Seventh American Forest Congress

Many Voices -- A Common Vision

Reports from participants in the Seventh American Forest Congress

The following was originally published in The Pinchot Letter (Spring 1996)

Did the Forest Congress Break the Logjam?

by by Char Miller

It was a bit of eavesdropping that gave me my first clue as to why the Seventh American Forest Congress, held in Late February, had been called. Seated in a cramped, darkened bus slowly rolling through the sodden Virginia countryside on our way from Dulles airport to Washington, D.C., site of the Congress, I overheard snatches of a conversation, one segment of which struck a chord: "...when ecological devastation threatens," an oddly deep yet quiet male voice murmured from behind me, "we just have to pull together..." What most caught my attention was the fragment's structure. The "just have to" implied that a social responsibility which ought to lead people to protect stressed ecosystems was routinely ignored, a critical obligation unmet, perhaps even unrecognized.

This plaintive plea seemed to set an appropriate tone for a congress that expected to formulate the nation's future forest policies, and then to lay down ground rules by which to meet the obligations these policies would impose.

The Congress' timing could not have been more opportune. As the disembodied voice I had overheard had suggested, the conflicts over policies governing the management of public and private forested lands have been intensifying. This has been as true for the intermountain west and the Pacific northwest, as it has been for the southern Appalachians and the Adirondacks. Some of these disputes are local in origin and significance, but others are national, most notably the furor surrounding the so-called "Salvage Rider"; attached to the 1995 Recision Bill, the rider at once suspended environmental legislation and upped the cut on the National Forests. This piece of "stealth legislation," as the Seattle Post Intelligencer had editorialized, which slipped into law without public notification or hearings, not only inflamed environmental organizations but further undercut the prospects of engaging in civil dialogue between competing stakeholders in America's forests. That was strikingly evident in the reason given by Mike Roselle, co-founder of Earth First!, for boycotting the congress: "you don't sit down with lumberjacks," he told the Associated Press, "to decide what to do with the forest."

Offering a respite from this "painful and perpetual tug-of-war" is what initially had led the organizers of the Forest Congress to announce the 3 1/2 day assembly, hoping it would ease tensions and temper the rhetoric. Once quieted down, the energies consumed during the longstanding public brawl over national forest policies could be focused on establishing a new basis for consensus. Out of our "Many Voices," the Congress motto prayed, would come "A Common Vision."

I wasn't convinced that this prayer for comity would carry the day, especially when a month before the conference a letter arrived from its Board of Directors and Senior Sponsors--a remarkably diverse lot, ranging from environmental groups to industrial foresters, from Brock Evans formerly of the Audubon Society to Sharon Haines of International Paper. In their missive, the sponsors sought to allay fears that the Congress was "a front for any special interest or political agenda, that it was not "being rigged by the 'timber beasts,' or the 'radical enviros,' or the 'pointy head academics and bureaucrats.'" The letter then went on to reaffirm that the Congress' stated purpose--"to develop a process that encourages new and more open communication between interested parties about future management and policies governing our nation's forests, both public and private"--was its "real purpose." This reaffirmation notwithstanding, it was clear that the Congress would not be free from the rhetorical posturing that has so polarized the very forestry issues it was designed to resolve.

To finesse the disruptive pattern of negotiations in which, as Yale Professor John Gordon observed, "everybody shouts at each other until they're tired and then goes to court," the Congress established a unique format to compel meaningful dialogue: the approximately 1400 participants were seated 10 per table, the demographics of which were as diverse as the coordinators could make them; my tablemates, for example, came from all over the country, worked in public and private forestry, were involved in environmental organizations, or were students and teachers interested in these issues as they influenced urban lives and rural landscapes. This representative mix of backgrounds and interests might have confounded our capacity to devise vision statements, develop principles by which these visions would be framed, and delineate some practical first steps to achieve these goals, but this did not occur because our intense work was conducted almost exclusively at the tables. That context forced us both to talk and listen, to argue and negotiate, and to do so face-to-face, all within the tight confines of a round table. This physical setting, and the length of time we stayed within it, had a subtle, psychological impact: bound to and within that closed circle, our commitments and conversation increasingly focused on this microcosmic realm, a bond that for the most part facilitated an earnest and civil exchange between people who, in another context, might well dismiss one another's perspectives. It's hard to turn your back on people when you are looking into their eyes.

