S1E34 - Simon on Reforestation, pt. 2
The second part of Margaret's conversation with restoration ecologist Simon about confronting climate crisis with reforestation
Margaret continues talking to Simon, a restoration ecologist who works in the Pacific Northwest, about confronting climate crisis with reforestation.
Simon can be found on twitter @plant_warlock.
Margaret Hello, and welcome to Live Like the World is Dying, your podcast for what feels like the End Times. I'm your host, Margaret Killjoy, and I use she or they pronouns. And this episode I'm actually recording immediately after the previous episode with Simon because, as soon as we got off the call, we talked about all of these other things that are worth talking about. And there's just so much to all of this that we thought it might be worth doing a second episode about. You might be hearing this—I don't know when you're gonna hear this as compared to the other part. But anyway, Live Like the World is Dying as a proud member of the Channel Zero Network of anarchist podcasts. And here's a jingle from another show on the network. Duh daaaaa do.
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Margaret Okay, if you could introduce yourself with your name, your pronouns. And then just a real brief overview for people who didn't listen to the first interview we just did with you about the kind of work you do and what your specialization is.
Simon Yeah, thanks for having me on again. My name is Simon Apostle. I'm a restoration ecologist. And I've been working in Oregon and Washington, kind of across the Pacific Northwest, for the last 10 or so years. And most of my work has focused on reforestation, but also just general natural resource management and ecological restoration.
Margaret So we were talking about—you have ideas about what people who have access to some, you know, maybe homestead-style, size of land or land project or even, like, maybe even smaller scale than that—about what people can do besides just reforestation, what is involved in restoration, and using that to mitigate whether climate change or other problems ecologically?
Simon Yeah, so one of the things that, in our field, we've been looking at quite a bit is how do certain keystone organisms really affect the landscapes. And one of the biggest ones—not just in size, they get pretty large though—is the North American Beaver. Which and this is true across North America. And beaver are a critical component of ecosystems. And they do that by doing what we know they do, by building dams, and altering hydrology in a way that creates habitat, it creates diversity, it retains water in a landscape by damming streams up and creating new channels and all of these things. And so reintroduction of beavers, or by mimicking the processes that beavers create, you can do a lot for the land and also potentially make it work better for you. Because you know, as we face climate change, water retention is kind of one of our biggest issues.
Margaret So you're telling people that they should build dams and cut trees?
Simon That's exactly right. Yeah. If you want to think like a beaver, you should build a dam. If you want to use it for hydroelectric purposes, you can do that. And then, yeah, of course, cut down trees. No, it's a really interesting parallel, right? Because beavers kind of act like us, you know, and they do all these things that we know are—especially in the Pacific Northwest—know are bad. We know that the dams, the hydroelectric dams, are a massive problem for salmon and for other organisms, and disrupting natural water flows and creating barriers and, of course, cutting down trees is the thing we all know is we don't do well. But beaver do things in a way that that they, you know, ecosystem around them has adapted to do and interact with. So a beaver dam—first of all, the scale is different, right, it's not going to be across the Columbia River, it's across a stream, a low gradient side channel, something like that. And a beaver dam is porous, it has water cascading over it, a fish can jump over it. It is complex, you know, there's a pond behind it and there's wetlands on the margins and there's channels flowing around it that they may not have gotten to damming yet. And that complexity is critical, right? Like, it's the taking of a simple stream channel and making it into something really complicated and with little niches for all these different organisms. And it can work for humans too, you know, by recharging groundwater, by retaining water on a landscape for longer you get aquifer recharge, you get, you know, trees surrounding that area, maybe growing a little bit better, all of these things that are directly valuable to us.
Margaret So that's the kind of, like, microclimate stuff of making your area—you're, like, so wells will go dry, slower and things like that.
Simon Absolutely. I mean, water retention in landscapes is so important. You know, as we, like, face climate change, right, it's—and some of that is affected by by climate change directly just through evaporation, but also as you get precipitation changing from snow to rainfall, you know, through a larger portion of the year in a lot of systems, that means that the water's not coming down as a trickle of snowmelt throughout the year, it's coming down, you know, in a single rain of that. And there's none left in the summer. And beaver are one of the organisms that can help counteract that by retaining that water in the smaller streams and then letting it out as a slower trickle.
Margaret It's so wild that that—that something at that small of a scale has an impact. I feel like that's like something that I often forget about because, as much as I'm like, oh, I like bottom-up organizations and blah, blah, blah. I'm like always sometimes forget that something as simple as like blocking a creek can have an impact.
Simon Yeah, and it's the aggregate effect, right, too. It's all of—its every little side channel. And especially if we talk about in a temperate region, like the the Northeast in the US or the Northwest, where you have lots and lots of little creeks. And historically there were probably beaver populations on every single one of those that, of course, were all trapped out, you know, as European trappers moved into those landscapes.
Margaret What—This is it is a question I feel like I should have learned in middle school or something. But why do beavers build dams? Like what's in it for them?
Simon Yeah, so I mean, it's a really good question, right? For them, I think—and actually, this is like, a really interesting evolutionary question because old world beavers, a European, like super similar species. I don't even know how different they are genetically, and I'm sure a little bit, but they don't build dams, they just burrow into into dens on the bank as far as I'm aware.
