A friend recently asked me what I thought the New Year would bring to those who own, manage, and care for the nation's forests.
I could not help but think of the so-called "misery index," created by economist, Arthur Okun, a Yale University professor who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors in 1968 and 1969, the first year of Richard Nixon's presidency.
Orkun's index stirred controversy among the political classes, not because it involved complex calculations no one could understand, but because ordinary people - read voters - could understand it. Orkun simply added the unemployment rate to the inflation rate and came up with a way of quantifying national sentiment that we could understand because it spoke to how we all felt about the economy in general, but more to the point, our own future prospects.
Orkun's index soared to an average 10.57 during the Nixon years, well above Eisenhower's 6.26 rating, but Nixon's index was nothing compared to the 16.26 recorded during the Carter years. After Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, it fell steadily through Bill Clinton's presidency [7.80] then rose slightly to 8.11 during "W's" White House years. Again, averages. And where are we today? We're back at 10.75, due largely to persistent private sector unemployment.
I am reminded of the question Reagan asked voters during his 1980 campaign: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" But never mind; back to my friend's forestry question.
If the misery index at Evergreen is a measure of forestry's overall health - and I think it is for reasons I'll explain in a moment - then those who own and manage this nation's private timberlands face very stiff headwinds during President Obama's second term. He clearly believes voters handed him a mandate to do whatever he wants to do on the administrative front, which is beyond congressional purview, and I suspect that is exactly what he will do.
Evergreen's misery index has been in decline for several years, a direct result of the 2008 Wall Street induced collapse of the nation's housing industry. Most that have supported our forestry education mission since 1985 are, in descending order, lumbermen, loggers, and forest landowners. Suffice it to say, the collapse of the nation's housing market sent the industry that supports us back to the 1940s. We are still in recovery mode, though there are signs that a meaningful rebound in new housing starts is slowly gaining ground.
But a recovery in the nation's housing market doesn't mean as much to us as it did before this region's federal timber sale program collapsed in the wake of the 1990 spotted owl listing. In 2002, our last good year, our contributor list ran 40 pages. In 2010, it was a single page. In 2011, it was less than half a page. What happened? Less than half of this region's lumber companies survived the owl listing. None of the companies that helped us get started in 1985 are still in business.
Why are we still here? It's simple. I'm too damned stubborn to quit. I am, at least for now, willing to work without compensation, as I have for the last five or six years, because I give a damn. I've learned a great deal about forests and forestry over the last 25 years, and I can't seem to let it go. Standing watch, I've also witnessed and written about the political ignorance - and arrogance - that is destroying our nation's forest heritage, not just its public heritage, but the privately-owned heritage that belongs to investors and families that own the nation's most productive forests - forests that provide most of the nation's lumber, plus fish and wildlife habitat, watersheds, and recreation opportunities for all of us.
There is a lot of reasons why we are where we are today, not least the dumbfounding fact that, save for a few generous souls, the West's lumbermen have, for as long as I've been around them, refused to make steady, deliberate, long-term investments in the kind of broad based forestry education programs that are needed to preserve their social license to practice forestry on public land and on private lands that hold public resources, including the water we drink. This is strange behaviour, coming as it does from brilliant and determined men who never miss a trick when it comes to squeezing more wood from each log processed.
It has not always been this way. From the 1940s through the 1970s the West's forest products industry had one of the most impressive and informative public relations programs I ever saw. I was in the public relations business myself for many years, so I think I know a good program when I see it, and theirs was very good. Now it is non- existent. It went away as the nation fell into deep recession in the late 1970s.
To be sure, there are a lot of well-funded programs that showcase this or that association's objectives, but, so far as I know, Evergreen is the last real forestry education program in the country, and when I say "real" I mean no disparagement of those who want to toot their own horns. They should. There is no other way we can know them. What I mean is that Evergreen doesn't have an agenda other than to point out what's good and what isn't good for forests and forestry.
I have never been shy about saying that the Evergreen model was really the brainchild of a man I never met but admired greatly: George Cheek, who for many years ran the now long gone American Forest Institute, which published America's Forests, a beautiful eight-page, four-colour magazine that folded out into a poster large enough to dominate a classroom bulletin board. I think I have every copy AFI ever published. It was a beauty - and fun to read too.
But there is another much larger problem facing forestry that doesn't have anything to do AFI's demise and the widespread collapse of forestry education in the late 1970s, or Evergreen's current financial woes. To understand it, you need only study the election night maps the Wall Street Journal published on Thursday, November 8, two days after voters sent Barrack Obama back to the White House for another four years. Of the two maps, the Page 1 map is most revealing. It provides county level election results for the lower 48 states and shows that from coast to coast, the country is more divided today than it has been at any time in my nearly 69 years.
The results on the West Coast, where I live, are particularly interesting. The president won in every county that touches the Pacific Ocean except two in California, four in Oregon and one in Washington. Not coincidentally, six of these seven counties have been economically trashed by the collapse of the federal timber sale program and Congress's failure to wrest control of a very nasty public debate from financially well-heeled environmental activists who have worked steadily for more than 40 years to kill the program.
