Learn how environmentalists and loggers once worked together

Loggers standing on log
January 31, 2020 - 5:00am

Most people in the Pacific Northwest probably assume that loggers and environmentalists have always been more foes than friends, especially after witnessing the heated debate in recent decades over protections for the northern spotted owl.

That feud was memorialized on dueling bumper stickers that flew down highways proclaiming “I like Spotted Owls ... Fried," and "Loggers are an Endangered Species, Too.”

But UO historian Steven Beda explains that the tension over protections for the raptor and its habitat in old-growth forests is only one small slice of the historical relationship between the two groups. A broader perspective reveals they actually share an impressive record of working together to protect the environment and public lands.

In a Feb. 5 Quack Chats pub talk, “Beyond the Spotted Owl: The History of Timber Workers and Environmentalism in the Pacific Northwest,” Beda will present his research on how loggers have shaped nature over the past century and how nature has shaped their politics and values.

The public talk begins at 6 p.m. at the Ax Billy Grill at the Downtown Athletic Club, 999 Willamette St. in Eugene. Admission is free and questions are encouraged.

Beda’s research was inspired by fishing trips around the Pacific Northwest, where he kept encountering timber workers who were also trekking into the woods to enjoy the outdoors and to see if the fish were biting that day. As they traded small talk on various riverbanks, Beda noticed most of the timber workers he met sounded strikingly similar to environmentalists when they discussed nature and the wilderness.

“As we chatted, they kept emphasizing the aesthetics of the forest and their desire to protect it,” he said.

Beda, who specializes in labor and environmental history, decided to turn these riverside chats into a research project to examine this group of workers and the evolution of their environmental values and political action.

Fallers and large tree His findings aligned with what he’d observed in the woods. He discovered that timber workers have a long, proud history of environmentalism and have helped advance landmark legislation and initiatives that preserved large swaths of forest and wilderness, including the 1964 Wilderness Act, the Three Sisters Wilderness and Olympic National Park.

“Protecting the environment was and remains central to the identity and activism of timber-working communities,” Beda said. “The forests are part of who they are, places they’ve cared for as deeply as any friend or relative, and something they’ve fought to protect for deeper cultural reasons.”

Beda will outline the historical origins of these values in his talk and highlight how they’ve motivated timber workers to engage in environmental activism and leverage their union, the International Woodworkers of America, to protect forests, in addition to their jobs, in the mid-20th century.

“Timber workers have always seen the forest as a place for work and economic security, of course,” he said. “But it’s about balanced forest management. They also want to protect their access to the wilderness for recreation and to preserve its ecological health.”

He’ll also cover some recent shifts that have splintered loggers and environmentalists and share his thoughts on the potential for future coalitions between the two groups.

Beda is currently working on a book-length project covering the subject, “Strong Winds and Widow Makers: A History of Workers, Nature, and Environmental Conflict in the Pacific Northwest Timber Country, 1900 to Present.”

More Quack Chats pub talks are scheduled for 2020. Follow Around the O or check out the Quack Chats webpage for information on upcoming talks on gender and the gaming industry and the impacts of e-commerce on cities.

By Emily Halnon, University Communications