Simon But beavers build dams largely to create more habitat for themselves. They're safe from predators underwater. The entrances to their lodges are underwater. So they'll build their big lodge and then they'll swim underwater to an entrance and then inside the lodge it'll be back up in the air so that they're safe. They also like to eat willows and willows like to grow in wetlands. And so you flat out an area that was a canyon, you create more sediment deposits, you flood into the flat areas, you're going to grow more of these kind of fast growing hardwoods that they like to eat. So it's about creating more habitat for themselves, you know, in a way you can think about them as, like, they're creating their shelter and they're also, like, farming, the things that they like to eat by flooding.
Margaret No, no, only humans do that. That's cool. That's—yeah, I'm like, now I'm like, I wonder if we should have beaver where I—you know, I live on this this creek and, you know, there's willows around and things like that. Yeah, no, okay. And so you're saying—so what is the water retention do in terms of mitigating the effects of climate change and things like that?
Simon Yeah. Yeah. So, like we talked about, just holding that water in the landscape, letting it permeate into the soil, but also slowing that release through the creek just as it is beneficial to so many organisms, right? Because it allows water flow through a longer period of the year. You know, a big flush of water, a big flood, can be a lot less useful than a steady trickle in a lot of cases.
Margaret Can I selfishly ask you about reforesting willows and, like, is that a useful—you know, I guess as I was saying, I live on a creek that floods. And we've talked about, you know, people talk about willows being very good plants for, you know, sucking up water or whatever, but we don't believe it changes the way that water flows across the land or anything like that. But it might help, like, reinforce banks or—because most of your work is riparian specifically, right? What is—what are you doing when you reforest in a riparian area? And how can I selfishly do that myself?
Simon That's gonna depend on the situation, right, but a lot of what we're doing when we focus on riparian areas is because they're important to so many species, right. And so they're rare and critical. And so the benefits that you have by reforesting of riparian area, you have shade over the stream, you know, you're cooling the water temperature which reduces evaporation, it helps the organisms within the stream. In terms of planting willows, I mean, the one of the best things about willows is that they're one of the easiest things to plant and grow, right. They're adapted to break off in flooding. So you have twigs and stems and branches will just break off, and any single one of those can land on a bank of mud and sprout and turn into a new tree. So they have this vegetative adaptation that's a hormone that allows them to root from any given node, you know, and a node being a part of the plant that can turn into a leaf or a branch, or in the case of a willow or root, even if it was, you know, a branch from the top of the tree. And anyone who's you know, propagated cuttings and stuff knows that some plants have that hormone, and particularly willows do. And you can stick a willow branch in your cuttings of some other tree or shrub and they'll root more easily. So a lot of times what we'll do in riparian areas just harvest willow cuttings, either locally if there's a good source, or bring them in from somewhere nearby, or, you know, from a nursery, and just plant those basically stick straight in the ground. It looks super weird because it just looks like we planted a bunch of two or three foot sticks on the ground. Super dense, in most areas in North America you would have—might be planting 2000 stems an acre of willows and kind of related riparian shrubs. And, you know, if conditions are right, you will get a pretty dense willow stand within a few years.
Margaret Do you then go—let's say for some, you had a homestead and there was a dense stand of willows. Do you then go and, like, thin it out so that there's, you know, so each tree—like I know that when dealing with, like, you know, a monoculture of young pines, sometimes you have to thin it out in order to make them grow healthier?
Simon Yeah, that's gonna depend, you know where you are, but but probably not. They you know, their life cycle is such that they are going to live a much shorter period of time, and they grow in these big, thick, dense stands that all grow up at once because there was some big flood that brought in a bunch of new, clean sediment and wiped out all the old ones. And then the new branches and seeds landed and you grow a thick forest. And they'll kind of self thin. And actually that's—those standing dead trees and fallen dead trees or habitat features in themselves. You know, woodpeckers like them, salamanders like the logs on the ground, so do turtles, you know, things like that. So, generally speaking, no, I mean, we'll do things like we control to reduce competition when they're young. But their growth cycle is such that they're a big disturbance, and then they grow, and then everything gets wiped out in a stand, and then they grow again in most systems.
Margaret I guess to go back to what you were talking about earlier, you said you wanted to talk about bringing back beaver. How to—what does that look like? How do people do that?
Simon Yeah, I mean, and sometimes it's as simple as, you know, you have county highway departments and things that you know, beaver like to build dams, and they like to build dams in a roadside ditch next to a highway. So these county highway departments will trap and kill the beaver. And so if you can work with them to say, no, trap and release it. And in some cases, some counties will actually say—you can say, hey, we'd be okay with you releasing them on our property instead of killing them. And they may be, they may do that for you. The other way to do it is kind of—and it depends on, if they're there, to build it and they will come. So you plant willows on a stream, you know, eventually they might find it if they're nearby. They roam pretty far. The other thing that you can do is, even if you don't have beavers, is to start to kind of connect those processes that beavers create by basically building your own dams that are functionally similar to a beaver dam. And beavers will often find those too and start to build and add to them.
Margaret That's cool.
Simon We actually, we have a whole technical term. They're called BDAs, which just means Beaver Dam Analogue. But it's a really cool sort of growing niche in my field because it's—they're low tech, right. It's, you're putting a bunch of posts in the river and piling a bunch of brush behind them so water kind of dams up but also flows through. Snd anyone can do it. You know, you don't need an engineering degree, you don't need a forestry degree, you can just kind of do it.
