J. Patrick Quinn
“The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” I borrowed this powerful quote and incorporated it into the conclusion of the climate change portion of a timber sale protest that was delivered, on behalf of Umpqua Watersheds, to the Swiftwater Field Office of the Roseburg BLM District, on November 28. Those words were written by President Abraham Lincoln and were included in a message sent to Congress on December 1, 1862 during a dark time in the history of our country. The nation was deep into an existential crisis. The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October was followed by a recent and equally dire report compiled by some thirteen U.S. Government Agencies. These words are as compelling, but with apologies to Honest Abe, a person might consider rephrasing the last phrase to read: “…and then we shall save ourselves and our world.”
Supporters of Umpqua Watersheds are aware that the present “…occasion is piled high with difficulty,…” We are now facing our own existential challenge: either reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) pumped into Earth’s atmosphere or civilization may become unrecognizable or cease to exist. The pressures to life on Earth will mount and iconic species will ultimately disappear, and humans may follow. Limiting or ending most GHG emissions as soon as possible is paramount, however, given current and persistent political and fossil fuel industry obstruction, this has proven to be a tough “row to hoe.” The natural disasters the world has witnessed lately, will hopefully increase public pressure to force governments and industries to act in effective ways before it is too late to prevent the worst.
Key to getting climate change under control involves the conservation and/or restoration of carbon sinks. Sequestration is a benefit of high functioning old growth and mature forest and empirical scientific research has shown that conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest are some of the very best at “carbon sinks.” They absorb GHG and store it and the threat of large wildfires doesn’t obviate the storage of half of this basic equation. When an older stand burns, even if it burns intensely, most of its stored carbon remains unless it is removed as part of a post-fire salvage. UW has presented BLM with the following excerpt from the publication, Oregon Forest Carbon Policy, V1.0 12-11-17, prepared by Mr. John Talberth, PhD., President and Senior Economist with the Center for Sustainable Economy, in Portland, Oregon: “Timber harvesting is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon taking into account (1) stored carbon removed from site and lost in the wood products manufacturing process and subsequent decay of final products; (2) the lost sequestration capacity of clearcut lands and logging roads, and; (3) emissions associated with decay of logging debris.”
The UW Conservation Committee has constantly urged the BLM to take this threat seriously when it formulates its management plans. The agency responds by downplaying the short term impacts of their projects. Negative contributions to climate change attributable to the carbon released by one particular timber sale might not be detectable when measured on the worldwide scale, but added to the many extractive actions and these impacts compound. They become what is referred to in the National Environmental Policy Act as “cumulative.” Added to the impacts from all of the clear cuts on private industrial timberlands and the carbon cost to climate stability substantially accumulates. Numerous degrading environmental impacts have been accumulating on the watersheds of our county, state and region for many decades. These include diminished summer streamflows, excessive winter peak flows, gross simplification of biodiversity, obvious and severe disruption of habitat connectivity, poisoning of air and water by aerial application of pesticides, seemingly endless forest road construction etc. These impacts are harmful and clearly visible on the checkerboard of alternating ownerships.
The nesting and reproductive success of the Northern Spotted Owl in 2018 on the Roseburg BLM was near zero and includes the large area that encompasses the timber sale we have just protested. Regionally, nesting and reproduction in 2018 was non-existent on all other NSO study areas in Oregon. Increased competition from the larger and more aggressive Barred Owl has been a significant factor in the NSO’s long slide downward. Studies on the NSO indicate that increased habitat protections would forestall the impact that the Barred Owl has on Spotted Owl populations as well as many keystone species teetering on the edge of extinction. BLM response to our concerns: Oh, not to worry. This little bit more won’t hurt. Cumulative. That is our answer to BLM. The ecological fallout from widespread environmental degradation across our region over decades has continued to accumulate, to the detriment not only of wildlife, but for human beings and our communities. From its very inception during the Great Depression, the O&C Act was charged with protecting watersheds, regulating streamflows and providing for recreation. We have insisted that the BLM raise the alarm and speak up loudly and forcefully about the suite of harmful practices imposed on the shared watersheds of our region by large and increasingly short rotation, private industrial clear cuts created under aegis of the retrograde Oregon Forest Practices Act. In reply, BLM offers silence. As we have opined to them, in comments, protests and appeals: UW interprets BLM’s silence as its assent. We will continue to protest this disappointing stance.
In addition to the long list of conservation challenges facing volunteers at UW (time, money, and energy), there remains a personal, emotional, intellectual and spiritual challenge. We must not allow the deluge of bad news about the natural world to dampen our hopes for a saner and more sustainable future. We must guard ourselves and our compatriots from slipping into cynicism or despair. And life-long conservationists must do the very best to encourage young people to engage in a determined, yet optimistic way. For all of us, there can be no curling fetal position under the covers nor caving to what may sometimes feel inevitable. Neither waiting passively for the descent of some earthly paradise or for the express elevator to “pie in the sky” will do. There will be no deliverance by Deus ex machina. This Earth is the paradise we have inherited. It is the only one we know. In the words of Abe Lincoln “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”