Not that participants didn't try to stare one another down. In such close quarters, in which the tables were pressed in on one another, it was easy enough to pick up raised voices, sharp exchanges, turf fights. These flareups found their most visible expression when on the Congress' first full day, Steve Kelley, an environmentalist from the Flathead region of Montana, strode to the main (and elevated) podium, seized a microphone and announced that he and other environmentalists were "tired" of being ignored, of having their issues swept aside, and then called an ad hoc press conference to air their disappointments. His proclamation was greeted with catcalls and jeers, with cheers interwoven: "put your agenda down on the table," one voice boomed, a fascinating roar that captured the symbolic thrust and threat of Kelley's action. After all, he had risen above the seated throng, his voice had floated over that of all the conferees, and he had called upon like-minded souls to abandon their close-knit conversations and to coalesce around a different set of concerns in another room with the press as audience--an move that challenged even as it acknowledged the power of table talk.

Its power may have also accounted for the general lack of controversy over the particulars of the final versions of Congress' "vision elements." Those that passed most readily were crafted so as to secure as broad support as possible. The first element is a case in point: "In the future our forests...will be maintained and enhanced across the landscape, expanding through reforestation and restoration where ecologically, economically, and culturally appropriate, in order to meet the needs of an expanding population." That 85% of the delegates affirmed this position is not surprising, but it was surprising that solid majorities also embraced an element calling for a nationwide commitment to sustainable forestry that must "support biological diversity" and "maintain ecological and evolutionary processes," and one which asserted that future forests would be managed "on the basis of a stewardship ethic with respect, reverence, and humility." Taken together, these vision elements represented a fascinating set of declarations incorporating some of the central principles of cutting-edge environmental science and cultural criticism; biodiversity and reverence are not the first terms that springs to mind when contemplating the guiding forces in the history of American forestry.

No one knows of course how these ideas will influence future legislation governing logging on public and private lands, still they go well beyond anything I anticipated would come from the Congress, an anticipation based on the controlled character of earlier Forest Congresses.

The previous ones, including the most recent ones in 1946, 1953, 1963, and 1975, were in-house affairs, cliquish confabs that brought together a carefully selected list of industrial and public foresters, leaders of the pulp industry, and a handful of kept academics; their agendas rarely strayed from the subject of timber, and took little notice of the rising power of the environmental movement and the issues it championed. That's how the Seventh American Congress should have been devised, too, its organizers were told bluntly when they visited with German foresters to extend invitations to interested parties world-wide. The forestry faculty at the University of Freiberg, a friend reported, were appalled that non-foresters would be involved; "that would never happen here," she laughed; "foresters never would give up their control." Previous American initiatives shared the German disdain for non-professionals, and regularly excluded conservationists and the concerned public, a state of affairs that produced policy statements consonant with industry's needs. The bottom line drove all.

It still did, according to a mute, pony-tailed protestor in the final hour of the Seventh Forest Congress: he circled the vast assemblage holding over his head a sign that edited the Congress' motto (Many Voices...A Common Vision) to read--"Many Voices...A Corporate Vision." This spoke to many environmentalists' deep frustration over the perceived failure of the Congress' to denounce the "Salvage Rider," a failure some felt was due to the influence industrial foresters wielded over the conference's agenda and voting procedures. True, a principle explicitly demanding the rollback of the rider was overwhelmingly defeated, but another asserting that all national laws, including rules stipulating open deliberation of legislative initiatives--a broader, more inclusive principle--passed easily. The congress, in short, went on record opposing "logging without laws."

Not all would share my interpretation of this particular resolution nor would they adopt my sense that the incorporation of and emphasis upon the scientific nomenclature of ecosystem management and biodiversity in other Forest Congress resolutions amounts to a sea change in the public debate over forest policy in the United States. The first to cast doubt on my optimistic take was a professional environmentalist from Montana with whom I chatted on our way back out to the airport at conference's end. Rather than implementing their agenda, he demurred, conservationists "were only able to hold the line" during the Congress' proceedings. A skepticism that if correct would mean that we have yet to locate the common footing from which to pull together.

Char Miller teaches American history at Trinity University, is editor of American Forests: Nature, Culture & Politics (University Press of Kansas, to be published, October, 1997) and is co-editor (with Hal Rothman) of Out of the Woods: Essays in Environmental History (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997).

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