Margaret Aren't like riparian areas, creeks and things like that, like, fairly heavily controlled, like, can't you get in some trouble for messing with a creeks flow.
Simon Yeah, I mean, if you're doing something that's, you know—yes, in the United States, and there's stronger rules depending on the state that you're in. There's wetlands and waters rules that have to do with the Clean Water Act. A lot of these were just kind of greatly diminished by the Trump administration. So you're safer there on a lot of the ephemeral streams, and it's going to depend on your state. But generally speaking, I mean, I'm not a lawyer. But, you know, if you're doing a restoration activity on—we're talking a small stream, a small ephemeral stream on a piece of ground that you own, these kinds of activities are fine. You're really talking about, okay, am I bringing in fill, am I bringing in equipment, am I, you know, dumping dirt, am I building a permanent dam that really is, like, easily identifiable as like an irrigation dam or something like that? That's where you need to get into the permitting world.
Margaret And now I'm just trying to figure out whether I can do micro hydro on a beaver dam. Like without actually blocking it.
Simon That you would probably technically need a permit for in the world we live in, but I won't...
Margaret Appreciate it. Neither should any of you. I've not actually—I looked into a fair amount of micro hydro, and it's just not—even though I have running water on our property, it's not the right move for us. Which is a shame because micro hydro where you don't actually block the creek—I'm sure it has ecological impacts. But it doesn't block the creek. I don't know.
Simon Now there's been studies about, you know, replacing the Columbia River dams with things like that. It's, like, they're less micro, I'm sure, because of the scale, but you know, things that just basically sit on the side of the river instead of blocking the whole thing.
Margaret Seems so—now I wonder why we didn't do that in the first place.
Simon How was—I think you'd probably get more power if you dam the whole river. And yeah, different time, I guess. Yeah. I thought, you know, it'd be interesting to kind of like, think about, just because your initial question kind of got me thinking about, like, how do we make for us work for us. And, you know, that can touch on, like, you know, how Indigenous groups interacted with the forest in places that I know, things like that, but like, what are, you know, kind of what are some of like the other human benefits to forests.
Margaret So we're still kind of having this conversation about reforestation, and the advantages of it, and besides just water retention, and besides, you know, the cooling effect and things like that, what are—why reforestation? Like, tell me tell me more about what's cool about reforestation.
Simon Yeah, well I think one of the things that we're kind of slowly realizing is, like, all of the side benefits that the forests provide us. And not—we've already talked about, you know, cooling effects and shading and things like that. But, you know, there can also be like a fair amount of food production from a diverse forest. There's been a really interesting set of research that was done in coastal British Columbia, where they found these pockets of forests where you didn't have a closed canopy, you had this kind of diverse patchwork, and near historic coast Salish village sites we had these—or still have these essentially what have been called food forests. So this kind of diverse array of fruiting species like crab apples and cranberries and huckleberries and things like that, that now we know were managed by people. So it's something that we would kind of recognize as something somewhere between like a European conception of agriculture, and then just a natural, quote/unquote natural forest with no human impacts, which of course, there were. But regardless, you know, there's ways to kind of create something that's diverse and works for plants and animals, while also working for you. And I think food production is one of those. And creating diversity in a stand is one of the ways to do that. So instead of thinking about, we have this stand of trees, and we want it all to be as old as possible. Well, what if there's a little clearing over here, you know, which would—could mimic a natural process. You'd have windfall, you know, knocking a few trees over. And then one of the things that come up in that clearing, might be some of those early seral plants, some of them are fruiting, some of them are useful for other purposes, or, you know, and so you can manage that stand, that clearing, in ways that that work for people. You know, it's like, reframing how we think about agriculture, and also how we think about forestry. We think about forestry as producing lumber, and we think about agriculture is producing things that we, you know, and they don't mix. They're just different things. But of course, you know, they're all just plants.
Margaret Yeah, maybe—we would probably need to have an entirely different economic system in order to take advantage of, you know, decentralized food production like that—which, obviously, I'm in favor of a completely different economic system. So that sounds good to me. So this is the kind of stuff that's mostly useful for people who are working—who have access to, like, a land project and things like that. Is this information that people can use to, you know, influence county decisions about how to do things? Like how much control are people able to exert either within the existing system or outside of it on reforestation?
Simon Yeah. One of the biggest issues is the lack of control that people who don't have a sort of like legal and economic stake in these things, you know, indirectly have, in some cases, you know, you talk about a federal agency planning a project, and they're going to say, oh, we're doing community involvement, we're going to talk to our neighbors. Well, their neighbors might be, you know, a farmer, who may even be a local farmer, but owns, you know, a significant amount of land and is not really representative of maybe your rural communities actual income and wealth distribution. Or their neighbor may even be an industrial timber company.
