Posted Aug 15, 2007
Last Updated Nov 16, 2007

Resolving the Issues


John Dalmas


Looks like a book title, huh?  That's what it started out to be, back about 1990.  A logger in my youth, I became a college student, then professional forester, and finally Ph.D. forest ecologist with 17 years of research experience, I knew the subject intimately from three points of view.  For years I'd intended to write it "someday," been reading, xeroxing pages, taking lots of notes, clipping newspaper and magazine articles...
    Until it seemed to me the time had come.  I sketched out an outline, wrote some sample chapters off the cuff, then beefed up much of the outline into what I think of as a skeleton draft.  And mailed it to some  prominent politicians, a number of universities, some of my old professors, and prominent professional ecologists and foresters, asking for comments that might help me sell it to publishers. 
    It brought me some very favorable letters, and two universities said it appeared to be something they'd buy for their assigned reading rooms.
    Then I pitched it to some agents.  Not one of them liked it.  "Too even-handed.  You need to take a position on one side or another and push it."  Huh?  Also, "books on the forest controversies are hard to sell these days.  The public isn't buying them anymore."  Or "too instructive.  Needs more emotion." 
    Guess why the public wasn't buying them anymore. 
    Meanwhile, I could write novels more quickly and much more easily, and mostly I can sell them on first submission.  So I heeded the old gambler's motto: "know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em," and I wrote the Farside novels instead (no kin to Gary Larson's Farside cartoons)."
    That was 10 years ago; this is now, and I have a blog site.  So here we go.
    My knowledge is broad, but it is neither universal nor infallible.  I'll appreciate whatever corrections and comments you send, though I can't promise to reply.  At age 81, I live alone, do everything slowly, and take an occasional nap.  But this may yet result in a book, if  I remain functional long enough.


    Alvin Toffler, in his 1970 book Future Shock, recognized a central factor in today's sometimes anxious, sometimes testy frame of mind: The world is changing rapidly, and many people feel threatened by it.  The world's social systems -- cultures, governments, religions -- are under stress.  In parts of the world, old tribal cultures are unraveling.  Bolshevism has collapsed in most of Eurasia, leading to major problems of adjustment.  In the Middle and Near East, old Islamic nations have developed major cultural/religious responses to western influences and arrogance, and are threatened by terrorism and factional strife. 
    Most cultures are coping, exploring new attitudes and procedures, but old verities have weakened.  Some social traditions, unsuited to new realities, creak and crack, or fail under the pressures, and some of the new don't work well yet; people aren't experienced with them, and get angry.  Some fear the whole world is going to collapse around their ears, or blow up.  And at any rate, change often seems threatening.
    In  America, some people feel latent or actual anxiety about forests: that they're being destroyed forever; that clearcutting and the greenhouse effect will turn locales and even regions into desert.  And of course, from time to time we hear about the balance of nature, and things spiraling out of control.
    As usual with issues, much that we hear and read about the forest controversies is designed to promote a point of view, often with little or no regard for honesty, let alone accuracy.  Most of it comes from people who are alarmed by what they see, or by what they make of what they see, and from the more numerous people who haven't actually seen what they feel concerned about, but have heard about it and believe what they heard.  And from publicists who are more creative and manipulative than informed and truthful (all in  a good cause, of course).  And from experts, and persons presented as experts.
    "The sky is falling!  The sky is falling!"  Or, "the way we do business is no threat ecologically; the alarms are false."  "The ecology is about to unravel!"  "Our liberties are threatened by ignorant bureaucrats!"  "Our free markets are being destroyed by socialist/liberal professors!"
    But the threats described by environmental alarmists seem, if not more real, at least more visual.  Bolstered by pictures, statistics, and science or pseudo-science, they seem more believable, attract more media attention, draw more supporters and volunteers.  Corporations, on the other hand, garner relatively few volunteers.  They depend more on lobbying and power brokering, and the public buttons they push tend to be local or regional.  Perhaps more importantly, they are not as vivid as the eco-alarmists and  eco-crusaders, and they don't attract the people who produce television features.  While Americans, who recognize as well as any people the socio-economic values of profit and a free market, have learned skepticism the hard way: zealous alarmists and crusaders can be as ruthless as acquisitive corporate gamers.
    Both sides have their share of people of good will, but people of good will too often find themselves clashing with opponents with ill-will.  Sound like politics?

