Friday, September 14, 2007

Wendell Berry: Open Letter on the Proposed Plan to Clear-Cut 800 Acres of Robinson Forest

(Courtesy of Rebecca Glasscock. Wendell Berry has long been one of the most important writers/voices of Kentucky, again he demonstrates the power of his vision/words in his support of young activists fighting to protect Robinson Forest.)

Wendell Berry
Lanes Landing Farm
Box 1
Port Royal, KY 40058

September 4, 2007

Dr. Scott Smith, Dean
College of Agriculture
Room S 123
Agricultural Science Bldg. N
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY 40506

Dear Scott:

I am grateful to you and your forestry colleagues for your willingness to meet, on August 21st, with me and other questioners of your plan for logging research in Robinson Forest. It was for several reasons regrettable that you had to leave before the meeting ended, but you were there long enough, I am sure, to discover that the questioners were serious and that they were asking substantive questions in good faith. And I don’t doubt that, as a teacher, you were as proud as I was of the excellent young people who are leading the questioners, and who are taking up the burden of patriotism and civic responsibility, exactly as their best teachers have bidden them to do.

I must also give you my personal thanks for the meeting. Your willingness to talk across differences with critics has endeared you to me. As a result, I have always tried to speak with you openly, as a friend, and I will continue to do so.

My purpose in writing this letter is to set forth my understanding of the issues, for whatever good there may be in doing so, and it seems right to begin with the issue that is most obscure to me: namely, the suggestion that we can choose only between your proposed experiment, which involves clear-cutting 800 acres of the forest now, and strip-mining the whole forest perhaps in three years. These stark alternatives first came to my attention in an email from John Cox to Garrett Graddy, and then you set them forth with heavy and solemn emphasis in your “last words” to our meeting on the 21st.

The possibility that the forest will be strip-mined has been plainly in sight for several years, but it is hard to know what to make of it in its new manifestation as an either-or tradeoff. This seems to be a threat, but it is an obscure threat. Does it originate with you, or from somewhere higher in the University administration, or from somewhere in state government?

In your remarks to us, you spoke of the financial needs of the Robinson Scholars Fund, which has been imprudently depleted, but then you said that the proposed 800-acre clear-cut was driven by research, not the need for income. There can be no such confusion about strip-mining the forest; the only possible motive for that would be financial.

Strip-mining the forest would be confusing only in light of the University’s strong public commitment to research. How could it earn or maintain respect for itself as a research institution if it destroys, for a financial return, one of its most valuable resources for study and experimentation? If Robinson Forest is strip-mined, one would have to conclude that the University’s business interest (its need for money) had come disastrously into conflict with its research commitment.

Whatever substance there may be to this threat, the would-be protectors of the forest are obliged to take it seriously. Taking it seriously requires us to suppose that the forest may be both clear-cut and strip-mined. (I asked your people at our meeting if they could confidently doubt that the forest will eventually be strip-mined, and they answered no.) It seems, then, that my side is rightly opposed to any destructive practice in the forest. We must assume that the proposed clear-cut is not an alternative to strip-mining, but instead is the first step in a business plan that will culminate in strip-mining.

To answer for myself the question I asked earlier, I don’t believe that the threat to Robinson Forest originates with you. And so this letter is addressed to you only as the host of our meeting on the 21st. I am not thinking of our determination to protect the forest as your problem, nor am I thinking of you as our problem. I feel sure, and for good reason, that the pressure on the forest is not scientific but financial, and that it is coming from somewhere outside the College of Agriculture. Because of my uncertainty of the point of origin, I am making this a public letter, hoping that it will reach the persons or powers who will in fact decide the fate of the forest, and wishing to bring into the conversation all who are concerned.

The questioners’ opposition to the planned experiment may be summed up as their inability to accept, or believe, the proposition that the only way to preserve the forest is to clear-cut it – and this in eastern Kentucky, the scene already of total industrial war against the land, the forest, and the people. This is a paradox that our civilization involves us in from time to time, and your questioners are justly dismayed and frightened by it. You, like some of us, are old enough to remember the village in Vietnam that had to be destroyed in order to save it.

I of course am older than you. At my age it is hardly conceivable that I
would be questioning your proposed experiment in my own behalf. I was there necessarily in behalf of younger people. I came partly to see how our University would respond to the good young citizens who had come rightfully and appropriately with their questions, and whose motive is only to preserve what they can of a natural birthright by now greatly diminished.

Your need to leave the meeting is perfectly understandable to me, and yet I am sorry, not least because the meeting got better and more cordial the longer it went on. Your people responded to the questioners with increasing, and finally with great, generosity. The questioners, for the most part, diverted any hard feelings to their own ulcers and returned kindness for kindness.

My sense of the meeting (and I don’t think I am speaking only for myself or my side) is that it produced finally a real conversation, which not only did no damage but was good for us all. All the participants agreed that the conversation ought to continue, and that it would do so in another meeting. Your people agreed to have their plan reviewed by a panel of scientists selected by the questioners – as was only appropriate, if we want to be objective in every way.

Finally, and I’m speaking now just for myself, I began to see our conversation of that day as the sad result of our immensely expensive failure here in Kentucky to hold, ever in the 232 years of European “settlement,” a public deliberation on our relation to our land. That such a discussion might be sponsored or led by state government, even so late, defies hope. But the University of Kentucky could do it. And who might more appropriately begin it than you? Such a discussion would make our University extraordinary, and probably unique.