Simon But a lot of these projects have, you know, if they're federally funded, they have public comment periods. They have all these things that are written into law that are supposed to allow for community engagement, and sometimes are not so easily accessible. But you can get together with some people and watch out for things like, there's going to be a forest thinning project and we want input on this, we want to say, hey, you need to consider, you know, our use, like, our group wants to do mushroom foraging in this area, and we're concerned that you're going to disturb this. Or, we want you to think about how your project design affects that, you know, things of that nature. Yeah, and a lot of times nobody really comments on these projects. So a little bit of public comment, a little bit of input, can actually really sway land managers decisions. I know when I'm in that situation, you know, hearing from five people that are all saying the same thing, is a big group of people, because usually no one says anything. So I think you can have a difference—make a difference. And that's going to depend on the sort of willingness and adaptability of people in positions of power, like with all things. But usually these things just kind of get ignored. So.
Margaret Yeah, one of the things—one of the talking points when I did more forest defense out west—one of the main talking points would be—and, you know, most of us weren't, we didn't really care about what what was good for the economy. We cared about what was good for, you know, the values that we held about biodiversity and things like that. But one of the things we would talk about is that you actually literally make more—like it does more for the local economy by and large to leave the National Forest alone and not run the National Forest timber sale program. And, again, is at least as far as I understood it at the time, and that like most of the timber sale program was like run at a loss because they're basically subsidizing all of the costs of these timber companies to come in and clear cut, you know, quote/unquote, our forests within a colonial system, whatever that means. But these public lands—you know, I didn't realize when I was a kid that the national forests were—huge chunks of them are regular clear cut, and they're on some ways like managed just like another timber farm. And there is a little bit more say that people are able to have. And one of the things that I liked about, you know, working with groups like Earth First was that we were very every tool in the toolbox and that absolutely included public comment periods and showing up to, you know, city council meetings in these small towns and things like that. And working with people who are from the small towns, usually. You know, basically, we would come into support local organizing. And then also, you know, direct action and blocking people from logging. It doesn't always work, right? But it works more times than I expected, to basically come in and say, you know, the tree sit doesn't sit on every tree that they're going to cut. The tree sit sits on where they want to build a road, right? And you block access long enough either to make it just so expensive that it stops being worth it for them, or, more likely, it's part of a larger strategy where you're also, like, suing them in the courts. Like often they do this thing where they can—they're allowed to clear cut—you're suing them to say you can't clear cut, and then they're allowed to if there's no injunction. They can do so while the, you know, while court is happening. So they can be like, well, doesn't matter now, we already did it. And so sometimes you're just literally stopping them while you make a larger change, which now that I think about it feels like a larger metaphor for how so much of this is about preserving what we can while we try to make these larger changes, while we try to change the economic systems that we live under and things like that.
Simon Yeah, no, that's definitely true. And I think just being a stick in the mud sometimes just being loud in as many ways as you can think, can be really beneficial. One issue, kind of jumping on, like, federal logging thing that that is a problem is that you can have kind of greenwashing of timber sales sometimes. You know, you look at, like, post-fire salvage logging that is really not ecologically justified, right? You know, well we need to clear out the trees because then we'll have room for the nutrients to grow. It's like, well, no, you know, fire's natural and actually standing dead trees are an entirely separate and unique habitat type. And they're an important thing to protect, you know. And, similarly, we need to thin forests because we've repressed fire for so long, and we need to make them—we need to reintroduce fire to the landscape. But sometimes, you know, these projects kind of—there will be people who insert themselves in them with ulterior motives, right. So it'd be—no longer becomes about—it's ecologically justified, we're thinning out the young trees to save. For the other ones it's like, well, actually, maybe we should take some of the big ones too, you know. There's probably too many of them, you know. It's like—so just being active, and paying attention to when those things are happening, you can make a pretty big difference over a pretty large chunk of ground. You know, one of the issues that we have here is that I think I mentioned last time is how much of our forests are privately owned though, right? And more and more that ownership is not only private, you know, quote/unquote, but owned by investment firms and entities that not only want to extract profit, but they want to extract profit quickly. So they've reduced the length of time between harvest from something like 80 years,—and you know, 80 year old forest has a lot of habitat value, or a 50 year old forest does—to now being maybe 50, or sometimes even 30. You know, 30 year old trees, which basically just looks like a plantation, you know. And they'll harvest and then they sell the land again. And it's just this ongoing cycle of making sure that the quarterly returns are up so the stock prices are up. And, you know, that's something that really needs to be actively fought in my region.
Margaret Yeah. And then I'm under the impression that you can only have these cycles where you remove all the biomass every 30 or 80 years—you can only do that so many times before you end up with no biomass left and get desertification. Is that the case?
Simon Yeah, I mean, there's certainly—we've undergone massive changes to soil structure in ways that we don't understand in forests in the Pacific Northwest. And, definitely, it's that loss of biomass. And there's certain types of biomass that only big trees can really provide. There's like that something called like brown cubicle rot, which isn't a very romantic name, but—there's other terms for it—but basically it's like, if you've ever been in the Pacific Northwest and you'd seem like a big nurse log on the ground, which is we call like a tree that's fallen on the ground and it has other trees and plants growing out of it. It's providing an entirely unique set of soil conditions. And you crumble that apart and it's got these, like, cavities and square pieces, and it's often very brown or bright orange. And that type of biomass in the soil is just, it's just a completely different entity than the bare mineral soil. And certainly you start to reduce the health of the trees that grow when you keep removing that biomass. And, of course, it provides carbon storage too. So, you know, last year in Oregon in 2020—this year, we had record-breaking heat waves, and last year, we had record-breaking wildfires on the west side of the Cascades, which, you know, you're familiar with Oregon, of course. But for people that aren't, that's, like, the wet side, right? That's when people think about Oregon and big trees and things like that, that's kind of what they're envisioning. But we had these fires raging through the west side. And they ended up burning like 2% of the land area of the state in one month. And a lot of those burns were on these these private tree farms with these young trees that are just matchsticks, they're stressed by drought because they don't have the organic matter in the soil to retain moisture. And they just, they burned completely, a lot of these areas, you know, 100%, true mortality. So there's—you can't do it forever. But but they, you know, they don't care that you can't do it forever.
