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Letter to the Editor: Lorax or Avatar? Reframing the Forest Health Debate

Some local activists are criticizing the new, active approach to forest and watershed health.  So much could and has been said about the science and the values involved, but I am going to try something different.  I’d like to reframe the debate by asking a question that draws on popular culture: “Is your support for the mountain environment in the spirit of “The Lorax,” or the spirit of “Avatar?”

The book and movie The Lorax criticized logging and greed at a time when national policy promoted massive clearcutting.  However, the underlying message was more durable.  The endearing Dr. Suess creature urged us to “listen” to the forest.

In this spirit, goals and priorities evolve with the discovered needs of the land.  The Audubon Society funded the planning phase of the project that will thin a large area from the south edge of Quincy to Claremont.  Sierra Forest Legacy, once a vigorous opponent of the Quincy Library Group, joined with other conservancy organizations in asking that, “…the Forest Service ramps up the pace and scale of needed actions…” in the forest.

Avatar, on the other hand, partakes of an ideology that casts technology, private enterprise, and environmental damage as a three headed monster that must be slain.  Heedless of new understanding about these problems, the imperative is to maintain a Manichean division between virtuous “eco-warriors” and condemnable “eco-criminals.”  In the movies, the (not at all hidden) message is that humanity itself is an enemy that cannot be reformed.

If we are paying attention to the land, it is telling us that we are killing it with political ideology.  A dozen years of clearcutting was not sustainable.  Decades of stoking “restorative fire” brought wildfire so intensive, extensive, and repetitive that there is no reasonable expectation of the land recovering the way it has in the past without help from the society that hurt it.

If the Avatar-minded activists want to resuscitate yesterday’s battles, they will need to account for today’s facts.  Claiming that work to restore healthy conditions in our forests and watersheds is nothing but a “smokescreen” for profit-seeking loggers is absurd.  There is almost no market for logs or chips today.  Mills have all they can handle from post-fire salvage work on their own land.  Current work is for the sake of the land and the people who live in it, and if the day returns when anything saleable is produced, that will support the effort.

Denouncing the carbon emissions of heavy equipment is no excuse for failing to help the land.  Thanks to a global effort, the hole in the ozone layer has been shrinking for years, and the latest UN study expects it to heal by 2040 – yet climate turbulence still rages.  Depicting our mountains as suffering from climate change ignores how past practice has made them one of the diverse engines of a disturbed climate.

Our mountains have become engines of drought.  Deeply trenched meadows speed spring waters down to the ocean, then overgrown forests transpire water into the dry sky all summer long.

They have become engines of fire.  Degraded meadows that once stayed wet late into the year are now poor firebreaks, and the competition among densely packed trees makes each too dry to be durable.

They drain carbon away.  Burning trees shed carbon, and drought adapted grasses lack the deep, carbon rich roots of the vegetation they replace.

They do not restore themselves.  Brushland and thistle only burns again, killing saplings and, in other states, brush fire engulfing whole towns.

We have tried taking without giving.  We have tried pretending that letting it all burn would fool “pristine” nature into thinking we are not here.  Listen to the land.  If we want to survive, if we want the land as we know it to survive, we need to give something back.

Disclosure: I work for Plumas Corporation, a natural resources nonprofit.  Opinions expressed here are solely my own.

Scott Corey


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