Forests store and sequester mind-boggling quantities of carbon, making forest protection one of the most effective (and simplest) actions we can take to buffer our planet against the ravages of climate change — a fact that “ecosystem advocate” Shannon Wilson is well aware of. At 52, Wilson remains one of the most experienced, dedicated, and effective forest defenders in the United States. Over the last 30 years, he has been pivotal in the preservation of hundreds of thousands of acres of native forests in his home state of Oregon, and has fought to protect the clean air, pure water, species habitat, and climate regulation these ecosystems provide.
Photo courtesy of Shannon Wilson
From his early days Earth First! to his time in the Sierra Club (from which he was ousted, much like Sierra Club executive director David Brower, who went on to found Earth Island Institute) to his current project, Eco Advocates NW, Wilson has been there on the front lines and behind the scenes organizing and engaging in grassroots campaigns to defend wild forests. And, though the fate of our nation’s last bio-diverse ecosystems remains uncertain, Wilson refuses to give up on the forests to which he has dedicated his life.
Earth Island Journal interviewed Wilson to talk about his three decades of ecosystem advocacy, his perspective on the modern environmental movement, and his vision for the future of life on Earth.
I grew up in southwest Oregon, one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the world. My family of seven, we pretty much lived in poverty. I was raised on food stamps and big blocks of cheese from the government for quite a few years. As a kid, I spent most of my time outside of school just hanging out in old growth forest in my backyard. There was a creek that flowed through those forests and they were public lands, BLM [Bureau of Land Management] lands.
I first learned about extinction by writing a report about the passenger pigeon, I think when I was in fourth grade. And from there, that connection to the natural world and all its species led me to think that, when I grew up, I could be an advocate for wild places and those species that reside there.
I was pretty disillusioned when Ronald Reagan got elected — he was probably the most anti- environmental President I could even imagine: [His administration was] promoting clearcutting of ancient forests. That was when I first started witnessing clearcutting in my backyard — basically they started logging all the BLM lands in my backyard, and there were trees back there, sugar pines that were over eight feet in diameter, that they were going to log out, and ponderosa pines close to 250 feet tall.
The trees were cut down and the whole area was roaded and destroyed. And right now, there are only 50 or 100 acres of untouched old growth forest left out of that entire drainage. That started me being an advocate for places that obviously didn’t have strong enough advocates to protect them.
Eventually, I got a job working for the Umpqua National Forest doing spotted owl survey work and that was a great job. A crew of eight of us were saving thousands of acres of ancient forests from being clearcut by finding spotted owls. But towards the second year, I basically realized the district ranger was breaking the law and, in fact, he was doing things that probably would result in arrest if anyone else were doing them, but he got away with it and nothing was done to him. And so I resigned.
I moved to Eugene and started working with Earth First! and other environmental groups in Eugene and Oregon.
[President] Bill Clinton enacted the Salvage Logging Rider in 1995, which basically suspended all laws [restricting the logging of] old growth forests, not just burned forests, but all the forests on public lands. At that point I resigned my job working for AmeriCorps — because that was one of Clinton’s programs — and I threw myself into fighting tens of thousands of acres of ancient forest timber sales.
One of those timber sales happened to be outside of Eugene. It was called the Warner Creek area, which was a 9,000 acre roadless area that arsonists had set on fire so they could log it. We basically started a road blockade. People, including myself, ripped up parts of the road, put giant ditches into the road so logging trucks couldn’t get through to log the timber sale. In that time we were fighting dozens of timber sales all over the northwest.
I was part of the Many Rivers Group (Sierra Club Chapter) executive committee beginning in 1995. I worked with them until 2010, and my main focus was protecting ancient forests. They also had an End Commercial Logging on Public Lands campaign, which I was chair of for the Oregon chapter for a year or two.
When there was so much controversy about the Salvage Rider and clearcutting ancient forests, everyone was on the same page. As that old growth tree logging ended, these different forest protection groups in the Northwest decided, “Well, you know, maybe we shouldn’t oppose all logging. Since they stopped old growth logging, maybe we should give in a little bit to the industry and the politicians who are criticizing us for being extremists, radicals for not allowing logging on public lands.” So then groups started dividing and backbiting because some groups wouldn’t compromise and wanted to end logging on public lands altogether.
These other groups started actually collaborating with the Forest Service and the timber industry and even the biomass extraction industry to say, “Hey, you know, we can all work together to get along and we’re willing to compromise and let you guys pretty much log everything that’s under 150 years old, even if it is native forest.”
And so I, and a few others, kept on fighting for these native forests that were being sacrificed.