Margaret Which I guess is like—is yet another example of, like, the whole climate preparedness and mitigating the effects of climate change involves stopping all of this treating the earth just like a sit a set of resources to extract, you know?
Simon Yeah, yeah. And it's not, you know, it's not like, I mean, we use wood products, right? But it's just how do we change our relationship to do that in a way that works for us in the present, and will also work for future generations. I'm working on a forest management plan right now for a property—for a reserve—but that will allow timber harvest, and it's, you know, it was purchased from Weyerhaeuser, it's 1300 acres. And a lot of it was logged fairly recently before they sold it because they kind of extracted the value that they could, But it's thinking about, okay, but the trees are too dense, we're gonna need to thin them. At what stage do we send them, you know, that we can actually extract some value and that value goes into the local economy, and we're creating timber products, but we're not—but we're sort of mimicking the natural cycles in order to get to a place where in a couple 100 years, it's a mature, old growth forest, right? And at that point, like, I don't need to consider what the economy is like in 100 or 200 years, I don't need to consider what we need out of forest products. But like we can make it work for us in the present by clearing little clearings and creating, you know, have like diversity areas that're similar those clearings that I talked about before, or selectively thinning, you know, the weaker trees and creating a more open canopy that mimics those natural systems, but also allows for economic activity or for just wood products that we use in our lives. And I really like that, because it's that dichotomy of, like, what do we need now, but how can we plan for a future that's unknowable to us? But we do know that we want all grow for us again someday for future generations.
Margaret Yeah, and I like it because it's acknowledging that it's, like, well, we do want to use wood to build our houses or whatever, you know. There's, in many climates, that's the best way to do it. And most of us prefer to live in shelter and things like that, you know. And it's just—and people have this like, okay, well, since clear cutting, you know, on massive scale is bad, and looking at the earth as a series of resources bad, therefore, we have to feel guilty about using, like, you know, interacting with the earth, and that also doesn't do us any good. One, because guilt-based organizing this garbage. But it's also just, like, it's not—it's a babies and bathwater problem, you know. It's a—we do, we are animals, and animals use, well, other animals and nature to do the things we want to do. I remember trying to, you know, we were trying to protect this forest in Southern Oregon, and it was, it had actually been burned. And it was a salvage—it was old growth forests that have been burned on public land. And none of the locals would log it because everyone knew it was bad. So there was like all of these out of state loggers, which is funny because then, you know, of course we get accused of being outside agitators or whatever. And, you know, I remember one of the times some loggers got past one of our blockades and, you know, and people are like yelling at them. And the logger are like, well, what do you do for a living? You know, and I was like, I'm a landscaper. And the person next to me is like, well, I'm a logger. You know, it's like, like, you can be a logger. Like, if you're—you can be a person who turns trees into lumber and have that be a positive thing in the world, you know, you can do forestry in ways that aren't monstrous.
Simon Yeah, and we often don't give people the opportunity to engage with these practices that we all need, you know, to function, at least in the society that we build. We don't give them the opportunity to engage in that way. You know, you can't just like, well, I'm not going to work—if I'm a logger, I'm not going to work on any standard commercial timber operations, I'm only going to do selective logging and I'm only going to do, you know, sustainable logging. I mean, that sounds great. But you know, people who, again, quote/unquote, own the land, I mean, they need to allow that, they need to give people that opportunity, or they need to organize and demand it. And it's sort of the, you know, it's kind of the, like, Plato's cave of forest management. You know, we all need to, like, envision a different world, you know, that can work for us in order to get there. There's a leap of faith that needs to happen, I think, and there's not a lot of faith in what feels like a declining industry and a, you know, climate change, and all of these things.
Margaret Something that we were talking about, you know, when we were talking about doing this episode—about, you know, there's all this information about how to do reforestation, or, you know, sustainable forestry and all of these different things. But I'm guessing most of you listening don't have even as much access to land as, say, I do. Right? And, you know, and so it can be kind of hopeless thinking like, well, what do I do about this? And, because yeah, most land—most privately owned land—is owned by these, well I don't know this is as a statistic, but there's certainly a lot of land that is in private hands in this country that is just, you know, resources to extract, like, things people who would not be interested in doing this. And the reason I was thinking about this is so useful to talk about—pardon the motorcycle revving its engine outside my office—the reason I feel so useful to talk about is because the current situation, to me, doesn't seem like it's going to stay. Because we probably, as a society, are nearing the end of our ability to stick our fingers in our ears about climate change. I'm sure we'll always have, you know, people will always have, like, disaster fatigue, where we—it's not like we're suddenly gonna wake up one day and everyone's gonna realize climate change is real and, you know, have a glorious happy revolution or whatever. But things will shift as more and more people, like, essentially have to come to terms with this. It'll probably shift in bad ways also. But the thing that I—it occurs to me is that it's like, these people who own, you know, giant tracts of land and stuff, like some of them are people, and some of them are people who would see themselves as decent people. And I think that a lot of people who see themselves as decent people are going to start having a different relationship to economic production in the very near future. And maybe some of the other ones who don't want to change, have a change of heart, might cease being able to have the physical security necessary to control what happens on their property. You know, it's, things are gonna change, probably. Well, they'll definitely change, just I can't tell you how they're going to change. So it feels like it's useful to understand all this stuff and to understand the importance of reforestation and all of this, because we might be able to start convincing some of these people that this is what should happen, you know, that they should not manage their property the way that they currently do at the very least. I dunno. Is there any hope in that?
