above ground, because you remove the green plants above ground, the soil dies.
AARON: So this supposedly biological desert, this decaying cellulose cemetery, turned out to be teeming with life. Which meant that one of the central assumptions that had guided the Forest Service’s timber-cutting policy for decades was flat out wrong.
And as Jerry started to understand just how complex and bewildering the old growth was, he started to host workshops and campfires, inviting anyone who wanted to learn. Local environmentalists and politicians started showing up, and the media dubbed him the Guru of Old Growth. And as we walk through the forest, it’s easy to see why.
JERRY: I tell my students you go in an old growth stand and you can’t see very far. There’s too damn much green stuff.
AARON: It’s like the roots of the giant Doug fir nearby have tickled their way into the soles of his boots to feed him their sugars.
JERRY: This is just one great mass of carbon absorbing vegetative material.
AARON: And as the public started to take notice, so too did his fellow foresters.
JERRY: Some of the forest service people began to come to us and say, what’s an old growth forest? Tell us what an old growth forest is. And we put together the first report on old-growth forests.
AARON: In 1981, Jerry and seven other Andrews scientists published a landmark paper titled “The Ecological Characteristics of Old Growth Douglas Fir Forests.” For the first time, it set forth a definition for old growth forests, drawing on their revelations about the role that large trees, both living and dead, played in the system. And it raised the alarm that, at the rate we were logging, we’d liquidate the rest of the old growth in four decades. That is to say, we’d have nothing left of it today.
But while some of the foresters on the ground might’ve been curious, the top brass still wanted nothing to do with it. Over the years, several forest supervisors tried to get Jerry fired. And while he claims it was never the case, some of his fellow scientists said the bosses back in DC tried to suppress their research.
JERRY: I mean, this is very disruptive. We were challenging an established organization that had an established pattern of behavior, uh, programs. we were still engaged at that point in a fight to have old growth considered as such. The Forest Service at that point didn’t know how much they had. Didn’t want to know.
AARON: They didn’t want to know because acknowledging the complexity of old growth as an ecosystem was like opening Pandora’s Box. Suddenly they’d have to account for it in their plans and timber sales—and maybe even protect it.
But to Jerry’s dismay, the agency heads weren’t the only people in DC who didn’t want to talk about the old growth. The national environmental groups weren’t interested either. In the 70s and early 80s, they were fighting to protect Wilderness Areas—the most scenic mountains and rivers—and they were afraid going after logging would alienate Senators and Representatives in the Northwest.
JERRY: And I remember a session with the wilderness people up at Breitenbush, and they were talking about wilderness. And I remember pleading with them: don’t forget the old growth forests.
AARON: So, as the saying goes: if the secret of ancient trees is discovered in the forest, but there’s no one willing to hear it, does it make a difference?
That’s after the break.
AARON: Now we need to introduce someone else to the story.
NORM JOHNSON: How’s it going? Okay.
AARON: While Jerry was digging into the mystery of the old growth in the 70s, Norm Johnson was creating a computer model to efficiently harvest it. It was called Forest Plan, or For Plan, and it calculated how fast different forests grow. The Forest Service used it to determine how much they could cut. Needless to say, it was not popular with environmentalists.
NORM: Well, we’ve got too many people for one rig, right?
AARON: We can technically fit.
AARON: I’m meeting both of them and five other scientists and journalists for a tour I’ve been calling Norm and Jerry’s Forestry Roadshow, because we’re all of us, 8 adults, about to squeeze into one SUV and head into the woods.
NORM: We may get lost a few times, but hey, that’s just a lot to see out there.
AARON: Over 30 years of collaborating, Norm and Jerry have written textbooks together, testified before Congress together, and been the target of angry billboards paid for by environmentalists together. They’re kind of like the forestry version of Sherlock and Watson, with Jerry as Sherlock in his wide-brimmed hat, and Norm as Watson, always calling Jerry, Franklin, or Dr. Franklin, when he’s setting him up to make a big point.
NORM: Where Dr. Franklin would like things to go
...cuz Franklin, tell them the story of you flying on the plane…
...less of this here? Hell yes. Right Franklin?
AARON: Today, they’re taking us on a tour into the mountain range that runs along Oregon’s Coast, creatively named: the Coast Range.
NORM: Whoever says money doesn’t grow on trees wasn’t talking about the Coast Range.
AARON: Out the window are tall, tightly packed Douglas firs. So it’s jarring when Jerry says that what I’m looking at isn’t a forest.
NORM: Jerry wouldn’t call it these forests, right? Jerry?
JERRY: I would not call it a forest, no.
AARON: So right now, I mean I feel like most people would think this is a forest we’re driving through.
JERRY: You’re not, you’re just happened to be driving through a farm in which the crop is a tree. So this bears the same relationship to a forest that a cornfield or a wheatfield bears to a prairie.
AARON: When he says that, I suddenly notice how the trees are all the same. The same species. The same size. And they’re packed in so tight that no light reaches the forest floor, so there’s little growing there but some lonely sword ferns. You almost expect to see the trees planted in rows.
Granted, this is private timberland, but the plan was basically to turn the national forests into plantations like these.
JERRY: This trip is making me mad.
AARON: Why is that?
JERRY: Because this is so wasteful. I mean, these are the most incredibly productive forest lands in the world, and we aren’t realizing that. So as far as wood production is concerned, as far as carbon sequestration is concerned, these lands are wasted. It’s criminal.
AARON: This is how far Jerry has come from that young forester studying how to replace old growth. But he may be one of the few people that gets mad about a tree plantation. Most of us just see them as forests. The same cannot be said, however, about what we come to next: the clear cuts.
