Large Trees Come from Small Seeds
It started with silence. The sound of saws, a perpetual hum resonating through the town, was ever-present. Then, abruptly, the blades slowed to a halt, and the blooming creaks of logs splitting and resonating thuds of lumber stacking all stopped. The mill had closed.
It was 1993, and in the rural community of Hayfork, CA, embedded in 1.2 million acres of national forest system lands, 40% of the town had just lost their jobs. The logging industry had been in decline for several years as the U.S. Forest Service began scaling back timber harvest. Then, in the wake of the environmental litigation, policies to protect the spotted owl prompted a moratorium on all logging, and an era ended.
The town was impoverished and also divided. Loggers, deprived of their jobs and their connection to the land, were pitted against environmentalists, whom they saw as extremists who sacrificed community livelihood for land. Environmentalists, in turn, defined loggers as greedy pillagers who didn’t value or understand the forest.
Known environmental activists had their homes vandalized. Their cars were egged and their children were teased in school. The environmental community characterized loggers as people who raped the land, and vigilantly distrusted the Forest Service, blaming them for perceived exploitation and destruction. Tensions were high, and in the oppositional climate of Hayfork the forest was undermanaged and people still didn’t have jobs.
Into this polarized arena came Lynn Jungwirth. She was a logger’s daughter, born and raised in a small rural community in Oregon. A trip she made to the local high school to speak became for her a catalyst for change. After asking a room full of seniors what their plans were, the vast majority had no answers. Most students were descended from generations of loggers and mill workers. With a cultural and economic heritage that had always told them they would make their livelihoods in the woods and sawmills, Hayfork youth now felt like their community offered them no future.
“It broke my heart,” Jungwirth says.
So she set out to fix the problem. She recruited a team, and drawing on the expertise of locals, academics at UC Berkeley, and congressional insiders, developed a program to re-train loggers and mill workers to do the hard and honorable work of ecosystem management. This effort became The Watershed Research and Training Center.
This simple vision of creating jobs that maintained the land evolved to a set of practices, partnerships, and adaptive strategies that have changed the way land management is accomplished at local, regional, and national levels. From the small seed of a mill closing, grew a forest of policies, work, partnerships, and learning that became the vanguard of western Community-Based Forestry.
Hayfork’s story was paralleled in many rural communities throughout the Pacific Northwest. These communities, faced with the disintegration of livelihoods and wellbeing, organized to develop solutions to their own problems. What emerged was a placed-based response to challenges that were shaped by larger external forces.
As a natural response to this, The Watershed Center recognized early on that an approach to mend Hayfork’s dismantled community would require strategies that were local, regional, and national.
In a context where many other communities were living this truth, the WRTC was at the forefront of a burgeoning movement advocating for bottom-up solutions that recognized the valuable role of local organizations in addressing the quagmire of rural development and land management. These organizations, known as Community Based Organizations, worked together to share efforts, learning, and strategies, developing strong networks and partnerships that today maintain the linkages between rural communities, policy makers, academia, and practitioners, and continue to be the cutting edge of Community Based Forestry.
The WRTC has grown over the years, expanding to create local jobs and implement watershed restoration, prescribed fire, biomass utilization, economic development, and a host of other programs that are working to create healthy lands and healthy communities.
Still a leader in the Community Based Forestry movement, our efforts have evolved to respond to challenges at local, regional, and national levels. We have accomplished much in the last two decades, and remain committed to the vision creating a vibrant future for rural lands and communities.