The Environmental Movement is failing. Through analysis of environmental news, issues, campaigns, organizations, coalitions and events, this blog critically examines the Environmental Movement and, in particular, the Environmental Establishment which dominates the Movement. In this way I seek to create a conversation and ultimately a shared vision of the change we need in the Movement - and in the Establishment - to reverse the decline of the Earth and its habitats.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Learning from Fire: The 2012 Fort Complex Fires on the Klamath National Forest

This KlamBlog features a report from a first time KlamBlog contributor. Luke Ruediger feels passionately about his home in the Upper Applegate River Valley near the Red Buttes Wilderness and Kangaroo Roadless Areas. But Luke goes beyond emotion. Operator of his own restoration company, Luke has studied the forests of the Klamath Mountains from the bottom up – applying on-the-ground experience and book knowledge – in order to gain a deep understanding.

When fire came to Luke’s “backyard” during the summer of 2012, he was concerned but also curious. Luke learned all he could from fire managers and – once the fire was contained – he ventured into the burned landscape to learn firsthand what the fire had done to the land and vegetation, as well as how the fire was fought, the consequences of the strategies and tactics employed by fire managers.

 View of the Goff Fire above Seiad Valley with Klamath River in the foreground.

Here is a link to Luke's Report. It is what I call the “natural history” of the Fort Complex Fires; since people are part of nature, the history of how the fire was fought is part of the story.

Unfortunately, fire histories like the one Luke has written about the Fort Complex are rare. Forest Service managers and firefighters do not like having the strategies and tactics they employed examined. The information that is shared by the Forest Service during a fire is of the public relations type; the details of how the fire was fought are obscured and difficult to obtain. Fire managers do not even map the areas they burn in backfires and burnouts’ making it difficult for anyone to study the manager’s discretionary suppression actions and the natural wildfires as distinct and different. As you will read below, however, wildfires and discretionary suppression fires often behave very differently in these Klamath Mountains and they have different impacts on land, vegetation and water.

Firefighters operating in wilderness and roadless backcountry are supposed to use Minimum Impact Suppression Tactics (MIST) in order to minimize impacts from suppression efforts. Links to several presentations of Minimum Impact Suppression Tactics are provided below.  Unfortunately, whether MIST is used or not is a local decision made by the forest supervisor and fire managers. In walking and studying every large fire which has burned in the Klamath Mountains since 1987, I've discovered that MIST was followed only in a few cases.

Typically firefighters have used the same strategies and tactics in wilderness and backcountry that they use where there are roads, homes and communities.  But, in spite of many miles of firelines, hot burnouts and massive backfires, firefighters have never successfully suppressed a Klamath Mountains wildfire which was burning in wilderness or roadless backcountry.  Since at least 1987 it has always been the coming of fall rain and snow which puts out the big backcountry fires.  

Because of the aggressive and destructive manner in which local Forest Service managers and firefighters have chosen to suppress fire in backcountry, I believe discretionary wildfire suppression is - along with livestock grazing -  the #1 factor degrading Klamath Mountains wilderness. Furthermore, aggressive wildfire suppression is inconsistent with the stated Forest Service goal of returning fire to a more natural role in the Klamath Mountains.

 Portion of the burnout along Portuguese Creek in the Kangaroo Roadless Area

Fire is a major force within the Klamath Mountains and throughout the American West; fire fighting and the impacts to land, water and vegetation that result from fire fighting are major and controversial. The natural histories of these wildfires make it possible for citizens and responsible officials to examine and learn from the wildfires and from efforts to manage and suppress them. Through open examination of fire fighting strategies and tactics at the community, agency, regional and (ultimately) national levels, we can learn how wildfire works and reform our approach to wildfire - including when, were and how we choose to "fight" them.


Follow this link to read Luke Ruediger's history of this year's Fort Complex Fires

Follow the links below to learn about Minimum Impact Suppression Tactics (MIST) 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why environmentalists should ban use of the word "pristine"

Have you noticed how much environmental organizations, environmental professionals and environmental activists use the word pristine?  It seems that anytime and enviro wants to protect something that something must be described as pristine.

In my neighborhood (the Klamath Mountains of Northwest California and SW Oregon) the term is regularly used to describe two of our rivers: The Smith and the Cal Salmon. Both rivers enjoy good water quality and both are strongholds for at risk salmon and steelhead. But neither the Smith nor the Cal Salmon is pristine

 Wooley Creek enters the Cal Salmon. While most of Wooley Creek is within National 
Forest Wilderness, even it has been impacted by roads, logging and cattle grazing.

