Dear Editor:

Back in the mid 1960s, my wife and I packed our old Chevy with tent, sleeping bags, and a Coleman stove and headed west. Like the advertisement urged us, we wanted to “see the USA in your Chevrolet.”

We camped in Grand Canyon, Brice, Zion, Sequoia and Yosemite and then wound our way up the California coast on Highway 1. We were carefree, happy to be together, and in constant awe of our natural world, especially those places set aside as National Forests and Parks.

By the time we got to the Pacific Northwest we were broke. After a couple weeks of searching we settled in Packwood Washington, just south of Mt. Ranier National Park. I landed a job in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest laying out timber sales in old-growth Douglas-Fir, and Pat got a job at Cowlitz Stud just down the river from Packwood, tallying lists of 2x4s and boards derived from the clear-cuts that I helped harvest.

We borrowed money from the local trading post so I could equip myself with the mandatory corks, or spiked boots, necessary to work in the steep mountain country. We rented a room in a log barracks from the lady who ran the local post office. She often entertained us with stories of when she came as a small girl to Packwood in a covered wagon.  

Our life was good. We worked hard, loved a lot, and hiked the mountains every weekend. Our favorite place was the Goat Rocks Wilderness Area just given secure protection with passage in 1964 of the world’s first Wilderness Act. It was a beautiful high country wilderness, a place where, as our native Iowan Wallace Stegner had written, we could “renew ourselves in the wild,” where we “ learned the trick of quiet.”

My work with the Forest Service back then taught me for the first time that there was more than one way to look at conservation. Although I was trained in a utilitarian profession of Forestry, I was also deeply affected by wilderness. I’m sure that my bosses in the service liked wild places but they made it very clear to me that “real” foresters were not about preservation. They were proud of their ability to take huge old trees out of steep mountainsides.

I must confess that I often had those thoughts as well. I’ve never seen such impressive parades as the logging day parades in the northwest when freshly polished logging trucks, each with the largest 32 foot Doug-Fir log they could find, rolled down main streets tooting their horns, horns that played “She’ll be coming round the mountain” and other familiar ditties. Back then the loggers were viewed as conquering heroes, and the bigger the log the more grand their trophy.

While working in Packwood, one evening we were having our picnic dinner down along the Cowlitz River. We were joined by a somewhat inebriated old-timer who obviously needed friendship. He was living in his car and so Pat and I took him back to our log barracks, paid the post office lady an additional $10, and got him a room right next to ours. Pat was then able to get him a job in the yards at Cowlitz Stud.

Over the next few weeks our old friend told us some amazing stories. He had grown up on the Olympic Peninsula and as a young boy would roam the untrammeled wilderness with his brother. He told of rivers so full of Salmon that “you would walk on their back to cross to the other side.” He told of bears standing in the waters gorging themselves with tasty Salmon flesh.

One evening he described how he and his brother had located the largest tree in the peninsula. He wasn’t sure if it was a Douglas-Fir, Sitka Spruce, or a Western Hemlock but as he said, “It was big.” He and his brother decided it would be a real achievement to get it down, so for the next week they worked away at it with their axes each on opposite sides and 10 feet up on a platform they built to get above the butt swell of the monster tree.  

Finally, it fell and even sixty years later as he told us the story he was proud of his accomplishment. When I asked him what they did with it our old-timer gave us a quizzical look as if to say “why would you ask me such a question?” He followed that pause with “It was deep in the forest and we let it be.”

Unfortunately, his story is in many ways our American story. As Stegner reminds us “We Americans can rightfully claim the title of the most efficient and ruthless environment-bashers in history, slashing and burning and cutting our way through a wilderness continent.”

Fortunately, as we worked our way across the continent, wilderness worked on us. Out of this journey have come individuals and groups who have spoken up and forced us to pause and reflect on what we are about.

Fast forward to December 2017: I found this piece in the bottom of my desk drawer yesterday. I wrote it a few years ago and dropped in the drawer to ripen. I’m getting old now, and often find solace in the past. My mind goes back to the old gospel hymn “Precious Memories, how they linger, how they ever flood my soul.”

This morning I turned on my radio and heard that our president is going to Utah today to scrub from protection three-quarters of the Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments. He thinks we should gouge out another coal mine and let the Cliven Bundys of the west put a few thousand more “hoofed locusts” on these two sacred wild areas.

And I’m constantly overwhelmed with sorrow when I think of our Iowa Legislature’s destruction of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. The chair of our House agriculture committee, Pat Grassley, declared “Mission Accomplished.” Humm.

The radio also told me this morning that we’re about to say good-bye to warm weather for a few months. I think I’ll take my 2 canes and shuffle down to a corner of our woods along the Upper Iowa River one last time. The water is running a little cleaner than it did 45 years ago.

Our resident eagles will no doubt be soaring over our woods checking for cleanings left over after the first weekend of deer season. And I’ll no doubt have a couple Chickadees join me in the Raspberry and Gooseberry brambles – little bundles of wild feathers – some of what’s left of Iowa wildness. Is there any good left? I think so. To borrow the title of a 1950s pop song, “Little things mean a lot.”

Paul W. Johnson, Decorah

Former state legislator, former Chief USDA SCS/NRCS, former Director 

Iowa DNR, retired farmer