WildEarth Guardians

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The birth of WildEarth Guardians

Guardians’ original founder, Sam Hitt, outlines how the organization (then Forest Guardians) came to be

May 1, 2019

May 1, 1989. On that date thirty years ago today, as tourists strolled below our perch above the Plaza, Rich Ryan, a friend from Earthfirst!, and I envisioned Forest Guardians.

The 1980s up to that point had been tumultuous. Early in the decade a friend gave me a newspaper clip announcing a Forest Service program to spray insecticides on over 60,000 acres to control a native insect, the western spruce budworm. I was familiar with the hazards of chemical insecticides from my involvement in the still infant organic agriculture movement and decided to dig deeper.

The next half a dozen years were a blur of investigations, legal challenges, press releases, endless lobbying and burn out. I soon learned that the spray program had been going since the early 1950s, spraying mostly with DDT on national forests and beyond. In the 1962, the same year that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published, the entire city of Santa Fe was sprayed to control a variety of insects defoliating the city’s trees.

The most powerful spray proponent then was Republican Senator Pete Dominci. At a meeting in his Washington DC office, Dominci pounded the table and turned red in the face when we accused the Forest Service spray program of being ineffective and a threat to public health. I remember papers bouncing when Dominci’s fist struck the table.

Our little group at the time was called the Committee for Integrated Pest Management. The name was suggest by friend and attorney Grove Burnett to sound reasonable and positive. The three members of the group were neither. It included Gary Schrodt in Taos (who soon moved away), Nancy Brannan a registered nurse living in the woods, and myself.

Grove represented us when we sued in federal court to halt the program. At the first hearing Grove and I had a large table all to ourselves. On the other side there were so many attorneys and timber industry representatives we had to lend them the unused chairs from our table. Needless to say we failed to stop the program by legal means and the spraying continued.

Five years of my life went by. We had lost in court and with the political establishment. We were either ignored or dismissed by the media. But ordinary citizens were getting restless—outraged letters to the editor began appearing. Most importantly deep roots within the Forest Service were sending anonymous messages urging us to keep up the fight.

Then it happened. One summer girl scouts at their camp in Angel Fire got up early one morning and blockaded the runway before the spray planes could take off. It was front page news the next day with photos of the girls in their uniforms sitting down on the runway.

The insecticide being used was carbaryl, which had been linked to birth defects in laboratory studies. Suddenly the story shifted from threats to the timber industry to threats to future generations. Within six months the spray program was gone. The Forest Service agreed to suspend spraying for five years which was enough time for our friends on the inside to bury it forever.

This was all history when Rich and I met on that May Day thirty years ago. The ever resourceful Forest Service had shifted from spraying to cutting down old growth forests where its multistoried canopy was thought to be susceptible to insect infestation. Their strategy tied in nicely to timber industry plans to eliminate as many of the ancient trees as possible before pulling up stakes in the Southwest.

The first battle was over a massive logging project on Elk Mountain bordering the Pecos Wilderness. This high-elevation forest had been logged once and now they wanted the rest. We had formed Elk Mountain Action a few years before and managed to stop the project (unfortunately it was salvage logged years later).

To foresters then, old growth was a biological desert devoid of game species where valuable timber was left to rot. I got this story early in life from my father who trained as a forester and worked briefly for the Forest Service. Now I was starting to see how forest managers saw trees as crops in contrast to an ecological view that valued forests for their inherent diversity and dynamism.

Old growth was under assault everywhere. It still is. The ancient ponderosa pines were falling faster along the Mogollon rim in northern Arizona than anywhere in the nation. The Kaibab Plateau north of the Grand Canyon was next, the largest unprotected wild forest left in the Southwest.

Someone had to stop them—Rich and I decided it was us. We would be the voice of the forest, guardians of the last of the best. We joined a movement that was learning to dream dangerously for a future still waiting to be born.

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