The Death of St. John

From the beginning of his school district tenure, John Stanford—with no background in education—got a free ride from local media. It only got worse with the announcement last winter of his illness. Whether from misplaced sympathy or awestruck deference, virtually nobody—your present columnist excepted—questioned whether someone so seriously ill should be running Seattle's schools, both for the sake of the schools and of Stanford's own health. Indomitability can only take you so far against microbiology; indeed, it can sometimes work against you: Stanford's press clippings, all but announcing his immortality, couldn't have helped.

One wonders, given that indomitable will, if Stanford was encouraged not to take his illness seriously enough, or to overwork. Conversely, staying in the job, and under the media-fueled outpouring of civic sympathy that urged him to heal, may have kept him alive longer. For the schools, the net result is a year with only symbolic leadership at the top, and virtually no questioning of the decisions that led to it.

John Stanford has now been elevated from a problematic local public official—disliked by many in the district but adored by the city's corporate, political, and media establishment—to a martyr and a saint for whom no objective look at his legacy is possible. Ultimately, that's unfair to the man's life: Until his last three years, he had nothing to do with Seattle, education, or "the kids." As we start naming things for him, failure to look at his troubled tenure and sad death for some lessons other than the most banal and clichéd imaginable ("He didn't quit!" "He loved the kids!") is a tremendous disservice to the future of Seattle's schools.

Trees and stuff

It's a danger sign for environmentalism when Congress dictates forest policy in the Pacific Northwest. And it's doubly dangerous when legislation gets tacked onto big spending bills so as to get snuck past any potential veto. On both counts, the ugly precedent of Plum Creek's I-90 land exchange deserves a closer look.

The land swap is basically a done deal; appended to the Department of the Interior's appropriations bill, it now awaits Bill Clinton's signature. Is it a good deal for the public? It's impossible to tell; until the deal becomes law, virtually nobody will know exactly what's in it. That's because appraisals for the land Plum Creek is trading to the public in exchange for Forest Service land are proprietary information until the timber giant no longer holds title. Is Plum Creek trading forest for equal-value forest, a win-win scenario where both parties consolidate the now checkerboarded land titles left over from land-grant days? Maybe. Or maybe the public is getting lots of rock and ice in the high Cascades, or land that's already been heavily logged, in exchange for more pristine old growth west of the Cascades.

It's clear, however, that getting Slade Gorton and Patty Murray into the act is bad news for the trees. It's historically been that way (c.f. Salvage Logging Rider); Gorton, over the last five years, got more money from timber interests than any other member of Congress, and Murray (like Oregon's Ron Wyden) helps give clearcutting a happy environmental face. The use of a congressional act to enact the land swap (rather than the administrative procedures negotiated for two years) short-circuits environmental impact statements, public hearings, and the public's right to appeal inclusion of environmentally sensitive areas. Legal recourse is out, too; virtually no court will second-guess Congress.

Congressional involvement is worrisome because land exchanges are the hot new way to cut deals between enviros and industry. Brokering them through timber-friendly agents like Slade slants the odds against a deal in the public interest. But then, that's been the problem for the last generation, as can be seen on any flight over Western Washington on a clear day.

It's easy enough to get bogged down in saving this or that stand of old growth from the chain saw; but the larger truth is that the Northwest is losing its trees even faster than the eastern half of the continent did during the 19th century. Trees are treated as an agricultural crop, but harvested much faster than they can grow back—with incalculable damage to our biosystems.

How has this happened? There's plenty of blame to go around. The companies, of course, with mergers, junk bonds, and debts to pay by cashing in their arboreal assets—why should they care what the land looks like in 10 years? Politicians, too—more concerned also with the short term, and pleasing a powerful patron.

But this carnage also happened during the 30 years of the modern environmental move- ment, during which every poll has suggested massive public support for conservation. Mainstream environmental groups have failed by agreeing to compromise after compromise. In the case of the I-90 land exchange, as soon as it became apparent that Gorton, Murray, et al. wanted to get involved, some enviros (notably the Sierra Club) rushed to cut a deal rather than insisting on the public's right to know what it was getting. It might make the Sierra Club feel good ("We're players!") but it was a tremendous disservice for the precedent it set.

The precedent issue is particularly important because there is already talk of an I-90 Swap Part 2. Plum Creek has lots more land to unload—though the Forest Service, tellingly, is running out—and talks are already under way for the sequel. The same scenario is playing out all across the West.

The trees are disappearing. But as long as they're preserved, zoo-animal-like, within the sight lines of I-90, who will notice?

 
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