Thursday, July 31, 2014

Kindly put your nose in Nose

* The Tongass personal narrative (Reflections in Blue and Green) is a good beach read, if I say so myself, environmental journalism about a rare and little-known piece of America: (
* Likewise, my series on the American west, taken from The Kingdom in the Country, will interest you if you haven't seen it (promise):
* Other related posts - Assassination Louisiana Style, Letters from the Equator, Beasts of the Southern Wild - can be found in the table of contents at right by scrolling down.                                                                          

For newly released titles go to:
These four classic titles by veteran author JAMES CONAWAY are now available in new quality paperback editions under the author’s own perennial imprint. Two novels, a memoir, and a book of travel reportage constitute a veritable writer’s school — and a reader’s treasure chest — of outstanding fiction and creative nonfiction. All titles are available on standard terms from Ingram.
THE BIG EASYThis novel of violence and racial strife set in New Orleans is full of social and physical contrasts.
Comiski, a newspaper reporter, descends into an underworld of corrupt policemen, narcotics dealers and black militants in an attempt to unravel a mysterious grave-robbing and find some meaning in his own life. Powerful and compelling. (Originally published in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin)
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH: “Grim, gripping, violent and practically impossible to put down.” PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: “The scene is unglamorous New Orleans — decay, dirt, garbage... smell, every kind of filth, hu- man and animal, in a brief, well-written novel of hopeless degradations that has a unique impact.” LIBRARY JOURNAL:“A short- fast-paced and absorbing novel... that probes deeply into the texture of the contempo- rary South, and entertains from first page to last.”
World’s End is about love, corruption, and retribution in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina swept much of that world away. Nostalgically bittersweet, intricately plotted, it works on several levels -- as a family saga, a political thriller, and a kind of generational noir. A compelling literary experience, and a complement to the author’s novel The Big Easy. (Originally published in hardcover by William Morrow)
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: “If tight melodrama laced with sex, power grabs and corruption is your dish, you’ll devour World’s End with the relish of a hungry mule in a cornfield...a spellbinder.”
KIRKUS: “This Louisiana tale, with its Mafia crime barons pitted against corrupt-government barons, expertly lifts numerous Puzo-ian scenes and motifs — tit-for-tat violence, family honor — while adding some strong local colorations and cinematic effects... there’s enough action and avarice down among the bayous to make this a solid, never crass or tasteless, commercial entry.”
MEMPHIS AFTERNOONSA touching, sometimes hilarious memoir of the 1950s when southern propriety was giving way to bourbon, Elvis, and sexual discovery. With rueful wit the author artfully renders a youth of hunting and fishing giving way to brawls, debutante parties, and literary exploration. The story is told against a wistful background of the poignant portrayal of a father struck by Alzheimer’s. (Originally published in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin)
Jim Lehrer in THE WASHINGTON POST — “Profound... hilarious... honest and serious... proof that the gods look more favorably on some writers than they do on others... Conaway moves through his family and life in Memphis in the ‘40s and ‘50s with the flow and grace of an impressionist painter.”
THE KINGDOM IN THE COUNTRY Tracy Kidder (Mountains Beyond Mountains, House) — “Exemplary... absorbing... sad and funny... It awakens our own memories, makes our own lives more available to us.”
a vast, sprawling land of eternal hope and busted dreams, of grizzlies, dune buggies and range wars, dope growers, corporate bandits, ecotage and, yes, even gun-slinging. With grace and humor the author takes the reader along on an exhilarating land voyage from the Pecos River to the Pacific Northwest and south again to the Mexican border.... (Originally published in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin)
Jim Harrison (author of Legends of the Fall): “A wonderful and well-considered evocation of the New West, all the better because it reads like a fine novel.”
Wallace Stegner (Angle of Repose): “He got into places and activities that most native Westerners never even get close to, and he reports them with verve, wit, irony, and a very sharp eye. He gives us, pretty much from the viewpoints of the antagonists, the battles between those who want to use the West, even to death, and those who want to preserve it... A sound and very lively book.”

