Subscriptions click here for 20% off! E-Mail:

Git Home!


Exploiting Controversy
Q&A with Andy Kerr

By Tim Findley

“I can see why
they [ranchers]
are confused
and think
they own it.
But they don’t.”
Andy Kerr, activist

You would think Andy Kerr is a strange, nettlesome character, impossible to touch without coming away with little cuts and barbs that are the ultimate protection of the super-arrogant. The Oregonian once referred to him as the timber industry’s “most hated man in Oregon,” and the Lake County Examiner called him “Oregon’s version of the Anti-Christ.” For some 20 years beginning in the mid-1970s, he was the principle and most out-front leader of the “Forest Wars” first directed by his Oregon Natural Resources Council and then roping in heavier guns from the Sierra Club and other national pressure groups in the campaign to use the spotted owl as a surrogate to halt old-growth logging. Time magazine described him as a “White Collar Terrorist,” though he’s seldom seen in anything near a dress shirt, preferring instead the earthy drab common to his “grass roots” forces.

Kerr and his wife are “child-free,” as he puts it, and live in their own log home in what Kerr describes as “the recovered timber town” of Ashland in the Rogue Valley. A few years ago, he had criminal trespass charges filed against a TV reporter trying to prove that the log house was built with the very resources Kerr so vehemently tries to protect. Kerr warned others at the time that he also has a gun collection.

He told the critical press in Lakeview, Ore., that sooner or later folks there would be selling a lot less barbed-wire and a lot more espresso, and he’s not kidding when he says he thinks Oregon’s human population needs to be held to a “sustainable” level. He’s a dropout from Oregon State University who gets invited to lecture at Harvard and Yale on his belief that forests are no longer necessary for fiber or just about anything else except musical instruments and whiskey barrels. Even President Bill Clinton personally invited Kerr to attend the forest conference staged by Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in Portland in 1993. For just about anything wood provides today, Kerr suggests that industrial hemp should be blended with what he calls “abundant agricultural crop residues” to meet the need. In addition to his other titles, he is founder and treasurer of the North American Industrial Hemp Council. The hemp he’s talking about is, as he puts it, “a distant cousin of marijuana.”

Andy Kerr is just not likely to be liked among the more-or-less average rural resident of the West, at least 10,000 of whom in his own region of the Pacific Northwest lost their jobs over the last decade due in part to the crusade Kerr started on behalf of the Northern spotted owl. Kerr knows everything they say about him, and he dotes on it, reading his own press clippings like reviews of a one-man show. “Don’t be afraid of controversy,” he advises his cohorts. “Look for controversy and exploit it.”

So it’s fair to wonder who is exploiting whom by this interview with Kerr as he takes on the self-professed generalship of a campaign to end grazing on public lands in the West. Kerr knows all about “sound bites” and how to use them. He plays to the media weakness for a phrase or a metaphor he knows will get used again, and again. The more outrageous it may be, the greater likelihood of it becoming a veritable slogan.

He even knows that we in the media know he’s doing it. We’re part of the act, without whom the show couldn’t go on. There’s no doubt this fifth-generation Oregonian (born in another “recovered” timber town of Creswell) believes in what he is doing. But it is in part the kind of belief that comes from having gotten away with it so far. How much further it can take him depends a lot on how thin the act has worn. Andy is coming out of the old timber now into the open sage, firing at will, but also an easier target. We spoke with him during a break in the RangeNet 2000 Symposium in Reno:

RANGE: To the heart of the matter, you say the sage grouse is the spotted owl of the desert. Using the spotted owl as a surrogate resulted in serious damage to the timber industry. Are you now after another industry?
KERR: Well, the spotted owl is an endangered species and its decline is due to old-growth logging. The spotted owl is something of a canary in a coal mine. There’s something not well going on in that ecosystem and there’s literally hundreds of species of wildlife that depend on old-growth forest, but the spotted owl was the one we knew the most about. The science on the spotted owl was the most developed and therefore the strongest case for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

RANGE: Surrogate or not, endangered canary or whatever, you yourself referred to Sierra Club’s Andy Stahl’s remarks comparing the owl to Bambi as the means of going after the logging industry. Now you can’t deny, can you, that you’re using the sage grouse to go after the ranching industry?
KERR: We’re going after livestock grazing on public lands, and that’s part of the livestock industry. But our goal is not to end grazing on public lands. The goal is to have healthy watersheds, fully functioning ecosystems and species like the sage grouse not being endangered. In fact, our goal is a harvestable surplus of sage grouse, not just the prevention of its extinction.