NORM: Oh, look at this.
JERRY: Oh, lovely. Keep Oregon green.
AARON: Can one of you describe what we’ve been driving through?
AARON: Maybe with a few more adjectives.
JERRY: Well, we’re looking at a landscape that has been cleared of all trees for 60 to 70 acres immediately in front of us. And it has, all the, there’s no green in it whatsoever.
AARON: I’ve heard clear cuts described as a brown scar, a bombed-out war zone, a moonscape, or, one of my favorites, a plucked chicken. Everything is dead. It makes you feel like you shouldn’t be there.
And each new clear cut we drive by seems bigger than the last. It’s like the logging companies know that the further they get up these lonely winding roads, the more license they have.
JERRY: Just keeps going.
AARON: Because, really, clear cuts like these ignited the Timber Wars.
JERRY: What really got people riled were the Plum Creek clear cuts along Interstate 90, and those were a square mile because it was checkerboard ownership.
AARON: Throughout the 80s, outrage soared over clear cuts. Maybe it was an influx of transplants who didn’t accept them as part of the Northwest way of life, or maybe it was that the clear cuts were getting bigger and closer to cities, or maybe it was the fact that more people were flying and could see the endless patchwork of cutting from the sky. It was getting to the point that the wall of trees logging companies left running along the side of the highway, called beauty strips, couldn’t keep people from noticing that the trees were missing.
AARON: And when, when did you kind of get involved?
JULIE NORMAN: In 1983…
AARON: Julie Norman is a longtime forest activist.
JULIE: I was in the process of retiring from being a whitewater river guide on the Rogue. And I was seeing the clear cuts show up when we were driving back from the end of the trip across the heart of the Siskiyou National Forest. And I started wondering, well, this looks pretty dramatic.
AARON: Like a lot of folks, she started with that outrage, and then began to learn about what we were losing by clear-cutting the old growth. And that meant turning to the newest science.
JULIE: We began to quote Jerry Franklin because he was an esteemed agency person. And so people like him were fantastic and they would be our special guests every time we could get them to talk.
AARON: So they took that newfound knowledge and decided to figure out that thing the Forest Service didn’t want to know: how much old growth was left.
AARON: Yeah, I would love to go through some of this.
JULIE: Okay, let’s start over here.
AARON: When I went to meet Julie at her house in Ashland, she had already lined up a number of big maps glued to poster boards, like she was setting up for a science fair.
JULIE: Grassroots groups from like Bellingham down to Mendocino County went into the Forest Service and used their big scale maps to actually look at the details, to where we could see if the forests were meeting old-growth criteria. And then we mapped the old growth that we found on those big maps into a map like this of one national forest. So you could really get a grasp of what was left.
AARON: What they saw scared them. At the rate we were cutting, it wasn’t going to last much longer. But now, every time a timber sale popped up in one of the shaded areas on their maps, they could appeal the sale, mostly using one of the few laws available to them: the National Environmental Policy Act.
JULIE: And that’s a beautiful law that requires the agencies to do their best science and disclose the impacts that they will anticipate from every action and give the public a chance to give feedback
AARON: And thanks to the work of Jerry and many other scientists, environmentalists now had an arsenal of new research to make the case the government wasn’t using the best science to disclose the impacts of its timber sales.
But it was rough going, because they had to fight the sales one-by-one. And when activists like Julie failed in court, that’s when the Earth First!, direct-action types stepped in, like at the Easter Massacre.
JULIE: The activists would just pour into an area and start protesting. At one time there were maybe five or six people sitting in the top of old growth trees out in the Siskiyou National Forest. Road blockades were being put up, and it wouldn’t stop the sale, but it would publicize it.
AARON: And that publicity convinced the national conservation groups it was finally time to back the cause. So they took the PR campaign national, pumping out pamphlets, glossy photo books, TV specials, and radio ads.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, RADIO AD: It’s time to tell our Congressmen we want a real solution for the ancient forests.]
AARON: Celebrities like Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley joined the fight. It became the leading conservation issue in the country. I mean, I recently found my 6th grade yearbook from my hometown in Colorado and discovered half of the current affairs page was dedicated to old growth. Forget the “New York Times,” this was an issue that was on the radar of the Steamboat Springs Junior High School yearbook team.
For the first time, Americans were starting to see forests as a lot more than just a resource for making houses and toilet paper. And we’ve come so far now, it’s hard to remember that that’s what it used to be like.
JERRY: One of the things, you know, that is particularly wonderful, is not only do people think we’ve always known this, but they’ve lost sight of even where the information came from. It’s general knowledge.
AARON: Yet, despite winning big victories in the court of public opinion, environmentalists, for the most part, continued to lose in the actual courtrooms.
JULIE: The judges here in Oregon were not on our side at all, and they gave a lot of discretion to the agencies.
AARON: And that meant those small, scattered islands of old growth left on their maps? They continued to disappear.
The question was, after completely redefining our understanding of old growth, after scientifically proving its inherent value: what more could they do? That’s next time, on “Timber Wars.”
“Timber Wars” is reported and written by me, Aaron Scott, with editing by Peter Frick-Wright, Robbie Carver, Ed Jahn and David Steves.
This series is produced by me, and Peter and Robbie, of 30 Minutes West.
Our music is from Laura Gibson.
Sound design by Robbie Carver and final mixing by Steven Kray.
Our fact checker is Matt Giles.
Rebecca Morris oversees all things legal.
And our executive producer is Ed Jahn.
Timber Wars is a production of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Please become a sustaining member today at opb.org/pod. Your support means we can keep doing strong, independent journalism.
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