By Daniel Durecka
In the modern world, a single person can represent an utterly vast quantity of cultural influences. Of personal significance to me is the identity of profession. My family has grown timber for multiple generations now; our heritage contributes this identity. Researching the representation of Oregon’s timber farmers as they are portrayed in the media yielded a mixture of both surprising and saddening conclusions that present problems needing resolutions. Journalism in Oregon tends to represent small-scale timber farmers as both greedy and damaging to the environment, which unjustly reflects stereotypes stemming from a lack of interaction permeating through Oregon residents.
Beliefs in the importance of environmentally friendly practices have shifted dramatically throughout the past 100 years. Practices once deemed acceptable and industry standard are increasingly criticized as destructive and careless by the American public. Oregon hosts a strong community of environmentally conscious writers which echo this kind of rhetoric. Forest for the Trees – Crisis in Oregon’s Privately-Owned Timberlands, an article written for the Salem Weekly by Helen Caswell, exemplifies this stance on the modern timber industry. The article criticises Oregon’s legislature for ineffectiveness in the face of private timberland owners practicing destructive agriculture, leaving “long-term deforestation and… degradation,” (Caswell, Forest for the Trees…). The article includes a quotation of John Talberth, an environmentally conscious economist, who states “Large industrial forestland owners are clearly the worst,” (Caswell, Forest for the Trees…), referring to the manifestation of damaging agricultural practices. While highlighting the industrial producers, the article does not discount the role small-scale timber farmers play in the problem. Regardless of the degree to which the differing sectors contribute, the attitude expressed towards timber farmers as a whole is negative.
Caswell’s article does, however, include a select few publicized timber farmers who are presented as success stories set in environmentally conscious operating conditions. One of these examples is Hyla Woods, which received coverage in Oregon’s foremost outdoors television program, Oregon Field Guide. The 10 minute showcase can be viewed here:
Hyla Woods, owned and operated by a single family, offers complementary views to the article’s stance on destructive forest practices in Oregon. Their position, which is used in part as a marketing pitch to local consumers, is one of lead by example. Good stewardship is praised in the report, educating viewers on the significance of diverse and healthy stands of trees. But one question remains unanswered: of the less publicized family owned forests in Oregon, how many follow a similar pattern of environmentally conscious agricultural practices? In my research, I was unable to find a figure representing even a rough estimate. If small, private timber farmers are moving towards greener practices, media sources are celebrating only those which choose to openly publicize their contributions to improving the environment. A research survey presented by the University of Colorado, Modelling Associations Between Public Understanding, Engagement And Forest Conditions In The Inland Northwest written by Joel Hartter, found that among the surveyed Oregonians, “…widespread perception among the general public and the forest landowners of the region that declining forest conditions and wildfire is a pervasive risk,” (Hartter, 21). These findings affirm that the quality of Oregon’s forests is already of concern to the general public, which includes small timberland owners. Additionally, the research study suggests “Increasing the penetration of forest extension services… may be the leverage point with which forest conditions on private lands may further be improved…” (Hartter, 21), highlighting a seemingly missing link between private owned forests and Oregonians. By increasing public awareness and interaction with Oregon’s private timber sector, the public will gain a better understanding of real conditions in Oregon’s forests.
Another angle presented by Portland area writer Nigel Jaquiss, for Willamette Week, in You Call This a Farm? argues that tax deferrals enjoyed by Oregonians holding land with agricultural potential are being used to accumulate wealth without necessarily partaking in agriculture. Included are a handful of case studies: several owners of properties containing timber stands. The article goes into great detail about both the financial characteristics associated with the property owners and their level of engagement with their agricultural holdings (or lack thereof). Absent, however, is mention of those Oregonians who are actively producing agricultural products (timber products for the purpose of my research) and receiving tax breaks, as the law was intended. Without insight offered on behalf of the law’s intended beneficiaries, the article appears to condemn such tax breaks entirely. The lack of testimony might suggest one of several conclusions. It may be evidence to suggest the public, as influenced by the author among them, are unaware of law’s importance to timber farmers. Once more, there appears to be a lack of information flowing from the private timberland owners to the public, presenting their side of the case.
The question of government intervention in the industry was present in each article and the documentary. Both the authors, and the owners of Hyla Woods, present a sense of disappointment with the Oregon government over its handling of industry regulation. Further research into the question of government involvement in the industry yielded an intriguing article written by Jens Friis Lund, reflecting at a global level on the principle of participatory forestry. The idea behind participatory forestry is simple: put power in the hands of the public to manage forests. Implementation of this sort of model however, has been largely unsuccessful, and the paper mirrors criticism of the government’s mishandling of timber resources. Coming from a scholarly medium, this argument suggests that the problems of government intervention brought about in the articles and documentary are systemic and widespread. However, taking into consideration John Talberth’s comments on the management of Oregon’s timberlands, large timber industry being the greatest offenders should, theoretically, be the biggest targets for regulatory changes. If both the government and corporate timberland owners are gaining significant public criticism for their practices, it may suggest that the small, private timber farmers are leading the industry in better practices.
