The Final Forest: Big Trees, Forks, and the Pacific Northwest
November 4, 2013
Review By Emily Davis
Telling the story of the timber wars in the national forests of the Pacific Northwest is a task that has moved from journalism to history, William Dietrich suggests in this 2010 edition of The Final Forest, which features a new prologue and afterword. But it is a history that remains salient, for we “are not finished arguing about forests, and the final forest still has things to tell us about ourselves.” Dietrich’s original (1990) version of this book saw the science journalist from the Seattle Times stumbling through hillsides of slash to witness logging operations on Washington State’s rugged coast and artfully tracing the legal, political, and cultural contours of the debates over how to manage old-growth lands and for what values. Each chapter was a vignette that followed people and brought forth their own words, from local truckers to the scientist who first discovered that northern spotted owls need old Douglas fir trees to survive. This work demanded a tremendous deal of research best described as ethnographic, yet the result was flowing and graceful prose uncluttered by footnotes. It was largely intended for “the popular audience” but countless scholars from diverse fields have read and referenced his account (e.g., Satterfield 2002; Pralle 2006; Klingle 2003; Ribe 2002).
This recent re-release sandwiches Dietrich’s past endeavour with fresh dispatches from Forks, Washington, the community that he chose as a lens for documenting the human and social impacts of the abrupt transformation of the forest industry in the Pacific Northwest. Since the late 1980s, when national forests were “shut down” by new environmental regulations, many rural communities have suffered economic downturn and social dislocation. Akin to the final notes that roll before the credits of a movie, Dietrich returns to tell us where the forests and people that he profiled are today. The exercise lacks the inexplicable satisfaction that goes with seeing plot lines wrapped up while jaunty music plays. While some of the characters go to school or find new homes, some are not so fortunate – like the husband and wife who lose their trucking business, with her taking a job at Subway. It is a common story for timber towns in the Pacific Northwest. The exception in Forks is that fiction author Stephenie Meyer situated her stories of vampires in this town, and they became a global obsession that would engender pilgrimages and economic activity. But many forest-based communities, told they could rebound through tourism and recreation, either were never able to or did not truly want to turn their towns around to sell them to visitors. Some of those who succeeded found revival in new residents and new activities but also endured the frustration of not being able to do what they knew best, having, instead, to be content with earning service-sector wages serving coffee to the passerby. Dietrich captures well the angst of people who were on the cusp of being cut off from family-wage jobs and a sense of community, while also reminding us that logging was a dangerous, dirty occupation.
Dietrich also succeeds in depicting the ever-changing, dynamic forest in nuanced shades. Although the landscapes surrounding towns like Forks are often spectacular, they also tend to contain clear-cuts, plantations, and other features of heavily logged and regenerating areas that much of the general public does not want to associate with the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Yet the Twilight film adaptation of Meyers novels (largely filmed in Oregon, not Forks) relies on vivid, awesome wilderness. It sends its hero and heroine flying up firs as tall as skyscrapers and lounging lovestruck in the deep green glow of an unmistakably old-growth forest. Aside from a brief shot of a logging truck, the economic past and current realities of the town are merely shadowy contributors to the overall atmosphere that one expects in a story about vampires. There is little impetus to background such a grand romance with something as assumedly mundane and tame as a tree farm. Environmental groups that engaged in litigation to prevent old-growth logging in the 1980s and 1990s had a similar kind of lens. On behalf of an owl, they sought to freeze-frame the Douglas fir forest at its most mature stage. But how right is it to try to stop natural cycles of life and death? And how much power do we have to do so?
Moreover, an overlooked contribution of this book is the evidence it offers of how natural disturbance has determined the geography of the forest industry. Forks was a remote hardscrabble agricultural community until a massive blowdown in 1933 necessitated the opening of the area to salvage logging. Large wildfires and the devastation caused by the eruption of Mount St. Helens all provided opportunities to work in the woods. Since the publication of The Final Forest, the Northwest Forest Plan, adopted in 1994, has instituted a new system of ecosystem-based forest management for all Pacific Northwest forests. However, partly as a result of less active harvesting, concern over uncharacteristically severe wildfires has driven much of the policy change that then followed the plan. The Forest Service now emphasizes “landscape-scale restoration” to thin forests that have grown dense, brushy, and more prone to fire than they were in the past. It is a disappointment, then, that Dietrich does not return to this theme of disturbance at any length in his new prologue and afterword. This would have allowed him to comment on the constraints and opportunities that the paradigm of ecosystem management and restoration offers for US forest-based communities and those who study and work on their behalf today (see Hibbard and Karle 2002). To start to fill this gap, one might read this book in tandem with Alston Chase’s Playing God in Yellowstone (1986) and In a Dark Wood (1995). Chase, who, like Dietrich, began his research with the intention of documenting the story of the wars in the woods, ultimately delved far deeper into the assumptions about nature and culture that lay behind ecosystem management (and was denounced by both the Reagan administration and environmental interests for doing so).
The Final Forest may also be a distant cousin to John Vaillant’s popular The Golden Spruce. Like Dietrich, Vaillant brings to life the grandeur of forests and the inner realms of human lives, but from a different context. In British Columbia, the “wars of the woods” halted old-growth logging in Clayoquot Sound in 1993, but they have not led to a similar transformation of Crown land management and public participation across the province. Thus, a man who wanted to protest logging in British Columbia felled a special tree to have his say, while his southern neighbours took to the courts. In 2001, geographers Scott Prudham and Maureen Reed argued that environmental groups had framed British Columbia as being roughly fifteen years “behind” the US Pacific Northwest in moving away from a heavily forest-based economy (Prudham and Reed 2001). I would suggest that vertical integration in the industry, softwood lumber skirmishes, and mountain pine beetles, among other forces, have put British Columbia’s forest industry on a trajectory that cannot be compared with that of the US Pacific Northwest. However, readers in this province must also live with the consequences of ever-changing forests and, therefore, should find The Final Forest of interest and relevance. In sum, this is a mesmerizing story of the complexity of the relationships between forests and people that honours the uniqueness of places while spanning universal themes.
Chase, Alston. 1986. Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America’s First National Park. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press.
––––. 1995. In a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Rising Tyranny of Ecology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Hibbard, Michael and Kristen Karle. 2002. “Ecosystem Restoration as Community Economic Development? An Assessment of the Possibilities” Community Development 33, no. 2: 39-60.
Klingle, Matthew. 2003. “Spaces of Consumption in Environmental History.” (theme issue on environment and history), History and Theory 42: 94–110.
Prudham, W.S., and M. Reed. 2001. “Looking to Oregon: Comparative Challenges to Forest Policy Reform and Sustainability in British Columbia and US Pacific Northwest.” BC Studies130: 5–40.
Satterfield, Terre. 2002. The Anatomy of Conflict: Identity, Knowledge and Emotion in Old-Growth Forests. Vancouver: ubc Press.
Vaillant, John. 2005. The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed. New York: W.W. Norton
The Final Forest: Big Trees, Forks, and the Pacific Northwest
By William Dietrich
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010. 320 pp. $19.95 paper