No. 2 in Evergreen's Silver Bullet Series
It is a good time to be alive. It is a better time to be alive and be a writer.
It is the best of times for those who write stories with trees in them.
I have been writing stories with trees in them for nearly 50 years, and while I love the metaphor, I cannot take credit for it. An Alfred A. Knopf editor used it in a letter rejecting Norman Maclean'smanuscript for "A River Runs Through It," a best seller that Robert Redford later made into a fine movie. "These stories have trees in them," the editor complained, not realizing he was rejecting the manuscript for one of the finest Twentieth Century novels.
Maclean and my great aunt both taught Shakespeare and the romantic poets at the university level - he at the University of Chicago and she at the University of Montana at Dillon. I suspect they knew one another well, though I never thought to ask him the time we met in Missoula a few years before his death in 1990. He was easily one of the last century's best writers. I have been lately thinking about him and how our lives run parallel - his in the great beyond that straddles the Idaho-Montana divide and mine in northern Idaho's fabled Coeur d'Alene National Forest, ground zero in our country's long ago decision to battle forest fires.
I doubt that I will ever be as good at the writing game as Maclean became, but I take some pleasure in the fact that both he and I write stories with trees in them, though most of our trees are metaphors for men and women we knew who worked with their hands. Some became big time artists with axes and crosscut saws while others, including another aunt who fished with flies and cooked in logging camps, became artists in the human relations game. She fed and counseled men who feared her because in otherwise lawless camps, her word was law.
Jake Hendricksen, my Petersen grandfather's cousin, was a legendary tough guy who rode logs down the Coeur d'Alene River for 40 springs. He was a woods boss for the old Rutledge Timber Company, which merged with Potlatch Lumber in 1931. He had long since retired by the time I came along, and what I knew about him when I was a boy was that he bred iris in his back yard in Coeurd'Alene, Idaho and won a lot of blue ribbons at flower shows, proving that the same huge hands that had powered crosscut saws could also gently pollinate female iris plants.
Most who I write about are - or were - World War II veterans who went into the woods after the war. Some logged for a living while others hired on at sawmills. Others went to work for the Forest Service. It was an up and coming outfit after the war because the Truman Administration was hell-bent on opening the West's great national forests. By then, Dan Goldy, who worked in the shadows of FDR's New Deal brain trust, had figured out that the West's federal forests were capable of powering the nation's transition from wartime to peacetime footing. He saw them as sources of employment and wood - two things the country needed in abundance after Japan surrendered. I knew Goldy, who was a Truman Democrat, but a Roosevelt Democrat first. He was a brilliant economist and a fine horseman who could tie knots as well as most packers, so while Goldy worked mostly with his head, he could do things with his hands that I cannot do.
Most of the trees in the stories I write now are standing in the same national forests that powered America's post-war economic boom. But unlike the trees that the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations harnessed, these trees are dead or dying and will serve no great national purpose. It is their death that unites me with hundreds of men and women who worked for the Forest Service in the post-war era. We share a hope that the forests that built America can be rescued by productive heads and hands before it is too late.
Although most of my Forest Service friends are retired now, they continue to work daily with their heads and hands, just like the men and women immortalized by Tom Brokaw in his two fine "Greatest Generation" books. Not surprisingly, most of their stories have trees in them.
John Marker, who is 76, worked for "the outfit" for 33 years and six summers. After he retired in 1992, he bought a small orchard near Hood River, Oregon and now divides his time between tending fruit trees and tending what is left of the Forest Service. He was 10 when he first tagged after his dad on Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest. District Ranger, Roy Marker, put his energetic son to work on a fire line when he was 11. His head and hands do not know how to let go of what is left of the band of brothers that was a big part of his life for 65 years, so in retirement he helped start the National Association of Forest Service Retirees. Now there are 700 heads trying to help Forest Service hands steer a much needed course correction.
Many Forest Service retirees are busy writing stories with trees in them. Ted Stubblefield, a 37 year veteran who lives near Ridgefield, Washington, busies himself on a small forest plantation that he started after he retired in 1999. You have to really love trees to plant and care for them knowing that you probably won't live long enough to experience the joy and satisfaction that comes with bringing in a good crop and replanting your land. Thank God for America's Tree Farmers. Their mostly family-owned farms provide the lion's share of the wood our country consumes year after year.
