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A Stranger in My Own Home Town: The Fight to Save Teal Slough
by Rex Ziak

I grew up in the woods of Washington. My mother used to tell me, "Never get between a mamma bear and her cub." So when I stepped between a very large corporation and the priceless rainforest they planned to log, I knew that I was where I shouldn't be. Here in southwest Washington, where I continue to live, the woods are nearly gone. Yes, there are lots of trees--in fact, 86% of our county's area is timberland--but most of it is just an industrial tree farm. The original forest has been replaced by a monotonous monoculture "plantation" of quick-growing seedlings. The true forest--where hemlock, cedar, fir, and spruce compete for fleeting patches of sunlight...where lacquer-black pileated woodpeckers chisel tell-tale square holes into snags...where flying squirrels glide from tree to tree on wings of fur...where moss carpets the ground eight inches thick--these areas are almost extinct.

Yet, there remains a single tiny remnant of remarkable true forest near our town. Known locally as Teal Slough, it borders Highway 101 within earshot of the ocean breakers. The ground is practically level, making it a perfect place to take visitors. I have led people from many parts of the U.S. and as far away as Argentina, Europe, Japan, and Australia through this tiny forest. It is always the most memorable moment of anyone's visit.

It is a real forest, whose trees sprouted from seeds fallen from other trees; it is random and unpredictable. Its younger trees began growing about the time the doughboys were heading over to the trenches of France. Other trees, a bit older, began to grow around the time our Declaration of Independence was signed. And yet others, the most magnificent ones, were already very large trees back when Leonardo da Vinci was mixing the pigment with which to paint the Mona Lisa. These rare old red cedars were born during the Dark Ages, back when the Norsemen were pillaging the coast of Scotland. The immense amount of time that has passed since the creation of this forest is exactly what makes it so interesting. When a human being stands beneath a tree that has been alive for over a thousand years and looks up at its twists and burls, suddenly human plans and endeavors are put into their proper perspective.

It was during a visit to Teal Slough with an artist friend from Chicago six years ago that I noticed some newly erected signs spiked into the trees. The signs read, "JOHN HANCOCK TIMBER SALE." Heartsick, I returned home and sent my visitor away. "So this is it," I thought to myself. "After having survived every natural calamity for over a thousand years, this forest is going to die at the hand of a wealthy absentee owner who can't see anything but the bottom line."

During many restless days of agonizing over the fate of this little forest, I was torn in several directions. I deeply respect private property and the rights of landowners, but I also despise exploitive absentee landlords who drain the resources from an area and invest as little as possible back into the community. Mixed in with these opposing feelings was my sense of history, culture, education, and the future. I have visited many communities that have had every single vestige of their original forest cut. The result is very ugly. The people who labored in those old forests, their stories and their histories, all become meaningless. When every trace of the landscape you recall from your childhood is gone, you suddenly become a stranger in your own hometown.

Feeling that Teal Slough was doomed, I invited some local residents to walk through it with me. When they saw the cedars 35 feet in circumference, the Doric-columned spruce without a limb for 50 feet, and the waves of golden and ruby-crowned kinglets rippling through the canopy, they were absolutely awed into silence. Everyone agreed that this forest was too rare and precious to destroy. They all encouraged me to do something, but no one knew where to start.

It would have seemed logical to take some of John Hancock's foresters through Teal Slough; any forester would immediately recognize this as an area of extraordinarily rare biodiversity and would want to leave it alone. However, very few corporations bother to hire real foresters. Since the forest management is actually carried out in distant cities by accountants who determine how much wealth is to be extracted, the local personnel are merely corporate agents who oversee the logging and replanting. Calling these obedient employees foresters would be like calling the buffalo hunters from the last century wildlife managers. What's more, it is well known that telling the average corporate agent that a parcel of forest has special meaning is the quickest way to insure that it will be logged. (Years ago the timber industry found this to be the fastest and surest way to end preservation debates.)

So I didn't dare let any corporate agents know of my secret intentions. I merely kept showing this little forest to visitors until I devised a plan of action. Soon this became a full-time pursuit, and my career as a freelance photographer went on hold. Everyone who walked through it--shopkeepers, school kids, cranberry farmers, clerks, tourists--believed that it should never be cut.

Meanwhile, I contacted a well-known conservation organization that purchases rare properties. They looked at Teal Slough and agreed that it was unique and absolutely beautiful, but they pointed out that all the logging permits had already been obtained and said that my crusade was hopeless. These urban environmentalists made me growl. I dug my heels deeper into the soil. I pulled out my encyclopedia and read about John Hancock, the patriot. I started to underline my signature with a copy of the flourish John Hancock used when he signed the Declaration of Independence. I was frustrated and didn't know what to do next.

