hen the northern spotted owl was placed on the nation's Endangered Species List--threatening the livelihood of thousands of loggers and timber workers and igniting in the Pacific Northwest one of the most explosive environmental debates in U.S. history--Bob Martin '65 seized the day.
"This was an opportunity to study one of the really important environmental battles which focuses on public discourse," says Martin, speech professor and specialist in the analysis of public discourse at Western Oregon State College in Monmouth. "I spent an entire year interviewing people who were attending environmental rallies, timber industry rallies, interviewing the individuals involved and reading their work."
The results of Martin's sabbatical work were two-fold. First he penned an eye-opening series of writings focusing on an often overlooked combatant in the controversy--the small, grass-roots, pro-timber industry organizations from rural Oregon, particularly the Oregon Lands Coalition.
Martin chose this group, despite being more on the "green" side of the argument, because he wanted "to understand how this controversy was affecting people in these small, timber-dependent communities."
"I wanted to see how they were going to fight back," Martin says. "They're really caught in the middle. They're not really represented by the big timber interests, and they're not really represented by the government. So these grass roots groups got together and said 'we've got a green steamroller coming down on us, and we're going to have to help ourselves.' They formed this group to get their message out."
The coalition's strategy was simple: tell your story to whoever will listen.
"That's literally what these people did," Martin says. "They would call their congresspeople or state representatives. They'd testify at Forest Service hearings. And their stories...help us understand how these people in small timber-dependent communities perceive themselves as being victimized."
Martin says a good example of one of these stories is seen in one episode of a BBC documentary that focused on one such family in Mill City, Oregon.
"People from this family have lived here for years, were attracted by government promises of a sustainable supply of timber, and suddenly they're being sold out," Martin explains. "They don't understand why, and they are angry."
Through his year of study, Martin learned that "this is an incredibly complex issue, and it's an issue of incredible polarity. There's hardly any middle ground."
He also concluded that, regardless of his sympathy for the arguments of the Lands Coalition, the narrative of the pro-industry groups failed to deal satisfactorily with a central issue of the debate--the fact that only 11 or 12 percent of the original old-growth forest remains in the Pacific Northwest.
"That's a key issue in the environmental argument," Martin says. "I saw a bumper sticker just the other day that read: 'Defend the Last 12 percent.' Any competing narrative has to deal with this, and I don't think they do so adequately."
In true Wabash fashion, Martin has taken what he learned during his sabbatical and passed it on to his students. His upper-level course--Communication and the Environment: The Battle over Old-Growth Forest in the Pacific Northwest--studies the various narratives produced for both sides of the argument and includes field trips to old growth forests as well as a stop at a modern timber mill. All this in an effort to better understand the roots of the controversy and the methods employed by its protagonists.
"It's one thing to talk about the effect of technology on modern timber milling," Martin says. "It's another to actually walk into a mill that at one time employed 300 people per shift and now employs 17.
How do the students react to the class and the issues it presents?
"We usually have 20 to 30 students, about half from rural Oregon, many from timber-dependent communities and some from timber-dependent families, while the other half are from more metropolitan areas of Oregon.
"It's very interesting to talk to them about halfway through the course, because they come back after a weekend at home with their own stories of trying to talk to their parents about these issues," Martin explains. "But most of them say they learn a lot in the class, and they feel more informed and more confident in their ability to look at a social and environmental issue and critique it."