    Journalists are less apt to be zealots.  They tend to be skeptical by disposition.  They should be; it's in their unwritten job description.  What they most lack is knowledge; they seldom have time to study a technical subject in any depth.  And some, feeling affinity with one side or the other, present a one-sided picture, perhaps without realizing that there really is another side.  Skepticism of one's own views is not very common.  And clearly, sometimes even admittedly, some journalists prefer to feature the extreme; it captures higher ratings, or sells more papers, and often the man who signs the checks may well exert pressure.
    So what are the facts about the various forest issues?  The experts you might ask are not immune to error, tunnel vision, or prejudice, or sometimes to dishonesty.  Besides, some "experts" are counterfeit.  One I heard holding forth on a discussion panel turned out to have had a college course in field biology, while his experience had been a summer job leading tourists around a nature trail at Yellowstone.  His positions, which were copies of others I'd heard, had some merit, but his arguments had little to do with reality.

My Bona Fides

    While we're on the subject of credentials, what are mine?  What training, what experience and knowledge do I bring to this book?  Who and what is John Dalmas, besides a science fiction novelist, for lord's sake?
    I began life as John R. ("Jerry") Jones, no kin to the owner of the Dallas Cowboys.  Dalmas is a long-time pen name.  At age eight, I moved to a rural southern Michigan village (population 717), and it didn't take me long to discover the woods along the Shiawassee River, woods which ended just across the street from the village hall.  (The fire truck resided on the ground floor; the constable's office and the "lock-up" was downstairs, the library (which doubled as the village council chamber) was upstairs.
    Some of us, as we grew older, hiked the woods and fields round about, boated the big "Pierson Marsh" below town, and the chain of mostly woodland lakes upstream.  I hiked and rowed and poled them alone as often as with someone; the idea of wilderness already attracted me, and alone I could imagine myself in one of James Oliver Curwood's novels of the Canadian bush.  A knowledgeable buddy and I (he'd learned from his trapper grandfather) trapped a section of river and marsh for furs -- mostly muskrat, with an infrequent mink -- the sort of thing that rural boys had done for generations.
    In 1941 the world changed sharply, and in autumn  1944 I was drafted.  The army introduced me to my first actual wilderness -- the wild coastal and mountain jungles and cogon grass valleys of northern Mindoro, one of the Philippine Islands.  The war was newly over, and we were hunting for some missing aircraft, to salvage their  bodies.  Our guides were Manguiane (pronounced approximately "Munyan") aborigines, little larger than pygmies.  They knew where everything was, in their jungle, including which trails they'd booby-trapped with poisoned bungy stakes to discourage the Japanese soldiers, who shot them for sport.
    Discharged, I worked seasonally as a logger, mostly in Minnesota's Lake Agassiz peatlands region, on the Canadian border.  There it was still the era of bachelor camps, handsaws, and horse logging.  The moose comeback was underway, and at least two small bands of  caribou survived (but for only a few years more). Wolf numbers were under heavy pressure from trapping and aerial hunting, fueled by big bounties. 
    At age twenty-four I entered forestry school.  After earning bachelor's and master's degrees, I prepared and administered timber sales, and supervised thinning and planting crews, on a National Forest district in Wisconsin.  There I became intrigued by the ecological problems we sometimes ran into, and at age thirty-two returned to graduate school, majoring in ecology.  At that time, ecology was strictly a science — not yet a crusade —  science few people had heard of.  I earned a doctorate in it, and spent seventeen years in ecological research, mostly with the U.S. Forest Service in the Rocky Mountains and Southwest, but briefly with the Quetico-Superior Wilderness Research Foundation.  During part of those seventeen years I was a project leader, and among other things did research in ecosystem dynamics. 
    For years, hiking, snowshoeing, and particularly solo backpacking were loves of mine, as books have always been.  Since Mindoro, I've hiked wilderness and semi-wilderness in Arizona, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Minnesota, Michigan, the high plateaus of Trøndelag in Norway, and most especially the Colorado Rockies.  All with my eyes and ears open.
    Among my friends I count loggers, foresters, specialists in several scientific disciplines, and partisans in different camps. None of them wore horns, though some could be prickly at times).  What they did/do/have are different points of view.  I'll no doubt offend some of them with this book, if they/we live long enough.

End of my bona fides.  They don't  prove anything; what counts is whether or not what I write seems worthwhile to you.  My next two blogs will define and describe the issues briefly, with enough background to give the issues context.  Afterward we can examine them more deeply, and examine the participants in the controversies.  Finally we'll look at solutions and futures.  They're not as confusing as they seem.


Essays and chapters on ecology, conservation and modern society.