One evening I was parked along the highway watching a herd of elk munch the uppermost leaves on some wild crab-apple trees when a passing car stopped and two fellows with cameras jumped out, clicking several pictures as the startled herd dashed away. It turned out that they were ship captains from Boston whose vessels were in dry dock in Portland. They were interested in all of our local natural beauty so I took them to Teal Slough; they were astounded.

We wandered around looking at the old trees until we came to the marked row of ribbons. "What's this?" one of the captains asked. I told them that it was the cutting line. "Cut! I thought this was a park! Who would cut these trees?" I showed them the John Hancock timber sale sign and they immediately turned defensive. "There must be some mistake. John Hancock would never cut these trees. The people in Boston love nature." I asked what Bostonians had to do with this. "That's where John Hancock's headquarters is located. They have a big office building there," the captains told me. "Look, all you have to do is call that office and tell those people what's going on here. They would never cut these trees."

I just laughed and told them that from what I had seen, Hancock loved nature like a fox loves chickens. I told them about our watershed that Hancock had clearcut and how it looked like a World War I battlefield. I described the streamsides that were completely denuded and eroding right into the spawning beds of wild steelhead. "No!" both captains declared. "There is a mistake here. Call Hancock's headquarters tomorrow. They won't cut these trees. Hancock is a good company. They do a lot for our city. This has to be a mistake."

As I lay in bed that night I thought, could it really be that easy? Was I wrong about Hancock? But what about the way they had ravaged our countryside? I was confused, but it felt so wonderful to finally have a plan. I would call Hancock in the morning and tell them about the old forest. If the captains were right, this would all be finished tomorrow.

My head was so full of thoughts about these old trees that they often entered into my dreams. I dreamed I heard the thundering sound of a Stihl 078 powersaw with a 72-inch bar starting up...I see the chain slicing horizontally into the trunk of the soft red cedar: in the first half-inch the chain cuts through all the growth that has accumulated in my lifetime; in the next half-inch it's into wood that was growing before my dad was born. Oxblood-colored sawdust piles around the logger's caulk shoes. Ten minutes later from deep inside the trunk the wood begins to pop. The silver crown shivers and the wood groans as the tree begins to tip. As it falls, the branches slice the air with a sound like a hurricane, followed by an earth-shaking crash that fills the air with splinters and twigs. The ancient cedar collapses into a pile of slabs. With luck, they'll salvage enough wood to roof several rich folks' homes, maybe build a couple of decks and a length of fence, but the bulk of the fragile wood shatters into unmarketable lengths and is left where it falls....

The next morning I woke up excited and hopeful. I got Hancock's number in Boston and prepared to thread my way through their corporate headquarters until I found someone in the forestry department. But three transfers and five minutes later I was told that there was no listing under "forestry" in Hancock's corporate directory, and I hung up in disgust.

I was now exhausted. What I thought would be over in just a week or two had gone on for three or four months. But the trees were still standing, so I kept showing the forest to little groups of local citizens. I walked with county commissioners, housewives, college presidents, and members of a local Indian tribe. I let the trees do the talking. What people did or said after the visit was their business.

One evening I returned home from the woods to find a most unusual message on my answering machine. It was from a young woman looking for someone named Rex who was trying to save some old trees that Hancock was going to cut. She encouraged me to call her, saying that she could possibly help. The number she left had a Boston prefix.

Assuming that she must be one of Hancock's telephone receptionists with whom I had struck up conversations during my numerous attempts to contact their forestry department, I called her back. When I told her about Hancock's clearcutting of our watershed and about the ancient trees they were now preparing to cut, she promised to help me in any way she could. But I was very surprised to learn that she didn't work for John Hancock: she was a massage therapist in private practice who had heard about my efforts through one of her clients.

The story then became rather bizarre. She told me that Hancock hires her every year to ride around Boston in the back of a stretch limousine, which takes her to various locations where runners are training so that she can massage the runners' legs. She explained that Hancock supports a whole stable of runners, some of the best in the world, in order to make a good showing in the Boston Marathon. Through this work she had contacts in Hancock's public relations department. Some of these people had become friends of hers: maybe they could help. I told her that I needed some names and numbers in Hancock's forestry department. Before hanging up I also asked her to please find out how her client had heard about me.

