Lou Gold came down from his mountain recently to speak to residents of this world of glass and concrete on behalf of some very old trees, some dating from Christopher Columbus's day. Mr. Gold, a former professor who years ago left the urban life behind, had traveled 3,000 miles to deliver an urgent message: America's remaining old forest is being rapidly destroyed by the United States Forest Service in cooperation with timber companies. Through slides and stories, Gold documents the destruction and makes a powerful plea for the preservation of a fragile ecosystem unable to defend itself.
``My job is to be a sort of pied piper,'' says Gold, a striking figure with flowing gray beard and ponytail. ``You can listen to fancy reports and ledger sheet analyses, [but] I decided to take a stand on a place.'' The place is Bald Mountain, a 3,800-foot peak in southwest Oregon, near the California border, that crowns a ridge dividing the Kalmiopsis Wilderness from a roaded section of the Siskiyou National Forest.
``What led me to the mountains was a search for my own wholeness,'' said Gold in an interview here. His career as a political science professor, at Oberlin College in Ohio and the University of Illinois, began to seem a ``partial, fragmentary existence.'' So he took off for the West. ``When I saw the natural woods, suddenly I was facing something unmanaged but not unmanageable. In the natural world, the bottom line is that everything is interconnected, it is a whole system. Unlike the city, where the struggle is to wear blinders, in nature the struggle is to open up and see it all.''
What he saw, upon his arrival in Oregon back in 1983, was a place of spectacular beauty, an old, lush symphony of greenery. When he learned of plans to carve a logging road up the mountain, he joined a blockade and was jailed, then released on probation with the proviso that he stay away for a year. Gold went right back, hiking to the mountaintop for the first time. He stayed for two months.
When he finally descended, the judge sent him back to jail. But each summer he returned to the mountain, where he carved walking sticks to give to visitors. He eventually realized that to save the forest, he would have to employ his understanding of the political process. So he began to hit the road every fall.
From late May through September he is on his mountain; the rest of the time he travels from place to place, telling his story to a growing audience, surviving on small donations.
He says environmentalism is no longer just an argument over picture-postcard beauty; people have begun to appreciate their connection to distant places through headlines about the destruction of Brazilian rain forests and global warming.
Ninety percent of the temperate rain forest in the Northwest US is gone, and Gold claims that the Forest Service is planning to cut most of what's left. Brock Evans, a vice-president of the National Audubon Society, agrees.
``It's a great mistake to think the national forest has much more forest anymore,'' says Evans. The Forest Service's ``overwhelming mission now is to get the big logs out of the woods,'' he says. He credits Gold and his one-man show with raising awareness.
Gold is fighting for the redesignation of the Siskiyou National Forest - which, according to the Wilderness Society, is the largest unprotected roadless entity along the Pacific Northwest Coast - as a National Park. Part of his task is helping people understand the big difference between the Parks Department (a protector of wilderness) and the Forest Service (part of the Agriculture Department).
Originally something of a caretaker, the Forest Service's role shifted in the 1930s when heavy cutting began to exhaust the timber supply on private land. According to Gold, an alliance emerged around timber management, the cutting and replanting of trees. ``That's what drives the agency: A tree farm is not a forest, it's an agricultural crop.'' (Timber industry spokesmen did not return numerous phone calls regarding Gold and the Siskiyou National Forest.)
Gold pleads that the forest, with its 1,400 plant species and hundreds of years of biological interaction, be left alone. He opposes Forest Service plans for 4,000 miles of roads in an area 50 miles long and 25 miles wide. But Warren Olney, a Forest Service spokesman who knows Gold well, says that roads not only allow access for loggers, but let the public in to fish, hunt, and drive for pleasure.
Roads also serve a role in battling forest fires, but Gold says nature has proved more effective. Fires burn over a wider area in unroaded, old forests, he says, but the shade and moisture provided by the huge trees and their ecosystem minimize fire destruction to only 20 percent. In logged, roaded areas, newly planted trees ``go up like rockets,'' with 90 percent destruction. Gold has also been urging that the northern spotted owl, a Siskiyou dweller, be declared an endangered or threatened species, which would make it more difficult for the Forest Service to cut its habitat. On April 25, the US Fish and Wildlife Service decided to list the owl as a threatened species. That begins a complicated process that may help save the owl's habitat, though the designation may not get past lumber-state congressmen.
Mr. Olney bristles at mention of the owl. ``The question isn't the spotted owl at all,'' he says. ``It's `Are we going to manage the timber or are we not?''' Still, Olney says the service is setting aside roughly 40,000 acres of identified owl habitat.
Gold warns his listeners to be wary of Forest Service protection efforts. He says the service preserves mostly land with little timber, or scenic corridors along rivers and roads which motorists are likely to see. He shows slides of scenes with nothing but tree stumps as far as the eye can see, and advises tourists to get out of their cars and climb a hill to view the real destruction. Gold also blames Congress for doing little for pristine wooded areas.
Olney sees the Forest Service's mission differently. ``If there are timbers that can be harvested, that's what should happen.'' He says the trees are replaceable. ``Timber is a crop. If done properly, it can be replenished.'' He compares it to the wheat crop, ``but with a 100-year rotation.'' GOLD says much of the opposition to his crusade comes from residents of the Northwest, where so many jobs are in the timber industry.
``For a long time, we've waged a war on nature,'' says Gold. ``[But] between nations, we don't refuse an opportunity for peace [just] because it would unemploy soldiers.'' He calls for job training, education, low-cost business loans, and tax incentives to develop more jobs in milling and manufacturing wood products - not just chopping them down. He also says that a lot of private land hasn't been replanted because there is no economic incentive to expand the amount of private timberland, when use of public land is cheaper.
Olney concurs that pressure on public forests by timber companies is fierce because a considerable amount of private land has not been reforested. ``It costs money to reforest. It's cheaper for them to use public timber.''
To get protective legislation, Gold is counting on friends from outside the Northwest. He points out that it was a congressman from New York who introduced major legislation to protect Alaskan wilderness.
Meanwhile, Lou Gold, who once taught college students about citizen participation, hopes he is setting an example. ``Deciding to fight the US Forest Service was the most empowering decision I ever made in my life,'' Gold says.
``So many people just watch the world roll over them. It's a great feeling to know one person can do something.''