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Local Activists Began With Potluck Suppers

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 12, 1993



ASHLAND, ORE.

THE Rogue Valley in Oregon is right in the middle of spotted owl country, where the controversy over preserving old-growth forests versus saving mill and woods jobs rages.

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In the thicket of it all is a grass-roots group called Headwaters. While the organization is concerned primarily with saving the forest ecosystem hereabouts - which is one of the most biologically diverse on the North American continent - it also works closely with scientists, economists, and federal agencies to find a balance. Public confrontation and legal action are among its tools, but so are dialogue and cooperation.

Since its beginnings in 1974, Headwaters has grown from a handful of people meeting over potluck suppers to 800 members. Because of its track record of sound scientific and economic analysis as well as activism, Headwaters has attracted funding from foundations and philanthropists. Over the last few years its budget has grown from a relative pittance to $185,000 a year.

Leading the organization and its staff of four full-time and three part-time workers is Julie Norman, a transplanted Texan who used to be a computer programmer for IBM and then a river guide in California.

"The focus here has been on dispensing good information," she explains. "Our credibility is built on the quality of our information. That's all we have is our credibility."

Such information comes from on-the-spot monitoring of projects. Volunteers hike the watersheds of public land managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), both federal agencies that issue timber sales to logging companies. Headwaters staff and members use this input, and they also scrutinize government documents to track the condition of these areas.

When Headwaters members believe forest-management plans or specific new logging proposals are environmentally unsound, they challenge officials publicly with letter-writing campaigns. But when the agencies take steps to conserve or rehabilitate areas of federal forest, the group publicly pats them on the back.

When the the BLM postponed logging and roadbuilding in one area recently (because of adverse impact on water quality and fisheries from logging on adjacent private land), Headwaters staff wrote to members that the BLM should be "applauded for this responsible stewardship."

When she's not running the Headwaters office out of the basement of an old armory in Ashland, Ms. Norman is lobbying government officials. She has made several trips to Washington to brief congressional committees. When lawmakers come to the Pacific Northwest to see the effects of logging, she takes them into the forest or arranges overflights to see clearcuts.

Headwaters has gained national attention, both among major environmental groups and among politicians in a position to affect federal timber policy. "I'm all for the national groups, but ... you know more about it than anybody else," former Rep. Jim Jontz told some Headwaters members at a potluck.

"We've got a lot going right now," says Ms. Norman. But, she adds, the group needs to keep its grass-roots scale to remain effective. "I don't want to fall into that trap of getting too big."