But the trees in my stories will contribute nothing to the nation's wealth. They will perish in wildfires that burn so hot that the soil's organic layer is melted into a waxy paste that water cannot penetrate. Some of these fires are so big that they make their own weather. The winds they generate can suck trees from the ground by their roots. Norman Maclean likened them to the glowing candles that light the Stations of the Cross.
Wind-driven wildfires can outrun anything in the forest, including birds in flight. Firefighters don't stand a chance. The Bible tells us they are raised from the dead in three days, but it can take nature a century or more to resurrect organic soil. Meantime, almost nothing grows.
The trees in my stories that are not already dead will die soon. Prolonged drought kills many of them before fire strikes. Millions more are killed by insects or pathogens that strike trees that have been stressed to the breaking point. In the big die-offs, the underlying factor is a condition that foresters call "overstocking." It means that the number of trees present is greater than the land's capacity to grow them. I've struggled through 100-year-old pine stands that were so dense I had to turn sideways to shoulder my way between trees that, despite their age, were no bigger around than my forearm. In more favorable growing conditions - sufficient sunlight, soil nutrients and rainfall - they would have been bigger around than me.
I don't think it is a stretch to say that these trees are attacking themselves in the same way that cancer cells attack healthy cells. Just as surgeons with miracle hands can cut away cancer cells, skilled loggers can cut away the deadwood that is fueling the seemingly unstoppable wildfires that will be making headlines in the long months to come. Removing the deadwood gives the healthiest trees in these sick forests a chance to survive and grow. But we are not doing this life-saving work because our heads and hands are not working in unison.
The Forest Service's best guess is that around 80 million national forest acres in the West are dead or dying. That's an area larger than 46 of our 50 states. I have seen most of these forests and remember what they looked like before they began to die. Tourists who vacation across the West this summer - and millions will - are also going to witness the carnage along every highway that passes through forests. I hope they will ask us what we have done with our heads and hands. I can tell them where our heads are but the hands question is tougher. Most who worked in these forests have moved on in search of new opportunity.
We who want to rescue these forests aren't having much luck. Congress refuses to let the heads and hands people do their work. The story here is much too long to repeat but the sum and substance of it is that the House and Senate have created a damned legal mess that allows malcontents and anarchists to use the federal court system to prevent the Forest Service from mounting the kind of head and hand rescue mission that is needed. The patient is mercilessly dying despite the close-at-hand presence of proven skills and technologies. It is a senseless and tragic waste that earlier generations who worked with their heads and hands, and understood thrift and sacrifice, would find incomprehensible.
I find it incomprehensible too, which is why I continue to write stories with trees in them. My hope is that those with heads and hands that work in concert will eventually prevail. There are many rescue plans currently in the works but they all require the approval of a Congress that is wedded to malcontents and anarchists, so the dying will continue until our heads and hands are again working in unison, just as they did after the Second World War.
Meantime, the West has become an angry and dangerous place to live. My guess is that someone will be killed this summer in the tragic water wars that have erupted in northern California's ranching and farming region. Others will surely die fighting forest fires than only a congressman could invent. And taxpayers will again pick up a firefighting tab somewhere north of $1 billion. It is all an enormous waste of money and trees, and a painful reminder that there are no silver bullets - no political end runs or midnight legislative fixes - that we can apply to wounded forests or the rural communities they once supported.
For the same $1 billion, we could reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire on 10 million of those 80 million acres, and if we were able to think on the same grand scale that Dan Goldy thought, we could do it at no cost to taxpayers. But until we get our country's heads and hands moving again in the same direction, nothing good can happen.
Forest Service retirees hope to persuade Congress and their old "outfit" to get serious about growing more trees annually than national forest shareholders - that's us - are losing to insects, diseases and white-hot infernos that kill everything in sight. Back when the John Markers and Ted Stubblefields of the world were the heart and soul of the Forest Service, they called what they were doing "sustained yield forestry." Today, they call it "ecosystem management." It doesn't matter what we call it, so long as we get it done before it is too late.