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tempest in a wine glass


      The word storm generated by writing sessions at the national wine bloggers' conference in Santa Barbara this summer (,, et al) is both unexpected, and unfortunate. Steve Heimoff, Mike Dunn and I were invited there to talk about writing, and consequently denounced by some bloggers as old, white, male and... short. Thus in one oft-repeated assertion the complainers revealed themselves to be sexist, agist, racist, and vertically discriminatory. That's quite a literary achievement.
      Well, I want everyone to know that I'm six feet tall. That's a couple of inches above the national average and I worked hard for every one of them. Not easy getting to six feet in Memphis: too many glasses of  milk to get down, reins on bourbon and Camels, standing up straight in endless heat and humidity. Yes, it's absolutely true that I'm a man, older than the average American, and pitifully Irish, Welsh, English, Dutch, and probably Cherokee (my grandmother, bless her heart, never really explained).
       Not much I can do about any of it, but I can say that good writing does not depend upon these things. It depends upon having a clear vision of what you want to say, an acceptance of what's good writing and what isn't, and an honest assessment of one's own work. All these things are missing in this fight, replaced by an insistence upon being praised for writing badly in a silo resounding with the complaints of the equally aggrieved.
       The truth is that writing well requires not just practice but also what Hemingway (yes, that ultimate old white male of indeterminate height) called a good, built-in shit detector. Most of the aggrieved lack one. My advice to them - and to any aspiring writer - is: "Develop a sense of humor. And look beyond yourself." 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Haut Okanagan: Tantalus

                                                          Spare, beautiful...
       If you followed a bee downhill above the little city of Kelowna it might well take you from lavender to grapes, most spectacularly at Tantalus, the first LEEDS-certified winery in British Columbia and a kind of textbook case of good behavior, from re-cycling waste water to planting lovely drought-tolerant flowers and shrubs just short of xeriscaping, to good art (Takao Tanabe's landscape paintings) in the bright, airy interior space. Also producing what may be the best North America riesling, and an estate pinot noir that proves New World North can master that tricky, potentially very profitable burgundian transplant.
All the wines at Tantalus are made from these vineyards. On land hereabouts was the first planting of grapes, in the mid-1800s, by an Italian priest to make sacramental wine. The riesling stock goes back only to the 1970s but that is old indeed for vitis vinifera here. Someone either happened to plant above a seam of minerals - or was wily enough to figure out beforehand that it was a good idea, without advanced soil science and satellite imagery.
       The result is Tantalus’s “Old Vine” riesling: bone dry, with teeth-tingling minerality and wonderful fruit, body and finish. Tantalus also makes a good version from younger riesling vines but without all the complexity. And the lighter version pinot noir echoes the 2011 estate pinot noir in which the best from various parts of the property are blended. It has lovely translucence, deceptive in a pinot, big red fruit on the palate and great body. Tannic, too, but the profile seems built to last, and the wine can only get better as the vines age.                                              

Pre-pleistocene, the distant lake was much deeper and longer, leaving high, horizontal lashes in ancient rock that were once the beaches of turbulent ancient seas. The lake’s cataclysmic descent after the melting of the glacial dam down-valley left behind some almost talcum-like soils, but not clay that refuses to drain. It’s not alkaline, either, as in Burgundy, but there similarities.
        Hybrid grape varieties were planted early last century to withstand the cold, then torn out to be replaced by vitas vinifera. Now that gamble is paying off. “It all has been done slowly,” Jane Hatch, Tantalus general manager, told me as we walked the vineyards, pointing out among other things more than a dozen blue-and-white bee hives belonging to Arlo’s Honey Farm. (The sound of the bees’ wings frightens off aphids that prey on the vines. The aphids associate the sound with predatory wasps, so bees now have yet another role.)
             Of winery and grounds, Jane says, “We’ve a bit perfectionist,” not a boast but a declaration of quality and a commitment to terroir, an over-used term these days when so many vintners use it to describe wines made from fruit from other vineyards, and other viticultural neighborhoods entirely. Also a commitment to the preservation of land and water, evidenced in part by the 10-acre forest in the middle of the property where raptors and prey duke it out. 
        Tantalus was, of course, the mythic Greek figure condemned to eternal punishment. He stood in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree whose treasures hovered eternally beyond his grasp and the water eternally receded before he could drink from it. I didn't ask Jane about the symbolism, preferring to see the myth as all winemaker's existential role: create as best you can, with limitations, vintage without end.                                             

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To order my novel, Nose, click on:

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Haut Okanagan: Lavender hills

        Okanagan Lavender and Herb Farm just down the road from Arlo’s Honey Farm depends mightily upon the bees for pollination of more than sixty different types of lavender that lie in gorgeous chevrons on the shoulder of a hill overlooking the lake. Something truly fairytalish about the place, right down to the young woman wrapping bundles of lavender in burlap strips for potential brides and another extracting essential oils from the blossoms and yet another squeezing rosettes of lavender butter from a pastry sleeve onto a cookie sheet.
       All out of a mostly happy nineteenth century English novel except that this one's set thousands of miles to the west and the owner, Andrea McFadden, descended from the nationally diverse early settlers in the Okanagan valley. This New World version of William Butler Yeats’s bee-loud glade's a horticultural treasure as beautiful to look at as to smell. “We’ve been able to bring in lavender plants from Bulgaria and Turkey” and other exotic climes, Andrea told me while juggling administrative and welcoming duties, everyone - bees included - pleasantly augmenting the ambient air while concocting a Monet-esque landscape deep blue to mauve to palest pink.
     Downstairs, lavender hangs in the drying room, an upside down, dense and shadowy cameo forest. Outside, the sun’s too bright for contemplating the glimmering, aslant coin of Lake Okanagan.                                     
                                                               Next: Tantalus-izing

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Haut Okanagan: Arlo's Honey Farm

                                                               Bees' knees...          

