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Forests Forever: An Idea Still Waiting Its Time

To the polite, almost rhythmic applause that characterizes European audiences, I accepted the Palme D'Or for best documentary at the Cannes Film Festival for my film “Logging.”

That was the plan, anyway.

Never happened.

I did write a script and shoot forty hours of film in the mountains and valleys, winter and summer. I had grabbed the funding when an unexpected piece of cash showed up in a government coffer. The script worked its way through my superiors at the California Department of Water Resources, but when it got to the California Department of Forestry they said no way. I walked on my knees from Red Bluff to Sacramento, flagellating myself bloody, and prostrated myself before the Lords of the Resources Agency — oh so progressive under then-Gov. Jerry Brown — but they said no way. To suggest that any logging anywhere was imperfect was to suggest that CDF was not omnipotent and all good.

The movie didn't indict CDF. It didn't indict anybody. It just showed good logging and bad logging and the consequences of each. It was dramatic and beautiful, even the ugly parts, huge trees toppling, thudding on the ground with a grunt, almost, as if they were World Wrestling Federation guys hitting the canvas; weird monster helicopters, like space creatures, picking up the sectioned logs and whisking them off to trucks; blood-red sunsets behind forested ridges, haul roads dissolving before your eyes under winter rains that fell like bullets, leaving a gorge where there had been a road last summer, the silt washed down to the river, making a desert where salmon used to spawn in the watery gravels; college kids, dusty and deeply tanned, working like slaves replanting hillsides and chanelling water courses so they wouldn't carve out the land; ships carrying fresh-cut redwood and Doug-fir loads to Japan. It had everything. My department had state-of-the-art movie stuff. I asked Redford to narrate it, but it never got that far. I pinched ten minutes of choice footage and took it home. That was that.

My kids were grown and flown now. I didn't need steady income, so I left the Department of Water Resources — and my lost project — and came to the coast. I had two things on my mind: logging and offshore oil.

I got deeply into the offshore oil battle and felt satisfied when federal officials fled the Eagles Hall in Fort Bragg, wearing I Survived the Offshore Oil Hearing T-shirts and timid, exhausted grins, protected from the heckling throngs by a phalanx of fairminded people who formed a human-walled walkway for them to beat it to their gray Fords with US government plates. It was the biggest crowd of people and media in Ft. Bragg since time began. The oil people will be back, and we'll have to do it all again, but it was good.

In 1988 or so I was working for the Census Bureau, driving to houses to verify names and addresses for the upcoming 1990 census. When I got to Navarro, John Lewallen dashed out of his house and said excitedly, “I've got the answer to the logging problem!” His answer was to raise the necessary millions with a state bond issue and buy all the timberlands, so they could be run sensibly for the enrichment of the people, the state general fund and the environment instead of for bloated profits to Texas and Georgia corporations and the inevitable ruin that comes from doing the least possible to mitigate the environmental effects of industrial logging.

John was right, then and now. I called CDF. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, as it's now called, has people in the field who do basically what the loggers want. They're under the threat of intimidation or worse from the loggers and instructions from their superiors to interfere as little as possible with the making of money and falling of trees.

But in Sacramento, CDF is removed from the field, and the college guys there who formulate policy and write the studies have a more eco-friendly attitude. These were the ones I talked to, and they were excited by John's idea. They said the state was in good financial shape for such a bond issue. It would be a big one but not the biggest, and the scheme could be made to work. These guys were not the pricks that shot down my logging film (those were political hacks, impersonating public servants), and I took their advice back to John, to Howard Seidell of Albion and to Bill Mannix, an old logger who came here when the forests went on forever and who was in grief at what he helped start and what we've done since — flattened the beautiful and necessary woods, the lungs and reservoirs of the planet. Thus began Forests Forever.

We four tramped all over the state, pitching our idea. It stalled when people heard “eminent domain.” Eminent domain is government's right to buy your property for a road or a school — or some other pressing public purpose — whether you want to sell or not. It's how all public works get done, but private-property fans consider it the devil's handiwork, and it still irritates me to report that our bold north-state environmentalists, not yet infused with Judi Bari's defiance and guts, were not bold at all; they were too timid to get behind it because they couldn't say the words “eminent domain” without their knees turning weak.

Ladies and gentlemen, my face is not scarred from fisticuffs, my nose not broken. My hands are not hammy, my knuckles not enlarged from pounding my adversaries' skullbones.

But I have to tell you that it is one of the sadnesses of my life, how bloody chicken we are, most of the time. We find the Bill of Rights too radical!

Instead, less visionary people took Forests Forever away from us, and nothing much happened. 

