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An Environmental Conscience – Part 2

Soon, it seemed that issues regarding America’s management of its national forests were proliferating on television and in the print media.  One evening, I watched a segment on television’s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour that dealt with the 1988 forest fire that charred a third of Yellowstone National Park and parked for weeks a pall of smoke in New Mexico’s normally crystal-clear skies.  The segment questioned the wisdom of our country’s nearly century-old―and sacred―Smokey-the-Bear policy of extinguishing by whatever means all forest fires.  Such fire suppression, more and more people were concluding, was causing a dangerous buildup of fuel―logs, grasses, and shrubs―on our forests’ floors, which in turn was causing more needless conflagrations like the one in Yellowstone.

In the New York Times, a representative of the forest products industry weighed in on the Yellowstone fire.  He maintained that still standing, although “dead and dying,” timber contributed greatly to the conflagration, and thus proposed that the industry be permitted to remove such still-profitable timber before the possibility of any fire.  However, this practice would mean more logging roads carved into the national forests, which, not surprisingly, environmentalists opposed.

On another occasion, Linda and I listened to actor Paul Newman narrate a television program entitled Ancient Forests: Rage Over Trees, which dealt with logging in the Pacific Northwest.  It included a scene of young people―they could have been my blossoming children―blocking a road to a timber sale.  During the scene, amid logging trucks at a standstill, a man, wild-eyed and frustrated, was expressing outrage at the blockade.  He happened to be missing an arm, which, in my imagination, only added to his menace; that he was defending an industry that very possibly had been responsible for the loss of that limb only added to the peculiarity of the sight.  (Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists logging as one of America’s “10 most dangerous jobs”; this was likely true back then, as well.) I’ve never forgotten this man.

Eventually, I became acutely aware of another New Mexico environmental organization that had jumped into the logging-on-public-lands battle.  Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians was beginning to challenge in the courts virtually every one of my company’s timber sales in northern New Mexico.  The organization’s name was rarely mentioned on my second floor, but when it was, usually on the lips of Carlos or one of the foresters, I merely listened in silence with a blank expression.  On one occasion, a forester―the friendly, hardworking fellow with whom I toured the timber sale outside of Cuba and shared a hotel room at the annual meeting in Phoenix―angrily spat, “I don’t give a shit about a spotted owl!”  On another occasion, a different forester was recounting a meeting he attended that occurred in some government chamber in Santa Fe.  In addition to the director of the Forest Guardians, the meeting likely included a judge, lawyers, and Forest Service big shots.  The forester mocked the behavior of the director at this meeting, depicting him as some sniveling, candy-assed tree-hugger embarrassing himself while attempting to play upon the emotions of the participants. 

Meanwhile, at the lumber company’s annual meetings, the question of how to grapple with the threat posed by “the environmentalists” was of course on the agenda.  During the resultant discussions, I once again only listened, my expression as enigmatic as a wall of trees, my skin crawling.