With massive wildfires again putting forests into the national headlines, the Timber Wars are threatening to re-erupt across the West Coast, leaving us to ask: are we fatally divided, or can we overcome our differences and work together?
We tell the story of one group of loggers and environmentalists, the Blue Mountains Forest Partners, who have found some semblance of common ground to manage the forests in a way that’s good for trees and the local economy. Their biggest success was when the lead environmentalist stepped in to save the county’s last saw mill from closing.
Their peace might be tenuous, but we can still learn from it.
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' bonus episode: Big money bought the forest
Episode 7: A way forward transcript
AARON SCOTT, HOST: In September 2020, catastrophic wildfires erupted across the west coast.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, FACE THE NATION, HOST: With more than 33 dead and dozens more missing, there are 62 large fires burning in California, Oregon, and Washington state.]
AARON: Sadly, this is nothing new. It seems every year sets a new record for the biggest fire yet. But this blew that record away.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, GOV. KATE BROWN: Every year for last 10 years, we burn about 500,000 acres.]
AARON: This is Oregon governor Kate Brown on CBS’s Face the Nation.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, BROWN: This year, this week alone, we’ve burned over a million acres of beautiful Oregon.]
AARON: It was devastating to watch while we finished this series, because the fires swept through so many of the places we’ve visited. From the forests around Breitenbush, where we began, to Mill City.
TIM KIRSCH: I want to say about. 9:30, 10 o’clock at night. I started hearing our fire whistle blow off from the in town.
AARON: This is Tim Kirsch, the mayor of Mill City.
TIM: And I’m telling people that are in their driveways, uh, need to pack up and go, or at least be ready to go. And just the, you know, in an instant.
AARON: In some ways, Mill City was lucky. The fire didn’t push far into the city limits. But other towns didn’t share that luck.
[ARCHIVE NEWS MONTAGE:
REPORTER: This was the night of Sept 8th in Talent, Oregon.
REPORTER: This town, Phoenix, Oregon, about 4600 people also seemed to get out.
REPORTER: An inferno of flames as the Beachie Creek fire tore through the small town of Gates.]
AARON: Even before the flames went out, the fight erupted about what, or who, was to blame. A fight that went up to the highest levels.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, REPORTER: President Trump renewed his stance Monday that California’s wildfire crisis is due to the mismanagement of California’s forest and not connected to climate change.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well I think this is more of a management situation.]
AARON: On the other side, Trump’s challenger, former vice president Joe Biden, focused on that thing Trump refuses to acknowledge.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, JOE BIDEN: If you give a climate arsonist four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised if we have more of America ablaze?]
AARON: So… if you’re wondering what ever happened to the timber wars? How did they end? Well, the answer is, they didn’t.
AARON: Over the past 25 years, the Timber Wars have evolved from a fight about what to do with old growth, into a fight about what to do with the entire forest. And the stakes have only gotten greater, because now we understand that these forests are central to the fate of our planet’s climate. So with two sides dug in, and time running out to make changes that’ll have any effect, what do you do? How do you build a bridge if it keeps burning down?
From Oregon Public Broadcasting, I’m Aaron Scott. And this is Timber Wars.
BOYD BRITTON: Hello? Hello Aaron. How are you?
AARON: I’m doing well. How are you Boyd?
BOYD: I’m well, I hope I don’t come off too much like a hillbilly.
AARON: I, you know, we want to reflect people in whatever state they’re in. So...
BOYD: So are you telling me I sound like a hillbilly?
AARON: This is Boyd Britain. He used to own a welding shop that did work for a lot of the logging companies and mills in Eastern Oregon’s Grant County. I had to reach him by phone though, because he recently retired to Arizona.
BOYD: I got my great big uh, belt buckle on right now. So, uh, you know, you can just picture that in your mind.
AARON: Grant County is covered in dry forests of Ponderosa Pine, running along the slopes of the gently rolling Blue Mountains. Historically, logging was so big that Les Schwab started his tire empire here outfitting all the loggers and saw mills. But then all that changed.
BOYD: The timber industry was just struggling horribly, horribly. We were losing mills, we were losing our greatest natural resource in which was our people. They were leaving because there was no work.
AARON: Remember how President Clinton’s Northwest Forest Plan was supposed to provide enough timber to keep the loggers logging and the mills milling? Yeah? Well, it didn’t work out that way. Environmental protests and court challenges continued to lock up the forests.
