A rabble-rousing conservationist answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I currently spend 30 hours a week directing the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign (NPLGC), 5 hours a week advising Alternatives to Growth Oregon (AGO), and 15 hours as senior counselor for the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC). I fill the remaining 10 hours of my 60-hour workweek (I’m a well-adjusted workaholic) with freelance environmental agitation through The Larch Company (TLC). The Larch Company has two profit centers: an electrical power division and a political power division.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
The NPLGC advocates for legislation to authorize and fund voluntary federal grazing permit buyout. Two bills pending in Congress would allow public-lands graziers to permanently retire their federal grazing permits for generous compensation. Permit buyout is good for the environment and good for taxpayers, and it would provide a golden saddle to public-lands ranchers who are ready to leave the business for whatever reason.
AGO promotes the end of population growth and overconsumption in Oregon.
ONRC aggressively protects and restores Oregon’s wildlands, wildlife, and waters as an enduring legacy for present and future generations.
TLC is my own for-profit, non-membership conservation organization that represents people not yet born and species that cannot speak. TLC’s political-power division advises conservation organizations as diverse in size and scope as the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council in Ashland, Ore., and American Lands Alliance, in Washington, D.C., on conservation strategy and organizational development. The electrical-power division profitably produces solar energy at our headquarters in Ashland, sending any extra power to the grid.
In a perfect world, (1) 100 percent of publicly owned forage would again be available for wildlife and watersheds on millions of acres of public lands in the West; (2) human population and consumption would be reduced to sustainable levels; (3) at least half of Oregon (and the rest of the world) would be dedicated to producing ecosystem goods and services to allow humans to sustainably utilize the other half; (4) human-induced climate change would be reversed; and (5) India pale ale would be on tap everywhere.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I direct a staff of five working for NPLGC. My secret to success is hiring people who are better at doing their job than I am. The least-fun part of my job is raising money to keep them working. My typical day, which is generally lots of fun, is writing, editing, researching, schmoozing, begging, directing, cajoling, advising, counseling, prodding, positioning, and/or maneuvering.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I received much more than my 15 minutes of fame (and infamy) for my 20 years with the ONRC, the organization best known for bringing you the northern spotted owl. At the peak of the Northwest Forest War (it isn’t over yet; the timber industry has counterattacked, akin to the Battle of the Bulge, but victory is assured), I had 10 publicists working on me. Of course, they were paid by the timber industry to demonize ONRC and me for their own purposes. I’ve been hung in effigy at least twice and I’ve lost count of the death threats. The timber barons were particularly offended that someone who grew up in timber country among the children of mill and logging-company owners was part of an effort to end old-growth logging. Without the timber-industry hype, I don’t think Time magazine would have characterized me as a “white-collar terrorist” in 1991. Of course, “terrorist” had a somewhat different meaning 10 years ago. If I had 5 percent of the power ascribed to me by my detractors, I would be a very happy man.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Three. All have been read and are awaiting action.
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job?
Mostly card-carrying conservationists, foundations, elected officials and their staffs, and disgruntled ranchers. Not so many bureaucrats, media types, and disgruntled mill workers these days.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Paining my left cheek are card-carrying conservationists who believe that, because they vote, they understand the complex intricacies of congressional decision making and national conservation politics. One cannot become a lawyer, biologist, plumber, or bus driver without gaining some skills and taking some tests. The making or killing of legislation has no such guilding process. Anyone can enter into the fray and consider him- or herself a lobbyist. Some amateurs are able to pick it up, but some do not, which can cause incredible and often irreparable damage to whatever conservation strategy they and the greater conservation community seek to implement. However, because they volunteer for or are paid by some conservation organization, they try to call the shots in a game they know absolutely nothing about.
As for my right cheek, it is conservationists who don’t understand (I didn’t say one has to accept) neoclassical economics. The first decision to make when choosing a path to a sustainable society is whether to avow or disavow discount rates. Since the rest of the world avows the time value of money, conservationists need to at least understand the concept. For example, trees grow slower than money. It will never be profitable for corporations — who have a fiduciary obligation to shareholders to maximize profit every 90 days — to grow trees.
