Portrait of an environmentalist
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

Stephanie Tidwell is the executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

Stephanie Tidwell is the executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center — commonly known as KS Wild — an environmental organization based in Ashland that has a strong voice in the local outdoors scene. I sat down with Tidwell to learn what made her an environmentalist and what her organization’s views were on some of today’s most important topics.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

Stephanie Tidwell still remembers the dynamite blasts that shook her grandmother's house.

In the southern foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the then 10-year-old would listen to the dishes shake and crash with each blast, as the nearby land was strip-mined for coal.

"The mining company would send out surveyors to inspect her house to make sure there weren't any cracks she could blame on them," Tidwell recalled. "Then they'd start dynamiting. Every dish would be rattling, almost out of the cabinets. Here's an aging widow whose home basically has become part of a blast zone, and there's nothing she can do. She didn't have any way to fight back."

Those experiences stuck with Tidwell during a journey that eventually took her into environmentalism.

After leaving her home in Georgia, she attended Johns Hopkins and Appalachian State University. She then earned master's degrees in journalism and environmental policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

In between she fought to preserve a popular rock-climbing area from a subdivision in North Carolina and learned the ins and outs of environmental advocacy

Eight years ago, she was recruited to Southern Oregon to become executive director of the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center — commonly known as KS Wild.

The Ashland-based environmental group, which recently joined forces with the Siskiyou Project in Grants Pass, has a staff of 11, including six who work full time. Among its ranks are people Tidwell describes as "devoted to preserving our forests, wild lands and rivers" and experts in a number of different areas including law, biology, restoration and advocacy.

Devoted employees are important considering few groups in the Rogue Valley attract as much animosity as KS Wild.

They've been called "environmental extremists" and have been blamed for everything from the collapse of the logging industry to usurping miners' "constitutional rights."

Its recent proposal to create the Siskiyou Crest National Monument — a 600,000-acre swath of land between Ashland, Cave Junction and Northern California — inspired citizens of Happy Camp, Calif., to literally blanket the town with anti-monument signs.

The group has even received opaque death threats. In 2010, a post on the website Oregongoldhunters.com suggested that someone "could sit up in the woods with a high powered assault rifle and put an end to the whole group in one swift action." The post included the time and location of one of KS Wild's hikes.

Tidwell said such rhetoric is dangerous and divisive and stressed the need for civility in public discourse. At the same time, she said KS Wild was "not afraid to back down from a fight" and was willing to "go to the mat to protect wild lands."

What follows is a conversation I had with Tidwell. It covers numerous topics, including the group's conservation projects, mining, logging and the economy.

Zach Urness: What's the goal of KS Wild?

Stephanie Tidwell: The easiest way to describe our goal is to protect the best and restore the rest. That goal is accomplished through variety of tactics. It includes advocacy, active restoration and looking at science-based forestry practices that create environmentally and economically sustainable communities while at the same time protecting some of the last wild lands in the area.

How did KS Wild come into existence? Why?

Our organization was started in 1997 to fight old-growth logging, and frankly we did a good job. The conservation community was able to draw on the fact that old-growth forests are one of America's most iconic ecosystems. Over the course of 15 years we helped enact a pretty significant shift in the way we manage public forests. We're not there yet, but we're light years ahead of where we were 15 years ago.

Let's get this out of the way since it's been in the news lately. The Senate introduced a bill a few weeks ago, following the House's earlier lead, to add 60,000 acres to the existing 35,806-acre Wild Rogue Wilderness and add 93 miles of Rogue tributaries to Wild and Scenic protections. Your group helped create that proposal. What's the reasoning behind it? Why is it important?

You need healthy tributaries for a healthy Rogue River ecosystem, including the cool water that juvenile salmon need to survive. Those tributaries have come under a number of threats over the years, and by protecting them and the wild lands around them, you're helping all the businesses that need a healthy Rogue River to thrive.

What are the environmental hot spots your group is paying attention to?

The Rogue River has really been leading the nation in terms of river restoration and dam removal. Unfortunately, this major restoration has coincided with a spike in gold prices and the shrinking of the economy.

We've seen our rivers methodically dredged by literally thousands of suction dredge miners. With California placing a moratorium on suction dredge mining, Southern Oregon is ground zero. The Rogue and Chetco are seeing river bottoms basically destroyed in terms of salmon spawning habitat value.

