'Timber Wars' Podcast To Look At Cultural Divide Over How To Manage Forests NPR's Ailsa Chang talks with Aaron Scott of Oregon Public Broadcasting about his new podcast, Timber Wars, which deals with the origins of the debate over how U.S. forests are managed.

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'Timber Wars' Podcast To Look At Cultural Divide Over How To Manage Forests

'Timber Wars' Podcast To Look At Cultural Divide Over How To Manage Forests

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NPR's Ailsa Chang talks with Aaron Scott of Oregon Public Broadcasting about his new podcast, Timber Wars, which deals with the origins of the debate over how U.S. forests are managed.


As the fires that sweep across the West every year get worse, the debate is heating up over what to do to prevent them. Some people, including the president, say log more. Others say logging isn't the answer. The cultural divide over how to manage our forests runs deep. There's actually a new podcast out about the roots of that divide. It's called "Timber Wars." And the host, Oregon Public Broadcasting's Aaron Scott, joins us now. Hey, Aaron.


CHANG: So for those of us who are not as familiar about these wars, what were the timber wars?

SCOTT: So you have to step back a little bit and look at U.S. history, where most of the time we were thinking that trees were crops. And the plan was we were going to basically cut through all of them, including the old-growth forests here in the Northwest, and we were going to replant it and manage our forests, kind of like they were big cornfields. And the timber wars really began in the '80s because there were some environmentalists who were like - wait a minute - trees are not corn; they're actually - forests are complex ecosystems, and we should maybe save some of these before we cut them all down.

And they started putting their bodies on the line. They blockaded logging roads. Very famously, they sat in giant redwood trees for months and even years at a time. And so we start the podcast with one of those protests because it's one of the ones that first made some national news because the loggers were rushing to cut down the trees over Easter weekend, and environmentalists kind of rushed in and created this fight in the forests that went on for multiple days. And it became known as the Easter massacre, and we try to tell it from both sides.

So this is the activist Catia Juliana.


CATIA JULIANA: There was no end in sight. There was no plan in place, other than us putting our bodies on the line, to stop those trees from going. And it just came down to, like, it's us or the forest will be gone forever.

SCOTT: And then this is the logger Stephan Weaver.


STEPHAN WEAVER: We could talk to them, and they could talk to us. But our views were dramatically different about the situation. So they just didn't want that timber cut. They didn't want any timber cut.

SCOTT: And so this fight quickly erupted out of the forests, and it turned into nightly news. And it made saving the old growth into this national issue.

CHANG: Well, OK. Then how does that history connect to the debate that we are seeing now around all these forest fires that are happening?

SCOTT: So the timber wars really created the battle lines for the fight that's going on now over how we manage our forests to prevent wildfire. So on one side, you have the timber industry. And as kind of sentiment has shifted against logging in our national forests, they now argue that, actually, this lack of logging is what's leading to these big fires. And they say, you know, back when there were loggers in the woods taking out the big trees and putting out fires as they erupted, the forests were healthier. And they've been really successful in that argument. It's now got bipartisan support.

However, the science doesn't really back it up. There's been ongoing research, and there's an investigation coming out from some of my OPB colleagues that finds that these heavily logged forests burn just as badly, if not worse, than the national forests that we're not logging so much.

CHANG: Interesting. Well, what about the other side, the environmentalists? Like, what are they blaming all these fires on?

SCOTT: Yeah, so they kind of have two arguments. The first one is climate change, and that's, you know, making our forests drier through drought, and the higher temperatures are feeding more fires. And then, second, a lot of the environmentalists and scientists point to the fact that our forests are overgrown not because we're not logging them, but because we've put out fires for years now, and there used to be these small fires that would burn through our forests on a really regular basis and kind of clean them out and prevent the bigger fires.

And so many of the environmentalists and scientists are saying, you know, yes, we do need to manage these forests, and, yes, that probably involves some level of logging, but it's really more about putting fire back into the forests with controlled burns, like Indigenous people here in the Northwest did for millennia, and that we need to also probably get used to living with more fire, by adjusting where and how we build our houses.

CHANG: I mean, the two worldviews kind of sound irreconcilable to me. But do you think there's any hope that the two sides can come together, ultimately, on this?

SCOTT: I think it's going to be tough, like so many environmental issues today. But I think there are places where it's happening. And so we actually end the podcast with a somewhat hopeful story about this group called the Blue Mountains Forest Partners, and it's what's called the Forest Collaborative. And that means kind of some loggers and some environmentalists have agreed that they're going to work together, and they're going to try to find some common ground in how to manage these forests in a way that make them healthy but also keep the economy healthy. And they've spent years, really, working together.

And one of the members, Susan Jane Brown, says one of their biggest secrets is that they committed early on that they were going to use the best available science, even if that means that they had to admit they were wrong along the way.


SUSAN JANE BROWN: We're going to follow the science, wherever that leads us. And that may mean that I'm going to have to get OK with logging more trees. It may mean that the community has to get OK with more fire on the landscape.

SCOTT: And, you know, so their story is one of different sides, really, sitting down and having the patience and the grace to listen to each other and to build trust and to build friendships. And it got to the point that when the last sawmill in the county announced it was closing, it was actually Susan Jane and the environmentalists who stepped in to keep it open because, you know, at this point, they cared about this community, and these were their friends that were about to lose their jobs. So...

CHANG: Yeah.

SCOTT: ...In some ways, it's that human connection and the patience that, you know, we don't have a lot of these days.

CHANG: Aaron Scott is the host of a new podcast, "Timber Wars," from Oregon Public Broadcasting. You can find it in the NPR One app, Apple Podcasts or opb.org Thank you so much, Aaron.

SCOTT: Thank you, Ailsa.


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