Simon I think the shift that needs to happen is that we need to think about these things long-term. And, ideally, it would be in multi generational cycles. But even thinking about things in terms of people's own lifetimes, and one of the issues with commercial timber management is that it's not even in people's lifetimes, or it's not even in the lifetimes of the company, its quarterly profit returns, its stock prices, it's all these sort of abstract but very quick return things that just—they don't—there's no way for that to really intersect in a healthy way, no matter what you think about capitalism and the stock market and stuff. And I would guess that most people listening to this don't have like super favorable views on that. But there's just no way for that quick cycle of profit returns to mesh with managing an ecosystem, and particularly managing an ecosystem like a forest where, even in a short-lived forests in some regions, you're talking about trees living 100 years. You know, and then in other areas 300 years, 500 sometimes, you know. So it just can't—it can't operate that way. And a lot of the people that work for these companies are people that have lived in these areas for a long time now, right? And do feel like they care about the land, but also they feel like they care about their communities and they need to provide jobs and they're just sort of wrapped up in the system. And I guess I'll make the forest for the trees puns, right, you know you can't see your way out, the trees are too dense in a tree farm. You need to thin it out a little bit. And, sorry, for that terrible joke. But I think that a lot more people are reachable than we know, and we need to just talk to each other. And I think we all need to sort of meet—I don't want to say meet in the middle—but meet in kind of a new place where we're not sort of old school environmentalist in that we say, okay people do bad things to nature, and then we need to just stop people from doing the bad things to nature. It's like, what new—and then we're not just extractivist, you know, logging everything, mining everything, well the economy, you know, jobs, the economy, blah, blah, blah. We need to come to a new place where it's like, how do we develop this relationship that works for us, you know, with each other and with with nature. And that sounds very Kumbaya, but I do think you're right, that climate change starts to—it starts to force a shift. And even the management of these companies know that, you know, Weyerhaeuser, they're not climate denialist, you know. They do experiments to see how far north they need to move their tree seedlings, you know, their stock, you know, do we bring seedlings from Southern Oregon to halfway up Washington because they're adapted to the hotter climate? They're studying all of that stuff, they know it's real. And the people working for them, I think, largely know that it's real too. It's certainly in the past few years around here, I think, gotten to the point where it's unavoidable. I work with loggers and farmers and people that don't always have the same views as me, but that—I hear a lot less climate denial now than I did even five years ago. We've just had too many extreme events. People know it's here. And, you know, and yeah, disaster can create an opportunity, we realize we need to change and we need to come to a better system with each other. And that may, you know, whether you believe in the power of government to change these things or not, that can lead to either community solutions, people just demanding better from the organizations with whom they work. And also, a lot of this stuff could be easily changed in state legislatures. You know, there's the power in Oregon and Washington to say, no, we are going to disincentivize these outside investment groups from owning these forests. We're gonna, you know, lay down a heavy hand. And if you can get local communities of loggers to say that that's good and that's fine instead of kind of these, like astroturfed, you know, Timber Unity-type groups that are really just right wing, you know, corporate funded, hollow entities. You know, if you have actual communities making their voices heard, change feel possible.
Margaret That idea of, like, we have to meet at a third place is really fascinating to me. You know, I remember—well I don't remember. It was before my time in Earth First. But, you know, one of the, like, one of the main stories we talk about, right, is the story of—are ou familiar with Judi Bari, the Earth First organizer who organized loggers? And she got bombed for it, right. And, you know, basically like, she was organizing as an Earth First-er, but very also explicitly as a labor organizer with the IWW. And being like, you know, loggers have one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, and, you know, and are by and large people who like the fact that they spend all their time outdoors, you know. And I'm not trying to come Kumbaya either and be like, oh, well, you know, we'll never have to be opposed to the people who are working on resource extraction or whatever, right. But the less we can be, the better, both strategically and ethically. And also, I mean, I think that's why Judi Bari got bombed. I personally believe that that was by the federal government. I know there was a lawsuit that, one, proving that at the very least, they were certainly ready to go to show that, you know, like, ready to blame her own assassination on herself, you know. And—assassination attempt, she survived the bombing, died of cancer a couple years later. But, you know, like, I think that that actually is what threatens power is when—not to sound Marxist, but like when the working—well, whatever, anarchist, everyone knows that—you know when the working class gets together and is like, oh, we can actually see passed our immediate differences and work together towards a goal, we accomplished an awful lot. And I don't personally have the first clue about how to do that. And maybe you do have more of a first clue because you work, I presume your work puts you in touch with both environmentalists and loggers and timber companies and things that are these very traditionally at odds organizations?