RANGE: Well, then, it sounds like you’re not in full accord with some of the others in the group here.
KERR: But the result of achieving healthy watersheds and healthy ecosystems will be the ending of grazing on public lands. I think the science is clear. It would be wiser for ranchers that graze the public lands not to take it personal. The concern is about the grazing of livestock. It’s not an attack on their lifestyle.

RANGE: How can they not take it personally? It’s their livelihood that is at stake.
KERR: I understand they are, but, see, the intent of what conservationists are concerned about is the ecological damage that is occurring.

RANGE: You don’t doubt ranchers feel threatened, do you?
KERR: Oh, yeah, I’m sure they do, such as timber barons in the Northwest felt threatened. I think there’s some parallels there in that the old-growth logging wasn’t sustainable and neither is livestock grazing on public lands. You know, as a business proposition, when you’re grazing in the context of acres per cows rather than cows per acres, it’s a marginal operation at best. And livestock grazing is in decline in general for a variety of reasons from foreign competition in beef, reduced beef consumption due to health concerns, and just more efficient beef growing operations elsewhere.

RANGE: Why not, if that’s the case, allow the market to take its course and see if that marginal operation doesn’t wind up with what you want to accomplish anyway?
KERR: Because species are going extinct faster than is the public ranching industry.

RANGE: You live in the Pacific Northwest. Would you disagree that there was an economic catastrophe in many areas there as a result of your campaign against old-growth logging?
KERR: What happened in the Northwest with the reduction of ancient forest logging was that simply the day of reckoning was brought forward. So rather than logging until the last old-growth tree was cut down, there was a societal decision to save some of those old-growth trees. So the day of reckoning simply came earlier. But, most of the job losses that occurred in the Northwest in the last 30 years in the timber industry have been due to automation–modernization of the mills and exporting raw logs overseas. You don’t get a lot of jobs out of those. Many mills closed simply because they had become obsolete or because there wasn’t anything nearby to cut anymore.

RANGE: What do you see replacing the timber economy of those towns?
KERR: Most of those towns are replacing their economies. If you look at job growth in the Pacific Northwest, it has far exceeded any job loss from the decline of logging.

RANGE: What are they replacing it with?
KERR: Oh, on a regional basis, high tech, service jobs–and that doesn’t mean cleaning toilets in hotels, it means insurance services and financial services and supporting high tech and the information economy.

RANGE: Do you consider these concerns as perhaps out of your purview? I mean, not for you to be worried how they might fix it themselves?
KERR: I have faith that we are a rich enough country and we don’t need to leave anybody behind due to economic transitions. And because of the controversy engendered by the spotted owl, timber workers fared much better in an economic transition than did auto workers, who faced foreign competition, obsolete plants and environmental regulations as well. There were textile workers, there were defense plant workers that have changed. Their industries changed and restructured. But because the spotted owl was perceived to be the problem, there was a political response that resulted in $120,000 in federal money being paid to the region for each dislocated worker. The best number to look at is about 10,000 jobs, and that money wasn’t necessarily well spent. Too much of it went to mill owners who happened to own land that could be developed. Sewer systems were put in and stuff like that at government expense. I would have preferred that money been split in three ways–$40,000 to the local affected county to do what it wants and to mitigate the change for the next thing, whatever that might be, in each county’s case. The second $40,000 should have gone for transitional jobs. There’s a lot of roads that need to be closed. There’s need for heavy equipment workers to remove culverts and things like that. And then $40,000 should have gone to each dislocated worker to do as they see fit. They could pay off their house, they could coast into retirement, they could move, or they could party their way through denial.

So, that’s how I would have handled it, and I think it brings up one of the things conservationists are proposing now. There is an increasing consensus in the conservation community to support legislation to compensate public lands grazers for retiring their permits. Compensate them at fair market value for their property interest in that permit. It’s important that it be made clear that public lands grazing is a privilege and not a property right. The Supreme Court just reaffirmed that last year. However, I do acknowledge there is a property interest that is quantifiable, real money. Permittees can take it to the bank and borrow on it, they can sell it with their base property and the value is reflected in that sale, just as the IRS notices the value at tax time. So what conservationists are now saying is that as federal grazing permits are retired, the ranchers can be compensated. You know, it’s the rancher’s particular condition–his age, the kids don’t want to come back home to run the ranch, but they want to convert some of their assets and still have the base property to live on. So there are these options, because maybe in the future they’re going to see their numbers reduced because of endangered species or clean water concerns or things like that. So it’s best for them to have the option of compensation at permit retirement.

