Building Bridges of Understanding
Jim Petersen, Editor, Evergreen Magazine February, 1990
The Decade of the Environment is upon us, and if we are to believe the statistics, well over half of all Americans now believe their forest heritage is being destroyed by giant timber companies that care little for the environment and mostly for the almighty dollar.
It would be easy to blame environmental groups for the precipitous decline in public confidence in forestry, but nothing good would come of it. Besides, there are other deeper meanings that must be understood first before public confidence in forestry can be restored. Of these meanings, none poses a greater threat to the nation’s future than the cultural gap that now distances rural America from its cities.
We have become a nation of city dwellers a generation or two removed from our distant rural heritage. There is little about city life that hints of where things come from or where America began. There are no sawmills in San Francisco, no silver mines in Chicago and no wheat fields in New York City. Nothing in the city reminds us of small rural communities like Libby, Montana, Wallace, Idaho, Forks, Washington, Hay Fork, California or Klamath Falls, Oregon. These are small out-of-the way places where loggers, miners and farmers shape America’s building blocks. But because nothing about city life leads back to rural roots, city dwellers know very little about these building blocks or where they come from.
The same can probably be said for most of us. Rarely, if ever, do we make the connection between loggers and the countless homes that shelter this nation of 280 million. We break bread three times a day, but give no thought to America’s farmers and ranchers. We fly at the speed of sound and compute at the speed of light, but know nothing of miners who toil for precious metals in the bowels of the Earth. We travel from coast to coast on ribbons of concrete, never stopping think about the aggregate industry that paved the way, not just for the movement of goods and services, but also for ideas and people.
Not surprisingly, we have become the richest nation on Earth, but in ever increasing numbers, we have absolutely no idea where our wealth comes from or what it takes to acquire it. Worse yet, we do not know the people who bring us these riches in such abundance. If more of us knew more of them, we would probably view logging, farming, ranching and mining in a more favorable light. There would still be concern for the environment, but it would be tempered by the reality that even the essentials of life come at a price.
Most Americans care deeply about the environment, but I doubt many would be willing to surrender their job or the comforts of life in the name of spotted owl protection, wetland’s preservation or biological diversity. Nevertheless, these are the directions in which America is headed. Before we travel too far down this road, the nation’s resource-based industries need to build some bridges of understanding linking rural America’s producers with urban America’s consumers. Imagine the enormous political and cultural strength of common understanding - of links that tie producers to consumers, big cities to small towns. Imagine how much better things would be if consumers actually knew something about land and natural resource management and what it takes to feed, clothe and shelter this nation on a daily basis.
The best way to build these bridges of understanding is to replicate the sister city model that has been used so successfully to join people from distant lands in bonds of common understanding and shared ideals. What better way to bridge the increasingly divisive gap that now distances urban America from its rich rural heritage?
Until these bridges of understanding are in place, the nation’s forest, farming and mining communities will continue to drift from economic crisis to economic crisis, from one cobbled-together congressional fix to the next. It is no way to live.