During the Gold Rush, the Cal Salmon was dammed, diverted and the bed was turned over in search of "color" - as the miners referred to it. Whole hillsides were denuded of trees. During the 1970s and 1980s the US Forest Service built hundreds of miles of roads and clearcut thousands of acres of Old Growth Forest. Many of those roads failed in subsequent storms delivering millions of tons of sediment to the Salmon River and its tributaries. In the 5 years after the 1987 fires alone, 95 million board feet of timber was removed from the watershed.  The Cal Salmon is definitely not pristine.

The Smith River was also subjected to road building on steep unstable slopes and timber extraction through clearcutting. Fortunately, that destruction mostly ended with establishment of the Siskiyou Wilderness and the Smith River National Recreation Area by Congress. However, the Smith has a major US highway perched above one of its major forks from which diesel spills have occurred as well as lily bulb farms at the estuary which use more pounds of pesticides per acre than anywhere else in California. The Smith River is also not pristine.

Both the Cal Salmon and the Smith River are blessed with large areas of wilderness. As a result - and in spite of the indignities that have been visited on them by humans - the Smith and Cal Salmon still have some of the best water quality you can find in California. Both watersheds are among the few remaining stronghold for Wild Salmon. These are extremely important watersheds; but they are not pristine.  

Historical Critique

The penchant of environmentalists to misuse the term pristine has been noted - and criticized - by geographers and historians. The best known critique is probably contained in the book 1491 by Charles C. Mann. Another well known critique is William Denevan's 1992 scholarly article The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492.  

But the rethinking of assumptions underlying the Environmental Movement was pioneered by historian William Cronan. Cronan's The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature (which is also a chapter in the collection of essays he edited titled Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature). Cronan's article elicited howls of protest from the Environmental Establishment. The howls were so loud and the subsequent polarization into warring sides so strong, that dialogue and deep examination of the issue did not occur. Environmentalists continued (mis)using the term pristine and they continue (mis)using the term today. 

Indigenous Critique

Indigenous Americans (aka "Indians") reacted to the critique from historians with a resounding "duh!" The original inhabitants of North America, they tell us, have always known that wilderness is part of, not separate from, their society. 

The Indigenous critique is implicit in the work of Californian M. Cat Anderson. Her book - Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources - offers a wealth of information on the manner in which California's Indigenous inhabitants managed resources in what to white invaders was "howling wilderness". Anderson also helped republish a major work on Indigenous use of fire in North America: Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness. 

Rethinking Wilderness

While the Environmental Establishment ignored these critiques, a generation of college students learned about them and most came to consider the critiques as valid. As these students advance in the world of work they may take the critique into the Environmental Movement through the back door - or, more precisely, from the bottom up. I see evidence of that in books like Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.

I am a wilderness advocate. But that does not require me to deny that what today we recognize as wilderness was once part of the seamless world of Indigenous peoples. Rather I see the pristine myth as unnecessary baggage imported into the Environmental Movement from discredited western philosophies that sought to separate humans from nature - an enterprise which I think is the height of conceit - not to mention downright silly.

In my view, it would be a good thing if the critique of the pristine myth gains traction within the Environmental Establishment. The European conceit of humans as separate from nature is is an impediment to the Environmental and Indigenous Movements finding common ground and making common cause in preserving biodiversity. Moreover the pristine myth is not needed to make a compelling case for protecting more wilderness. 

Wilderness without the pristine myth
While wilderness is not and never has been pristine (synonyms include immaculate, primal, spotless, sanitary, stainless, unadulterated, uncorrupted, unsullied, untainted, untouched, and virginal), it is also not the same as the “dusty world” where humans live and work. Wilderness today may not be - to use words from the 1964 Wilderness Act - "untrammeled" but it is a place where a human "is a visitor who does not remain." 

Wilderness advocates do not need the pristine myth because we have the wild. As poet-philosopher Gary Snyder points out in his collection of essays The Practice of the Wild, ( wild land is self-willed land – land that is not dominated or controlled by humans. And while the wild is not confined to wilderness, it is in wilderness that we can most easily connect to the wild in nature and in ourselves. 

The confusion between wilderness and wild is rampant among environmentalists. It is equally rampant among those historians, geographers and indigenous thinkers who critique the myth of pristine wilderness. The Practice of the Wild is an excellent tool for sorting out the difference.

Partners for wilderness protection

In the essay Good, Wild, Sacred Gary Snyder points out that Indigenous peoples everywhere appreciate the wild; in all traditional cultures high and wild places are places of spirit and of powerIn the Klamath Mountains, for example, Indigenous natives recognized special places - places where one went alone to cry for power. Certain sacred places were clearly and intentionally not actively managed, some were forbidden to humans. Mount Shasta is such a place; for traditional natives, going to its sacred summit is forbidden.    

