Twenty Years of Protecting Forest Ecosystems

A Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project Retrospective
By Karen Coulter

Looking back over our twenty years of protecting biodiversity and ecological integrity in eastern Oregon, I realized it is important to tell our story of lessons learned and pitfalls stumbled through to help other groups be as effective as possible. The name and mission statement of an organization set the tone for a group’s focus and methods. I’ll be forever grateful that we named Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project (BMBP) as we did. Blue Mountains indicates a sense of place, and a limit to the scale of our work (though we did over-stretch ourselves by exceeding the limit when it seemed necessary.) Biodiversity is the key concept we wanted to push into the public frame of reference. Biodiversity is what we really wanted to protect—not just big pretty trees, or charismatic mega-fauna, but the intricate and essential ecological inter-relationships and diversity of species that make wild Nature magical and life supporting. Project implies an active campaign that can be ended at any time, rather than an organization that perpetuates itself through bureaucratic inertia or as a funding sink. The name reminds me, as BMBP’s director, what I should and should not be doing.

Our mission statement set the stage for us as a radical group, even while working within legal boundaries. The mission includes not only protecting biodiversity and ecological integrity but also restoring damaged habitat and extirpated species. We also included the goals of promoting alternative ways of thinking in the largely right-wing, resource extraction-focused rural communities around us, and most importantly, addressed the root causes of ecological and community instability. The “root cause” focus left us free to engage in public speaking, workshops, activist trainings, and movement-building that contests the authority of corporations to govern us and destroy the Earth.

The down-side of the focus on ending corporate rule was that once larger corporate money-based foundations saw that’s what we meant, they left in droves. It would have been smarter to separate the two different aspects of our work as different projects for grant writing purposes. However, it’s also a sign you’re effective­­­—or at least working towards (r)evolutionizing the dominant paradigm when the bigger foundations don’t want to touch you. This also encourages you to diversify and democratize your funding base for greater long-term sustainability.

So what did we accomplish in twenty years? We have stopped many thousands of acres of ecologically destructive commercial logging over four national forests. In one good year we stopped over 10,000 acres of logging with two lawsuits. We’ve significantly modified thousands of acres of timber sales by getting areas dropped from logging such as steep slopes, wetter mixed conifer forests, roadless areas, and critical wildlife habitat. We’ve also increased stream buffers, stopped new road building and the re-opening of closed roads. We stopped the planned roadless area logging under the “logging without laws” 1995 salvage rider, despite all its exemptions from environmental laws. We stopped a bio-control spray plan that would have indiscriminately killed native moths and butterflies in the larval stage over six National Forests. We temporarily stopped (for many years) all herbicide use on the Malheur National Forest because these herbicides weren’t preventing the sources of the invasive weed problem and a judge agreed with us. We thus inspired Region 6 of the Forest Service to prepare a new programmatic plan for dealing with invasive plants that included an emphasis on prevention. We’ve set several court precedents beneficial to other groups trying to protect National Forests. We’ve trained at least 187 volunteer interns in forest ecology, wildlife and plant identification, map and compass orienteering, and other activist skills in our summer internship program.

On the anti-corporate rule and public use education front: we organized an “End Corporate Dominance” conference in Portland, Oregon that persisted for three years, attracting 800 to 1,000 people each time. It was focused on bringing different movements together, attracting diversity by paying effective activists of color to be keynote speakers and workshop leaders and being accessible to low-income people and people with disabilities by offering free admission, food and accommodations for disabilities. We also publish a people’s guide to institutions leveraging corporate power, which is now available as “The Elite Consensus” by George Draffan. We helped organize the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, a labor-environmental alliance and the Seattle World Trade Organization protest in 1999. We’ve reached thousands of people with our speaking presentations, workshops, activist skills training, and media interviews.

So what did we do right to accomplish this? First, there’s an important distinction between mainstream environmental groups and grassroots biodiversity projects like ours. (See Doug Bevington’s book “The Rebirth of Environmentalism” for a well informed discussion of this.) Mainstream environmental organizations tend to lack passion and a close relationships with either their supporters or the place they’re protecting. They tend to become large, bureaucratic, and driven by funding and political access. By contrast, most of the biodiversity project groups in the US have their roots firmly embedded in Earth First! principles and are nurtured by EF! culture. They tend to be small, gutsy, passionate, low-budget, close to their supporters and thoroughly grounded in the places they’re protecting.

Spending a lot of time in the areas threatened by timber sales, herbicide use, mining, etc., is critical to fighting strongly to protect them. Too many mainstream activists really aren’t that familiar with the areas they are addressing and spend most of their time behind computers. This makes it much easier to compromise. It’s not that biodiversity projects never compromise, but they try to not compromise on core values and critical habitat and are more willing to stick their necks out with risky lawsuits or to offend politicians.

Some of the methods that have worked well for us include extensively field-checking all or most timber sale “units” planned for commercial logging with the help of volunteers (each sale is now 6,000 to 10,000 acres of commercial logging and we usually field-check five or six sales a year.) Field-checking gives us valuable information that is not usually included in environmental impact statements, such as where legal violations would occur on the ground, existing and probable post-sale habitat conditions, species of wildlife and plants in the area, forest structure in each sale unit, steepness of slopes, proximity to streams, etc. We use standardized survey sheets to gather evidence for our comments, appeals, negotiations and lawsuits. We train volunteers to accurately measure tree diameter, canopy closure, slopes and old-growth habitat quality as well as plant types, tree species, and wildlife sighted or documented through foraging signs. Volunteers also take photos of typical views, unusual plants, wildlife signs, steep slopes, and stream conditions. While not using a scientific study method, our knowledge of conditions on the ground brings us much greater credibility with the Forest Service, the public, and the courts, and helps us determine negotiating positions for appeals and the merit of potential lawsuits.

