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'Seeking The Greatest Good' Documents a New Geography of Hope

Photo: Courtesy 'Seeking The Greatest Good'
Photo: Courtesy 'Seeking The Greatest Good'

"Don't be so eager to start hanging crepe."

That's what a petro-geologist advised after a talk I gave in Forth Worth about the impact that climate change will have on the arid Southwestern U.S. over the next century. He didn't accept NOAA's long-term projections or its short-term calculations -- and certainly didn't embrace my prediction that those living in the region will adapt to an increasingly hotter and drier climate by moving to points cooler and wetter. His last words, as he walked away, were blunt: "We're not dead yet."

We may not be, but the land is in considerable distress. Across the mountainous west, pine bark beetles are boring their way through forests already brittle from years of drought; this summer's wildfire season is predicted to be fierce.

California's dry spell is intensifying. The Sierra Mountains' life-giving snowpack is far below normal, worrisome data for Big Ag in the Central Valley dependent on its runoff for its irrigated operations. Angelenos should be anxious, too, as residents and industry rely on the spring release of mountain water to sustain our daily lives and regional economies.

There is no relief in the latest weather projections from NOAA and the EPA, either; aridity is spreading, deepening.

If that depressing info leaves you are feeling the Green Blues, a term a colleague coined to describe our dispiriting response to the multi-layered environmental problems associated with climate disruption, you are not alone.

And you're not wrong. There any number of good reasons to be concerned about the state of the Golden State (and a lot of other places).

Yet there is some hope that human activism can offer adaptive solutions to some of these intertwined problems (beyond hitching up the U-Haul).

One such set of optimistic strategies is screened in a new documentary, "Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot," which is airing during Earth Week (local listings). Without masking the critical challenges that confront us, it demonstrates that there are substantive steps we can take to make places like Southern California more resilient and just.

For the record, I served as a historical consultant on and appear in the film, and have written a companion book by the same name that will be published in September. My close association with the project was driven by my conviction that we need to identify the actions that land managers, environmental organizations, and policy makers are and should be taking to increase the health of the land and of the people it sustains.

This strategy was central to Gifford Pinchot's practical conservationism. As the first chief of the Forest Service (1905-1910), he was instrumental in developing the federal managerial regulations that governed the Angeles, San Bernardino, Cleveland, and Los Padres national forests. Of special interest to him was the crucial role that healthy forests played in protecting the mountainous watersheds that nurtured the booming region more than a century ago.

Indeed, in 1891, Abbot Kinney, who a visiting Pinchot cheered as "a leader in the forest movement in California," took the young forester on a field trip to witness the L.A. basin's key issue: "he showed me the effects of floods in the San Gabriel Valley," Pinchot wrote in his memoir, Breaking New Ground, "and introduced me to the erosion problem in the west."

Pinchot would remember this lesson when he became the nation's chief forester seven years later, putting in place high-country reforestation policies that underscored his realization that there is a direct correspondence between upstream and downstream. Or, as he once declared in another context: "The connection between forests and rivers is like that between father and son. No forest, no rivers."

Gifford Pinchot. | Photo: Courtesy 'Seeking The Greatest Good'
Gifford Pinchot. | Photo: Courtesy 'Seeking The Greatest Good'

Pinchot's ideas live on, "Seeking the Greatest Good" reveals, in the ecological restoration work the Forest Service and its partners are promoting across the United States and even abroad.

Three thousand miles east of the Southland, for example, lies the imperiled Delaware River watershed. It supplies potable water to more than 15 million people living in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. There, the Forest Service -- which manages no land in the region -- is collaborating with the Pinchot Institute for Conservation and 30 public and private partners to reestablish forest cover along the river's upper reaches. By funding landowners to better manage their lands, the collaboration, known as Common Waters, is investing in and building up a strong sense of community responsibility for this vital and shared resource.

Another intriguing project is underway in Oregon. Called the Forest Health-Human Health Initiative, it seeks to keep the privately owned forests in the hands of aging landowners by directly connecting innovative health coverage options for them with new markets for their forest carbon. Once this is fully operational, the next step will be to scale it up to aid private woodlands owners throughout the United States.

Shift the focus to South America: In Ecuador, Pinchot's grandson, Peter Pinchot, has forged a cooperative alliance between the Pinchot Institute, the Forest Service, and Ecuadoran organizations and communities to reforest over-logged highlands, establish a sustainable locally owned wood-products industry, and secure badly needed health-care facilities for some of the nation's poorest citizens.

That Gifford Pinchot's pragmatic approach to resource management and social betterment has survived into the 21st-century would have thrilled the Progressive Era conservationist. Yet we are also lucky to have this rich legacy to guide our actions (and serve as a benchmark for them) even though we face an array of environmental pressures, social challenges, and political hurdles that Pinchot could not have foreseen.

The past still speaks to the present, which is why seeking the greatest good -- as a documentary film and a form of principled conservation activism -- gives us some hope. And less funeral crepe.

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