WHEN I’M IN BOISE I drink with Brian Ertz at the bar in the basement of the Idanha Hotel, where in 1907 prosecutors terrified for their lives holed up during the trial of socialist labor leader William Dudley “Big Bill” Haywood. It was the heroic era of militant unionism, mass strikes, and violent repression, and Haywood, a former miner, was the most charismatic and imposing of the unionists. Big Bill was so physically big it was said he could break a man’s jaw with a single blow, though he was known to weep at the reading of poetry. The workmen he organized at the Western Federation of Miners were fierce people. When they went on strike and the mining companies sent goons to gun them down, they struck back, hijacking trains, blowing up mines and smelters, and burning company headquarters to the ground.
Charged with ordering the 1905 assassination of the anti-labor governor of Idaho Frank Steunenberg, Haywood countered that a lone miner, acting independently and out of personal vengeance, pulled the trigger. A jury declared him innocent, and Haywood would go on to found, with Eugene Debs and Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW believed in “permanent rebellion” and “refused to engage in any negotiation with the bosses,” with Haywood at the head of their ranks as the “personification of proletarian rage.”
To Ertz, Big Bill was a hero and inspiration. “The kind of guy we need in the enviro movement,” he said. After a night of paying homage to Haywood and not long before this book went to press, Ertz and I headed two hundred miles north of Boise to see a stretch of public land that was sacred to him and his family. It was in the Payette National Forest, near the village of Tamarack, where Ertz’s grandfather worked the logging mill in the early twentieth century. His family owns a cabin on land surrounded by the national forest. It was in the Payette where he shot his first buck deep in the woods and hauled it out for miles on his back.
The Payette in the springtime is a place of small miracles for those with eyes to see. The forest floor saturates with snowmelt, in braids and tresses of water, and out of the earth come lady slipper orchids and morels, oyster mushrooms and puffballs, a wild onion called allium, the stinking yellow skunk cabbage, prize of black bears, and wild roses, bluebells, larkspurs, lupines, penstemons—a miniature world of flowers and fungi in countless shapes and colors. The melt animates ephemeral springs and sylvan pools hidden under a surface of snowberry, fallen branches, decomposing pine needles, rotting ponderosas, centuries of living matter.
“I grew up in awe of the miniature world of the forest floor,” Ertz told me. “In search of morels in May. Better than any Easter egg hunt. Or in the summer picking huckleberries and wild strawberries. Guiding my children in the Payette, seeing them discover it as I did, is the closest I’ve come to infinite youth.”
Pinus ponderosa dominates, with its terpene perfumes, its tall straight conical reach, its black-creviced broad-plated burnt-umber bark that sometimes turns orange, sometimes sienna. Of this species, no one has written with more eloquence than John Muir: “I have oftentimes feasted on the beauty of these noble trees when they were towering in all their winter grandeur, laden with snow — one mass of bloom; in summer, too, when the brown, staminate clusters hang thick among the shimmering needles, and the big purple burs are ripening in the mellow light; but it is during cloudless windstorms that these colossal pines are most impressively beautiful. Then they bow like willows, their leaves streaming forward all in one direction, and, when the sun shines upon them at the required angle, entire groves glow as if every leaf were burnished silver.”
The tall dignified ponderosas oversee the ebb and flow of centuries of successional life at their feet, the wind through their stout needles making the sound of distant surf, their puzzle-like peeling bark layered with epiphytic lichens of neon green. The epiphytes draw water from the air as if by sorcery. Sometimes on the branches of the pines the lichens are coarse, black, nappy, hairlike — Usnea hirta, commonly called old man’s beard. At higher elevations, among the tributaries that originate the pure waters that feed the salmon and steelhead river runs of the Northwest, there are Douglas firs and spruce and yellow pines. None of it is called old growth, as the Forest Service in Idaho never created a definition for old growth. Conveniently this allows the agency to avoid finding any stands for old-growth protection. But ecologically, if not bureaucratically, it is old growth. And thus prime habitat for wolves, lynx, wolverines, black bears, mule deer, elk, and, if we would let them colonize it, grizzlies. What mad hubris to think we can “manage” this forest, Ertz is telling me as we walk. “Do you not think that the forest with all its evolutionary complexity, all its diverse forces, agents, species, knows better than us goddamn humans?”
In order to have standing to sue in federal court over public land policy and land-use decisions, one must show a connection to the land and prove to the court that your interests would be harmed in the absence of judicial intervention. The courts have allowed aesthetic and spiritual enjoyment as a “cognizable interest.” If you’ve been to the land and sat on the land and derived psychological sustenance from it, then you have standing. Remember this, reader, it bears repeated emphasis: if you’ve been to a place on the public lands, and it has spoken to you, and if that place is under threat, you have standing in the courts. “In the case of the Payette, I have seen the forest and I appreciate the forest,” Ertz told me. “That gives me and my whole family standing.”
The Forest Service in 2016 proposed an eighty-five-thousand-acre timber sale and fire-prevention “thinning” program in the Payette, and a non-profit called Alliance for the Wild Rockies brought a lawsuit to stop it. Ertz is a member of the Alliance, and thus the Alliance had standing to do so. What was strange about the Payette logging project was the support it garnered from various green groups. This was Ertz’s first close encounter with the so-called conservation collaborationists that had sprouted across the Northern Rocky Mountains, and it would not be his last. The collaborationists operated under the Fred Krupp model pioneered at the Environmental Defense Fund. They rejected the “false paradox” of “jobs vs. a healthy environment,” as Brian Sybert, former head of the collaborationist Montana Wilderness Association, put it. These greens envisioned a win-win for all parties on the public domain: “increasing timber harvest” while also “restor[ing] fish and wildlife habitat.” Which, to anyone who understood logging, was simply grotesque nonsense.
From THIS LAND: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West by Christopher Ketcham, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Christopher Ketcham.
Christopher Ketcham, a freelance writer for more than 20 years, has written for Harper’s, CounterPunch, National Geographic, Hustler, Penthouse, the New York Times, Pacific Standard, Sierra, Earth Island Journal, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Salon, and many other websites and newspapers large and small. He is recipient of the Award for the Latest-Sleeping Writer Ever. This Land is his first book. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for complaints.