           Coming east from Vancouver, I had plunged into the Okanagan Valley on an impossibly long, steep highway, the distant vistas all dry hills and pines and an astonishing inland freshwater sea. Think northern New Mexico with a 70-mile-long lake and really good pinot noir. Also honey, lavender, goat cheese, more, if you're willing to look.
       Canadians dislike advertisements in the countryside, bless their hearts, and since America’s the mecca of road signage it’s almost a pleasure to get lost here. I'm searching for gustatory gems, and one of these is Arlo's Honey Farm. You get a look at great small farms and horticultural ventures of all sorts, including wineries, all with great backdrop of lake Okanagan and a very big western sky.
       “Wet springs are good for bees,” said Helen Kennedy. Arlo’s also produces gorgeous fresh vegetables for restaurants in Kelowna - “We just finished harvesting  garlic” - and blueberries, golden raspberries, honeyberries, sascatoon, a prairie berry, mostly for the pleasure and sustenance of their bees, the produce going out after the bees are done with it. But some of the rows tended lovingly are just for Arlo’s bees: hyssop, crackerjack marigolds, dandelion  and phacillia. The deeply, yellow zucchini blossoms all harbor pollen-laden insects.
        Helen speaks of the bees lovingly but with knowledge gleaned from long experience. “A single acre will produce 800 pounds of honey,” she says, putting on her white bee-keeping suit with the face screen. Yet one bee in its lifetime produces a grand total of one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey.
         She fires up the smoker - smoke makes bees dive into the hive to feed, and that makes them “full and happy and less likely to sting.” The smoke in her little can comes from burlaps sacks that once held organic coffee beans, obtained from a roaster in Kelowna, Bean Scene, and cut into strips (no toxicity).
        Arlo hives are also at the local lavender farm down the road, which needs them absolutely for pollination, and at Tatalus vineyards even further down the road, where the buzzing makes aphids nervous and less likely to attack the vines. Bees be ubiquitous, like the smell of things growing in BC’s hot, clean, flower-scented air.                                           
(Next: Lavender needs them)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Haut Okanagan: Seeking sustenance in BC


    It’s called Waterfront Wines and it’s in Kelowna, British Columbia, in the rain shadow of the Cascades. You’re thinking, “What about food?” but don’t. Just open your mouth.
   First a dry, robust riesling from Tantalus Cellars and then in reasonable succession scallops from Quadra Island near Victoria Island in the nearby - well, almost - Pacific Ocean with apple kimchi from local Green City Acres farms; aged prosciutto made right here in the chef’s house plus coppa (pig’s neck), guanciale (a jowlly presence not to be forgotten and, yes, thoroughly digestible), liver terrine with some pork shoulder and red wine worked in - the pig's from from Wild Moon Organics - and smoked lardo (back fat) and fresh salciccia served with sourdough bread cameos made with wild yeast. The charcuterie's all house-made and aged with temperature and humidity-control in chef Mark Filatow's home. Also baby asparagus from Arlo Honey Farm.
    Now ravioli with brazen but delicious “alpindon” cheese from a maker nearby, with morels from the Yukon, roasted garlic, and arugula from Arlo, with baby peas in a carbonara-style sauce. Palate cleanser is Backhand of God stout with whiskey, a tad of maple syrup and frothed egg white.
     Then Quail’s Gate pinot noir (big nose, chewy Okanagan black fruit, good finish) with BC steelhead garnished with salsa verde from milkweed and wild sorrel leaves from a local forager who has no last name, and roasted cauliflower pureed and ragout of sweetbread in a backcountry jus - more Backhand of God - with nuggets of smoked beef tongue…
     Finally (not really) halibut pan-seared with pakora fried cauliflower and a south India coconut rice cake, spiced prawn and cockney sauce, jollied along by a wonderful 50th Parallel pinot gris up to the lot. Almost forgot the creme fraiche ice cream on a line of candied pistachio nuts garnished golden raspberries just appearing on these high, beautiful, arid slopes.                                                                     
                         (Next: It's the sound of their wings...)
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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Reflections in Blue and Green, 9