If this is the case, why aren’t timber farmers celebrated more by the media? John C. Bliss of Oregon State University authored Sustaining Family Forests in Rural Landscapes: Rationale, Challenges, and an Illustration from Oregon, USA, which presents a compelling case for the importance of Oregon’s small-scale timber farmers. Family forests, as he describes, are a bastion against the corporate timber industry that are increasingly threatened by, among other factors, government and more importantly, the lack of strong “social contract”. He cites indifference and unknowing, “…the
American public, which is largely ignorant of the existence of this ownership class.” (Bliss, Sustaining Family Forests). Bliss’ paper is in-depth and specific, a read I personally recommend. Drawing on his conclusions, public awareness is necessary for the survival of family farms. Government regulations, which have otherwise been seen as ineffective, might very well be changed for the better if small-scale timber farmers formed better connections with the public, who have the power to influence politics in the state of Oregon. The media can play a greater role in this relationship, but access and interaction is needed to form a clearer line of communication. Appreciation will only come from knowledge.
The research I’ve done suggests a sorry state of little to no communication between the small timber farmers of Oregon and Oregonians as a whole. But, I am left with a sense of hope. Mass media offers a breakthrough in communications, where any individual can spread a message to masses of listeners worldwide with relative ease. Increasing awareness is going to rely on increasing participation on the part of Oregon’s timber farmers in more widespread engagement activities, and communications across multiple mediums will prove critical to the success of outreach. The research was revealing, and presented an issue that I, as a timber farmer, am now much more aware of, and have a new understanding of not just how the public perceives my identity, but how their perceptions are formed. This realization will be vital in understanding and executing a viable solution.
Reflections from the Term
If one singular fact resounds from Popular Culture, the word “identity” encompasses a vast composition comprised of each and every cultural input that forms an individual’s uniqueness. For an activity as simple as coming up with words to describe one’s identity, I found this to be of the harder activities of the class. The reason: I’ve come to realize humans have a tendency to place great importance on a few of their identities, and may largely ignore some of their lesser influential aspects that still contribute to their character. The activity provided a good example of how this phenomenon manifests itself in my life. I could think of several words to describe myself by my profession: farming. However, at the time, I hadn’t even thought to include Oregonian, United States citizen, European, the list continues… I eventually chosen to dig more into the agricultural identity, but retain a greater appreciation for a wider variety of the identities that I am comprised of. Taking the time to reflect upon this activity at the end of the class proved ever more revealing, and surprising. Going forward, I feel I will be able to better appreciate the cultural influences stemming from those identities that I might have minimized (or ignored) previously.
One moment in this class I continue to ponder comes perhaps surprising from Professor Bergland’s feedback on my initial proposal for an identity to research. To loosely quote:
“When we hear the term farmer, usually we think about farmers with crops, either who raise animals or who raise food crops. We don’t necessarily think of timber farmers. I think, more likely when people think about timber farmers, they think about Lumber Jacks.” – Professor Bergland
This particular piece of feedback offered me an angle I had neglected to consider. The purpose was simple, yet significant: make sure the audience knew what I was talking about when I stated identifiers like “timber farmer” or “timberland owner”. Growing up with this identity, there was one meaning to me and only one; we are not Lumber Jacks, a completely different identity. However, I had not fully considered that this identity, a relatively small community compared to others, does not necessarily speak for itself. Moreover, my personal understanding of the term cannot be assumed of the audience of my writing. This also ignited in me new questions, questions that influenced the direction I took my research. Not only was it a question of how were timber farmers portrayed in media, but also whether or not the identity existed in the media; does the public know what a timber farmer is? The questions remain debatable, and somewhat reliant on personal interpretation. But the fact of the matter is, these are questions, and very important questions that must be considered thoroughly when looking at any identity. I began to look at other projects with the same question in mind; do I know what this identity means? I will remember this piece of feedback far beyond the scope of this project.
Jens Friis Lund, Paradoxes of participation: The logic of professionalization in participatory forestry, Forest Policy and Economics, Volume 60, November 2015, Pages 1-6, ISSN 1389-9341, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.forpol.2015.07.009.
Bliss, J.C. Small-scale Forest Economics, Management and Policy: Sustaining Family Forests in Rural Landscapes: Rationale, Challenges, and an Illustration from Oregon, USA (2003) 2: 1. doi:10.1007/s11842-003-001-y
Hartter, Joel, et al. “Modelling Associations Between Public Understanding, Engagement And Forest Conditions In The Inland Northwest, USA.” Plos ONE 10.2 (2015): 1-25. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 Nov. 2016.
Jaquiss, Nigel. You Call This a Farm? Portland: Willamette Week, 2015. <http://www.wweek.com/portland/article-24213-you-call-this-a-farm.html>.
Patton, Vince. Hyla Woods. Portland: OPB, 2015. <http://www.opb.org/television/programs/ofg/segment/hyla-woods/>.