The puzzle of our world is shattered, and it is up to us to reassemble the pieces. As a nation nobody will do it for us. Wield your garden like the weapon of rebellion it is- but first learn how to swing the sword. And who has the final word on gardening? When we want an absolute truth on what to do in our horticultural pursuits, whose leadership do we yield to? In an age where information is free and abundant, newcomers to the gardening scene are given the difficult task of sorting out what is genuinely helpful and restorative. Having gotten involved in Idaho’s panhandle gardening, naturalism, and forestry stewardship programs such as those put on by the University of Idaho, Idaho Fish and Game, Forest Service, and so on, I have come to learn how our forests became sticks and twigs compared to what they could, should, and used to be. Additionally, I attended the “International Master Gardener Conference” this year and was surprised by what I saw. This brief note provides a summary and analysis of the conference, and describes some forestry and agricultural practices of the experts in our area in associated fields. It concludes with some interpretation of these cultural practices, ultimately hoping we can learn lessons from the errors in our current leadership to avoid future mismanagement.
Part 1 - Master Gardening & influence over home gardens
Master gardener programs are put on through state university extension agencies in most counties in the US and in several other countries. They generally entail 30-70 hours of classroom time and a similar amount of volunteer time. The international master gardener conference took place in mid July of this year in Portland, Oregon, and is somewhat analog to one of our permaculture convergences among people who had gone through a master gardener program. While it took place in the Pacific Northwest, and might not be quite inland enough for some of us, it was an appropriate and symbolic venue. Portland, praised for its outdoorsy and hip, green culture, seemed like a good fit.
Shouldn’t one expect a conference of such lofty vision and grand scale to present some of the most cutting edge information? With around 1500 attendees from all over the US, Korea, and Canada, there were about 50 talks offered by professionals and a large vendor area. Held at the convention center in downtown Portland, and lasting for almost a full work week, there was a lot to see and do. To cut to the chase, though, I couldn’t help but think, during the course of the conference, about how Portland used to be home to some of the most lush, coastal old-growth forest in the world but now has suffered such degradation that its rivers are unsuitable for even swimming in. In a similar sense, when one might expect in-depth, rich information on new gardening methodology, the content exchanged at the conference was stagnant and ultimately, degrading in nature. There was an overwhelming focus on pampered, ornamental gardens that served no function other than aesthetics. Of course, there is room for well-tended, aesthetically pleasing ornamental gardens. Beauty always has a place and nourishes important parts of our beings, but ornamental gardens should be a sideline to actual food production at a gardening conference held in these days of high food insecurity, uncertain commercial food quality and concerns about minimizing the negative effects of industrial food production and long-distance food transportation.
The topics covered in almost all of the talks I attended were either incredibly uninspiring or patronizingly basic for an audience of “master gardeners.” While there was a strong collective push among presenters to do away with frontal grass gardens and replace them with something with a little more character, I must say that nobody took things far enough. There was absolutely no discussion of agroforestry, permaculture, silviculture, perennial food forest systems, or the social need for multi-dimensional gardeners. Instead, presenters yawningly spoke alongside powerpoint slides about their ornamental gardens (and afterwards tried to get you to buy their book). My attention was rarely held long enough to stick around until the end of the talk, not counting the times I fell asleep. There were good technical details of say, tree pruning, every now and then, but the overall impression I got was that the “international master gardener” scene is stuck in the past. Many of the people I met and conversed with had a similar view. Among permaculture and self-reliance individuals in attendance there was a strong air of dissatisfaction in the quality of leadership and vision demonstrated on a national level. The next International Master Gardener Conference is set to be in Pennsylvania 2019, but I would not advise anyone to spend resources attending such a conference, or any similar global-scale event for some time unless some changes in attitude and direction can be brought to bear on the organizers. Our inland community puts on much higher quality and relevant educational events, such as the annual Inland Northwest Permaculture Convergence, Spokane’s Small-acreage Food and Farm Expo and the many varied workshops and events put on by organizations like Rural Roots, The Inland Northwest Food Network, Tilth Alliance, AERO in Montana and others.