                                                 The View from On High
          The Sikorsky Long Ranger's plastic bubble, high above the Honker Divide, trembled from the action of the rotors. Commentary was provided by the chief forester from the Ketchikan Pulp Company, owner of helicopter, using interlocking audio cables and headsets. "That canoe route down there is for the strong of back and weak of mind," he said, not knowing I had been down there the week before. "People say these vast lands should be saved. Saved for what?"
    Somewhere below was an island where afternoon sunlight cuts through trees at the shore to reveal faces carved in wood. You have to know where to look, and few do. Consequently the renditions of beaver, wolf and man have survived the century, unmolested by all but the weather, dumbly scrutinizing passing motor launches instead of the high-prowed canoes that once nuzzled the coast. Kneel there and you can still feel, beneath the pine needles, rows hoed long ago by the Haida for planting potatoes. Thank god these guys didn't know where that island was.
     The Long Ranger passed over the very spot in Thorne Lake where Susanna had cooked pesto with macaroni for our party, on the bottom of an overturned aluminum canoe and in glorious celebration of the last portage. That day we had all been proud of an accomplishment that could not be quantified nor explained to the chief forester: "People who aren't in shape aren't going to be able to get in there," he said. "We already have eight million acres like that. That's what really grinds us up here - it's saved for the environmental elite. I can't take my 66-year-old mother in there because there's no road."
     The paradox of the forester's words was apparent from the air: logging, and logging roads, meant access to what would no longer be there if his mother had arrived to see it. Wild places were too difficult for ordinary citizens, according to the former governor, Walter Hickle, who once pointed out that Alaska "can kill you." But wilderness remains a commodity in insufficient supply to meet demands, even in Alaska.                      

     Broderick Nash wrote in Wilderness and the American Mind, "Alaska represents inhospitable environmental qualities in extremes unprecedented in previous American experience." And, "powered by modern technology, dreams could become realities in Alaska." Projects that required a decade or more in the Old West can now be done here in a season. What KPC considered an aerial affirmation of plentiful timber on Prince of Wales demonstrated instead that only this corridor of old-growth remained between Sweetwater Lake and Thorne Bay.
     Meanwhile about 80 per cent of the trees cut on the Tongass were being shipped abroad, most of them to Japan, not transformed into pulp or otherwise into jobs for Alaskans but simply lost to the nation or their origin.
    The Forest Service's 100-year rotation plan presumed the forest would return in force after being clear-cut, but most biologists agreed that a 300-year rotation was more realistic. After the first few years, the regenerating forest constituted a dense, uniform, mostly sterile palisade; logging by small operators, slower, relatively benign, virtually eliminated by the long term timber contracts, would have produced a quite different landscape.
     People in Southeast, riven with transcendent notions of freedom and the natural beauty - Misty Fiord, Glacier Bay - were party to some spectacular ugliness as well: clear-cuts like patches of mange on the firred haunches of mountains, timber camps with the social problems associated with inner cities (substance, spouse, and child abuse), and the drizzling smokestacks of the Ketchikan Pulp mill, visible across Clarence Strait where most of the Prince of Wales timber was bound.
     KPC was operating its mill on an interim basis, all the while selling the Tongass timber abroad. Management claimed declining demand for pulp on the world market no longer made the business profitable, but there were bigger problems at the mill, much like those engendered at Sitka. Louisiana Pacific was considering selling that smelly industrial hulk, no doubt influenced by the two raids on the mill by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the last 18 months. Agents were searching for evidence of possible criminal violations of environmental laws; the federal government had also filed a civil suit alleging numerous violations of the Clean Water and Clean Air acts — the Sitka APC mess all over again.                    

     During a tour of the mill I saw firsthand the enormous amount of water required to wash pulp, felt the weight of the past in the decrepit equipment and saw it in the faces of the people working there, actors in a discredited drama that had begun at the time they were born. "Log the Earth First" advised the sign attached to the glass cubicle behind which sat the saw operator. "We'll log the other planets later."
     Outside the mill, the supervisor viewed industrial jet skis, called "log broncs," used to sort timber in the crowded bay. He acknowledged that most Alaskans are unhappy with the mill. "It was set up to make use of the forest and was too successful," he said bitterly, "Now people can't stand the sight of it," in large part because of the selfish decisions of those running it, and the venality of those politicians serving them.

     The Environmental Protection Agency would eventually determine that the land occupied by the Ketchikan Pulp Company  was contaminated with lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic, and petroleum compounds. Contaminated soils were removed and EPA placed long-term controls on the property to protect the cleanup. The bottom of Ward Cove was contaminated with ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and 4-methylphenol. EPA dredged about three acres of sediments in Ward Cove, capped about 27 acres with clean material, and left another 50 acres of contaminated sediments to recover naturally, if they could, all at huge cost to taxpayers. 
   KPC officially went out of business in 1997. The mill was later demolished by explosives and tickets sold to locals who wanted to watch.                   
   (This is the last post in the Tongass series, which started on July 2.)

