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Originally published March 10, 2012 at 10:00 PM | Page modified March 12, 2012 at 10:35 AM

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A once radical Mitch Friedman now collaborates for a wilder Northwest

The former radical environmentalist's recent run of wildlife-habitat successes were mostly created by some degree of quiet collaboration with traditional environmental foes such as federal land managers, ranchers, loggers and hound hunters.

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ONCE YOU get past the fanatical obsession with saving the beasts of the earth, two-by-two, from the proverbial floods of their day, conservationist Mitch Friedman bears absolutely no resemblance to the biblical Noah.

Check him out in his Bellingham lair and see for yourself: no flowing mane, bushy beard or wooden staff — and nary a watercraft of biblical proportions. Instead: A cleanly shaven head, "stink bait" for remote cameras, a 30.06 deer-hunting rifle and a well-worn Toyota Prius.

Oh: and a civil-disobedience record sufficient to gain instant jail-cred at any reunion of aging Earth First!ers.

That last fact has both everything and nothing to do with Friedman's recent run of wildlife-habitat successes, most created by some degree of quiet collaboration with traditional environmental foes such as federal land managers, ranchers, loggers and hound hunters.

He is probably violating numerous green-movement codes even broaching this subject, but Friedman at 48 has achieved what a twenty-something Friedman, the rabble-rousing Earth First! tree-sitter, could not have imagined: demonstrable success in the battle to save wild critters many Northwesterners hold dear.

It's true: Friedman is declaring victory in at least one battle for the Northwest environment.

"The Cascades are wilder today than they have been in 50 years," he says. "Fewer clear cuts, fewer logging roads, fewer people on those roads."

Some of that is happenstance, but some is "because of the work we did."

Most of it was done quietly, by tweaking federal policies, securing conservation easements or using money from Seattle-area tech titans to buy land outright.

The payoff: critical habitat "connectivity," allowing animals to migrate between islands of land still "wild." Invisible to most of us, these pathways have been a boon to black bears and coyotes, lynx, cougar and fishers. Moose. Woodland caribou. And now, the rapidly recolonizing — and intensely polarizing — northern gray wolf.

"We've linked the South Cascades and the North Cascades," says Friedman, whose nonprofit group, Conservation Northwest, has now shifted its focus to preserving habitat in northeast Washington, to link the Cascades with the Rockies. "The backcountry is wilder."

He watches animals, increasingly via remote-sensor cameras, use wild corridors designed for them. It's heady stuff.

"The Northwest landscape is shouting affirmation at me," says a grinning Friedman, who admits that he isn't quite sure how to act when an immovable object nudges forward. "That feels good."

He knows, of course, that the success could be fleeting. And it's been dampened by some failures, notably recovery of the North Cascades grizzly bear — Friedman's enduring pet cause.

Still, he believes that conservation's way forward must be paved by lessons of success. And finally, there are some.

"I follow Churchill's lead," he says. " 'When everything's falling apart, tell the truth, but embed it in hope.' When there's good news, I stand tall and herald it. It's the only way, I think, we get out of this."

MITCH FRIEDMAN got into it at a surprisingly young age. Growing up in decidedly nonprimeval suburban Chicago, Friedman wrestled with the big questions of his place on the planet as early as age 5.

"I've always been an atheist, even though I went to Hebrew school and all that," he says. "Man never made sense to me. God never made sense to me. Man had to fit into some larger scheme. He couldn't be the scheme."

On childhood canoe trips to Canada's Boundary Waters, he was first out of the tent at dawn to watch wading moose graze in the mist. Here was an order he could grasp — a natural one, with man peeping through the curtain.

"I was a defiant little kid," he says. "I had to reject things, then fill in with other things." Animals "didn't screw you over like people do."

After high school, he enrolled in Montana State University to study wildlife management but realized he wanted to protect wildlife, not "manage" it for harvest. He eventually made his way to Seattle, and a University of Washington zoology degree.

There, in the mid-1980s, he became a ringleader in the fledgling Earth First! movement, staging protests over clear-cut logging, fish-killing dams and other environmental not-niceties. They weren't the kind of group that would put cracks in dams. But they would paint one on the face of them, to make the point.