Master gardener programs all throughout the states are tied into big corporations by many chains, and while in some counties they are great forces for good, you cannot ignore the influence of the timber or pesticide industries on their curricula. I know of a case where deliberate misinformation was given to somebody in order to have their land logged. I am happy with the Master Gardener program in my area of Sandpoint-- the extension offices in Bonners Ferry, ID and Spokane, WA even put on permaculture events-- but I have acquired a skepticism that Extension, Master Gardeners or other mainstream organizations are able to break out of their conventional gardening mindset. I would sooner take the advice from a grandma at the local farmer’s market, who has been doing it for 50 years, than somebody with any amount of conventional certification. Affiliation with university extension agencies and the like should be considered, but not be ones final determinant as to whether to attend their sponsored events. By all means, get involved with these or any analogous program. You might meet allies nevertheless, and you’ll better understand the local scene. Decide for yourself what is and what’s not valuable information. They often provide a lot of it for free. Try on your own to separate the grain from the chaff.
Bonner county extension office free informational desk
Part 2 - Forestry & influence over federal lands
It would be inappropriate to point a finger at the master gardening program but not the societal mechanics behind it. It, like many other ostensibly educational agriculture organizations, is in part funded by big agribusiness, in some counties more so than others. Enlarging the picture beyond just the Master Gardener program, I have been shocked by what I have heard about some of the way the Forest Service, a subsection of the US Department of Agriculture, has managed public lands. A century of nationwide loss in soil fertility, aquifer purity, and biodiversity on all scales, was in large part spurred on by the policies of credential-holding, government-ordained officials whom we as a people once blindly followed. There were as many cases of poor policy as there were ecosystems damaged in this beautiful and sacred land.
Certification is supposed to represent a degree of reliability in a service someone provides, but in truth it is nothing more than a piece of paper proving that someone paid a fee and attended a workshop or two, much like our educational system. This is a far more serious issue than a largely recreational master gardener conference. In the job market for working on public lands, people are required to have many levels of certification; and that’s about it. Conservationists are aware today of our blatant mismanagement practices in the past, such as in the 1890’s when “experts” were genuinely encouraging creating hay fields out of forests and the destruction of riparian habitat. Western Montana, such as along the Bull River, still feels this greatly. One must expect faulty behavior from all of these “scientists” and “conservationists,” however. After all, they are getting paid to do this by people who are overly influenced by extractive industries. It is their job. For their bosses, care of the forest is rooted, when the dust settles, not in doing what is best for the forest ecosystem, but in obtaining money. Their personnel draw paychecks to do their bosses bidding accordingly and no more. What would be in it for them?
At an informational meeting on the restoration of a watershed, I learned that the woman in charge, who lived several hours from the work zone, had not seen the site she was working on for at least 7 months. We have a name for this line of work - “office conservationist.” Office conservationists "restore" ecosystems like how a city-dwelling yuppie "saves" the environment through biking rather than driving, or “recycles” their old cell phone instead of throwing it out while they get a new one. Our success stories in conservation today pale in comparison to the awed and fearful descriptions of the magnificent forests encountered by early settlers. As any permaculture-minded fellow will bellow, we need far more than conservation! As a species we are capable of well more than mere restoration.
Indeed, conservation cannot be someone’s job. It has to be a people’s way of life. Being a forester is not a full time gig. It's a multigenerational, society-wide gig.
Why should we think we are a whole lot better off today simply because we have science and universities backing our choices? Just as many of the people I have seen picking huckleberries (Vaccinium spp.) are in it only for the money and exercise damaging harvest habits, even going so far as to rip bushes up by the roots and shake the berries off, so too are many scientists and researchers simply going about their lives trying to get by, doing business for their corporate masters-- contributing to ecosystem degradation, not acting in the best interests of future generations.