BOYD: There was all kinds of environmental stuff going on and everybody was, uh, hating each other. it got, it got really, really nasty.
AARON: Things got so contentious in Grant County, Boyd ran for county commissioner in 2002 to try and calm everyone down. Boyd won on a platform of civility, and the next year, he headed to a meeting to discuss the region’s forest plan.
BOYD: I go there with some of the timber guys and you know, probably 15, 20 people in this meeting and plus the forest service people and they’re talking about what’s going on. And there’s this lady in the back and you know, she’s has some things to say. And I asked Dan Bishop, I goes, well, who the hell is it? And he goes, well that’s Susan Jane Brown. She’s the one who kicks our butt in court all the time. So me being the shy type person that I am, I went up and said, Susan Jane, my name’s Boyd Britton, we need to talk.
SUSAN JANE BROWN: And he was flanked by a bunch of big burly loggers, and said, you know, Hey, I hear you’re the attorney that’s kicking our butt in court, and that’s not working for my community. It’s not working for me.
AARON: Susan Jane Brown is an attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center. She lives in Portland, but she’d head to Grant County to appeal timber sales in the Malheur National Forest. Which wasn’t a comfortable place to be an environmentalist.
SUSAN JANE : I certainly was concerned about my safety at that times. Uh, I had been run out of town before, had been tailgated by pickup trucks, I’ve had air let out of my tires, you know, that sort of thing.
AARON: So that’s what’s going through her mind when this guy with his big belt buckle and even bigger mustache walks up to her. So his proposal took her by surprise.
SUSAN JANE: we really want to bring you out there, and we want to bring you out to the forest, and I’ll make sure to bring you back. Which was very kind of him.
AARON: Bring you back. It was a joke. Because both sides knew just how uncomfortable it might be for a young woman environmentalist to go out into the woods with a bunch of loggers whose timber she’d shut down.
SUSAN JANE: But I was willing to give it a shot. I mean, I’m, I’m pretty much willing to talk to anybody who wants to have a conversation and is respectful about it.
AARON: Susan Jane might’ve been just one woman in the woods, but she was anything but powerless. After President Clinton’s NW Forest Plan in 1994, Republicans had countered with a salvage logging rider that opened up large swaths of old growth to a year of heavy logging. But then, the tide reversed again. And this was a bit of an accident, caused by something Clinton’s team added to the plan called “Survey and Manage.”
SUSAN JANE: So it requires that whenever you go out and do timber harvest, particularly in old growth stands, you have to look, you have to survey for rare and sensitive species and some of those species, when you find them, you got to buffer them.
AARON: Remember how much loggers hated the spotted owl? Well, Survey and Manage gave environmentalists all kinds of critters to use in court, just like the spotted owl. We’re talking red tree voles, five kinds of salamanders, and 46 species of snails and slugs.
JERRY FRANKLIN: It became the basis for litigating every single proposed timber sale.
AARON: Which is why Jerry Franklin also hated Survey and Manage. Remember, he’s the scientist who helped create the Northwest Forest Plan. The plan was groundbreaking because it created reserves where viable populations of all these species could live. That way we didn’t have to worry about what creatures lived in the areas open to logging. But with Survey and Manage, here we were back to counting individual species, everywhere.
JERRY: You put up a timber sale, you’re gonna face lawsuits. It just became a constant nightmare.
AARON: The overall effect was that environmentalists managed to take pretty much all the old growth off the table in western Oregon and Washington. The Forest Service basically stopped even trying to sell it. and Logging in federal forests dropped 80 to 90 percent.
But environmentalists didn’t stop there. With ancient forests in spotted owl territory protected, folks like Susan Jane set their eyes on the forests to the east of the Cascade Mountains. They weren’t part of the Northwest Forest Plan, but they had a similar plan to protect big trees. And environmentalists set about fighting salvage logging, which still got an easy pass back then, because it meant cutting trees that were damaged from things like insects or fire.
SUSAN JANE: We filed a number of lawsuits that challenged all of that salvage logging and, uh, we won our cases. And so as a result, the forest was really shut down.
