Read it and weep: Clearcut

Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry.

Clearcut
Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, edited by Bill Devall, published by Sierra Club Books and Earth Island Press, conceived by Doug Tompkins of the Foundation for Deep Ecology.

As readers of Sierra magazine know well, opinions on how to protect public and private forests in the United States are at least as numerous as the conservation organizations that hold them — and no such group, small or large, is shy about articulating its position. The result has been a cacophony of voices conveying an often-muddled message to policymakers in Washington, D.C.

This spring, however, 100 forest activists, brought together by the Sierra Club and representing a broad array of conservation groups, both small and large, convened in the capital to deliver a unified message to key members of Congress and Clinton administration officials: clearcutting is ripping the heart out of America.

The catalyst for this gathering was the publication of Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, a landmark volume from Sierra Club Books and Earth Island Press, conceived by Douglas Tompkins of the Foundation for Deep Ecology. (See “At a Glance,” May/June, page 84.) Activists rallied to hand-deliver copies of the book to decision-makers in the belief that its combination of photographs of clearcuts and essays on forest ecology and politics would show them the folly of forest mismanagement.

Clearcut comes 30 years after The Last Redwoods (Sierra Club Books, 1964), the first book to use images of clearcuts to focus attention on threatened forests. That “exhibit format” book, which used such pictures sparingly, was subdued and traditional compared to Clearcut, a brash, in-your-face display of denuded landscapes that testifies to the spread of industrial forestry across the continent. It stands alone as the first avowedly ugly collectable book.

The 150 photos in Clearcut show a small part of the millions of acres that have been deforested, from British Columbia (where shots depict the wasting of Vancouver Island) to the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park (with clearcuts up to its boundaries) to North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama (landscapes that only General Sherman’s ghost could admire).

The reaction to the book on Capitol Hill was encouraging. Representative Jolene Unsoeld (D-Wash.) expressed delight with it, saying its analysis of the issues and its deliberately unattractive photographs “make beautifully clear statements.” Representative John Bryant (D-Texas) averred that the book would make a substantial contribution to forestry reform. Even Senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), not known for undue sympathy toward environmental causes, seemed “excited and disturbed” by the book, according to Lee Stanfield and Don Duerr of the Sierra Club. “Clearcutting was a mistake of history,” the senator told them. “It’s archaic and ugly. Most people don’t want it.”

Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas, however, preferred not to comment on or be seen in public with Clearcut, contending that the Forest Service is already shifting away from clearcutting, so he didn’t need to see any more pictures of it. Yet according to Sierra Club forestry expert Ned Fritz, who was in Washington for the event, Thomas has still not adequately explained what alternative method his agency is embracing. The fact is, says Fritz, unsustainable logging is still the rule on public lands.

Most enthused by the book were the anti-clearcut activists themselves, because it served to unite them on the issue. Too often in the past they have argued over policies. Organizations such as Earth First!, for example, want to ban all logging on public lands, an approach that alienates those who fear this might stimulate increased cutting of private and foreign forests. The Sierra Club prefers a more discriminating approach, opposing all timber cutting in old-growth and roadless areas, but allowing for limited, ecologically sound harvesting on previously logged public and private lands.

Dave Foreman, cofounder of Earth First! and now executive editor of the journal Wild Earth, welcomed the chance to cooperate with people from many organizations, and found the Clearcut education week to be constructive. “We’ve been a dysfunctional family of late,” he says of bickering environmental groups. “But there was a real willingness among everyone in D.C. to make a new start.”

Tim Hermach of the Native Forest Council, a “zero-cut” proponent and outspoken critic of the Sierra Club’s position, agreed. “The event was good,” he says. “It brought me face-to-face with some of the activists I’ve reviled in the past. I found common ground with them.”

Tensions will no doubt resurface among conservation groups as they continue working on many different ideological and political fronts to reform forestry practices. “But during the Clearcut exercise,” says Sierra Club Conservation Director Bruce Hamilton, “a lot of disagreements were put aside. We realized how much we have in common, and how much we stand to gain by working together.”

 

This article appeared in Sierra, July-August, 1994.