As many of the anarchists of Boundary County Idaho will ask of you, think of the implications of the government-- the same government that orchestrated the near extermination of the indigenous people whose very life and spirit was directly tied to the land-- having control over the purity of our water and air. Are we to say, as I’ve heard, “It’s better the government than big business?” Let’s be clear about how much in bed government and big-business are. Yes, if big swaths of forests were privately owned, the whole country would be desert- but should we rejoice just because we are not in the worst of all modalities? We are in need of a new system. As a society, we need to seriously begin addressing this, but the first step is recognizing the problem.
Let’s look at some examples. At my current site in the northern Idaho Selkirk Mountains/Kaniksu National Forest, one can find deep in the forest the burnt stump remnants of ancient 10-foot-diameter cedar trees (Thuja plicata. Despite being a moisture and shade-loving climax species, the soil was fertile enough to support them even on southwest exposures at moderately high elevations of 5000 ft. Even in one of the last big stretches of pristine “wilderness” we still have made our impact. Needless to say, we logged those fine trees out about as soon as we found them through the late 1800s and early 1900s. After exporting a substantial portion of the forest’s biomass and leaving the land bare, in the name of future timber harvests we held it under a strict fire-suppression regime. This made fires, which are an inevitable force of our rocky mountain ecology, burn hotter and destroy in ways ecosystems were not be prepared for. In my forest, celebrating this year half a century since the legendary Sundance Fire of 1967, where 56,000 connected acres burned at once, one can still find big cedar stumps where twiggy Douglas Fir (Pseudotrsuga menzeseii) trees now grow. It is clear that the land used to have a much greater water-holding capacity, but the soil was burnt so badly that it took 10 years just to get the pioneer succession species growing in the vulnerable, eroded, mineral soil.
Most plants in the rocky mountains are very well adapted to and dependent on fires. Fires are a natural part of the ecosystem, but not at the scale or intensity our past management practices have caused them to burn at.
With the noble Western White Pines (Pinus monticola) it is the same thing: We bring in an exotic disease (European Blister Rust, Cronartium ribicola), and shortly thereafter log all the trees for fear of losing them as a timber crop without giving them a chance to see if they’ll adapt and survive or not. The fire suppression regime has kept them, the state tree of Idaho, from reestablishing in any substantial sense. Accordingly, animals anywhere from Clark’s Nutcrackers to Grizzly Bears which rely on White Pines’ nutrient-, protein- and fat-rich nuts have dwindled in population. Because the White Pine relies solely on animals to spread its seeds, we have created a negative feedback loop. We even ripped up currants and gooseberry bushes (Ribes spp.) by the millions because they were identified as Blister Rust hosts. We killed off one of our best tree species and countless amounts of premiere wildcrafting/berry varieties.
Would this have happened if we as a people didn’t let logging industries do whatever they want? Why did we give the government permission to give them permission to destroy our forests? Perhaps from a misplaced sense that people with job titles know more than us about our lands, or fear of our ignorance because we haven’t done the work to understand the forest ourselves. Modern logging practices are scientifically informed, and certainly better than they used to be, but they still cling to the axiom of keeping our forests at a young stage of development so we can stay relentless in our harvests. I do not want to belabor the point, for it makes little difference. There are many cases of the Forest Service doing a good job and just as many of its doing a poor one, but we need to cultivate a skeptical attitude towards its influence and as a society learn to collectively care for our forests with the same care that we take with our gardens. There are many open niches to fill. Climate change will make more. There are many opportunities for designers to move in and steer post-fire forest communities in beneficial directions.