AARON: So that’s where things stood when Susan Jane headed out to Grant County and loaded into a small bus with Boyd and some local loggers. Over the course of three days, they visited the national forests that Susan Jane had locked up, and then private forests to show her how things looked when folks could log selectively. Boyd’s central argument was that forests need to be managed. And management means chainsaws.
BOYD: Timber is a crop and it grows back. That’s one of the wonderful things about it. And that’s one of the things that the uh, the local people who are just so up in arms about, we, we’ve got to be able to, you know, start taking care of it by cutting it.
AARON: Susan Jane, however, was not convinced.
SUSAN JANE: And so it was highly emotional. Um, not that anybody screamed and yelled and stomped off or, you know, send me names or anything like that. But it was clearly a lot of emotion on all sides.
AARON: Nonetheless, by the end of the three days, Boyd asked to keep the conversation going. And Susan Jane agreed. They started holding meetings in the back room of a local restaurant. Boyd would invite folks from the community, and Susan Jane would bring some of the environmentalists she worked with. And In 2006, They made things official by starting a forest collaborative group named: the Blue Mountains Forest Partners. But a name was about all they could agree on.
SUSAN JANE: Whenever we were together it was a pretty clear line of demarcation, and the environmentalist were on one side of the room and the timber industry was on the other side of the room and the forest service just kind of stand in the middle like what do you want us to do?
AARON: Let’s talk about the Forest Service for a second, because by the time Susan Jane and Boyd started meeting, the agency wasn’t quite the same thing it used to be. Up until the mid 90s, the Forest Service was mostly seen as a friend of the logging industry, working hand in hand to get the cut out. But during the Clinton administration, it started to change. For the first time, a biologist, Jack Ward Thomas, was running the Forest Service, and he began to fill the ranks with other scientists. To shift the agency from timber management to ecosystem management. But a lot of the timber old guard was still there, so pretty soon the Forest Service itself was an agency divided. And now neither side trusted it.
MARK WEBB: We couldn’t talk to one another. Uh, it was, it was that bad, almost that poisonous.
AARON: This is Mark Webb. He’s a bit of a philosopher-woodsman. He’s got a PhD in philosophy from Notre Dame, and he works on the side as a contract tree cutter. He joined the collaborative a couple years into the process when he was the Grant County Judge. It’s an elected position that essentially heads the county commission.
MARK; I characterize it as a multicultural conversation really. We say the same word, but we have different connotations. So we’re speaking past one another and it takes a lot of work to pin that down.
AARON: It wasn’t just that they had two different meanings for words like ‘healthy forest.’ They actually saw two very different things, even when they looked at the same patch of trees.
SUSAN JANE: I did at the time approach things with what we call West side eyes. You know, if you live on the West side and you’re used to the Douglas fir/hemlock forests, and they’re dense and they’re big and they’re wet. You come out here and it’s, it’s not that. It’s very dry. It’s supposed to be open. You’re supposed to have Ponderosa pine and larch and maybe a little Doug fir, so looking at some of these stands, and I was like, Oh no, it looks kind of okay to me. Um, where the local folks were like, this is so unacceptable.
AARON: To locals’ eyes, the forests were overgrown. Which means full of fuel, waiting to go up in flames. So before they could find common ground, they needed to figure out how to see and talk about the forest in a shared way. And that involved two things.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
JAMES JOHSTON: Let’s hike until we…
SUSAN JANE: See something else?
AARON: In August of 2019, I went along on one of the Blue Mountains Forest Partners monthly field trips. Because their first breakthrough was the realization that they needed to get out of meeting rooms and into the woods.
VICKY SAAB: It’s really beautiful isn’t it?
SUSAN JANE: Being out in the woods is, um, not abstract. If you’re in a room talking about, Oh, well we should cut these trees versus those trees, it’s pretty abstract. If you’re out in the woods, you’re all looking at the same thing, you can actually touch the tree that you would want to log or you wanted to protect.
AARON: The second thing they did was both sides committed to following the science. So they invited experts to tour the forests with them and talk about what exactly makes a forest healthy.
JAMES: Kind of why we’re in this area. It allows you to take in a lot of stuff.
AARON: Today’s tour in the Malheur National Forest is being led by the ecologist James Johnston.
JAMES: And here I’m channeling our good friends, Norm Johnson and Jerry Franklin: first focus on protecting and nurturing the big old trees. Which usually involves, you know, aggressively thinning younger trees around them.
