A Bunch of Shrubbish
August 28, 2002

Maria Tomchick

On the day that George W. Bush was speaking to a group of loggers in Central Point, Oregon, about loosening the rules for logging on public lands, I was hiking in the Olympic National Forest.

Every August, I get a couple of weeks of vacation, and my first urge is to find trees, big trees, the kind of trees I remember from when I was a girl growing up in rural Pierce County.

Those trees are not so easy to find these days. I can't bring myself to visit Puyallup, Graham, Orting, or Roy much anymore because it's too painful to see the strip malls and housing developments that have replaced the big trees. Even the farms that once filled the Puyallup Valley from Renton to Tacoma are mostly gone, replaced by acres of warehouses, row upon row of look-alike townhouses, and high-tech telecom facilities (that now sit largely empty).

It's easier for me to head west and away from the Cascades, to land I'm not as familiar with, to places that have converted from logging towns to tourist villas. So I end up on Hood Canal and the Olympic Peninsula.

Near Hood Canal, the Olympic National Park's border is surrounded by the Olympic National Forest. It's a prime spot to see what the National Forest Service has been doing for the past decade, and to compare it to what real, mature, old-growth forest inside the Olympic National Park looks like.

You can literally see the park boundary. You know the moment you've crossed it. The checkerboard of clearcuts alternating with match-stick trees disappears. Inside the park you can feel that you've entered a world that's alive. It's as if you've stepped onto the belly of a giant organism that's breathing, drawing in a slow, deep breath, the ground slowly, infinitesimally swelling beneath your feet. You wait and wait for the exhale, but it never comes, because the breath is still being drawn. It started centuries ago. It makes you feel small and insignificant--no more important than a bird or a beetle or a fish swimming in the Skokomish River.

It takes me back to being a child, and I love it.

In the national forest, however, such places are almost gone. Some popular hiking trails have been obliterated by clearcuts and road-building. The only mature forests--you can't really call them old growth, in comparison to the park's old growth--are left on steep mountainsides, difficult to log, and, in many cases, difficult to hike. They're lovely hikes, nevertheless--what little you can see of the trees as you sweat and strain and scramble upwards, only to be rewarded with a view that shows you just how bad the clearcuts really are.

When Bill Clinton signed the Salvage Logging Rider, it gave the Forest Service permission to "manage" our national forests to largely benefit commercial logging interests. Clearcuts continued unabated, and it was only the work of a few environmental groups suing in the courts and the direct action of environmental activists--those folks the Bush administration have wrongly labeled "ecoterrorists"--who slowed it down. The "thinning" that was done involved taking out the biggest, most commercially viable trees in a stand and leaving behind the small, toothpick trees behind.

Those tiny trees provide no shade to speak of, and so underbrush has multiplied, creating a choking, groundlevel brush that turns tinder-dry during a hot, dry summer like we've had this year. Contrast that with the mature forest in places like the Olympic National Park, where enormous, old-growth trees provide deep shade and the ground is largely bare (it can even be hard to find the trail sometimes, since the dirt path looks the same as the forest floor). Scratch the ground with the heel of your boot, and you find it moist. The air is damp and cool, mushrooms grow easily, and moss clings to the trees, even when the forest hasn't seen rain for over a month. But the forest still has the fog--heavy, dewy, shroud-like fog drawn off the water by the big trees themselves, as if they could summon a drink whenever they feel like it. While the sun burns that moisture right out of the shrubby land and spindly trees in the lower elevations, the national park's old-growth trees hold the moisture, and provide the best safeguard against fire of any kind.

So George W.'s argument that thinning trees off the national forests is bullshit. Such talk is code for "more clearcuts for my pals at Boise Cascade." They now want everything--big trees, little trees, even the stuff they used to consider trash. Anything to keep the mills running.

George W. understands forests about as much as he understands quantum physics. It's the thinning of mature trees over the past decade coupled with the clearcuts on public and private lands that have made this year's savage wildfires possible. George W. is not providing balm to the folks whose houses have been destroyed. No, he's lining his pocket with contributions from commercial logging interests.

As George W. stands in a burned-out area, kicking ash with the toe of his expensive cowboy boots, you can bet he's never seen a real rainforest. He doesn't have the time. His tour to Oregon and California is filled with million-dollar fundraising dinners for Republican candidates, all scheduled in quick succession to raise as much money as possible before the new, stricter campaign finance rules take effect. The camera bulbs flash, the TV screens flicker, the sound bites air, and the newspapers run his words verbatim without a hint of irony or question.

Meanwhile, the real story goes untold. Facts are not important. A spokesman from the Pacific Biodiversity Institute in Winthrop, Washington, does a little investigation of his own and finds that over the past decade, only 20% of the lands burned in wildfires was national forest land. The rest were private lands, tribal lands, and other types of public lands--and much of those were grasslands and areas covered in shrubs or other low-growing vegetation. This study has largely been ignored.

We better start paying attention, making noise, speaking the truth. We need to go out and see for ourselves what the Forest Service and commercial logging interests--the real ecoterrorists--have already done to our lands.

If we don't, our national forest lands could soon be reduced to shrublands, as the Shrub-in-Chief obviously intends.