One of the 31 jobs I held between the ages of 4 and 24, before beginning a career in community marketing, was working on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service.
It was right after high school in the forests in my native Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho. I wasn’t fighting fires but instead, hordes of tiny beetles less than a fifth of an inch long.
It was hard work under the supervision of a contractor. Six days a week, we worked from sunrise to sunset drenched in DDT, which would be soon banned, while sleeping in tents at night that seemed equally soaked.
The money was good and the fight was patriotic, but on the front lines of this battle the working conditions were miserable.
Outbreaks continue today but I was fighting one that had begun when I was seven years old. The trees I was fighting to save were old growth lodgepole pines, probably 100 years old, 70-110 feet in height and two feet across.
They had been seedlings when my ancestors created the first settlement in Idaho in 1860.
All of those in the forest where I worked had been wiped out by the 1970s just as further north in the Rockies I was beginning that career in community destination marketing.
Today in western North America, the little bugs and their cousins have nearly 25 million acres of forest under attack creating seas of dead trees in the forests of Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Washington as well as British Columbia.
While I was fighting mountain pine beetles in the Northern Rockies, another fight was taking place back east.
Two years prior, the Forest Service had approved clear-cutting back east, a practice that had dismayed westerners since the late 1800s but one that had been halted in the east since the times of President Teddy Roosevelt following a devastating 60-year period of wonton deforestation
By the early 1970s, just as I was graduating college and even as the U.S. Congress passed guidelines proposed by Senator Frank Church of Idaho, groups sued the Forest Service to stop the practice and won in Federal Court.
Clear cutting today is mostly done on private land. Several huge swaths have occurred in and around Durham, where I live, most recently just outside of Duke Forest in adjacent Orange County and up on Mt. Tirzah in Person County north of Durham.
Both are routes I take on a Harley Crossbones.
The impact is jolting.
Portable, gasoline-powered chain saws had been invented in Germany a decade before WWII but following the war they revolutionized logging in America.
But that isn’t what’s being used to clear cut forests.
Nor are huge tree-chewing and stripping mechanized assets, as a forester friend of mine calls the heavy equipment used today to clear cut forests, necessary in order to make money from timbering.
Nor is what Apple just did in North Carolina by buying up an entire 3,600 acre forest to make it sustainable through selective cutting anything new.
Beginning in 1951, when I was 3 years old, Drey bought up up tracts in the Ozarks that been depleted by tobacco or clear cut by timber companies and distillers.
He then reforested them and instituted the practice of selective and sustainable cutting.
He and his wife amassed nearly 200,000 acres stretching over five counties to the south and east of St. Louis, the largest private land holding in the state of Missouri.
They restored it into a working forest.
While making millions of dollars, Drey had also gradually increased the board feet per acre by more than 4 times. In 2004, the Dreys donated 146,000 acres of forest as a preserve worth $180 million to a charity.
But it isn’t just hordes of beetles and tree chomping technology that threatens forests. A study released a few months ago concludes that California’s rapid loss of old growth forests is being strongly driven by climate change.
We need more Leo Dreys. My story is also an example of the influences that shape our sensibilities.