AARON: Following the science gave them a shared language to talk about the forest. But it was also dangerous. Because It meant both sides had to be willing to change their beliefs.
SUSAN JANE: That may mean that I’m going to have to get okay with logging more trees. It may mean that the community has to get okay with more fire on the landscape.
AARON: The scientists agreed with the locals: these forests were overgrown, although it was more from suppressing fires than not logging. So the collaborative worked with the Forest Service to design projects that focused on using both logging and prescribed fire to remove a lot of the small trees and clear out the duff and underbrush. The idea is that it makes the forest more resilient to wildfire, drought and climate change. They started out small, but slowly worked their way up to bigger projects.
JAMES: still more to see. One more stop. Want to keep moving?
SARAH JANE: yeah
AARON: Today we’re touring a couple of those sites, and the surprising thing is, now you hear the environmentalists saying, yeah, chainsaws.
PAM HARDY: I like the fact that the thinning units that are done by chainsaw that we can actually go through and actually have an influence on how the species composition comes out,
AARON: Pam Hardy is one of Susan Jane’s colleagues.
PAM: Because I think there’s good evidence that the species composition has gotten way out of whack compared to where we were historically. And also compare it to what this land is going to be able to support into the future.
AARON: If you don’t speak ecologist: They were starting to agree. These dry, east side forests need to be managed. But there was still an issue that was too hot to touch: salvage logging after a fire. It came to a head six years into the collaboration. The Parish Cabin Fire burned more than 7,000 acres in the Malheur National Forest. So the collaborative toured the area. They walked through the burnt trees, the smell of charred wood still hanging in the air. then they circled up at the side of the road to see if they could find some agreement on what to do.
SUSAN JANE: And so the conversation sort of, you know, started along kind of calm. And then it got a little bit more heated and folks were not careful with their language.
AARON: For environmentalists, ever since actions like the Warner Creek Blockade, burned forests had become essential ecosystems. In particular, there was fear that too much salvage logging could endanger several types of woodpeckers, that live in these dead trees.
SUSAN JANE: And it finally got to the point where, uh, there were, uh, colleagues of mine in the conservation community who were really pretty, uh, strident in their view that, you know, salvage logging really was the devil.
AARON: But to timber communities, salvage logging was a saving grace. Those trees are dead. So you either log them quickly, or they rot, and the local economy rots with them.
MARK: both sides actually were pretty entrenched.
AARON: This is County Judge Mark Webb again. And he had an idea. He had been reading about a biologist who was looking into the impacts of salvage logging on woodpeckers. And he thought: this is somewhere they could follow the science.
MARK: We could develop a research salvage around a woodpecker study. And it would allow us to actually see if there wasn’t some way that active management, if it didn’t facilitate ecologically important habitats, maybe didn’t destroy them as bad or impact them as bad. And so that was the point that I tried to get into that conversation. And it was just shut down in a heartbeat. Nobody was going there, either the environmentalists or industry.
AARON: Here they were, six years into the collaboration, and no one was willing to budge. To Mark, that felt like failure.
SUSAN JANE: Mark walked away and got in his rig and left. That was that.
MARK: yeah, and I walked away because I just thought after six, seven fricking years, we can’t talk about this and I’m done with it.
AARON: Mark was ready to go back to the status quo and fight it out. And he wasn’t the only one who walked away over the years. A lot of people on both sides did. But Boyd in particular was effective in getting locals to return.
BOYD BRITTON: One of the arguments that some of the guys were telling me, well, you know, we’ve given this, we gave up this and gave up this. Okay, you have. But listen, if we don’t engage them, we’re done. I think desperation, more so than my rhetoric or anything like that, is what convinced these folks to come along.
AARON: After almost two years, Mark came back. But by then, the group’s internal dynamics were only part of the problem. There was also pushback from the community. You have to understand, the people of Grant County do not trust big government. They voted to ban the United Nations in 2002 and have tried to gain control of federal land. So it’s no surprise locals hated even the hint that environmentalists from the west side of Oregon could dictate their fate. As county judge, Mark took most of the heat.
MARK: Uh, I was in office just one term. A big reason is because of my involvement with the collaborative, uh, that was clearly communicated to me. And so there’s been a lot of pushback. Um, I’m considered an enviro. So it is fun to see some of the emails where I’m grouped with the radical enviros. And if I could, I would be out cutting the big trees that we’re not allowed to cut because that’s what I like to do.
