By Griffin Edwards ’17
I spent spring break touring Oregon and Washington with a good friend of mine. Highlights included seeing an authentic Klingon bat’leth from Star Trek; Forks, WA, of Twilight fame; and the Women and Women First bookstore, as featured in Portlandia. Besides these icons of pop culture, our adventures included Olympic National Park, Pike’s Place Market, and the Oregon coast. It was a wonderful vacation that won’t soon be forgotten.
One interesting thing struck me while on our journey, however. All throughout the surreal wilderness of inland Oregon and Washington, we saw multiple signs along the road reading, “DON’T EXPAND NATIONAL PARKS! Working forests mean working families.” My curiosity was piqued: firstly, because this flew in the face of the Pacific Northwest I had expected (one where unwashed bearded men ate granola naked in the trees); secondly, because it made a good point. Large swaths of protected forests prevent logging and preserve the natural splendor of the region. However, it’s also true that in keeping forests from being destroyed, the logging industry can’t do its work, and people can’t find jobs in this field. Plus, according to our OSU forestry-major host, many practices ensure sustainable logging nowadays. Companies will either simply thin existing forests, taking out every third tree, or clear-cut an area only to replant and re-harvest it in forty years.
It still didn’t connect for me. Oregon and Washington are known for taking initiative in environmental issues; for instance, in many places, plastic bags are illegal. Why then the blowback towards something as simple as expanding protected forests?
I asked our host about this as well. His answer was surprising. Oregon’s large population centers- Portland, Eugene, and Salem- are full of the aforementioned stereotypical “northwestern” people- the unwashed bearded men eating granola naked in trees (an exaggeration, of course). These people often see logging as wrong, and thus support measures to protect forests and other natural areas. This isn’t to say that those living in rural areas want to see all forests cut down and sold; the rural population wants protected forests to be limited so that logging can continue to bring revenue to their small towns that would otherwise cease to exist. However, their opinions are often steamrolled by the larger voting blocs in the cities, so protected forests often continue to grow in size, much to the chagrin of towns built on the logging industry.
Benjamin Franklin once characterized democracy as “two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for lunch.” This example from Oregon manifests this weakness. After all, it isn’t the urban environmentalists who will be affected by large, protected forests; it’s the less-well-off, blue-collar family in the town that straddles a country road who will be. Yet, for all intents and purposes, as >51% of voters support forest protection, democracy works perfectly (Which, I should mention, is why any student of political science would tell you that the United States is technically not a democracy: constitutional republic or democratic republic hit the mark more closely).
So what can be done, if anything? How can we ensure that those in need are served in their best interest? It’s difficult to find a solution short of giving more power to local government (which might not be a terrible idea), but education is certainly one step in the right direction. Perhaps if the rural-urban divide in places like the Pacific Northwest were to be bridged through knowledge, both sides of the issue could be placated through compromise. After all, there’s something to be said for keeping forests pristine and beautiful, but also for allowing companies to turn them into useful things like paper, homes, and pencils. If we better understand the issues facing our neighbors, we can better vote for legislation that serves the interests of everyone. The logging industry can be preserved and jobs kept; and forests can be saved for wonderful hikes in the woods. It’s just a matter of balance.