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Reflections in Blue and Green, 8

      (This series begins with                                                      

       Prince of Wales Island, by water

     The trip, like most in the pelagic envelope of Southeast, involved aquatics. It was launched only after a careful vetting of water repellents: dry bags, rain gear, Juneau boots, tents, canoes. There were six of us who set out in the rain on Hatchery Creek, a clear muskeg stream on Prince of Wales Island tinged with what might have been molasses, a watery paradox of light and darkness leading south into the Honker Divide.
The Russians, masters of the readily available, cut some of these coastal forests for charcoal in the nineteenth century, after decimating the populations of sea otter, walrus and people in the Aleutians, but they shied away from Alaska's daunting interior. Not so the Americans, drawn to what became Alaska by its proximity to Asia and the prospects of trade there. The Western Union Telegraph Company envisioned an intercontinental telegraph line, the ongoing expansionist dream of the 1840s, running northwestward through Russian America and Siberia to St. Petersburg.
In 1857 Western Union financed an expedition, and although the project was cancelled after the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable, data amassed by the Alaskan venture were instrumental in persuading Congress to purchase Alaska in 1867. Secretary of State William H. Seward's "folly" was arguably the most valuable addition to the United States after the Louisiana Purchase, involving as it did a land mass of continental proportions that has become the earth's last such extensive, biologically rich and diverse, reasonably intact natural refuge of inestimable value to the planet.                      
The colors would have excited Monet, but not all the untidy botany: skunk cabbage blooming on the banks, big fallen timber cozening the bends, what Alaskans refer to affectionately as "the woody bushes." Prince of Wales, the third largest island in North America, has produced billions of board feet of timber in four decades, and the Forest Service wanted an additional 450 million. So did what was left of the Ketchikan Pulp Company, the governor, and Alaskan's congressional delegation.
The canoeists - including me and daughter Susanna - wanted this section preserved as a conduit for animals and the occasional human. One of them, a professional environmentalist in hip boots and an Anarack, said, "Fifty per cent of Tongass timber that has been cut has been cut on Prince of Wales. Now they want to clear-cut..." He paused, water dripping from his nose onto the map, "...right over there. They have to be stopped."
John Muir was his spiritual predecessor. Muir traveled the length of Southwest in a canoe and wrote about its "endless rhythm and beauty." He was a member of the last Alaskan expedition of the century, also inspired by the prospect of the Asia trade. Edward Henry Harriman, railroad tycoon, having recently merged the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific, wanted a tunnel beneath the Bering Strait so he could send trains from New York to Paris.
   In 1899, under the banners of science and triumphant capitalism, he and 25 scientists, professors, photographers and artists steamed up the Alaskan coast aboard Harriman's George W. Elder with personal servants, two stenographers, a doctor, a nurse, a chaplain and 11 hunters. Nature was encountered, but no tunnel site.                     

(Members of the Harriman Expedition on the wharf at Dutch Harbor, 1899, photographed by Edward Curtis.)

I tried to imagine Muir coping with the current environmental debate, with its overlapping government hegemonies and proliferating, explosive acronyms - "T-LUMP," "C-POW, "V-POP". The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), passed in 1980, established 5 million acres of wilderness on the Tongass, relatively little of it old-growth, and promised 450 million board feet of timber annually to the two pulp mills in Southeast. This perpetuated the exclusion of smaller timber operators and kept the price paid by APC and KPC well below market value.
To assure that the cut was achieved, the Forest Service received $40 million a year from the U.S. Treasury, a bonanza to be spent on road building, studies and other enhancements important to the regional bureaucracy. A decade after passage of ANILCA, almost half the big trees on the Tongass had been cut, and the Forest Service had lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the below cost timber sales. Congress then pressured the Forest Service to revise its Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP) to include some protection for old-growth and wildlife.
The service, in defense, used a working draft of the document to convince the Senate that it would manage the Tongass correctly, thereby getting the 1990 Tongass Timber Reform Act (TTRA) passed. The Forest Service was instructed by Congress to pay more attention to the real price of trees, and the demands of forest users other than timber companies, but it soon launched a revision of the revised Tongass Land Management Plan that essentially eliminated the strong provisions for preserving old-growth.          

