OPB today announced the upcoming launch of “Timber Wars,” a new podcast that takes a close look at the history, impact and consequences of the fight over Pacific Northwest forests that began a generation ago and continues today.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the northern spotted owl’s listing as a threatened species. In 1990, environmentalists claimed the reclusive bird as their legal mascot in a longshot effort to stop the clear-cutting of the final available stands of the tallest, densest forests in the world.
At its peak, this conflict prompted President Clinton, Vice President Gore and half of their cabinet to take part in an unprecedented meeting among adversaries in Portland. The result was the historic Northwest Forest Plan, which protected millions of acres of forest, but also stripped many small towns of their jobs and dignity, and further entrenched the rural/urban divide.
“Timber Wars” is a seven-part podcast series that is reported and hosted by OPB Science & Environment Producer Aaron Scott, whose stories have appeared on NPR, “Radiolab” and “This American Life.” It is created in collaboration with 30 Minutes West, who produced “Bundyville,” “Outside Podcast” and “Cat People;” along with NPR’s Story Lab. Original music is composed by Laura Gibson, a nationally acclaimed singer-songwriter who grew up in the Oregon logging town of Coquille.
It tells the behind-the-scenes story of how a small group of activists and scientists turned the fight over ancient trees and a bird that no one had heard about into one of the biggest environmental conflicts of the 20th century.
In an engaging narrative, Scott explores the many ways this fight over the forest reshaped not just the Northwest, but the nation as a whole. The battle transformed the very way we think about forests. It also divided the nation, turning environmental conflicts into culture wars.
“Timber Wars” episodes include:
Episode 1: The Last Stand
When loggers headed into the forest on Easter Sunday in 1989, they found a line of protesters blocking the road. The battle that ensued would change lives on both sides, help catapult old-growth forests into a national issue, and become known as the “Easter Sunday Massacre.”
Episode 2: The Forest
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 tree farms. We see forests very differently today. How did things change so quickly? It started with a bunch of contrarian scientists in an Oregon forest.
Episode 3: The Owl
Depending on who you are, the northern spotted owl is either the hero of this story, or the villain. And the Endangered Species Act is either an incredible conservation shield, or the hammer used to smash rural economies. But those beliefs miss the fact that it was a single sentence in an entirely different law that locked up the forests. We tell the unlikely story of how a reclusive bird halted the march of chainsaws.
Episode 4: The Town
Mill City was one of dozens of flourishing timber towns, where a job in the woods could support a good life. But the protestors and the court cases upended that, leaving locals to ask: who’s the true threatened species here?
Episode 5: The Plan
The Timber Wars grew so hot that one of President Clinton’s first acts in office was to fly half his cabinet to Portland to resolve the conflict. From a Capitol Hill bathroom-turned-office to a presidential lunch buffet, we tell the behind-the-scenes story of the most sweeping conservation plan in U.S. history: the Northwest Forest Plan.
Episode 6: The Backlash
Before the Northwest Forest Plan had a chance to succeed, Congress threw it out the window. With old growth back on the cutting block, the fight to defend it grew both more mainstream and more violent, seeding the tactics for many conflicts to come.
Episode 7: The Collaboration
Is the Northwest fatally divided, or can we overcome our differences to work together? We tell the story of one group of loggers and environmentalists who have found some semblance of common ground. But it didn’t come easy. And no one knows how long it’ll last.
Accompanying the podcast, OPB will release an 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. Subscribe to this special newsletter series here.
OPB’s deep coverage of Northwest forests and timber extends beyond the “Timber Wars” podcast. Earlier this summer, OPB launched a series of investigative reports in partnership with The Oregonian/OregonLive and the ProPublica Local Reporting Network that examines the state of today’s Oregon’s timber market.
It is now dominated by Wall Street investment groups bearing little resemblance to yesterday’s home state lumber barons. In the 30 years since logging slowed on national forests and the timber economy collapsed, jobs disappeared and Mills closed. However, forestry is still a money maker for those at the top.
Part one of this investigative series examines how Wall Street investment funds took control of Oregon’s private forests, and now wealthy timber corporations reap the benefits of tax cuts that have cost rural counties billions.
The second installment takes a deep look at how a tax-funded, public institute in Oregon that was created to educate people about forestry has acted as a public-relations agency and lobbying arm for Oregon’s timber industry.
Additional stories in this series will follow in the coming weeks.
Contributors to the investigation are OPB Reporter Tony Schick, Oregonian/OregonLive Reporter Rob Davis, and Lylla Younes and Maya Miller of ProPublica. Editing for the project is provided by David Steves of OPB, Laura Gunderson of The Oregonian/OregonLive and Zahira Torres of ProPublica. Photography is provided by Beth Nakamura of The Oregonian/OregonLive.