Several days later she called back. She had had lunch with a friend from Hancock who told her that their forestry activities are managed by a department called John Hancock timber resource group, a tiny branch under a department called agricultural investments, which in turn is a division of Hancock Financial Services. Like those little Russian dolls, one inside the other--no wonder I hadn't been able to get through! She also told me that she had spoken with her client: he had heard about my efforts from his mother, who had heard about it from someone who'd sat next to her on an airplane. Amazingly enough, the story of my small crusade to save Teal Slough had crossed the continent by word of mouth.

Now, for the first time, I could call Hancock's headquarters and ask for "timber resource," which put me in touch with Charlotte, Scott, Gary, Ruth, and Jane. I told them about the forest, about the trees, their size and age, but I felt that I wasn't getting through. They listened politely but I could tell they weren't the policy and decision makers. I called back the massage therapist and told her I needed the name of the person in charge of the timber resource group. She promised to do what she could. A week later she called back with the name of the senior vice-president in charge of agricultural investments. At last I would be able to reach the decision maker.

I drafted letter after letter to this senior vice-president, but they were insipid attempts. I needed something that would stop him right in the middle of his busy day and bring him to this forest. He had to be an intelligent man, who most likely had children and grandchildren. Certainly he must have thought about their future and the world they are going to inherit. I needed to send him something that would cut right through that corporate fluff and appeal to the flesh-and-blood man inside that suit, something that Hancock would allow right into their office, which, unsuspectingly, would leap out and capture their hearts. I began to realize that I would have to send to Boston a sort of Trojan horse.

I spent days, maybe even weeks, trying to imagine how I could communicate this forest across 4,000 miles. Then, one evening, it suddenly came to me. I knew I had an idea that would work the instant I thought of it. I printed and framed a photograph of my favorite cedar in the whole little forest (it wasn't the largest tree in the stand; in fact, if left alone, it could grow for another 300 years). I then purchased a length of rope measuring exactly 35 1/2 feet in length, which I tied into one large loop. According to my measurements, this rope would fit snugly around the tree's trunk.

I assembled all these materials and practiced their presentation. I pretended I was seeing it for the first time...I would open the box and read my letter...then I would find the framed picture packed in tissue paper below...finally, I would dig down deeper and discover the rope carefully coiled in the bottom of the box. A simple tempting note instructed the reader to spread the rope out in a circle to see the exact size of the tree in the picture. I coiled and recoiled the rope until it would play out without any tangles. Finally I had it perfect. I packed it up and shipped my little Trojan horse off to Boston.

My package did reach the senior vice-president, and he did understand what I was talking about. The photograph combined with the enormous loop of rope allowed the trees to speak directly to him. From his Boston office he could actually see how magnificent these old West Coast trees were. He was in awe. Those ship captains were right.

So the timber sale signs came down. The trees remain standing. Local schoolchildren now visit the site. College students from 100 miles away travel here just to walk through this forest with me. New seeds have fallen and many have sprouted. For now there is every indication that this tiny remnant of real forest will survive.

Then, a couple of years later, I discovered another remarkable forest owned by John Hancock. Measuring nearly 500 acres, it was the largest remaining grove of old-growth timberland in southwest Washington. The ecosystem was still healthy and complete, functioning as a sanctuary for old-forest animals. I could see that there was just barely enough habitat for these species to survive, reproduce, and eventually spread out to other forest stands when they matured.

Roads had been punched in. Hancock was ready to start cutting. Again, I wanted to say something, but I was afraid it was too late. Then I obtained an annual report from John Hancock and found that the timber resource group had increased its net worth from $1.1 billion to $1.5 billion in just one year--400 million dollars of profit from clearcutting! These 500 acres of timber--priceless to the survival of old-forest species in southwest Washington--would represent just a tiny fraction of the timber resource group's worth. So again I wrote the senior vice-president, telling him about the irreplaceable forest his company was preparing to cut. Again he halted the logging.



John Hancock continues to log the remaining timber in the surrounding hills, but for now they are not bothering these two old forests. The trees are growing and the resident wildlife is thriving. Whether John Hancock will continue to leave these forests alone or clearcut them for the profitable log-export market is something we'll have to wait to see. In all their materials, John Hancock constantly reminds us of their commitment to good stewardship. Perhaps these two tiny forests will serve as a true measure of their forest ethics.

Rex Ziak lives in a two-room shack in Naselle, Washington, where he keeps the wild birds fed all winter. He earns a living as a freelance photographer.

This essay was published in the Winter 1997/98 issue of Orion Afield. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at orion@orionsociety.org.



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