AARON: But what Mark and the rest of the group didn’t know is that the county was on the verge of a massive crisis. And it was going to make or break their collaborative.
That’s coming up.
[SOUNDS OF SAW MILL]
AARON: This is the sound of the Malheur Lumber saw mill in John Day, the biggest town in Grant County. It’s the timber equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine: logs go in; perfectly milled 2x4′s come out. Bruce Daucsavage is the president of the company that owns the mill. And he wasn’t an early fan of the collaborative.
BRUCE DAUCSAVAGE: And so the first reaction was we’re gonna fight ya until we’re the last sawmill standing. Unfortunately, we pretty much are the last sawmill standing.
AARON: Before the Timber Wars, there were around 40 mills across Eastern Oregon. By Bruce’s count, now there are a dozen. And by 2012, Malheur Lumber was the last one left in Grant County, and it was running on sawdust.
BRUCE: We had run out of supply. I actually announced in the newspaper a 90-day notice that we can’t continue on.
AARON: They were the biggest private employer in the county, and they’d have to lay off nearly 100 workers.
SUSAN JANE: I remember, I was actually on a backpacking trip and the Sierras, and I came out of the wilderness, and I was all blissed out coming out of the Sierras and feeling like John Muir, and I checked my voicemail.
AARON: Susan Jane had a message from one of the mill employees she knew through the collaborative. He said the mill was closing. So she called him back.
SUSAN JANE: I was like, this is not okay. I spent pretty much the whole trip home thinking about what are we going to do because if the mill closes that this community just dries up and blows away. It’s really the mainstay of what’s keeping this community alive.
AARON: But it wasn’t just the community. Susan Jane realized the mill was also keeping the collaborative alive.
SARAH JANE: Because even, I mean, even if the community could persist, there’s no mill to process the, the byproduct of our restoration work.
AARON: The timber they thinned paid for the rest of their work.
SUSAN JANE: And at that point, you know, there is no other place to take it. And so we were, we were going to be done if that mill closes.
AARON: So she started making phone calls. She got Oregon Senator Ron Wyden’s office involved. She roped in other conservation groups like the Nature Conservancy and Sustainable Northwest. And she got Bruce and the county’s biggest loggers on board.
BRUCE: We met in Portland and unbeknownst to me, I thought it was going to be just a couple of us. I believe there were 40 people in the room. There were people on the phone talking about how we can keep the mill open and still meet these goals.
SUSAN JANE: And, uh, I was like, all right, well here’s the blueprint. Here’s an idea of what we can do. And it was multifaceted. Um, and really, yeah, everybody needed to bring their A game. Forest Service like yup, count us in. We’re going to give you more money. We’re going, you know, up our accelerated restoration footprint on this forest to keep the mill open.
AARON: The result was what’s called a 10-year stewardship contract. It guaranteed that the Forest Service would pay for a certain amount of restoration work for 10 years, ensuring a sustained level of logging.
BRUCE: I think that’s when I really looked at Susan Jane and cause she was, she was putting her neck out on the line from her side because she was actually, uh, being presented as more of a moderate. And I’m sure she had plenty of feedback from people that were winning the battle.
AARON: Susan Jane did get pushback. She still gets it. But she wasn’t the only one.
BRUCE: A lot of my friends in the industry said, you’ve gone to the dark side, this will never work. And my response was, I don’t think it’s the dark side, it’s a little gray. Uh, but what is, what are my alternatives? And I gotta tell you, I’m learning something more about the forest than just harvesting trees
AARON: But whatever shade of gray the agreement lives in, the economic results were black and white. The logging company Iron Triangle won the contract and doubled its staff from around 50 to more than 100. The Forest Service office also staffed up by dozens of positions. All told, the contract supported more than 250 jobs a year.
BRUCE: Susan Jane, she’s my hero. She saved help save a lot of jobs.
AARON: So, a sawmill saved and one of the biggest forest restoration projects yet in one fell swoop. That’s a huge marker of success for collaboration. But there’s another major marker: there hasn’t been a single timber sale lawsuit since the group started.
BRUCE: That’s unheard of. So you know, it’s, it’s like we all have to suffer in order to become better. We know that anger doesn’t get you what you want. Compromise does.
