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Q&A with Andy Kerr
By Tim Findley
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 industrys most hated man in Oregon, and the Lake County Examiner called him Oregons 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 hes 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 hes not kidding when he says he thinks Oregons
human population needs to be held to a sustainable level. Hes
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 hes talking about is, as he puts it, a distant cousin of
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. Dont be afraid of controversy, he
advises his cohorts. Look for controversy and exploit it.
So its 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 hes doing it. Were part
of the act, without whom the show couldnt go on. Theres 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
RANGE: Surrogate or not, endangered canary or whatever, you yourself
referred to Sierra Clubs Andy Stahls remarks comparing the owl
to Bambi as the means of going after the logging industry. Now
you cant deny, can you, that youre using the sage grouse to
go after the ranching industry?
RANGE: Well, then, it sounds like youre not in full accord with some
of the others in the group here.
RANGE: How can they not take it personally? Its their livelihood that
is at stake.
RANGE: You dont doubt ranchers feel threatened, do you?
RANGE: Why not, if thats the case, allow the market to take its course
and see if that marginal operation doesnt wind up with what you
want to accomplish anyway?
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?
RANGE: What do you see replacing the timber economy of those towns?
RANGE: What are they replacing it with?
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?
So, thats 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. Its 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,
its the ranchers particular conditionhis age, the kids dont
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 theyre
going to see their numbers reduced because of endangered species
or clean water concerns or things like that. So its 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 respector less?
RANGE: In the unlikely event you succeed in full at this, surely dont
you think it would take a generation of bitterness before people
got over that?
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?
RANGE: And the Endangered Species Act, once again, will be the tool?
RANGE: Do you, at the same time, support the Wildlands Project that
would limit even human intrusion on public lands?
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.
RANGE: So, would you characterize this meeting in Reno as similar to
those in Portland that began the spotted owl campaign?
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