The cabin on Galea Lake was a bare, one room structure with a viewshed full of cutthroat trout rising to mirrored old-growth. The cabin is maintained by the Forest Service, which by law has to provide for all users, hence the words on the rustic signs outside all national forests attest ("Land of many uses"). But parsimony was apparent in the scant accommodations and trail markers swallowed in the Honker's profusion.
The lake amplified the nasal insistence of Canada geese, replaced during the night by the calling of wolves, the most enduring cliche' of American wildness and a sound few Americans have actually heard, powerful and reverberant.
  Portages in ancient forests are complicated by roots the size of pythons. Unabashed photosynthesis produces a biomass here unmatched in other rain forests, including the Amazon's. The Tongass husbands distinctly visible organisms, too, among them black flies excited by the discovery of human beings hauling canoes over two miles of needle tamp and muskeg. Sweat mingled with some of the 200 inches of rain falling annually in Southeast. Whenever my toil ceases, the chill is there, to be combated with hard salami, raisins, peanut butter and iodized draughts of the Thorne River auger against hypothermia, or so I hope.               

That's Susanna ( second from left, and me far right.
    Next and finally: A coda for all time

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Reflections in Blue and Green, 7

     (This series begins with the July 2 post:                                    
                   The Chief
     The Forest Service lives within Agriculture's accretion of Victorian and New Deal architecture near the corner of 14th Street and Independence Avenue, halfway down the Mall from Capitol Hill. The then-chief of the USFS, Jack Ward Thomas, slumped in a chair, his back to the Washington Monument, the classic field man saddled with duty in the imperial city. His pallor and width of beam testified to no great hardship, his open collar and turquoise bollo contrasting with the businessman's tack worn by most Washington bureaucrats. The farther one gets from the woods, the more he stresses affiliation with it.
The apprehension voiced by some of Thomas's colleagues when he was appointed suggested that he would be a different sort of chief, tough but enlightened, in the tradition of Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt's sylvan lama, of Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall. Thomas had worked his way up through the system and was not chosen by a cabal of top Forest Service brass and the outgoing chief, as was customary; he was expected to inspire timber beasts, stump-jumpers and the rest of the service's pantheon to bring about change.
Thomas was eager to dispel this notion. He had to deal with the Senator (Stevens) and others in Congress who wanted to eliminate all restrictions on logging in the national forests. Any actions perceived to be on behalf of wildlife reflected the desires of the Clinton White House, he says, and the momentary desires of "the democracy," but not necessarily his or those of his agency. Widespread charges of pressure put on Forest Service biologists to alter their science to allow larger cuts were worth pursuing, he agreed, but "I'm not running around looking for biologists."                   

(Aldo Leopold, about as far from what
the Forest Service has become as a
man could get)

     The list of honors awarded Thomas — the Aldo Leopold Medal, the Wildlife Society General Chuck Yeager Award — was long, but the suggestion that some consensus has evolved at his agency out of the disruption caused by the issues of old-growth and endangered species annoyed him. "The idea that there is a mentality within the service is erroneous. There are 30,000 individuals... I can't get consensus in my office about whether or not to go to lunch."
But there is a mentality and it remains a problem. The Service's legacy of working in difficult terrain when getting the cut out was the only concern produced a military cast of mind, a chain of command that punishes dissent and holds in contempt the views of civilians. Today the general and his lieutenants must deal with anyone in off the street, not just the timber industry, senators, and journalists.
    Thomas, rude as he was, sounded almost wistful when he spoke of the remove of southeastern Alaska, "where the distances are long, and time spent getting there much longer." Then schemes devised in Washington, and Tokyo, could be put into effect with the rigor and independence of a Roman governor overseeing the marauding Celts.
      (Next: wilderness by water)              


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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Reflections in Blue and Green, 6


          The Goshawk Chronicles

Evolutionary development has been extraordinarily fast on the Tongass. Cut off from the continent by mountains and glaciers, protected from north and south by its unique insularity, the Alexander Archipelago has entertained no genetic dumping. Many bird subspecies are found only here and on the coast of British Columbia: the Swainson's thrush, the Prince of Wales river otter, the Coronation Island vole, the Wrangle Island red-backed vole, the Alexander Archipelago wolf, probably the only one in North America uncorrupted by coyote genes.
The study of island biogeographybiology as a distinct product of insularity—is fruitful on the Tongass. The natural isolation afforded by thousands of rocky up-thrusts in an inland sea increases the chances of extinction, since populations are small and more vulnerable to random, or "stochastic", events like all of one species being reduced to a single sex. The smaller the population, the greater the chances of extinction.
Conservation biology, concerned with the propagation of species, has taken the concept of island biogeography and applied it on dry land, where logging has isolated what forest there is and created unnatural insularity. The spotted owl in Washington state, from this perspective, lives in what are essentially islands of old growth in seas of clear-cuts. The problem is compounded on the Tongass because clear-cuts occur on real islands. Habitat conservation areas must therefore perform their function in the midst of cutover land masses already surrounded by deep Pacific waters.
Forest Service supervisors view conservation biology the way Latin American dictators view liberation theology. Forest Service employees, including biologists, are expected, in the lapidary phrase of the supervisor in Ketchikan, "to be constructive." If he thinks a proposed cut will be more detrimental to wildlife than is legal, he told me, "I can tweak it" © make minor alterations to conform to the technicality of the law.             