Public lands should be off limits to logging altogether, as far as I’m concerned. We’ve already decimated 90 plus percent of the natural forests on public land. Those areas should be off limits to commercial logging.
Private lands, that’s a different animal, but we should be managing private lands the way that public lands are being managed now. You should have to go through certain standards and guidelines, you should have to do surveys and protect species that are listed as threatened or endangered. They don’t have to do that on private land nowadays, they can pretty much do whatever they want because no one enforces the laws [though state and federal protections for listed species still apply to private lands]. They can get away with clearcutting and destroying streams and destroying critical habitat for spotted owls and coho salmon.
I’m sure someone could calculate how much carbon could be sequestered in all those private lands if they were managed the way public lands are currently managed. Not to mention saving species from going extinct or becoming listed on the Endangered Species Act list.
It’s already been proven that the Northwest’s forests can store more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem in the world, yet we’re still allowing these forests to be logged out, which is to me insane. How do you say you’re preventing climate change by promoting logging on public lands of natural forests? That just doesn’t add up.
[Biologist and author] E.O. Wilson is probably one of the few people actually promoting something that might prevent human extinction. It’s the closet thing I could even think of advocating that could protect us from going extinct. He’s estimating probably 80 percent of the rest of the species on the planet could be saved if we protected 50 percent of the biosphere as these wildlife reserves or marine reserves.
His vision, as well as powering down and relocalizing our whole food production system — producing the food where it’s actually consumed instead of transporting it thousands, if not tens of thousands of miles, away to be consumed someplace else — I think is really the only viable mitigating strategy to weather the climate crisis or prevent our own extinction.
If you understand the physics and science of these different technologies and the way our civilization operates off of fossil fuels, we’re not just addicted to fossil fuels — our whole civilization would collapse tomorrow if it wasn’t for fossil fuels. We need to transition off those things but we can’t do it just building electric cars and solar panels. I’ve used solar electric for 25 years, I know what it’s capable of: you’re not going to run civilization off of solar panels or windmills. Yeah, you can produce electricity, but our transportation system doesn’t run on electricity, it runs on fossil fuels, our farming runs off fossil fuels.
Every action I take, whether it’s driving my car or the energy used in my home, I think about what impact it is going to have on the natural world that I’m living in or the natural world somewhere else where this item is coming from. For the last 30 years I’ve tried to change my lifestyle to lessen the impact on other species. Part of that is I’ve been driving a vegetable oil powered car since 2002. I’ve been using solar since 1991. I have likely commuted on bicycles more than 20,000 miles over the last 26 years in the Eugene area. I’ve only flown on an airplane once and that was to go lobby politicians in Washington, DC during the Salvage Rider days in 1995.
I feel like people have to, in every part of their life, look at what their impact is. We know enough to ask ourselves, Is what I’m doing contributing to human extinction in the long run? Is my job contributing to human extinction? Is my lifestyle contributing to human extinction? It sounds extreme but people need to ask themselves that. If it is — and be honest about it — [you have to ask,] How can I change that?
The resources we as a nation spend on the military industrial complex are the resources we need to fix and restore the biosphere to support life, instead of what we’re doing now: destroying life on this planet. It’s going to take all those resources to prevent human extinction at this point.
We need to take the military budget and reallocate it to not just saving the planet, but also to giving people universal healthcare, rebuilding the nation’s water infrastructure, rebuilding rail infrastructure, and building new rail infrastructure.
Imagine how many jobs would be created by rebuilding essential necessary infrastructure, restoring ecosystems, protecting forests, protecting the oceans, cleaning up toxic waste sites, and rebuilding our whole civilization to operate without fossil fuels. I imagine there’d be more jobs there than the military provides now.
I don’t think there’s any way to deny this anymore. The science is there, we see it coming at us all the time. What resources do we really need to turn this Titanic around? What Martin Luther King tried to do, is say, hey, “It’s either nonviolence or it’s nonexistence.”
Try to help your community to become more resilient to the end of cheap fossil fuels, to ecological upheaval, to climate upheaval. Find entities out there that aren’t the big, well- funded entities and join them.
Over the decades you’ve watched hundreds of activists come and go, yet you’ve remained involved and engaged. What’s inspired you to keep going all these years?
To me it comes down to love. Love for your home, the rivers, the mountains, and every critter that doesn’t have a way to stand up for itself. There are people that inspire me and have inspired me. I’ve made promises to myself and to the ecosystem and to people who’ve passed away, that I’m going to continue fighting for non-human life out there, and for the mountains and rivers, and for the oceans and the fish and everything else.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.