North Central Washington

Environmental Ethics - Anonymous Forester

Two working definitions for this essay: (1) Ethics are morals, customs and culture that guide our behavior in society; and (2) land stewards are guided by environmental ethics.

United States citizens are owners of the National Forests and Grasslands, and the Forest Service manages those lands under a guiding vision.

"Caring for the land and serving the people." - FS motto. "Only you can prevent forest fires." - Smokey the Bear.

These two well-known Forest Service phrases embody environmental ethics. But without ethics, such visions can become misguided. The 1994 fire season in Washington and Idaho was dominated by the Forest Service's news that this was a fire of Biblical proportions.

The term "ethics" is usually defined in terms of social interactions and standards of professional conduct. Environmental ethics extends such standards toward the natural world, and is an additional reminder that we will pass our heritage on someday. This is exemplefied in the Forest Service motto, "caring for the land and serving the people", which implies an awareness of future generations, and acknowledges the importance of thoughtful management of the land.

But there is a generation gap in the interpretation of environmental ethics, because different generations pass through different collective formative processes. For my father it was Pearl Harbor and food rationing, for me it was the Vietnam War, and President Kennedy, and for this generation it is the Challenger disaster and the Gulf War, with all the glitz of computers and technology.

Admittedly, our US culture is dominated by team players. This is strange, considering that we used to have a tradition of Yankee ingenuity. Loners who go against the dogma tend to be singled out for ridicule. We have become narrow-minded.

In 1915, Alfred Wegener, a German meterologist, put forth a statistical argument for continental drift, which was largely ignored and generally made the butt of jokes in the geological world, along with its author, up until his final days. Ironically, his theories were vindicated during the Cold War when the submarine Glomar Challenger gathering geological data as a front for underwater subterfuge with the Russians.

Geologist J Harlan Bretz proposed that colossal ice age floods once roared over Washington. His theories were mocked by the heads of the Geological Societies for decades, but ultimately he was vindicated when the castigators finally saw the evidence in person. A primary factor in the blindness of the other geologists was a fear that Bretz's floods were in reference to the Biblical flood. Blinded by their own dogma, they failed to appreciate the obvious. Alas, these lessons are quickly forgotton.

Today we have an unproductive monkey war raging between supporters of Darwin's theory of natural selection and advocates of intelligent design. Under the banner of the intelligent designers, Michael Behe has found holes in the theory of natural selection. He has proposed a sweeping theory, "irreducible complexity", that among other things, proposes that natural selection is statistically improbable.

Michael Behe has painted himself into a difficult corner, where he is being attacked on multiple fronts. But there are parts of his theory that we should take heed of. His logic was correct in following Occam's razor and making the least assumptions, and it was correct to point out that natural selection alone is not enough to explain the world's diversity. I feel sorry for Behe and do not wish give him another back handed compliment, so I will leave off criticising him for now.

But I feel even more sorrow for his antagonists, who resort to personal attack, and ridicule, while failing to see that they too, have gaping holes in their clothing.

The problem is that both sides are arguing black or white and the world is colored. There is a huge amount of Darwin worship going on in the halls of science, and it is causing myopia. If anyone should be open minded, it is scientists. Even if they realize there are alternatives to natural selection, they apparently aren't willing to abandon their dogmatic positions.

More recently, scientists are squabbling with climate change skeptics. The scientists were so convinced of the absolute immediacy of their theories, that they didn't notice a tiny hole in the bottom of their boat. This time, the skeptics won, and even if the world is going to perish from global warming, we killed the messenger. Or rather they killed themselves.

Our culture is linear, historical. A cyclical culture of death and rebirth like some of those of Native Americans, based on seasons and climate, and living closer to the environment, were able to practice environmental ethics long before Europeans had anything but a vague idea of "taming the wilderness" and "manifest destiny". We are still grappling with the repurcussions of land deals made during the Civil War years, which in saving the Union, left us our twisted legacy of railroad land grants (now a giant logging empire allowing corporate rape of the land) and the land grant colleges (allowing the the states and our children to have the same rape rights as the private sector).

"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein

I was there when Jeff DeBonis brought down the house with his DG message to ALL (translation, he sent a computer message to all Forest Service Employees) questioning our blind acceptance of the status quo, which was and still is, clearcutting. I followed his messages avidly over the next few months, and also intercepted a few memoranda from Congress to "shut that kid from Oregon up". But it was too late. Jeff had done the rare thing and gone high profile, and was too visible for the usual agency squelching. He was our local hero among the rank and file, able to stand up and speak honestly without recrimination from his immediate supervisors. When he formed the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (AFSEEE), most of us kept our memberships secret.

