The town of John Day, Oregon, once the site of a “venomous” battle between loggers and environmentalists, has been saved by a shared determination to act with humility and empathy.
Peace has broken out in a community long divided by fear and contempt, reports New York Times columnist and native Oregonian Nick Kristof. The détente comes thanks to the willingness of two groups of citizens “to hold their noses and cooperate”—an outcome that could “offer lessons for a divided country.”
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Fear and contempt were once rife among the loggers of Oregon, who understood their jobs to be at risk when Portland-based environmental lawyer Susan Jane Brown succeeded in halting local timber harvesting “by suing to protect species like woodpeckers and redband trout and by tying the U.S. Forest Service in procedural knots.”
The timber industry had known many desperate years—“with a 90% plunge in the harvest from national forests in Oregon between the 1980s and the 2000s”—and corresponding plunges in employment and mental health. “In some places the human toll was catastrophic,” writes Kristof.
Brown had similar reactions. She told Kristof that, before she began to understand what a potential loss of livelihood truly meant to loggers, she felt nothing but scorn for those who made a living by cutting down old-growth forests. And it was a moment of fear the first time “a delegation of burly woodsmen… invited her to go into the forest with them,” back in 2003.
The loggers were bitter in the wake of a meeting over forest policy that seemed to put wildlife over workers. Still, they chose to reach out to Brown, determined to meet with “the enemy” at least long enough to tell their side of the story.
The atmosphere of that forest trip was tense, recalled Brown. But by simply meeting and talking and listening, the former opponents opened a path through the thickets of human defensiveness.
“While the two sides didn’t agree, each was surprised to find the other not entirely diabolical,” Kristof writes. And they kept their dialogue alive, formalizing it three years later into the Blue Mountains Forest Partners.
The partnership was, in its early days, “mostly aspirational.” And then two things happened.
The first was the announcement of the imminent closure of John Day’s sawmill, upon which the economy of the town largely depended. “With almost no new logs coming in,” owner John Shelk felt he had no choice but to close the mill—just like he had closed two other mills in the recent past.
“The entire town was teetering,” Kristof writes.
But something else was coming to light: that decades of mandated fire suppression had left local forests tinder dry, “just when climate change was also making them drier and hotter.”
Pam Hardy, who works with Brown at the Western Environmental Law Center, told Kristof she knew that any wildfire that broke out in the national forests to the west of John Day would lead to devastating incineration, rather than forest regeneration.
Recognizing together that the best hope in protecting the forests lay in clearing out the understory of smaller trees, Hardy, Brown, Shelk, and the other members of Blue Mountain Forest Partners teamed up to find a solution.
“With the help of Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, they won a 10-year stewardship contract to subsidize forest thinning and restoration of the traditional landscape, and this saved the mill and kept the town alive,” the Times explains.
The initiative has not been trouble-free. “Small logs are less profitable for the sawmill than large ones,” and many people—both loggers and conservationists— view the partnership as “sellouts.”
Still, overall, the “timber peace process” is holding. The secret? “A starting point is finding people from each side who are equipped with humility and empathy,” writes Kristof, citing advice from the partnership. After that, “when disputes arise, both sides need to agree to defer to science—and if the science doesn’t exist, then to conduct experiments to gather evidence.”
Brown noted as well that “it helps to have alcohol, and it helps to have food.”
While the Oregonian collaboration “is often grumpy, incomplete, and precarious…it’s also inspiring,” Kristof says. Blue Mountains is offering Americans “a model of a process to sit down with antagonists, seek common ground, register progress (punctuated with eye rolls and moans), and knit this country back together.”
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