As for dead center, the pain comes from conservationists who are methodological zealots. Some have only one solution (fill in the blank: litigation, legislation, regulation, confrontation, marketization, education, radicalization, etc.) to any problem. If one really wants to save the earth (and us), one must be willing to apply different solutions to different problems (I’m a flexetarian). Most tiring are ideologues who always adopt the most pure and uncompromising position. They would rather lose than win for the wrong reasons. Excessively principled opposition to an injustice can prevent ending the injustice. Sometimes one has to rise above principle. I’m not a process freak, but rather an outcome freak. Bad ideas can live longer than they should with good process. Good ideas can survive bad process.
(There. I feel better now.)
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Most of the public-lands ranchers who are in favor of the voluntary federal grazing-permit buyout. Public-lands loggers, ranchers, and miners are all going through their five stages of death: denial (“spotted owls like clearcuts”), anger (“spotted owl tastes a lot like chicken” [actually it tastes much like bald eagle]), bargaining (“we can log and have spotted owls”), grieving (“loggers are an endangered species”), and finally acceptance (no pithy quote, in that the endgame hasn’t worked out well for all of them).
One of the factors that drove me to advocate voluntary federal grazing-permit buyout is that while money cannot replace a lost lifestyle, it can be a down payment for the next one. Public-lands ranchers, like loggers and miners (as distinct from the corporations who control them), are getting screwed as society changes the rules (globalization, domestic competition, new and conflicting demands for public lands, etc.). We are a rich society where the cost of winning should be to not leave behind the losers.
Ranchers who have reached acceptance and realize that buyout is their best chance at a ticket to a new future are pleasant enough to work with (and drink with, if we don’t discuss the environmental impacts of livestock). Many tell me they would use the money to buy private land to ranch without federal overseers, get clear of the bank, go to school, start a new business, or coast into retirement.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in 1955 in Lane County, Ore., which called itself the lumber capital of the world. I grew up in Creswell, which had three sawmills and one chicken-processing plant. I dropped out of Oregon State University and went to work for what became the ONRC. I later lived in Portland (no sawmills left) and, 70 miles from the nearest stoplight, in Joseph, with two sawmills, though one closed the month I arrived (coincidental, but many locals thought otherwise). I now live in Ashland (no sawmill left). (Creswell still has one.) While I have always lived in Oregon, I have spent more than three years of my life in Washington, D.C. — never more than a week at a time.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
During the second Earth Day I was a sophomore in high school. If we did something for the environment (pick up litter, etc.), we could get a half-day off of classes. Back then I was almost exclusively fixated on getting laid. I lied and got the half-day off. About the same time, a demonstration was held in Eugene in front of federal agency offices — not against Vietnam, but for French Pete, an unlogged valley that had been removed from the Three Sisters Wilderness. What a novel idea. I thought — part of the National Forest System that is not to be logged! I’d grown up on the Cottage Grove Ranger District of the Umpqua National Forest, which was then being clear-cut in a patchy mange style. When I saw the logging unit that had been placed around a small body of water named Crawfish Lake, I knew then that those clear-cutting bastards would never stop until they were stopped.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
My optimism tends to blot out the bad past (undoubtedly a coping mechanism). It is probably when the entire Pacific Northwest congressional delegation united behind Sen. Mark Hatfield in 1989 to push the infamous “rider from hell” through Congress — the rider that negated (albeit temporarily) our legal victories in halting the cutting of old-growth forests. The politicians were scared, having failed to deliver big timber to Big Timber. The conservation movement was as divided as the timber industry was united.
What’s been the best?
Opening up a new version of the official Highway Map of Oregon in 1986 and seeing the 31 new and expanded wilderness areas I’d help push through Congress. Nothing is sweeter than congressional protection for wildlands.
What’s on your desk right now?
I have a three-sided desk with over 60 square-feet of horizontal surface. Most is now covered with the galleys for Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness, a campaign book promoting the 5 million acres of Oregon forest roadless areas that still need to be protected in the National Wilderness Preservation System — 42 maps, 167 photographs, and 256 pages. Neither the maps nor the photographs are mine. Second in quantity are piles of research for my next book, Beyond Wood: The Case for Forests and Against Wood Products. This will be my first with coauthors: Earth First! cofounder Mike Roselle and former Naderite Leda Huta.