"For the next three years, '85 to '88, I got arrested probably a dozen times, from Yellowstone to Idaho to the Upper Skagit: old growth, grizzly bears, spotted owls."

He does some math in his head and laughs. "I haven't been arrested since. It's been 23 years."

He's still not sure whether to feel good about that. But he has spent none of the intervening years stuck in neutral.

BY THE LATE 1980s, Earth First! began to feel secondary to Friedman.

"I'd come to realize I was getting arrested with the same six hippies all the time," he says. "The movement wasn't moving."

With no money or solid plan — just a notion about creating a new green movement of scientifically trained "pragmatic idealists" — he formed his own advocacy group, Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, in Bellingham in 1989.

His early weapons were mostly of the "stick" variety — position papers and lawsuits to block logging and development. But before long, "carrot" began creeping in, mostly by necessity in an era of policy gridlock.

"There's that line that the generals are always fighting the last war," says Friedman, a fan of military history. "I was one of those generals."

In the late '90s, some of his young staffers found common ground with foresters and rangers in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest — a plan to thin second-growth trees rather than log old growth. Surprisingly, it seemed to satisfy everyone.

"People who worked for me developed this collaborative model," he says. "I came along."

The former "no-compromise" evangelist came to accept some: "Not all trees are equal. Not all acreage is equal." It made him a pariah among some fellow greenies. (One group compared Friedman's posse to the Vichy government of France.)

None of this bothered Friedman, who had found what, in his calling, was a true rarity: a way forward.

His group, later renamed Conservation Northwest, expanded the concept. From the still-smoking battlefield of the spotted owl, Friedman's little band sorted through wary displaced generals on all sides, seeking pragmatists willing to deal on the next generation of environmental issues.

Patterns emerged: Friedman could call off the legal dogs keeping loggers out of the woods in exchange for critical habitat protection. One of those pacts, in the Colville National Forest, stands today as a national model, says Mike Poulson, a fifth-generation eastsider and aide to Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane.

Friedman also began helping ranchers sign conservation easements that keep their land intact in perpetuity: private land with a public benefit.

Most of these new partners were leery at first.

Says John Dawson, 68, a cattleman in Colville, Stevens County, who worked with Friedman to get a conservation easement for the 500-acre ranch he hopes to pass to his grandsons: "Everything that he's for, maybe we're not all for. But when you get to the common ground and find out what's basically most important to all of us, we're on the same page."

That page: "We need to keep this land from being broken up and lost," Dawson says. "We need it for the economy; also for the wildlife."

In 1998, Friedman's team elevated its collaborative model to a grand scale. It helped raise $20 million — about 80 percent of it from Microsoft employees or retirees — to compensate the state for setting aside 25,000 acres of public-school timber land in the Loomis State Forest in Northeast Washington. Sparing those trees helped save, for now, the state's endangered Canada lynx.

National media hailed the deal as the hot new conservation trend. But it may have been more of a blip; a byproduct of the loose-cash dot-com era. Seattle's newer high-tech millionaires, at Amazon, Google, Adobe and biotech companies, haven't pitched in for wildlife in the institutional, matching-funds way that Microsoft workers have. (Microsofties still fork out a healthy chunk of Conservation Northwest's $1.7 million annual budget.)

The Loomis experience, and a subsequent campaign to buy land in the Cascades' I-90 corridor, cemented the reputation of Friedman's group as a major broker. It was an eye-opener for Friedman.

"I had a young radical's preconceived notion of a rich person," he admits. "What I found — and this is a biased sample; these are people who are sending money to a wilderness-protection effort — was that they have comparable values to mine."

NOT EVERYONE, of course, shares those values, and a few of Friedman's critics would love nothing more than to monkey wrench his fragile "connectivity" framework, using a single hot-button issue: Washington's wolf-recovery plan.

Say the words "Mitch Friedman" and "wolves" into the phone, and you'll get an earful from Jim Detro, an Okanogan County commissioner who vividly remembers Friedman's antics on the roof of the Okanogan National Forest headquarters more than 25 years ago.

"How would you feel if I showed up at your home and dumped horse manure down your chimney, then handed out directions on how to effectively burn it down?" he asks.