The Queen Charlotte goshawk (Accipiter gentilis laingi), is endemic to Southeast and the coast of British Columbia, a unique biome composed of islands and islands within islands. It is closely related to the northern goshawk found in much of the western United States, including the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona, where a slight, bearded biologist named D. Coleman Crocker-Bedford used to work. There he conducted exhaustive studies of the acrobatic, finicky raptor that serves as a useful indicator species, and discovered that goshawks require extensive stands of densely canopied mature and old growth forests to prosper.
He advised his Forest Service supervisor in the late '80s that timber harvesting should be reduced in the Southwest to protect this and other species, and was advised by his FS superiors not to publish his findings. He did publish, and an independent scientist later praised the study as "one of the most extensive and rigorous investigations ever done into the habitat requirements of a raptorial bird." But Crocker-Bedford ended up in Ketchikan.
In 1990 he chaired an interagency group of biologists from the Forest Service and Alaska's Department of Fish and Game, the so-called "V-pop" committee, concerned with "viable populations" of wildlife. It sought to determine if requirements of the National Forest Management Act were being met on the Tongass, and the goshawk was just one of several species in doubt.
At the time a joint conference of the U.S. Congress was resolving differences over the Tongass Timber Reform Act. A draft environmental impact statement had called for a quarter of the Tongass' remaining old growth to be permanently side aside for wildlife, most of it in tracts of more than 1,000 acres and some as large as 40,000 acres, and the Forest Service wanted none of this. It lobbied individual members of Congress, informing them that wildlife could be protected while 450 million board feet were being cut every year, and Congress capitulated.
The committee on which Crocker©Bedford sat recommended maintaining old-growth "cores," wildlife transit corridors, and habitat conservation areas (HCAs) for several species. This would have curtailed, or eliminated, some logging. The regional forester in Juneau ordered a supplemental environmental impact statement prepared. (In the Forest Service, if a review displeases management, it is re©reviewed, sometimes indefinitely.) This time the committee's recommendations were rejected.                    
Crocker-Bedford resigned from the chairmanship but not from the Forest Service. In the fall of 1991 he was deposed in a suit brought by loggers in the Southwest, where his original goshawk study was being used to shut down timber sales under requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. The timber companies sought to discredit the study and its author.
Being deposed was not pleasant, Crocker-Bedford told me. He was advised that he could not have his own attorney and had to be represented by a political appointee from the U.S. Attorney's office. He was interrogated for fourteen hours by the timber company lawyers attempting to discredit him, before his own attorney weighed in. 
    "He was worse than they were," said Crocker-Bedford, of the representative from Justice during the Bush administration. When Crocker-Bedford asked this lawyer what effect he thought Crocker-Bedford's ordeal would have on other wildlife biologists, on soils people and hydrologists, the lawyer said, "We know what we're doing."
The Forest Service had let the spotted owl get away from it; that wasn't going to happen with the goshawk.
Crocker-Bedford was accused of negative networking and advised to stay out of discussions of goshawk management and conservation biology. He was ordered not to attend a goshawk seminar and not to defend his study or his reputation. A colleague told him he would get a raise and more influence within the service if he discovered that clear-cuts and small trees were beneficial to wildlife.                    
  In 1992, Crocker-Bedford wrote to the chief of the service, then F. Dale Robertson: "You stated there must be no retaliation against employees who discover problems or recommend new management practices... Because the results of my Forest Service approved, careful monitoring were used in appeals and litigation, I have been subjected to repeated retaliation."
Nothing happened until after the election, when Jack Ward Thomas had been appointed and rumor had it that he would be coming to the Tongass. Service people began to say they were sorry that all those bad things had happened to Crocker-Bedford, but not that they had done them. This was not an isolated case. Many other wildlife biologists felt the chill of empirical objectives.
    One, Duane Fisher, a biologist in Juneau, had the unhappy task, in 1992, of incorporating the recommendations of the V-pop committee in the Forest Service's draft environmental impact study. Those recommendations included habitat conservation areas for the four most vulnerable species in the Tongass: bear, marten, wolf, and goshawk. If they had been adopted, the service would have been forced to set aside significantly more forest than it wished.
Fisher refused to reject the V-pop recommendations. "I came up with a high probability that a viability problem might occur in three ecological provinces out of 21," he said, in a mall outside of Juneau where I found him. "I didn't think it was that bad a risk assessment, "but my supervisor didn't like my conclusions."                  
    He wouldn't say so, but it seemed clear to me that the managers of the Tongass wanted an armor-plated forest plan, one without biological uncertainties. They had already tried to dilute the effects of logging on paper, known as "washing the data," by expanding the base under consideration to include the whole Tongass, most of which is rock, muskeg, ice and scrub, not old-growth. But mention of possible extinctions provided chinks that might later be attacked in court.
Fisher could have been ordered to change his conclusions, but that was legally risky for management. Instead, he was told to write more versions. He wrote four, and a Forest Service "writer-editor" wrote a fifth, but Fisher's boss, a road engineer, didn't like the conclusions. He rewrote the report himself, put in his own conclusions - that the forest didn't need additional wildlife habitat - and said they could cut 50 per cent of the old-growth left. So the Forest Service had two different recommendations, one tweaked on the drafting table to allow the cuts the service wanted, and another from the V-pop committee calling for big habitat conservation areas.
The V-pop committee report was again suppressed by the Forest Service. The service's second biologist in charge of the team of reviewing scientists quit in protest, as Crocker-Bedford had done, and Fisher ended up in the bureaucratic gulag with an unsatisfactory rating, pressured to take writing classes and an IQ test. He scored 122, near genius, an embarrassment for those claiming him mentally unequipped to write on the Forest Service's prescribed seventh grade level.
The real problem, of course, was what he was saying, not the way he said it. Yet another peer review was done, also by outside biologists. This one found that no recommendations so far for habitat preservation were sufficient to meet the requirements of the National Forest Management Act, an indication that Fisher's reports had in fact been thoroughly middle of the road. But Fisher was downgraded from GS12 to GS11; it was suggested that he might like to move to Yakitat, Southeast's equivalent of Omaha.                   
"I went through some rough times," he told me, without rancor. He started taking teenagers to Bible camp, umpiring at softball games after work. "That's how I coped."
  The road engineer in charge of the study of dwindling wildlife habitat on the Tongass was named Steven Brink. He was Duane Fisher's boss, and I met with him in the Juneau headquarters where the walls of the Forest Service conference room were covered with maps of the Tongass and charts of related activities and designations © prospective timber sales, set-asides, roads, wilderness, rivers, Tongass past, Tongass future. Logging was represented by black dots; much of the forest looked shot-gunned.          