On another front, a bunch of people convened — endlessly — to hammer out a set of timber-harvest rules for Mendocino County. They had timber-industry people and forest-management specialists and great brains and maturity and patience, and they did it! They made a superb set of rules that satisfied none of them and were thus a classy compromise of all their interests. They worked for years. One of their best fell asleep and drove into a tree after a particularly gruelling but productive session. Killed himself. 

The California Board of Forestry, a wealthy white panel in Sacramento, appointed by the governor du jour from among his lists of rich and generous patrons, having the final word in matters concerning California's forests (and, usually, zero practical knowledge), killed it as swiftly and brutally as that tree killed that man. Santa Cruz County, with just the ghost of a timber industry and with lots of money, has great timber-harvest rules, but when we tried to get some, Mendocino was still number two (after Humboldt County) in state timber production, and the industry moguls had too much influence in Sacramento.

(Civics lesson: That's partly why the United States is a federalist system. When there's too much influence opposing needed change back home, enough to block it, you take the problem to Washington, where your local bigshots and gunslingers don't loom over anybody, and you get it fixed there. It's still a fine scheme, and if Washington ever emerges from the sewer it's in now, it will work again.)

Anyway, now the woods will grow again. Much logging damage will heal, some quickly, some agonizingly slowly, but it will heal because trees like to grow and at the moment our timber stocks are so depleted, Big Timber is symbolized by GP's empty mill in Fort Bragg. For the most part the forests are getting a breather here.

Something else was happening during all this. When I jumped into the offshore oil battle, the Mendocino Greens were a casually organized but mightily focused bunch of locals who did extraordinary work on a number of environmental fronts. Then the Green movement spread until it became an official state party, and the Mendocino Greens were subsumed into the larger organization. It was a sad day. The statewide party became corrupt and mostly ineffective immediately. The Mendocino branch of the party, seasoned and savvy, kept working, especially with the help of Betty and Gary Ball at the Mendocino Environmental Center in Ukiah, but it wasn't — and isn't — what it used to be.

As for Judi Bari, I'll leave the endless argument over who and what she was to you, but you have to know this about her and Earth First! and all militant organizations, whatever their mission and wherever they are, including mad Muslims who fly into New York buildings: If you're trying to resist the intentions of people who will exploit anything for their personal enrichment and the enrichment of their friends, you can be just as courteous and reasonable as you want. You won't accomplish squat if there's not another group prowling around, looking dangerous and ready for action. Martin Luther King needed Malcolm X. Judi knew how to walk a very thin line and walked it well.

She lost. We all did. Timber won. There are a few trees, protected for the moment, that wouldn't have been, but the forests are ravaged. California has a custom not so widely practiced by our neighbors to the north — Oregon, Washington, Canada. There, they often cut right down to the edge of the highway. Our timber operators leave a screen of trees along well-travelled roads so the general public, especially city people passing by to enjoy the sights of the countryside, can't see the no-man's land that is where the loftiest forests on earth were, just a couple decades ago. Better the city people shouldn't see that, because you know how California is — get enough people excited and they'll start cutting into your profits.

We're in a defensive mode now, no Judi to rouse us. Our environmentalists are still at work here and in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. The Green Party is still messing around, satisfied, apparently, with the occasional small accomplishment. Against a planetary backdrop of catastrophe called the New American Century, soil erosion on the tributaries of Big River seems less riveting than it did. Faced with people in charge who believe God wants his creation ruined because he's about to destroy it anyway, we are a little less apt to pound our war drums, and maybe that's prudent. All the same, we represent a cadre of informed, committed people who will rise when there's at least a scintilla of sanity to appeal to. There's none now.

All I can say in closing is that the energetic young turks among us — 18, 25, 31 years old — should drag out the old guys more, rather than regard them as obsolete and troublesome. This is not so much because I'm now one of the old guys as it is because it pains me to see the new people reinventing the wheel and remaking mistakes we already made and learned from. Lots of long-lasting cultures revere their elderly because they're repositories of experience. Some of those elders are full of wind and BS; some are full of keen observation. You separate the wheat from the chaff, because the good wheat is a particularly useful strain — saves you a lot of time and grief. On the other hand, I'm so appalled at the events of recent years that I have to fight paralysis and despair, while younger people take this mess for granted and move on from there. 

So, folks, do what you must in the fashion that best suits you, but do something. Even if it's wrong.

One Comment

  1. Mitch Clogg August 5, 2019

    Still going on, Susie de Castro (hot name!). Drive a dirt road for ten minutes in the forest and you’ll see stands of even-age trees, groomed that way while the bigger ones–puny by any past standard–are being stacked on the trucks. Now, in 2019!

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