Friedman, like other disciples of Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman, did things that went beyond disrespectful and bordered on "domestic terrorism," Detro says.

In Detro's mind, Friedman is a wolf in wolf's clothing — one whose recent deal-making is little more than a smoke screen.

"Once an egg-sucking dog, always an egg-sucking dog."

Conservation Northwest helped write the state's recent wolf-recovery plan, which calls for establishing 15 breeding pairs — as many as 300 to 500 wolves — before the species can be "delisted" as endangered and managed by the state rather than the federal government. (About 30 wolves, perhaps with five breeding pairs, live in Washington today.)

Given current politics — and recent history, notably the poaching of the state's first confirmed breeding wolves, the Lookout Pack in the Methow Valley — that is by no means assured.

Ironically, Detro and Friedman agree on one strategy: a quick delisting of the wolf. Friedman hopes it can be accomplished in five years or less — perhaps by moving some breeding pairs, with the help of Native American tribes, from the North Cascades south, where they will enjoy ample wilderness and year-round prey. One political side benefit: deflating federal-government land-grab-conspiracy theories.

They're clearly afloat. Detro, when pressed, admits he fears the wolf more as a political tool than a daily nuisance.

Environmentalists already destroyed the local logging industry under the guise of spotted-owl protection, Detro says. "Now here comes the wolf, the perfect tool for them to get livestock off public lands in the West."

He sees it as just the latest volley in "an incremental destruction of our way of life" — part of a broader agenda to erode gun and property rights.

Nonsense, Friedman scoffs.

He understands the man's anger, and regrets some of his own early antics — including those burned into Detro's memory. But he doesn't consider his goals then, or now, radical. And he minces no words describing those who would politicize wildlife-habitat issues.

"There's always folks who will move themselves forward by dividing and scapegoating," Friedman says. "May they burn in hell."

Most people in wolf country are stuck somewhere in between. Dawson, the Colville rancher, sees wolves lurking around his grazing lands. He doesn't support the state plan, which he fears will place a financial burden on eastsiders, mostly to indulge critter-hugging westsiders. But he doesn't see a grand conspiracy.

"We can all agree to disagree once in a while," he says, noting that the key to his pact with Friedman was simple: "We both were willing to listen to the other person."

Friedman frets that there aren't enough John Dawsons to collaborate with anymore.

"There was a time when (Americans) were able to still get things done. The big concern is that we may no longer be in those times. And if we're not, I think the blame goes to people on the fringe."

ALL OF THAT is child's play compared to the thing that truly keeps conservationists up at night: The fear that every good deed ultimately will go punished — by climate change and overpopulation.

"We won the old-growth war," Friedman says, "but we lost the culture war in a big way. So now we're stuck with 7 billion consumers in a heating planet."

This took on new meaning when Friedman became a father 16 years ago. Before, Friedman says with a laugh, it was somehow comforting to know that if the green movement lost, and apocalypse commenced, at least they'd be vindicated. But "as soon as I had kids and an investment in the future . . . failure was no longer an option."

Divorced seven years ago, he shares custody of teenage daughters who are now central in his life. He tries — with mixed success, he fears — to instill in them his reverence for all things wild.

He frets that their children will never know the sort of life-altering moments he and his daughters experienced in 2009, when they stood in the Methow Valley and heard the Lookout Pack wolves howl back at humans for the first time. But he does believe this: No matter what comes next, work done now to save wild lands will not be wasted.

Left to its own devices, he explains, nature adapts. But it needs core ingredients to do so — what Aldo Leopold referred to as "the pieces and processes, the cogs and wheels" of natural processes.

If Friedman could be forced to claim a legacy, it would be his battle to preserve exactly that. The pragmatic idealist in him knows it might not be enough. But the Dad part can't give up — and still finds a way to see the climate-change glass as half-full: Washington, he says, has become a global model for natural connectivity — with only a handful of citizens on board.

It's a beginning.

Noah, he is not. But Friedman will die trying to convince fellow humans they owe it to the planet to emulate the guy by giving wild animals, at the very least, a few truly wild places to start over.

These, he says, "are the arks."

Ron Judd is a Pacific Northwest magazine writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

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