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Then, and now

A reverie about the organization's conservation beginnings and where we are today by Conservation Northwest founder and executive director Mitch Friedman.

By Mitch Friedman

In 1989, DJs were playing Fight the Power by Public Enemy and Love Shack by the B52s. Seattle was a small city that fit between the Space Needle and the King Dome. Few homes had computers. Email, if you had access at all, was so tediously slow that it was easier to make a phone call. But remember those big brick cell phones?

The headlines that year were often about spotted owls as the Forest Service clear cut two square miles per week of the owls’ Northwest ancient forest habitat. Passionate youths—including me—were frequently arrested trying to stop all that.

I suppose this nostalgia doesn’t rate against that of venerable seniors who can remember world wars, horse carriages plying dirt streets, and people living in cedar stumps. But to me, 1989 seems like a distant, different world.

Founding of Greater Ecosystem Alliance

I founded the Greater Ecosystem Alliance (later to be renamed Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, then Conservation Northwest) that year, along with some friends who now have mostly moved on to other projects. On our minds was to champion bold new approaches to saving biodiversity. We aimed to protect not just the big trees, trails, and owls, but the entire old growth ecosystem; not just the alpine gems, but a greater North Cascades ecosystem capable of sustaining a viable grizzly bear population.

Our strategy was to infuse into the environmental movement new ideas of science and conservation to keep the Northwest wild with large interconnected wild ecosystems from the Washington Coast to the BC Rockies.

The challenge I saw in the late ‘80s was that the conservation movement had broad and deep public support, but wasn’t succeeding fast enough to save nature. I was alarmed that science was calling for much vaster natural areas to be protected than what we were achieving. The time was ripe for boldness.

Science-based activism

Our record is mixed over these past decades. Proud elements include:

  • Our role in how the ancient forest issue played out, culminating with President Clinton’s sweeping Northwest Forest Plan. That plan is based on the science that forested areas have to be large enough and close enough to one another to meet the population needs of spotted owls and other forest-dependent species.
  • We fought the infamous 1996 “salvage rider” (a federal law that temporarily lifted public process on national forest logging) and made national news by posting a high timber sale bid for conservation of Thunder Mountain.
  • We led the extraordinary success of the Loomis Forest Fund and the subsequent establishment of Snowy Mountain Provincial Park just across the border.
  • To realize perhaps the most ambitious dream of all, we set about keeping the Cascades ecosystem of Washington State intact by providing habitat linkages across the I-90 checkerboard lands. We've accomplished this through the The Cascades Conservation Partnership capital campaign and the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition.
  • We’ve seen logging on federal roadless areas virtually eliminated.
  • We even helped bring about revolutionary change on national forests across Washington, ending the era of conflict and old-growth logging, beginning the era of common ground collaboration to restore health to second-growth forests. We now have helped with the planning and implementation of dozens of restoration projects, including quality forestry, watershed improvement, and road removals, on federal land across the state.
  • We have helped advance conservation of biodiverse Okanogan grasslands in a way that maintains local agriculture and helps communities.
  • We spurred the reintroduction of fishers into the Olympic Peninsula, and have assisted and cheered the long-awaited return of wolves to eastern Washington.

The big battles for the future of the Olympics and the Washington Cascades have come out pretty well. The wild places of these public lands are relatively safe and the trends are, for now at least, toward restoring these ecosystems. I could not have imagined this outcome two decades years ago.

More milestones

Serious challenges

On the other hand, challenges continue. The amount of designated wilderness in the Columbia Highlands of northeastern Washington is a shameful pittance, despite the support we’ve built for a better balance among key partners including the timber industry. Grizzly bears in the North Cascades are today probably smaller than it was in 1989, grasping survival by a thread. During the last decade British Columbia devastated its public forests, subsidizing logging at rates double sustainability in a failed and futile effort to address beetle infestations. The US timber industry has totally restructured, making a slim distinction between a timber company and a real estate venture, such that many areas are at risk of development.

In the bigger picture, climate change seemed perhaps still preventable in 1989, but today change is underway at rates beyond those projected. American politics have grown more polarized and seemingly incapable of the types of course changes needed to address big threats like climate change. The clout of the environmental movement has not grown commensurate to that of special interests. Concern for the future is great, but translates only to modest change.

Committed to a future for wildlands

Conservation Northwest is engaged in the big picture of keeping the Northwest wild. We are present on the ground, helping prepare our forests and grasslands so they can adopt and be resilient to a changing environment. We are present in communities helping ranchers and hunters live with wolves and cougars. We are in the backcountry, documenting the spread of wolves, wolverines and fisher as they rewild Washington and help fulfill our dreams.

An overwhelming majority of people in our nation share a view of nature and a future that fulfills our dreams for the world we want our children to enjoy. We’re an eagle flying high over an unspoiled landscape, out in the open for all to see, displaying admirable strength and vision.

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