RANGE: Are you saying you want to be regarded as more reasonable than you have been in the past? Is there a point in this struggle when people start regarding each other with more respect–or less?
KERR: Well, I think it’s best to let history decide what’s reasonable. Those who advocate fundamental change are always considered radical in their day. You know, most of the American South considered Martin Luther King to be very radical in his day. Now there’s a national holiday for him. I’m not putting myself in the same league as Martin Luther King, but I am pointing out there are some concepts–whether it’s women voting or African Americans living in an integrated society–that were radical concepts in their day. So I think it’s best to let history judge with the passage of time and perspective whether what I advocate is reasonable or not.

RANGE: In the unlikely event you succeed in full at this, surely don’t you think it would take a generation of bitterness before people got over that?
KERR: (after pondering silently for some seconds): There’s also great bitterness in seeing species go extinct and watersheds being cowbombed and things like that; so there’s bitterness on all sides. Bill Clinton once noted that Americans love change in general, but hate it in particular. Change can be a bitch, no question, but I think that the public lands grazing industry is marginal for many economic and social reasons as well as the environmental issues we are raising. You can look at it in perspective and what could be done is to, as with the spotted owl, see that by accelerating the transition, the transition is less rough than it would otherwise have been. I mean, assuming there wasn’t any environmental concern, we could have cut down the old-growth forest and all the mills would have closed and the jobs have been lost and that’s it. It’s a painful toothache and maybe Novocain in the short term is not a bad idea, but in the long term it’s better to get the painful tooth removed. And I think that’s another reason why conservationists are advocating compensation for retiring those permits, giving the public lands grazers more flexibility as they inevitably restructure.

RANGE: What you seem to be saying is that there has been enough success in the campaign against old-growth logging that now full attention can be devoted to grazing issues. Is that the decision?
KERR: In spite of George W. Bush being the apparent President-elect, I think the trend is that logging on the national forest is turning into a phase that I would characterize as “mopping up” the pockets of resistance. The battle has essentially been won in the Congress and the courts on logging. Not that the war is over, but it’s sort of like we’re past the Battle of the Bulge. And so I think you are going to see as a reflection of conferences such as this that more attention in the conservation community and more financial and political resources are going to be allocated to end livestock grazing on public lands. Far more than has been in the past, yes.

RANGE: And the Endangered Species Act, once again, will be the tool?
KERR: Yes, we’ve had a lot of experience with it. Your readers should be aware that Congress wrote the Endangered Species Act to work best on public, rather than private, lands. There is a fundamental difference between private activities and public activities under the ESA. If you look at the spotted owl and the endangered salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest and the marbled murrelet as well as other old-growth-dependent species on the endangered list, it’s as it rightly should be that most of the conservation burden for those species is falling on public lands, because there is so much public land in the West. If it were managed for watershed conservation and restoration of wildlife, you wouldn’t have an endangered sage grouse, for example. You know, to put it in context, there’s more beef raised in Vermont or Florida than on all the public lands in the West.

RANGE: Do you, at the same time, support the Wildlands Project that would limit even human intrusion on public lands?
KERR: The Wildlands Project is advocating credible science that says that if you want functioning ecosystems across the landscape and over time, that you’re going to have to leave more room for nature than we have. So we as a society have some very tough choices to make down the road as these ecological realities come up against our current political reality and the fact that much of the economic activity of the most rural of the American West is not sustainable. It won’t last. It hasn’t lasted, and will continue to decline.

RANGE: Listening to you and others here, you strike me as sort of compassionate Stalinists, willing to move the peasants off the land in the long run as painlessly as possible.
KERR: It’s public land, and the average public land grazing permittee is a millionaire. The fundamental difference between conservationists and public land ranchers is over who owns these public lands. The federal government has been overly indulgent by letting grazers have their way on public lands. It has exercised very little supervision and oversight to protect the public interest. I can see why grazers are confused and think they own it. But they don’t. It’s public land. What we’re saying is–and don’t read any more into it–that livestock grazing on the public lands is not economically or environmentally rational. It’s not about a particular lifestyle, but about the web of life.

RANGE: So, would you characterize this meeting in Reno as similar to those in Portland that began the spotted owl campaign?
KERR: I think it’s possible. We’ll have to see how events turn out, but there was a similar kind of meeting where activists throughout the Pacific Northwest gathered and essentially developed a campaign around the goal of halting old-growth logging. So, we’ll see how history unfolds, but this could be considered a very seminal event on public lands livestock grazing.

Andy Kerr was provided with a transcript and advance copy of this interview.

Related story links:

Battle Tim Findley

And they are really serious...RangeNet 2000 Declaration

Response to Ed Depaoli

Table of Contents | Git Home!

To Subscribe: Please click here or call 1-800-RANGE-4-U for a special web price

Copyright © 1998-2005 RANGE magazine

For problems or questions regarding this site, please contact Dolphin Enterprises.

last page update: 04.03.05