AARON: Of course, I don’t want to imply everything’s perfect. The 10 year stewardship contract has fallen short on some of its goals, both environmentally and economically. But the process, the collaboration, is the kind of success that social scientists and policy-makers fly out to study.
So let’s look at what went into their success: First, the industry had to hit rock bottom before being willing to come to the table and to settle for less timber. Second, they went outside, so they could literally touch the trees they were talking about and find a shared language. Third, there was the commitment to following the science. If there was something they disagreed on, they created a research project so they could figure it out together.
MARK: Two things I would add would be a level of humility,
AARON: Former county judge Mark Webb. Who’s now the executive director of the collaborative.
MARK: By which I mean, an ability of the participants to recognize they probably got things wrong in the past and be able to admit that. And also a willingness to take risk, based on a shared understanding, driven by the shared decision space in science.
AARON: It’s that willingness to adapt and take risks that Susan Jane sees as essential to confronting the challenges ahead.
SUSAN JANE: We’re not fighting the old wars anymore. There are new battles. Uh, we need to deal with climate change. We need to deal with putting more fire on the ground. Um, and, and we can’t do that in the way that we used to.
AARON: But none of those things happen without trust. And that comes from the final ingredient: just being able to hang out together.
SUSAN JANE: And then, yeah, the collaborative that drinks together stays together, um, which makes it sound like a bunch of alcoholics, but, um, it, it really is that off line conversation. It’s, it’s the opportunity to, um, you know, take off your hard hat and be a human. Um, and it allows us to, to, you know, have some fun together.
AARON: It started by heading to the bar after their meetings. But eventually, Susan Jane was spending so much time in Grant County that she and her husband built a house here, and now they often host dinners after monthly meetings.
[SOUNDS OF A GATHERING]
MARK: Need enviros in here.
UNIDENTIFIED: more appropriate to do spotted owl calls. Hoo hoo.
SARAH JANE: Is that a spotted owl?]
AARON: The night I was there, there was a woodpecker pinata made by researchers who were just finishing up that science Mark wanted to do around salvage logging and woodpeckers.
[SARAH JANE: I think Mark should go first.
MARK: it’s made out of dead trees.]
AARON: This is the takeaway that feels so important. Because now, even in the face of things like catastrophic wildfire, this group of loggers and environmentalists have become friends.
[MARK: Am I going to hit anybody?]
AARON: And yes, it’s tenuous, it could fall apart at any time, but after you’ve worked together to save a mill, and you’ve watched each other’s kids grow up, it’s that much harder to just give up and fall into the old battle lines.
SUSAN JANE: you know, in 2003 had you asked me if I ever would have felt this way about any of these people or owned a house in grant County for heaven sakes. No way, man. There’s just no way. These people are crazy. Um, but now they’re my crazy. Um, and they’re my friends. I care about them. You know, when the mill was going to close, I was just like, I can’t, I can’t, I mean, my friends are gonna lose their jobs and just like any friendship, you want your friends to be happy and healthy and successful. And now that these folks are my friends, that’s what I want for them. And that’s what they want for me. I have no doubt about that.
AARON: Of course, one successful collaboration doesn’t end the Timber Wars. And in some ways, this whole story is a tragedy. Logging isn’t the way of life it used to be, and many of the forests environmentalists fought to save are burning up in wildfires. Things aren’t looking good for the northern spotted owl, either. It’s getting pushed out of what’s left of its territory by an invading owl, and many scientists don’t think it’s going to make it.
But remember, the owl was a stand in for the old growth. And there’s still old growth left. That likely wouldn’t have been the case if no one had done the science, filed the lawsuits, and blockaded the logging roads.
Economically, while a third of former timber towns are worse off, a third have stayed the same. And another third of those towns are better off than before. In large part, that’s because they managed to play off the beauty of the forests around them to attract tourism, recreation, and new businesses.
In other words, the forests and small towns that make the northwest the exquisite place it is, they are proof that not everything was lost. And that’s important to remember.
The story of the Timber Wars is the story of a paradigm shift, and this year more than any other, we’re seeing crisis after crisis put enormous stress on the fundamental systems we take for granted. Healthcare, the justice system, the political process, even capitalism itself: it’s like they’re hitting their own last-of-the-old-growth moments, where the longer we wait to redesign the way we do things, the more painful it’s going to be.