As I understand it, the experiment involving the 800-acre clear-cut is to be performed in order to establish a basis of knowledge for sustainable forestry. You would not expect me to quarrel with that motive, and I won’t. But from your own point of view, the most serious weakness of your planned experiment is that it is redundant. Though you have published “Sustainable Management Guidelines” for Robinson Forest, you and your colleagues apparently are assuming that sustainable forestry actually does not yet exist, and that it can begin only with such a drastic experiment as you propose.

On the contrary, sustainable forestry already exists, and its existence can be verified by records, proofs, and observation; to a significant extent, it is in commercial practice. Apparently it was practiced in Europe at least as early as 1605. Aldo Leopold mentions this date in his reference to the Spessart forest in the Alps, which at the time of his writing had been in continuous production of “the finest cabinet oak in the world” for 337 years. And Leopold goes on to say, much to the point of our discussion: “While the northern hardwood forest, like the Spessart, is injured by violence, it is known to stand up under gentle intelligent use to an extraordinary degree. You can cut a third of the volume of a 200-year-old stand and come back every 20 years and take as much again. . . . This . . . is called selective logging. Its technology has been fully explored by the research branch of the Forest Service.” (“The Last Stand,” The River of the Mother of God, 292-293.)

Nearer home, the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin consists almost entirely of forest, amounting to 220,000 acres. This forest has been sustainably logged for a century and a half. It is said to have more standing timber in it now than it had in 1854 when logging began.

The Pioneer Forest in the Missouri Ozarks consists of 150,000 acres which have been sustainably logged since the 1950s. It likewise has increased in quantity and quality of standing timber. Pioneer’s eleventh forest inventory in 2002 showed that “Standing volume had nearly tripled in the half century . . . while species composition had remained stable except for an increase in the more valuable white oak and pine. . . . In the last six years . . . income has been exceeding expenses by more than 50 percent.” (Susan Flader, “Missouri’s Pioneer in Sustainable Forestry,” Forestry History Today, Spring/Fall 2004, 14.)

Troy Firth, a forest owner and manager in Pennsylvania, was the subject of an article in Forbes magazine because producing forests managed by him increased so remarkably in value.

Charlie Fisher, who was a logger in Ohio, and Jason Rutledge, who is still logging and teaching loggers in Virginia, have followed the same principles. I have visited logging operations of both men and found them conforming closely to the Menominee pattern.

All of these American examples are businesses, constantly answerable to the economic pressures of “the real world.” All of them – with the possible exception (so I hear) of the Menominee forest – would welcome observation and testing of their work and results by academic foresters. They have received almost none.

Mr. John A. Karel, President of the L – A – D Foundation which administers the Pioneer Forest, told me that they had finally secured the interest of two faculty members of the University of Missouri School of Forestry, and that there is some talk about internships. Also they were visited once by scientists from the Yale School of Forestry, who said, “We don’t understand what you’re doing, but it seems to work.”

I asked, “Did they ever come back to try to understand what you are doing?”

Mr. Karel said, “No.”

I do not mean to imply that sustainable forestry anywhere is beyond question. Human use of the land will never be beyond question, and I think that part of the responsibility of scientists is to question it ceaselessly. The practices will remain questionable, and the standards of practice will probably remain to some degree suppositional. This seems to me to call, not for eventual solution, but for an unrelenting intellectual engagement and dialogue, which will remain an essential part of the work of any responsible university.

My point is that if the University of Kentucky would send its forest scientists to places where sustainable forestry is being practiced in order to study what is being done, to subject it to rigorous testing and observation, and then to use that knowledge to establish similar but locally adapted practices in Robinson Forest and throughout Kentucky, then our University would not be “top twenty” in forestry research; it would be number one.

Yours cordially and sincerely,

Wendell Berry

Copies to:
Dr. Lee T. Todd, Jr.
Dr. Steven Bullard
Dr. Ernest J. Yanarella
Dr. Julian Campbell
Mr. Hank Graddy
Ms. Tina Marie Johnson
Mr. Doug Doerrfeld
Ms. Garrett Graddy
Mr. Paul Lovelace
Any others who may be concerned


President Lee T. Todd, Jr.
Office of the President
101 Main Building
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY 40506-0032

Dr. Steven Bullard, Chair
214 Thomas Poe Copper Building
Office 106
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY 40506-0073

Dr. Ernest J. Yanarella
Department of Political Science
1659 Patterson Office Tower
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY 40506

Dr. Julian Campbell
3525 Willowood Road
Lexington, KY 40517

Mr. Hank Graddy
PO Box 4307
Midway, KY 40347

Ms. Tina Marie Johnson
140 East Haiti Road
Berea, KY 40403

Mr. Doug Doerrfeld
PO Box 177
Elliottville, KY 40317

Ms. Garrett Graddy
Mr. Paul Lovelace
PO Box 158
Wellington, KY 40387


jonhusband said...

What a delicious letter by Wendell Berry ... not only identifying the whiffleball slider in use by the University adminisration, but also pointing them to cogent examples of the types of research they are purporting to suggest is necessary while congratulating them on their deceptively stated willingness to engage in consultation. Lovely.

Arkady said...

He left them a positive way out and a way to stay in broadly good standing while doing so. They should take this remarkable gift and thank him for his statesmanlike intervention. That thanks would do them as much good as his proposal.