"If the scientists had their way," said Brink, "we would stop logging and do a complete biological survey. That would kill the economic infrastructure in Southeast and cost $5 million a year for five years."
Better to continue to study the problem, in his view, and log at the same time. "Everything in life is a risk, including management of the forest... There is no evidence that we are having a substantial effect - threatening, or endangering - species."
As a GS14, Brink was one of the most powerful half dozen men on the Tongass, his attitude and appearance consonant with evolution within the Forest Service from the time when the long term timber contracts came into existence. Then the notion of wholesale development of America's national forests, including the building of roads into undisturbed areas, began to take on the glow of muscular philanthropy: engineers saw themselves aiding mankind, as well as harvesting a resource, producing wealth.
    They, not the foresters, rose in an agency that had previously thought of itself as primarily conservationist. But Brink's morphology was that of the hustling, midlevel corporate operative: bright paisley tie, aviator glasses, a touch of mousse, no chlorophyll tones long associated with the service. His words are chosen carefully. A scientist under his supervision was not pressured to take an IQ test and composition classes, he "was given the opportunity to improve his writing." As for the handling of the V-pop data, "if the decision makers felt I wasn't giving them all the information, they would replace me."
Brink worked for a time in Washington, D.C., learning the legal ways of the Forest Service. He was widely quoted in Alaska newspapers on the subject of habitat, using the perspective he gained in the capital: "Humans live in Northeast Washington... and survive and even reproduce, but that isn't their preferred habitat. They'd much rather live in Georgetown. Wildlife are much the same way." Brink and his colleagues had spent years building a defensible cut. Now the strategies reflected in the charts and maps around him were threatened by a bunch of biologists, and they weren't happy about it. "It's all politics," he said. "Maybe that's as it should be - politics is everything."                                                                      
The first Tongass timber sale after the APC contract cancellation totaled 61 million board feet and was 32 times the minimum bid set by the Forest Service. Senator Stevens wrote to the new forest supervisor there, urging him to continue the sizeable cut. "I appreciated our discussion on the recent petitions to list the goshawk and wolf as endangered or threatened in the Tongass. I conclude that very little study has been done related to these animals and sufficient baseline information is not yet available."
           (Next: The Chief)

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