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Where I Stand: Library as Bellwether

By Scott Corey


As I write, Quincy, California is under evacuation warning due to the Dixie Fire.  A row of bags sits in my living room, ready to go into the pickup truck outside my door.  But my mind is on The Affair of the Necklace, the scandal of Rasputin, and the Quincy Public Library.

Great upheavals are often foreshadowed by symbolic events that crystalize the corruption of the existing order.  A decadent necklace stolen by fraud warned of the French Revolution, and Rasputin “the mad monk” was a harbinger of the Russian Revolution.  If the Quincy library burns, it will stand as proof that betrayals by the environmental movement, the courts, the government, and Donald Trump have triumphed over justice, good sense, nature, and sanity.

Environmentalists justifiably summoned popular and political outrage against the clear cutting habits of the Reagan years.  As the court battles and confrontations heated California, three men in Quincy, a logger, an environmentalist, and a townie, decided to seek a compromise forest policy.  They met in the library on the grounds that it was the only place they would not yell at one another.  Others joined subsequent meetings, but until the principle of balance and open discussion was established, anyone who came from one of the factions had to bring two people with them – one from each of the other groups.

This participatory democracy soon concluded that the key to forest policy was fire.  Century old photos showed our forest had trees 20 and 30 feet apart with high branches, while the current forest is growing tightly and tangled to the ground.  Maidu natives recalled when their people used burning to manage the fire-durable forest now lost to us.  Also, a long successful model of sustainable forestry already existed in the county.

The Quincy Library Group (QLG) proposed a policy of using three forest categories.  Defense of towns would justify the great expense of prescribed burns.  Areas such as wilderness land would remain undisturbed.  The remainder would be logged by “individual selection” of trees, and the brush cleared.

Within a few years, forest science throughout the globe had changed its theories in light of QLG’s advocacy.  QLG wrote a bill to enact the policy.  It was carried by conservative Congressman Wally Herger in the House, and by liberal Senator Dianne Feinstein in the Senate, passed both houses, and was signed into law.

The major environmental groups (Big Green, as Alexander Cockburn called them) backed QLG until it succeeded.  Then, they decided it was more important to prevent local greens from formulating independent solutions than to actually save the forest – power over problem solving.  Betrayal on the Left.  In federal court, QLG prevailed on the strength of expert witnesses, surprising the nationals who were accustomed to having science on their side.  However, on appeal, a federal panel told the Forest Service that it erred because it did not undertake levels of review absurdly beyond what the law required.  QLG declined to fight on, lacking the funds to do so.

Big Green’s agenda became entrenched in government.  Federal and state prosecutors struck back against the people of Plumas County for their attempt to protect the Northern Sierra ecology, suing several defendants over the Moonlight Fire, aiming to win $1 billion.  One defendant settled at the federal level, but in state court, the case exploded into one of the worse legal corruption cases in US history.  Two federal prosecutors denounced the previous Department of Justice case for unethical behavior.  A state judge leveled the highest fine against a government body in US history, citing witness tampering, suppressing evidence, falsifying evidence, diverting funds to “off book” accounts, and lying under oath.  When the defendants went back to the federal level, the court recused every single judge in the circuit, appointing an outside judge who ultimately declined to reopen the earlier settlement.

Under the threat of endless lawsuits, logging in the Plumas National Forest (largest in the contiguous 48 states) declined to insignificance.  Within a mile of my home were places where I could walk a hundred yards on dead trees without putting my feet on the ground.  Climate change dried the forest and lengthened the fire season.  Lightning and PG&E criminality provided the sparks.  Fire fighters struggled against worsening odds.  And so, we burn…Storrie, Chips, Moonlight, Minerva, Camp, Beckwourth, and now the Dixie.  Sitting at the top of the Feather River Canyon, we lost our neighbor at the mouth of the Canyon in Paradise.

This is the sort of substantive outrage that lies behind rural anger.  It seemed to many of my conservative friends that Donald Trump was the price of being heard.  I did not vote for him, but listening to myself being demonized on NPR, or in The Nation as if living outside the cities made me a Klansman, while having our substantive interests ignored by mainstream Republicans, I completely understand why my county split 60-40 for Trump.

What good did it do?  On his watch, the Minerva Fire burned the ridge South of Quincy, choking us with smoke for weeks.  During the North Complex, I was evacuated, and lived in the basement of the human services nonprofit where I worked.  While that monster was being “managed,” the wind shifted and the fire devoured 15 people in one gulp.

What did Mr. Trump have to say about it all?  He blamed California for not “sweeping” or “raking” the national forests.  Betrayal on the Right.

Starting last spring, the logging trucks flooded the roads.  Dead trees feed the burgeoning insect threat, and loggers can buy charred logs at a fraction of the cost of green ones.  The new rule of forest management in America?

You can’t cut the trees to save the forest.  You have to destroy the forest first.  Then you can cut the trees.

Here in the burning mountains, we are not knuckle dragging hate mongers too busy marrying our cousins to hear the chorus of bicoastal disdain.  We suffer from the same systematic failure that blocks any problem solving approach to police reform, immigration policy, competition with China, gun policy, racial justice, banking regulation – add all you want to the list.  It is not so much a structural issue as a disease of the political culture wherein the greatest wisdom is held to be:

Never solve a problem while it generates anger you can exploit.

If the Quincy Library burns, it will symbolize the defeat of America’s genius for practical political compromise.  We have always been contentious.  George Washington had to sneak out of his residence for months to avoid riots in front of his home.  White people were fighting each other over Black freedom before the ink was dry on the Constitution.  We have always found ways to come to grips with the substance of our problems, no matter how long it took, or how many missteps and partial solutions we chose.  Will we now hand our fate to those who wrap themselves in social justice to burn the cities, and those who wrap themselves in red, white, and blue to defile Congress?

Is the Library burning?

Scott Corey holds a PhD in Political Science from UC Berkeley and has lived in Plumas County for over 20 years.

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