So in trying to figure out how to move forward, what can we learn from the past?
[ARCHIVE CLIP, NARRATOR: The actual felling of a tree begins with the making of a scaffold. Then they begin their cutting.]
The forests of the Pacific Northwest are the most productive in the world. They’re one of the greatest natural resources on this planet.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, NARRATOR: So down they come. Trees that are so big that more than 20 houses can be made from just one tree.]
AARON: But now, with climate change, trees serve an even bigger purpose. Letting young trees grow into old trees is one of the best ways to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. Clear-cutting those trees, or losing them to catastrophic fires, is one of the fastest ways to release it.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, NARRATOR: Thousands of years ago they were to be found throughout Europe and Asia. They grew in countries that are now cold, but were at one time warm.]
AARON: Running out of old growth shouldn’t have taken anyone by surprise. And climate science is just as clear. The lesson of the Timber Wars, I think, is that you have to adapt without leaving people behind. Or they’ll fight so hard you get change but no progress.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, NARRATOR: For most people, a job like this would seem too dangerous, but then logging is a hard and dangerous work. And these men take pride in their strength and courage.]
AARON: If the Timber Wars cut a trail through the forest, it was a dead end. So now it’s time to chart a new path, or we risk never finding our way out.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, NARRATOR: But the journey will not be quick, simple, or easy.]
AARON: Before we go: In this series, we chose to focus mostly on the conflict over national forests. But while the folks on the ground were fighting over trees versus jobs, the big timber corporations continue to make huge profits logging private lands, despite employing fewer people and paying much less back to the local communities. My OPB colleague Tony Schick teamed up with the Oregonian and ProPublica for an incredible series of investigative stories, that, if you’re interested in this issue, you have to read. You can find them at opb.org/specialreports/timberwars, and we’ll be bringing you one or two bonus episodes with his reporting on this, as well as a look into another one of the issues we didn’t get to explore: what role does forest management play in wildfire. This is where the next big fight is going to be, and, well, it’s surprising, to say the least.
And if you really want a deep dive into all of OPB’s reporting on this issue, please sign up for our Timber Wars newsletter, at opb.org/timberwars. While you’re there, on the Listen Timber Wars page, you can also find a reading list of many of the books and research papers we drew on for this series.
Timber Wars is written and reported by me, Aaron Scott, with editing from Peter Frick-Wright, Robbie Carver, David Steves and Ed Jahn.
Huge thanks to Peter and Robbie, who produced this series with me. Without them, I’d probably still be on episode three.
Our original music is by the singer-songwriter Laura Gibson. To me, her music has always captured the landscape of the Northwest, so it was an honor to have her score this series.
Sound design by Robbie Carver.
Mastering by Steven Kray.
Fact checking by Matt Giles.
Legal oversight by Rebecca Morris.
Marketing and publicity by Jennifer McCormick and Lauren Elkanich.
Research help from Erin Ross.
Our editor is David Steves and our executive producer is Ed Jahn. This series would not have happened without their unwavering support.
A good chunk of our archival footage came from NPR, and from the KEZI-TV Chambers Communication Corporation collection at the University of Oregon Libraries. Thanks to Jenna Molster, Nathan Georgitis & Lauren Goss for helping us access it all. Other footage came from CBS, C-Span, KATU, KDRV-TV, KPTV, NBC, the New York Times, PBS Newshour, “Pickaxe: The Cascadia Free State Story,” and the Prelinger Archive.
There are a lot of people to thank, but I want to begin with everyone who spoke with me, who invited me into their homes and shared their stories. Seriously, thank you.
Thanks also to the NPR Story Lab Program, which was instrumental in helping us develop this series. Huge gratitude to Michael May, Adelina Lancianese, and Sam Leeds for running the program, and to our mentors Cara Tallo, Matt Ozug, and Katie Daugert, for taking time from the insane cycle of breaking news to sit with us in the woods. Virtually speaking.
Thanks to all my colleagues at OPB who supported this series in all sorts of ways. Frankly, there’s too many of you to list, but I hope you know who you are.
And finally, thanks to you. This series was only possible because of all the members at OPB. Your support means that we can take these deep dives into our region’s history. So if you liked this series and you’re not a member yet, please head to opb.org/pod right now. As soon as the music ends, join. That’s opb.org/pod. And thank you for listening.