My two-inch stack of working papers includes NPLGC financial reports and work plans, fact and op-ed sheets to edit, the manual to my new digital point-and-shoot camera, and the specs for installing an on-demand hot-water heater to back up my solar hot-water heater.
What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?
Global warming. Humans, with our large brains and opposable thumbs, are changing the climate to the detriment of our own species, not to mention all the others. These same large brains allow us to foresee catastrophic changes. Other species might foul their own nest, but they don’t know they are doing it. I am amazed at the passive acceptance — by large parts of the conservation community, not to mention government, industry, and Joe and Josephine Sixpack — of the “inevitability” of global warming. Most people, including the current occupant of the Oval Office, think that all we have to do is turn up the air-conditioner. Many conservationists believe that we can manage the problem by mitigating the damage. Human-induced climate change can be halted and reversed. In fact, it must be or we humans are severely screwed.
My theory to explain this behavior is that our species evolved to deal with acute threats (the tiger is going to eat you now) and didn’t develop the instincts to perceive — let alone deal with — chronic threats. While humans now have the knowledge to foresee and address chronic threats to ourselves, our families, our communities, our habitat, and those of generations to come, our species hasn’t collectively evolved to have the genetic disposition to do so. After all, what has posterity ever done for us anyway?
Who is your environmental hero?
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
Presidential candidate Ralph Nader.
What’s your environmental vice?
Hot baths. I read and talk on the phone for hours.
How do you get around?
I drive a 1995 Toyota Tacoma four-wheel-drive pickup that has gotten 22 miles-per-gallon for the last 201,000 miles. My wife drives a first-generation Toyota Prius. We both have bikes. She regularly uses hers; I do not use mine much. I fly enough to receive frequent upgrades to first class. For the record, both the Larch Company and my family (one wife, two dogs, one cat, one horse, and no vacancies) are carbon-neutral. Each year I tabulate our carbon emissions (gasoline, electricity, jet fuel, and “natural” [methane] gas) and buy indulgences called “green tags” from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to mitigate our contributions to global warming.
What are you reading these days?
Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky, is for reading on the road. For reading in the bath, it’s the End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World. In bed, I’m reading One With Nineveh: Politics, Consumption and the Human Future by Paul and Anne Ehrlich. I have read no novels in the past few decades save for two, both by Garrison Keillor: The Book of Guys and Love Me. Every year, I try to read the Art of War by Wu Sun Tzu. The last book I couldn’t put down was Paper and Composites from Agro-Based Resources, by Roger M. Rowell, et al.
What’s your favorite meal?
I just cannot decide. It’s either a flank steak from the wild tofudebeest, smothered with bulgar, along with some undressed greens, chased by fair-trade organic wheatgrass juice hand-squeezed by virgins, or it is a Northeastern Pacific-caught wild salmon fillet grilled on the back porch and enjoyed with an organic Oregon pinot gris, followed by a severely chocolate concoction for desert. Here’s a question for you: Do you know what the five basic food groups are? Salt, sugar, fat, caffeine, and alcohol.
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
Not as much as I used to be. I regularly read the Portland Oregonian (mostly out of habit these days), Ashland Daily Tidings (takes three minutes), Capital-Press (western farm and forest weekly), The Economist, Discover, Mother Jones, Utne, The New York Times (when I’m traveling), Hightower Report, American Prospect, Home Energy, and Home Power. I receive Tidepool (digest of Pacific Northwest newspapers) electronically, as well as various enviro listservs. While it goes without saying that I regularly peruse Grist, it is worth saying that I like it a lot better since you started adding informative sub-headlines below the always annoying, and often strained, attempts to pun. When I travel by car, I try to listen to the drug addict Rush Limbaugh (know your enemy), and have found myself drawn to the Air America network when public radio is doing classical music or droning on about some former prostitute who now writes show tunes for a community theater run by former cocaine addicts in Dubuque.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I buy most of my clothes from REI.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
I never met a natural ecosystem I didn’t like. However, I must say that quaking aspen turning gold on a crisp and clear autumn day in eastern Oregon is a powerful reminder that all is not wrong in the world.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
A carbon tax, with the money dedicated to first reducing and then eliminating fossil-fuel use, and the remainder invested in ecosystem-based carbon sequestration to remove and secure excess carbon already in the atmosphere. The U.S. contribution to global warming could be eliminated — not just mitigated — for about 7 to 10 cents per gallon of gasoline or its equivalent for other carbon-based fuels.