Simon Yeah, so my current role is with a land trust. And for those that don't know, basically a land trust, in some cases, buys property directly or has it donated, and then it's put in a trust forever to protect it from development or for restoration, or whatever the threat is. Or it'll be a legal entity, like a conservation easement, that it's still owned by someone else but we have some restrictions on, okay, you can't mine it, you can't put housing developments on it. Maybe you can still log it though, or maybe there's some restrictions on how that logging happens. And so that allows me to kind of straddle that world a little bit. And I've worked in many different organizations with many different entities, but it kind of gives us a, you know, an avenue to interacting with local communities. Like, we're not just flying in, you know, by night—and some people are still pissed at us and that's fine. That's always going to be the case. But we're there more or less permanently. And so, like it or not, we can work together. But also, I mean, you know, yeah, we do, I work with people, I hire farmers for work, I hire loggers for work. We, like as I mentioned, we do, you know, timber production activities. And so, being local and kind of leading by example, if you have the opportunity, it has been really valuable. You know, I will say that a lot of times the groups that get cut out of that conversation of, oh, we need to work with local communities, are Indigenous groups. You know, and when Indigenous groups are brought in, it's usually tribal governments. And, of course, not all tribes are recognized federally. And if they're not federally recognized, they're out of luck. You know, locally we have the Chinook tribe fighting for recognition and wanting to be a part of managing lands in our region on the lower Columbia River, and being cut out without funding, without recognition. But other tribes are, and so they are able to kind of assert themselves. And so I think this is all true. You know, I don't want to go down the road of romanticizing rural communities, because I think that there's a lot that also needs to change, but there are a lot of people in those communities who, yeah, absolutely want it a different way. And like you said, just like being outside, they like being in the woods, and they just really care about things. And, you know, one of the funniest things to me is that, you know, a lot of, like, a lot of these these people in a way that I don't—it doesn't have any packing in theory or in politics, really—but like really push back against private ownership. You know, when you think about like private property being not just like an absolute thing, but a bundle of rights, you know, I have the right to log this, I have the right to access. You know, all these private timber lands used to be, like, widely accessible to people in local communities. And that, especially when they're a smaller companies, and so people grew up, you know, going to places in the coast range and hunting and fishing and just hanging out and camping and, like, that was their backyards. And they have the larger companies coming in and being like, well wait a second, we can we can charge for permit access, you know, and we can hire our security to control it, and we can put up gates on all the roads. And that really pisses people off, you know, and I think there's a real organizing opportunity there, you know, for someone to bridge that gap and be, like, yeah, you know, you're right. These big private companies really are, you know, taking away something that is not theirs to take away. You know, you own it too, and then can we extend this to, okay, but also you own it, but also, you know, there were people here first that also owned it and stuff do and have an ownership stake. And we can kind of build a new vision of who owns the land.
Margaret Yeah, no, it's like—it's like, people coming back just instinctively, on some level, to the the idea of the commons. You know, the idea that there's this land where it's okay to like—I'm not encouraging this, I'm just talking about the original commons in England or whatever—but like, it's okay to take some trees every now and then. It's okay to forage. It's okay to hunt. It's okay to see this as a common pool of resources that we all, you know, maintain and draw from. And in the enclosure of the commons, of course, you know, is the now everyone needs permits, you know, and you get all the Robin Hood stuff about, you know, don't go hunt on the king's land or whatever. It's just kind of interesting to watch that—not the same. But, you know, history doesn't repeat, it echoes, or whatever the—rhymes? I think it rhymes. I don't remember what the cliche is. I'll make a new cliche by not knowing the original cliche.
Simon Yeah, no, I mean, it's true. And that entity that people are mad at for these access issues. I mean, it's, we have—there's just a vision of, like, here's the tax lots on the map, and that's who owns it. And it just is always much more complicated than that. And I think we just need to, like, recognize and put that complexity forward. Maybe in our society, in a way, that we all kind of know instinctively, you know, that it's wrong to just like, gate it all off and say it's a private property and, you know, screw you. And—but by reinforcing that sense of ownership, too, it makes all this stuff easier, it makes my work easier. And I want to expand that sense of ownership, because sometimes the people that are invited into having a say are people with with power in our society.
Margaret Yeah. The large landowners and...
Simon We can—I think we can build it—yeah, we can build a different ethic of, you know, how we interact with lands, with natural lands.
