As I write this column, I look out my window. A haze of ashy particulate blankets our whole county, and indeed, our whole state. The sickly yellow-grey smoke obscures my view. Edges blur on the buildings around my neighborhood and the usual sharp spines of the tree-lined horizon and distant mountains are invisible, shrouded in a smoky cloak.
Coupled with the haze are the physical effects of the suspended ash particles: itchy red eyes, scratchy throat, and lungs protesting with an occasional cough about the air quality. When the physical effects combine with the heat, the result on my body is a familiar one usually reserved for a few days during the winter months. I feel just a tad under the weather. The forecast for tomorrow: smoke.
This increasingly common weather is not just on my mind and body, but it has settled onto everyone I know: friends, neighbors and the anonymous others I meet when I am about my day around town. Weather is our go-to for small talk: a simple topic to fill the air with conversation. This August has not been filled with lighthearted comments about a week’s worth of summer heat, but a question with a blurry edge of desperation: When will this end?
Intermittent relief is a disappointment. With a few mostly clear days, the smoke returns, and we are left with the realization that the fun summer we have come to enjoy in the Pacific Northwest is over as we know it, at least for this year. Sustained relief will only come when the cold and the wet return. Some even suggest that the beautiful summer months we wait for all year — months that are paid for with the endurance of long grey winters — may be over for good.
As the blanket of haze and its associated effects intensifies, disappointment turns to frustration, which often results in looking for someone to blame. Experts on fire suppression and forest management practices appear everywhere, armed with catchy phrases like “log it, graze it, or watch it burn.” It is their opinion that the blame for the wildfires, and the poor air quality that comes with it, lies with forest and wilderness mismanagement. They like to blame a lack of human interference, and champion industry to come in and clean up the problem.
Consider that human interference may have made our wild lands less resilient. Logging and replacing healthy forests with monocrop saplings might not be the answer. Smaller and younger trees carry fires into the canopy to spread. Cutting out the more valuable lumber when thinning leaves weaker trees to carry the weight of the forest. And industry’s solutions don’t even acknowledge the effects of natural or man-made climate change.
I don’t claim to be a forest management expert, but what I do know is people. People can be thoughtful, helpful social creatures who build amazing societies, which we have seen no equal throughout the universe. However, people also can be greedy and manipulative. And in regards to people and the ideas that influence them, I like to revert to the phrase popularized by screenwriter William Goldman in the film “All The President’s Men:” “Follow the money.” The recent popularity of “log it, graze it or watch it burn” appears to tie back to a billboard sponsored by the Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association.
It is a question of values, or rather value. Some people can only see a value in the tree when they cut it down and sell it for timber. The value of the grass is only how much it fattens the cattle that fill their pocketbooks when they go to slaughter. Commerce habitually looks at next quarter. If a timber company can log more land and a cattleman can graze more cattle, they make more money. “Get big or get out,” as former USDA secretary Earl Butz liked to say.
The health of the forest and wild prairie lands cannot be measured in fiscal quarters or dollar bills.
So while catchy slogans might press us into action, I suggest we react with moderation. We must look for clear, evidence-supported solutions and use techniques that preserve our wildlands for all, not just a few.
Holly Reed is a writer, Army veteran, transplant to Olympia by way of Yakima, and a member of The Olympian’s 2018 Board of Contributors. She may be reached at email@example.com.