Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

John Seiberling

September 8, 1918 – August 2, 2008

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Oregon's best Congressman was from Ohio. Big Timber reigned supreme and Republican Mark Hatfield, the pacifist timber beast, was senior senator and dean of the delegation. Democrat Jim Weaver of Eugene, representing Oregon's 4th District, was the strongest voice for wilderness, wild rivers and old trees. Second best for the wild was Republican Senator Bob Packwood. In 1980 Democrat Ron Wyden was elected in Oregon's Third District and evidence of a changing and greening delegation. The rest of the delegation ranged from awful to horrible.

John Seiberling was chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands of the Interior and Insular Affairs. Senator Mark O. Hatfield that Seiberling would make the entire state of Oregon a Wilderness if he could. St. John, as Oregon wilderness activists belovedly referred to him, wouldn't go that far, but he'd have saved all the forest and desert roadless areas in a heartbeat if he could.

Seiberling visited Oregon several times, holding both field hearing and taking field trips to see the controversial areas in question. Usually the smartest and most astute guy in the room, Seiberling was a gentle man that could hold forth equally on French poetry (recitation in French, of course) or cubic feet of wood growth per acre per year.

Seiberling took a field trip to the Umpqua National Forest in the early 1980s. Douglas County was ground zero in the wilderness war. The Umpqua had no designated Wilderness and conservationists prioritized three of nineteen inventoried roadless areas (Boulder Creek, Mount Thielsen and the Rogue-Umpqua Divide [all now units of the National Wilderness Preservation System). The field trip took a couple of days and the Forest Service tried to control the itinerary. Timber industry and conservation representation were carefully limited with two representatives of each side. The Forest Service staff were all in full dress uniform, but were limited in numbers as well. At one point, taking a little walk in the woods to see some point, we came to a little clearing with coffee and doughnuts on a table with not a person around. It was provided by the Forest Service, but the hospitality detail hid in the woods lest the agency have more boots on the tour than allowed.

The Forest Service tried to keep the tour route along major highways that had scenic buffers. I'd suggested to Andy Wiessner, Seiberling's trusted staffer, that John, as we approached the turnoff, demand an unscheduled detour up the Rock Creek road off the North Umpqua Highway. John did. All Forest Service staff protested (too much) and the caravan turned north. We went a few miles up and came to an overlook. As we all gazed over the infamous "O&C checkerboard" of alternating sections (square miles) of public (Bureau of Land Management) forestlands and private timberlands, the Forest Service was in full spin mode. They said that we were looking at BLM and private, not national forest. Seiberling offered to further modify the tour to go looking for equally horrid Forest Service clearcuts. The Smokies demurred. A timber industry representative gamely tried to portray the devastation as good forestry as did the lower-level Forest Service employees. The latter were quieted by their superiors before they had their heads handed to them by St. John as he did to the timber guy. It is the only time I ever heard Seiberling raise his voice. "Don't try to tell me this is good!" he inveighed. After John finished his chastising sermon, we all silently got back in the vans and drove on.

The tour ended in Roseburg (it then rhymed with Nuremberg). The industry and their locals got some exclusive face-time with John.

Conservationists had their own quality time the evening before at the Steamboat Inn. The good wine flowed freely as the conversation. John and I did a spontaneous duet (the last time I have every sang) of The Frozen Logger (..."for nobody but a logger, stirs his coffee with his thumb".), as his powers of recitation were far beyond classical French.

After the industry face time with John ended, the entourage was off to the airport for a flight up to Portland via the Coast Range to see some roadless areas from above (and all those clearcuts in between). Weaver hated flying and begged off and drove back to Eugene. I suspect Weaver also had gotten wind of an industry demonstration awaiting Seiberling at Roseburg International Airport. As we entered the air field, our Forest Service vans were surrounded by demonstrating loggers and millworkers. No police were present and the vans started to rock. The Forest Service was in full mission-mode: get the delegation safely on the planes and out of here (I concurred with that mission). A District Ranger (Vietnam vet, I’m pretty sure) was driving our van and one protester who got too close was decked with a left jab out the driver's window. The vans rocked more, but continued forward.

A 3-foot high cyclone fence separated the demonstrators from the aircraft and us, so we all quickly emptied the vans and headed straight for the aircraft. All but John Seiberling. I was belted next to a Republican staffer and we were wondering what the delay was. We crawled out of the plane and found Seiberling addressing the crowd. He never shouted and their shouting diminished as he continued to talk. The hand-painted signs they were holding stopped shaking or even ended up resting upside down on the ground. Seiberling told them why he thought Wilderness was important, but so were their jobs. He asked them if it was not better for him to come out and take a look rather than just make decisions in Washington, DC. He held forth about 10 minutes as those of us on our side of the fence marveled at this statesman that was John Seiberling. On the other side of the fence, Jim Geisinger, then of Douglas Timber Operators now of Associated Oregon Loggers, stood with his head in hands in despair of how his carefully orchestrated demonstration was turning out.

Seiberling’s aides were literally pulling him to the aircraft. As John Seiberling said goodbye to those millworkers and loggers, they gave him a heartfelt round of applause.