While it is undeniable that Indigenous Americans managed and manage their environment, it is also clear that they honored and still honor wild places as sacred.  No traditional Indigenous native would place a dwelling or locate a business on a sacred mountain.

Wilderness as a special place which is simultaneously part of the world and a place apart can and should serve as the basis for a united front by the Environmental and Indigenous Movements in the struggle to protect those portions of the earth in which natural ecological processes still function with integrity. The persistence of the pristine myth within the Environmental Movement is an impediment to that collaboration.

In the US federally designated wilderness is to remain "without permanent improvements or human habitation” and is to be “managed so as to preserve its natural condition." Traditional Indigenous uses are part of that “natural condition” and can be accommodated by wilderness managers in compliance with applicable law and without compromising the integrity of the wilderness.

Wilderness areas are also reservoir of biodiversity where natural processes can function properly, that is, in a wild way. This too is an objective on which the Environmental and Indigenous Movements can find common ground and purpose. Preserving biodiversity corresponds closely with the Indigenous concept of respect for all creation.

In conclusion

Wilderness areas provide opportunities for humans to cultivate humility - a virtue which is in short supply these days on this planet. The Myth of the Pristine derives from the particular form of hubris which emerged within western European philosophy. It is in its essence the antithesis of humility. In the spirit of humility, let's get rid of it!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Why I'm writing this blog and what I hope to achieve


I'm Felice Pace; Bearitude in Black is my blog about the state of the Environmental Movement. By reporting and commenting on environmental issues, environmental history and the environmental establishment, this blog will examine where the Movement has been, where it is now and where it is going.

I'm writing the blog because I think the Environmental Movement is in trouble. Simply put, we are not getting the job done. The Earth and its habitats are in trouble and - in spite of the many "victories" proclaimed by the Environmental Establishment on a regular basis - we are losing ground. 

The fact that as a Movement we are failing demands deep examination and deep change. I don't see that least not very much. At its core, Bearitude in Black aims to advance a conversation about the change we need within the Environmental Movement in order to reverse the decline of the Earth and its habitats: What changes are needed in order for the Earth to begin to gain ground?    

My perspective is that of a veteran grassroots activist and campaigner. For many years, I was a grassroots environmental professional: founder, conservation director and executive director with the Klamath Forest Alliance. I am still a KFA volunteer activist and core group member. 

The blog name Bearitude in Black refers to my totem animal and to my history within the Environmental Movement. In a much read article on the Forest Protection Movement, I was referred to some time back as "Problem Bear". The description was apt then and remains so today; I am not about to go along with manipulated processes or with efforts not based in democratically derived strategy and tactics. I am, however, ready and eager to join with others to develop shared strategy, shared campaigns and shared action. 

These days I also work with the North Group of the Sierra Club Redwood Chapter where I am "water chair" and a member of the Executive Committee. I'm with the Sierra Club because it has a democratic structure and therefore can be changed by its grassroots members. It is difficult to change other Environmental Establishment organizations which are governed by independent and insulated boards comprised chiefly of "one percenters" (elite corporate insiders). 

I also currently coordinate a project for EPIC (the Environmental Protection Information Center), KFA and Wilderness Watch which aims to reform livestock grazing practices and management on public lands in Northern California. We are currently focused on grazing reform within designated and de facto wilderness on the Klamath National Forest.

I still help a bit  with forest watch (within the Klamath River Basin) and more broadly with forest policy, and I still study what I call "the natural and human history of large Klamath Mountains wildfires." 

I'm a Clean Water Activist too focusing on controlling agricultural pollution on California's Northcoast, the Klamath River Basin and especially within the Scott River Basin - a major Klamath tributary and my home for many years.  

As editor and chief writer for KlamBlog, I work to uncover and reveal to the people and press decisions being made behind closed doors which impact Klamath River Communities and Public Trust Resources (water, land and wildlife). KlamBlog also uncovers restoration boondoggles and other hidden misuses of taxpayer funds. 

Most of my work these days is unpaid; I survive on social security, a bit of substitute teaching and occasional paid environmental work. For the most part, I've foresworn foundation funding because these days many of the foundations funding environmental organizations seek in one way or another to control the work of those they fund. I prefer to be independent so that I can freely call the shots as I see them - including naming names when I believe that is needed. I do welcome financial support from foundations that do not meddle in the work...and from individuals.   

If you are someone who wants to reverse the decline of the Earth and its habitats I hope you will follow this blog and share your perspectives in comments on the posts. Through shared analysis and perspective we can build momentum - a flow and force which, when joined with other streams, will create the change we need within the Environmental Establishment and within the broader Environmental Movement.