The co-founders of Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project started out from a direct action background with Earth First! and other movements, but had to figure out what would be most effective in protecting forests and wildlife in a remote rural area with huge timber sales accessible from many roads. The answer was not direct action. So we went seemingly backwards, to legal strategies because our goal was to protect and restore ecological functioning and biodiversity, not to perpetuate an image of ourselves as radical.

With the lack of numbers in local support, we couldn’t use a community organizing model (otherwise advisable) but had to recruit volunteers, largely from colleges, universities, and Earth First! gatherings. The diversity of our volunteer base has grown to include more people of color, LGBTQ folks, and an age range from 12-60. We’ve had volunteers from many states and at least two other countries, mainly through word-of-mouth and regional outreach.

We had to learn the laws—easier than it sounds—and draw from other groups’ appeals to learn how to write our own. We eventually cultivated a relationship with a law school. Now students write most of our appeals as part of their education. We also had to  create relationships with lawyers and media reporters.

Over time we’ve had to wean ourselves from dwindling foundation support and be more creative, splicing together income from major donors (usually nurtured as friends), speaking engagements, in-kind donations, Fund for Wild Nature support, and only periodically paying our last employee—me. This tactic is not terribly sustainable, but has forced me to diversify my income base.

We’ve purposefully transitioned from purely defensive strategies (e.g. lawsuits) to taking advantage of the opening when local communities finally invited us to the table as part of their collaborative groups. It’s important to have a skeptical attitude when entering a collaborative group situation, as environmentalists tend to be out numbered by timber industry representatives and loggers. Many mainstream environmentalists seem to suddenly feel an urge to increase logging rather than remember all the damage it does. Yet, if you enter the situation with specific goals and continuously evaluate whether you are achieving or compromising them, and are prepared to leave the group when co-option overwhelms benefits, a lot can be gained. We entered with the primary goals of breaking down local community-environmentalist polarization and to bring information to the local communities (including loggers and ranchers) about forest ecology, ecological limits, and the needs of various species at risk. With those goals it was easier to stay calm and respectful and not get lost in the detail of a particular project in planning, while still trying to improve it as much as possible. We have been achieving significant modifications early and from inside the process. This is especially important when there is no appeal process, as under the “Healthy Forest Restoration Act”, and when the project would not likely be winning a lawsuit.

In this way we gained a lot of respect from the collaborative groups—and thus a better relationship with local communities. In the case of a particular collaborative group from which we had to drop our membership due to a failing consensus process, the group’s respect for us continued even after we left, maintaining our influence in their meetings. The point of involvement for us was to open dialogue and start transforming local community values to favor ecological protection. However, we have watched some environmentalists engage in deplorable give-aways of public land protection in exchange for promised wilderness set-asides through the collaborative process.

Short-comings of the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project model include fighting endless brush fires. Since the advent of Bush, there has been no federal forest policy solution in sight. It is profoundly dis-empowering to watch the Forest Service reinstate a virtually identical timber sale to the one you defeated in court years ago, as happened to us recently. It is equally hard to witness a timber industry appeal of a precious district court victory bring about a Ninth Circuit defeat and the logging of a magnificent, diverse old-growth forest and north spotted owl habitat, as happened in the Five Butte sale. These are reminders of the greater forces of capitalism and anthropocentric societal values. The forest work is a holding action, but necessary to save vulnerable species from extinction and to slow climate change.

Balancing ecological defense work with activism against the system of corporate rule makes for more effective and satisfying results in the long run. It is encouraging to me that the Occupy movement, Earth First! and groups with a radical analysis such as Rising Tide are now taking on institutions that leverage corporate power such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Ideas like abolishing corporate personhood were originally put forward by the Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy about 19 years ago and are now coming to fruition, riding on the momentum generated by the “Citizens United” decision and Occupy Wall Street. My spirit is not content with temporarily stopping ecological destruction. We’ll never change societies to embrace a biocentric ethic until we tackle corporate rule and corporatized culture head-on to create the space for ecological vitality and social mutual aid across cultural and national borders.

The challenge of the work over the past two decades for Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project has included harassment and sometimes deadly threats against us, an overwhelming work load, and relative poverty (though nothing compared to what the imperialist nations have imposed on indigenous cultures and Third World nations.) So why do I continue being an activist? The benefits include spending lots of time in beautiful wild lands, living simply, really getting to understand Nature and wild species, hanging out with some of the best people, seeing values change from my efforts, and developing a sense of place—feeling the satisfaction of holding ground.

So come join us and feel these rewards yourself! We need volunteers to field-check proposed timber sales every summer, May through September, for weeks to months.

If you want to volunteer, call (541) 385-9167 and leave a detailed message with your contact information. If you can’t come out to join us, please strongly consider donating money to keep our work going. Our financial situation is extremely precarious due to the national economic depression. For a tax deduction, send checks made out to “League of Wilderness Defenders” c/o Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project, 27803 Williams Lane, Fossil, OR 97830. Thank you! See you on the front lines.

This year Karen Coulter is being given the Fund for Wild Nature Award for Activist of the Year. She has been an activist since 1980 for a variety of ecological and social justice causes, including work with the American Friends Service Committee against the MX missile, as a campaigner for Greenpeace International, and involvement with the Earth First! Movement since 1984. She is currently director of Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project and a principal activist with the Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy.

Published in the Earth First! Journal, 2012, Volume 32, Issue 2

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