The Siskiyou Crest National Monument that KS Wild proposed became a pretty controversial issue. Where do you stand on the proposal now?

KS Wild still fully believes the Siskiyou Crest is a world-class gem and worth the nation's highest protection. The hard reality right now is that we have a political climate in which landscape protection isn't really on the agenda. Honestly, I am fearful with this Congress of even maintaining the environmental protections already in place.

The Siskiyou Crest seemed to create a sort of flashpoint. People railing against the proposal dominated entire town hall meetings with lawmakers. The town of Happy Camp (Calif.) more or less declared war on your group. What's your reaction to that?

You know, it's kind of heartbreaking. When public debate is dominated by folks that don't want to talk about facts, that don't even want to have a real discussion, it's difficult as a community to move forward.

I do know people in Happy Camp who care about Siskiyou Crest and would like to see it protected, but they were afraid to speak out. And we don't want to create that.

Do you take it personally?

You have to accept that some people are never going to agree with you. The trick is not to focus on those people, but to focus on educating the vastly larger group of people in the middle or out of the loop. I have to believe that the rabid haters of the world are the minority. I have to believe that, because otherwise, what's the point? We need to plan for a future in a way that at minimum is respectful of the ability to disagree with each other.

But even among a lot of average citizens, there's a sense that this area used to be a logging community and still should be. There's a belief that environmental groups have shut down logging, increased unemployment and damaged the local economy.

When you look at more than 85 percent of old-growth forest gone, because they logged too intensely and too fast, you can't blame the decline of the logging industry on conservationists. You need to blame the decline of the logging community on multinational corporations that didn't give a crap about sustainability or maintaining a long-term logging community

In the Rogue Valley, you're going to have more job stability coming out of restoration jobs in the woods than old-growth logging.

Would you support any type of logging?

Look, we all use wood products. And it has to come from somewhere, I'll concede that. With less than 25 percent of our old-growth forests left, we're talking about a lot of tree farms out there, a lot of trees planted in a short rotation style, all single-age, mostly monocrop trees. There are some valid arguments for logging some of those trees, provided it goes hand-in-hand with other restorative activities. And while that may not be as profitable to a giant corporation, it's just as profitable to small-scale loggers in a community.

What about the economy? That's the most important issue for pretty much everyone these days. Can this area really thrive without large scale logging?

A healthy economy is a diversified economy. When folks talk about 'Oh we used to be a logging community,' I think they're re-creating a perfect world that never actually existed. It was never meant to be sustainable; it was a cut-and-run economy; it was boom-and-bust. But the people stayed, and we have to figure out a way to move forward in the long haul.

There are some areas, such as the Rogue River, where it's fairly obvious how keeping it wild is beneficial because it supports a ton of rafting and fishing businesses that in turn provide local jobs. But wilderness areas, such as the Siskiyou or Kalmiopsis, don't have the same economic impact because far fewer people go there. Can you see how some people would say that wilderness designation locks up land that could be put to better use?

It's OK to leave some places to the wild lands, to the critters. Not every acre of the country needs to be yoked to man's use. But I would point out that keeping these areas wild does provide a huge benefit to people because it cleans our air and our water. Some wild lands serve us better when generally left alone then when exploited for straight economic gain.

KS Wild has a reputation as, if not a provocateur, than certainly a group that's willing to mix it up. Is that a reputation you strive for?

We're not afraid to back down from a fight. But no, it isn't something we strive for. We're increasingly working on collaboration, and we do work toward mutually agreeable solutions with agencies and small-scale industries.

But that's not the stuff that grabs the headlines. The stuff that grabs the headlines is when we're out leading the charge against things we decided we have to take a stand on. So yes, while we're not afraid to go to mat to protect wild lands, we're not necessarily looking for trouble, either.

So, what you're saying is that you're not all a bunch of (ticked)-off tree-huggers?

Look, despite the rhetoric about well-heeled environmentalists out to shut the economy down, we are frankly a group that works a lot more hours than we get paid for. We're doing it because we love this area.

I didn't get into this line of work because I wanted to fight the man. Most of us are paddlers and hikers who love the backcountry and want to see it preserved. That's our motivation.


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