They won. The program is dead, and won't be resurrected in my lifetime, if ever. I give them due. Unlike their lumbermen adversaries, who persist in the silver bullet theory, they have understood the power of "relentless pressure, relentlessly applied," stirring words first spoken by environmental activist, Andy Stahl, nearly 25 years ago at an environmental conference in Eugene, Oregon.
To understand how they did it, Google a good county-level election night map. I think you will be as surprised as I was at how few counties Mr. Obama carried. But he won where our country's population is centered, which is where environmentalists have worked so patiently (and relentlessly) for so many years. Their goal was to drive a wedge between "us and them" and they did it by exploiting social and cultural differences in our rural-urban American experiences - in our often conflicting perceptions of who we are, what we value, and how we work and play.
Ours is a nation divided along many fault lines, not least the debate over whether federal forests should be actively managed - a process that allows for logging by humans, or left to nature, a process in which nature does the logging. Either way logging occurs. The only difference is in whether the logging is regulated. Nature doesn't give a damn about regulation or human need.
All of this brings me to what I think will be forestry's Big Dance this year. The Partnership for Rural America, which calls itself the grassroots arm of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, is going to mount a campaign designed to convince Congress to revitalize rural communities through sustainable and active management of Forest Service and BLM timberlands. I take this to mean they are going to try to make the case for logging by humans. This has been the focal point of our work at Evergreen for the past 25 years, so we quite naturally wish them well in their campaign.
Western lumbermen are being asked to contribute money to this campaign, and I'm sure some of them will, but the dirty little secret here is that every lumberman in the West knows that log prices are a lot more stable and predictable today than they were while the federal timber sale program was still alive. Those who continue to fight for implementation of the paltry 1.2 billion board feet offered under the Clinton Forest Plan do so mostly as a matter of principle. Yes, there are a few mills left that buy federal timber, but most that survived the owl listing - and have since grown larger - do so on a steady diet of logs purchased from private, state, and tribal forests. Very simply, mill production is as close to equilibrium with the available supply of harvestable timber as it has ever been.
I have no idea whether the Rural America campaign will succeed, or how its success will be measured. But if the campaign keeps the federal fist fight from spilling over on to private, state, and tribal timber lands any more than it already has, it will be a success. But the rural counties that have been most damaged by the collapse of the federal timber sale program - counties that often hold millions of acres of federal timberland on which the government pays not one dime in property tax - are looking for a permanent solution to their own local funding woes.
For at least 10 years now, U.S. taxpayers have kept these once robust timber counties in beans. But the billions of tax dollars paid to rural western counties intentionally made destitute by one feckless spotted owl Congress after another was never intended as a permanent economic solution.
Congress has always maintained that the money was not to be confused with payments in lieu of taxes, which is pure hokum, because if the federal government paid property taxes on timber it owns that is growing (and dying) in these counties, I'm here to tell you there isn't a county commission in the entire west that would give a hoot in hell if the Forest Service or the BLM ever cut a stick of timber again.
Some cynics in Congress understand this fact, which is why there is a movement afoot to fund the rural West's old timber counties with oil and gas royalty money from Alaska. So let me see if I have this right: we are going to stop managing public timber - a perpetually renewable natural resource worth billions of dollars in every harvesting cycle - and we are going to replace the revenue harvesting would bring in with dollars generated from the extraction of publicly owned and non-renewable oil and gas that we are told is one of the biggest drivers in climate change.
In Congress-speak, this is called "wagging the dog." It is defined as purposefully diverting public attention from something significant by staging a less significant event that momentarily captures the headlines - the significant event being the complete decoupling of most of the rural West from the only economic base it has ever known or ever will know, that being the growing and harvesting of a small but significant portion of the nation's timber - about 14 percent of total annual harvest when the federal timber sale program was at its zenith, enough to hold lumber prices down during much of our country's post-World War II homebuilding boom.
I have no doubt that the Rural America partnership and its sponsoring counties will make a big splash on "The Hill." But if this oil and gas royalty idea gains political traction they will be a house divided, just like the rest of the country. In fact, some counties are already on record as saying they only care about the money. Among them: Lane in western Oregon, which voted solidly for Obama and holds more federal timber than any county in America except Douglas, its southern neighbor, which voted solidly for Romney, and holds more federal timber than any county in America. I dunno, you tell me.
Clearly, the biggest challenge the coalition must overcome is its silver bullet pedigree. I don't say this with any disrespect, but simply to remind its flagging members that a lot of road work that should have been done over the last decade hasn't been done. This is the hard part - the day after day, week after week, year after year business of forestry education. It is demanding but un-dramatic, and its results are impossible to measure, until you get to the end of the line and realize what may soon be gone for good, which is what rural counties here in the West are feeling now. It is Arthur Okun's misery index writ large, and one for which no improvement is in sight.
P.S. If you value Evergreen's educational mission as much as I do, send your tax deductible contribution to us at Box 1290, Bigfork, Montana, 59911.