"Great spirits have often encountered violent opposition from weak minds." - Albert Einstein

What Jeff did was to intensely focus the energy of the Forest Service workers in a profound way. Although the dinosaurs, as we call them, are still in control of the agency, every day they must now fight to salvage their eroding power base, big timber, from young challengers and biologists. Because timber was such a powerful driver for management starting in the 1950s, an entire Forest Service culture and heirarchy was built around logging. What does it mean to have environmental ethics in the Forest Service? If you were born before 1950, your job was to "get the cut out", and environmental ethics is a constraint and its proponents "culls". If you were born after 1950, environmental ethics is still a whispered word, along with the other E-word, ecology.

The Forest Service actually had to have an order from the Chief, Jack Ward Thomas, to "tell the truth, obey the law and practice ecosystem management". The fact that such a statement was necessary indicates the degree of corruption within the agency. Probably Chief Thomas is viewed as a traitor by some in the agency. As incredible as this may seem, consistent disregard for its own laws by the Forest Service was noted by Ninth Circuit Court Judge Dwyer as in a recent lawsuit.

"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the the universe." - Albert Einstein

When this essay was originally written in the 1990s, the Forest Service still had some of the old timber beasts, old men with degrees in forestry from land grant colleges. The old guard were in charge of maintaining their brand of ethics and professionalism, which was fraught with cronyism. Caught between agry loggers and environmentalists, they were not open to new interpretations. But they are largely gone now, casualties of the death of the timber industry and land grant forestry programs. Will the new foresters be open to different interpretations from the ones they were taught?

The old boys used to say, "Clearcutting mimics fire", "Ugly clearcuts are good for wildlife habitat", "That's not a clearcut, its a shelterwood harvest", "There are more trees now than 100 years ago" [but they're five feet tall], "That is beyond the scope of the document."

"Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal." - Albert Einstein

In Civil War America, it was not only unethical, but also illegal to help slaves to escape, as this was legally treated as property theft. Yet today we view the Underground Railroad as heroic and admirable, while condemning the unenlightened of the time.

So while legal and social codes may guide our ethics, history may or may not forgive those who act on best judgement in times of crisis. Whether ordered by their bosses to cut down a stand of old growth or quell the climate skeptics, closed minds and paternalistic, team-spirited, heirarchical systems are counter productive. Even though the foresters see their role as serving the country by clearcutting messy old growth forests, the public at large sees an ideological battle.

But if blind obedience is dangerous to society and the environment, then what of the lone assasins, the Unabombers, the Lee Harvey Oswalds, who decide to take matters into their hands, but whose actions still rank as cowardly? And what about the Ayatollah Khomeinis and Gary Powers of the world who are viewed as heroes by one group and villains in another? How is the individual to know if the company line is more right than the clarion call to follow one's own path? How does the example of mass prejudice differ from that of the lone psychopath? One obvious difference is that the Unabomber's actions were his alone, but in group situations there is a constant pressure to get a group consensus, often under duress, or threat of violence to certain members.

In the Forest Service, coercion from superiors takes the form of implied threats of job loss, which are very effective since most of the work in the agency is done by a seasonal workforce with little tenure, and the Forest Service is often the only large employer in an area. On the other hand, groups usually are open about their motives, whereas individuals may act in secret. Both the disgruntled forester, who looks the other way at timber theft, as well as the environmentalist spiking trees, may be true to their own ethics, even while going against the mores of society.

The new generation of Forest Service workers wants to have its chance at making good the agency promises of a century ago. But now Congress is running the Forest Service like a puppet on a string. Certain members of Congress have either ignorance or blind ideology to base their rationale on, and it has nothing to do with reality or biology. It is usually about greed and power, and a belief of one's own righteousness. It is up to the Forest Service employees to speak up when they see ideology ruling over rationalism.

There are several ways to address environmental ethics in the National Forests and Grasslands:

1. Admit we sometimes fail. As a nation even Congress makes mistakes. In time these failures will be the base to build the next generation on.

2. Educate yourselves and your children.

3. Build constituencies. Grassroots efforts work well, even if there is a tendency to go easy on your neighbors who are doing the wrong thing. Talk and write about Forest Service projects.

4. Publicize what is happening. Monitor, photograph and document what you see. Find out what the problem is. Only rarely are problems due to incompetence, more often it is overzealous bean counting that causes the most problems.

5. Write your representatives regularly.

6. Carry a big stick. When all else fails, take advantage of the legal system.