Who do think (not hope) is going to be elected president in November?
I don’t really have an informed opinion at this point. One cannot rely on a 700-person sample in a national poll to help place your bet. As we learned (again) in 2000, we actually have 50 winner-take-all elections. At least 18 states are in play. One has to look at the polls for those in-play states and add them to the electoral votes from the states not in play in order to make an educated guess.
I think it will be very tight. If Kerry gets a personality transplant in time, and Bush continues to bumble and bungle, regime change may happen. Iraquagmire (pronounced “I-rackg-mire”) will likely harm Bush’s chance to actually be elected president. If not, western Australia is looking nice. It still has wild spaces. The weather is nice in Perth and Australians still believe in some form of a social contract.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
When I started my professional conservation career during the Ford administration, a standard line by timber industry mouthpieces was, “I’m a conservationist; it’s just those damn environmentalists.” During the Carter years, it was, “I’m an environmentalist; it’s just those damn preservationists.” During the George Herbert Walker Bush regime, they said, “I’m a preservationist; it’s just those damn radical preservationists.” (Notice that the rhetorical difference was merely the addition of an adjective.) Keeping with the times, the timber pigs of today label “us” as “environmental terrorists.” The late, great Oregon native-plant conservationist Jean Siddall once said, “Conservationists can be hell to live with, but make great ancestors.” I’m a conservationist.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
We’ve mainstreamed the cause. Very few people say that the environment doesn’t matter these days. Both enviros and industry now say, “We don’t have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment.” While true in theory, it is not yet true in practice. The mining, agriculture, timber, chemical, nuclear, electronics, transportation, and similar industries are fond of saying one day each year, “To our industry, every day is Earth Day.” Given the present and projected state of the world, they have to be lying.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
It’s become politically incorrect to discuss population growth. The U.S., due to its severely unsustainable levels of consumption, is the most overpopulated nation on earth. The planet and its inhabitants, of all species, cannot afford any more Americans, whether we breed them ourselves or import them. I find it ironic that my knee-jerk liberal friends who favor liberal immigration policies are in league with huge agribusiness and industrial corporations who benefit from an excess labor supply that keeps wages low.
What important environmental issue is frequently overlooked?
Population and consumption. They are two sides of the same coin. Addressing one and not the other is like trying to plug one of two leaks in a lifeboat. Most environmental problems become truly solvable only when population and consumption are addressed.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
I’m musically challenged. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t getting laid when I was 18. While I have some CDs and cassettes in my truck, my wife says all the performers I like are dead, or should be.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
Arrested Development. None of the shows I have really liked lasted in prime time. The uncut version of Animal House (which was filmed in my natal county) works on so many levels.
Mac or PC?
I don’t do Windows. I’ve been a Mac man ever since Apple donated a Macintosh Plus to ONRC. Every Mac, from the beginning, was networked. Today, the Windows world is getting excited about wi-fi. I’ve had wi-fi capability (Airport) for over three years. Apple pioneers advancements that are later adopted by Microsoft.
What are you happy about right now?
The sun is shining as I look outside over my solar panels to see Grizzly Peak. I’m sipping a pinot gris (I try to get my drinking done by late afternoon [doctor’s orders], so I sleep better at night), it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, the windows are open, and the gleeful cries of little kids are drifting in from the park.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Put their money where their mouth is. We humans may fail to save the earth and ourselves because accountants say it is not profitable and economists say it is not efficient. Too many greenies mistakenly believe that hybrid cars, compact fluorescent bulbs, and solar hot-water heaters are too expensive. In fact, they are quite profitable, on the order of 5 percent, 100 percent, and 10 percent, respectively, tax-free return on investment. The internal rate of return on The Larch Company generating station (32 photovoltaic panels on my garage) is 13 percent. One does not have to suffer financially to be environmentally correct. Even if that were the case, as Ted Turner said, “It would be no fun being a billionaire on a dead planet.”