Margaret Do people—I mean, I don't know whether you would specifically know—but I wonder if people do guerrilla reforestation, you know, just like, going to—
Simon You know, it's a really good question. And like, I remember—so, in Oregon—well and a little bit in Washington—I think it was maybe four years ago, we had the first big wildfire near Portland in a lot of people's lives here. And that was in the Columbia River Gorge, which is like a really beloved place. You know, it's—the Columbia River is, I'm sure, you know, of course, but like, for your listeners who haven't been there, the Columbia River is like carving through the Cascade Mountains. And so it's this massive river, and it's easily accessible from the city. And so there's lots of hiking. And a wildfire started there. And a lot of people, unlike in other areas of the West, hadn't really experienced wildfire close to the city before. And so there was a lot of, like, real emotional scarring for people about, like, we lost this place. Like, it's gone. Like not knowing what was there yet. It was closed for a couple years for safety. You know, like, a lot of the hiking trails and things are still closed. And a long-winded way to say there were groups popping up, I remember on Facebook, you know, being like, I'm starting this group, and I'm gonna go in and start planting trees, who's with me? Like, we need to go plant trees. And, of course, people like me were jumping in and saying, well, actually, fire is a natural process and blah, blah, blah, and like, maybe don't. Let's give it a second. Like this is actually like, the gorge probably burned pretty frequently because there were a lot of, like, village sites and people were there and fires—anyways, whatever. But that sentiment was certainly there. So, like, clearly when people, like, know and love a place I think that, like, they can be organized to like do that, you know. Because this was a place that held a lot of, like a really special place in a lot of people's hearts. And so the question is, like, a lot of the places that really need reforestation are the super degraded places that no one goes to, you know, that aren't like the beautiful mountains. It's like the agricultural pasture that's like a little bit degraded and, like, maybe it's kind of a problem now. Or like just this little strip of land next to the creek, you know. So, I would love to see, like, that sort of like community response to doing that kind of thing. I think it would be like incredibly cool. And in terms of guerrilla efforts, I think probably the best examples you would find outside of the United States. Like I am not going to know the name of the village, but I have a family friend who is a doctor who spent a lot of time working in Rwanda for Doctors Without Borders. And she met these people that, like, in this little village they've started just reforesting, like, the hillsides next to their town. There were like these landslides happening and they just—now they started to get like NGO funding and stuff. But they started themselves. And I really wish I remember the name of this group and what they're doing but—and the name of the village—but I don't know. But I think in places without resources and without, like, everything is very codified, you know, here's who owns this land and here's who's responsible for it. There've been really like beautiful examples of people just taking it into their own hands. And this whole village just goes out and plants trees and I—the pictures are looking at—and it's like they're just, they grow them themselves. And they're like terracing the hills a little bit to, like, retain some moisture. And it was, like, to save their land and their lives. Like there were these landslides that were threatening them and they just started doing it, you know? And so I think there's—the best examples, you need to look outside of people like me who work for governments and nonprofits and things like that and look at other parts of the world.
Margaret That's uh... Okay, so the takeaways are: planting trees is good. Bringing beavers is good. Plant trees whether or not you have permission, but possibly, ideally, get actual local expertise about where to plant the trees and what kind of trees to plant. Change property relations. Yeah, no, no big deal. Damn it.
Simon No big deal.
Simon Also, you know, I mean, build your own expertise, right? Like, just, if you are interested in a piece of ground and in restoring it, just start going there. Like if there's a creek in your town that's kind of abandoned and, you know, whatever. Like, just seeing how it behaves for a couple of seasons, you can start to build that expertise.
Simon So it's not that complicated, really.
Margaret Okay, well, that's probably a good note to end on. Do you have—for people who didn't listen to the last episode necessarily—do you have any organizations you're excited about shouting out or how people can follow you and bug you on the internet?
Simon Yeah, just the same things, I think. For people that are in the Portland, Oregon region, a great group—if you're interested in planting trees—to volunteer with or donate to is Friends of Trees. I don't work for them, but they're excellent. They plant trees in natural areas and in neighborhoods. And so you can just google Friends of Trees Portland and find them. For me, nothing to plug. But if you want to find me on Twitter, it's @plant_warlock. And if you have general questions about forestry or restoration, I'd be happy to to get in touch with you.
Margaret All right. Well, thanks so much for letting us steal even more of your time than originally we planned.
Simon Yeah, thank you.
Margaret Thanks, everyone, for listening. I hope you enjoyed that episode. I was just basically, as soon as we finished the call last time, I was like, no, wait, there's more we want to talk about. Because, while it's such a big issue, reforesting the planet to not all die seems like an important thing to talk about. And I hope you enjoyed listening to the conversation again—well, it's not the same conversation. So different conversation. I bet everyone really just sticks around to the end in order to hear me ramble. That's like the main thing. But if you want to be able to keep hearing me ramble, then the best way to do it is to tell people about the show. Yeah, sure. That works. Help feed the algorithms that run the world and things by liking and sharing and subscribing and retweeting and original tweeting and Instagram story sharing and we're on Facebook and Instagram and, you know, I'm on Twitter @magpiekilljoy. And I'm also on Patreon. And if you want to support the show, you can do so by supporting me on Patreon which goes to support all the people who work on this show and all the other stuff that we're really excited to start putting out soon. And I particularly would like to thank Nora and Hoss the dog, Kirk, Willow, Natalie, Sam, Christopher, Shane, The Compound, Cat J, Starro, Mike, Eleanor, Chelsea, Dana, Hugh, and Shawn. Thank you so much. And also, if you want access to the patron only—Patreon only content—but you don't make as much money as like we make—if you—whatever, if you're like not doing super well financially, just message me on whatever platform and I'll give you access to all of it for free. We do like a monthly zine that at the moment has been like zine by me, but soon is going to be zine—original zine by someone else. I'm restarting an old publisher called Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness. I'm very excited about it. And we also have YouTube show now called, get this, it's called Live Like the World is Dying because it's the same show, it's just on YouTube. There's some stuff that, like, visually makes more sense—that makes more sense visually. I need to eat, so I'm going to be done recording now. Thank you so much for listening and I hope you're doing great
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