The Tree Hugger
by Paula Cracas
January-February 1999, Volume 101, Number 1
MAMMOTH FIRS AND CEDARS&0151;some more than 200 years old&0151;tower above Jim Britell as he hikes through a roadless area in western Oregon's Siskiyou National Forest. Dwarfed by a Douglas fir at least 20 times his height, Britell points to a tag nailed into the bark that marked it years ago for logging."l saved this tree," he says. Indeed, he has saved thousands of similar trees. The Oregon coast was once thick with temperate rainforests, most of which have been logged. But the Siskiyou forest is an exception. Less than 10 percent of its 1.1 million acres is open to commercial logging, thanks in part to Britell.
He has been called a tree hugger and a radical preservationist. "I embrace those labels," he says. Ten years ago, however, before he retired from his job as a computer-systems manager for the Social Security Administration, Britell had no experience as an environmentalist. In 1989 he and his wife, Martha, moved to Port Orford, a small Oregon coastal town. Occasionally Britell hauled spring-water from the nearby Siskiyou National Forest, and one day he saw that part of it was marked for clear-cutting. An activist was born.
Britell joined the Kalmiopsis Audubon Society, became its conservation chair (a post he still holds), and stopped the timber sale. Since then, he has halted dozens more."Jim Britell is one of the most hard-hitting environmentalists I know," says the National Audubon Society's forest-campaign director, Mike Leahy. "He successfully combines political savvy and knowledge of issues and people with an ingenious organizing mind."
Britell focuses his energy on stopping the destruction of forests. "Our forest problems are more serious than riders, overlogging, or overgrazing. Those are mere distractions from the radical right's real goal, which is nothing less than a vast transfer of public land into private hands," he says, listing a slew of proposed laws over the years that would have transferred property rights of public lands to private owners.
Britell says that his 25 years with the federal government give him an edge: He knows how to wade through its bureaucratic swamp. That also helps him when he manages political campaigns for candidates with sound environmental values. From his home he monitors actions that affect forests. He then publicizes these threats and maintains an E-mail list, which he sends to about 450 subscribers.
"Jim brings cutting-edge, electronic communication to environmental groups," says Nathaniel Wander, president of the Kalmiopsis Audubon chapter. Britell offers his services as a "grassroots consultant" through his web site (www.britell.com), which is a repository of his writings on organizing. He teaches the ABC's of political activism, helping individuals and groups articulate their problems, analyze their goals, get financial support, and contact their politicians. Barbara Ullian, a member of the neighboring Siskiyou Audubon Society, has learned from Britell. "Jim has always been there to help me," she says, "especially when I was threading my way through the political quagmire.
How does he do it? Quietly, behind the scenes, one bureaucrat to another, one activist at a time, and using the clout of the 200-member Kalmiopsis chapter. Britell helps generate tens of thousands of letters, opposing logging plansenough to get the attention of elected officials.
"This September, residents stopped Curry County from trading 70 acres of prime river-edge and old-growth forest to a notorious clear-cutter," says Wander. "Part of Jim's strategy was to refer the residents to a local timber appraiser who provided the dollars-and-cents data to show what a bad deal it was for the county. He then laid out a campaign of telephone and letter contacts with county commissioners and the press to publicize that data effectively."
"Timber sales are usually cloaked in "bogus forest-health and salvage schemes wrapped in layers of judicial insulation," says Britell. "Environmental groups must not only roll back bad legislation but secure higher levels of protection."
He is determined to stop all logging in the Siskiyou forest. "It's important to remember that no public-land logging would take place if the local congressperson or senator said no," he points out. "Birds can't write letters. Salmon can't attend meetings, I speak for them."
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