I am happy to say that Idaho Forest Group, the U.S. Forest Service, etc, are somewhat perspicuous with their practices. Not just in forestry, but with lakes as well-- and so they host an annual “State of the Lake” meeting to describe how they have managed Lake Pend Oreille over the previous year. At this year’s meeting, on 3/30/17, reports were presented as though things were in a very good order. What is the good news? Now we expend slightly less work (in the form of angler restrictions, incentives, fishing tourneys, directed fishing techniques, etc.) than we did last year controlling the invasive fish species we introduced a half-century ago. Other good news? We started ferrying a certain variety of rare fish up and across a dam we built barring the fish from its native passageway into Montana. While in custody, before putting them in their river, we perform genetic tests and install a host of high tech, cutting edge tracking devices on them. Forget how the natives were walking across rivers on top of salmon-- we’ve got hydropower! And the fish hasn’t gone extinct yet. While it sounds flashy and nice, one can imagine all the inherent problems with this very fragile way of managing fish. North Idaho has some of the cleanest energy in the nation-- but is this a worthwhile sacrifice? What good are these endangered animals if we are using energetically intensive methods to barely keep them alive. Yes, they are using cutting edge technology to track individual fish and their genetics, and yes, we have rigorous efforts to control aquatic invasive species via check stations that tediously inspect every single boat, but is this method of control actually in line with natural patterns, and actually ushering in a brighter tomorrow or a healthier world?
Please do not think I have all the answers. All of these federal and state agencies have done some good things I am incredibly grateful for, such as prohibit commercial mushroom/berry harvesting or trying to protect endangered/threatened species of animal, such as the mystical woodland caribou (Rangifer Tarandus). But we cannot ignore that our practices are what led to making them endangered in the first place. We wouldn’t have to fear deer ruining our gardens so much if we wouldn’t have reduced elk, moose, and caribou populations by destroying mature forest and creating the young forest type that deer flourish in-- just as invasive weeds flourish in disturbed soils. Likewise, we wouldn’t have to worry about poachers as much if we had a society that fundamentally valued forest stewardship more.
Mushroom Harvest table taken from https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/ipnf/passes-permits/forestproducts
Even among the permaculture community we need to be wary of wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are out there. It can sound, especially when someone is advertising themselves, like what they are “teaching” you now is something they just read 5 minutes ago. I would not take anyone’s word for granted on permaculture who has not been exercising it with the whole of their lives for many years, and who could explain their wisdom cheerfully to a child. If a claim in science cannot be demonstrated, it is not canonically accepted. If a person does not have a living model of what they’re teaching you, grown alongside their wisdom, or have some sort of biological legacy to show, their advice is questionable at best. Rather, I advise everyone be their own designer, for no one could ever fully understand your land, your life and management skills, and dreams like you.
I once heard a wise man remark that truly scientific thought revolves around an inherent distrust of professional opinion. Just as the folly of our mistakes teach us more than our bland success stories, it is in the disagreement among professionals’ opinions that insight is learned. If we are gardeners we look to the dynamic cycles of and in our garden to guide its development. If we don’t actually love gardening and getting our fingers in soil, it may be helpful to not pretend we do and figure out what other role we can positively play in the system. But we cannot sit idly while other people make decisions about our forests or how we need to grow our food. We should have confidence in the lives we have designed for ourselves and consistently impact our community in a positive manner. Despite our wisdom, we still know so little about the soil we walk on. In the gardening clinic in our local Master Gardener office, we get a lot of questions about soils, fruits, diseases-- and many of them have no answer. There may be no truth other than the process that unfolds, so the best we can do is venture forth our hands into the soil, dance with it, misstep, learn a little, and perchance eventually arrive at something beautiful.
Black&White Pictures taken from 2001 U. of I publication “return of the giants: Restoring White Pine Ecosystems by Breeding and Aggressive Planting of Blister Rust-Resistant White Pines,” Accessible at https://www.fs.usda.gov/treesearch/pubs/35328
About the Author
Jason Smith is a community-minded off-grid forest gardener looking to do his part. Based near Sandpoint, Idaho, he is certified in or has worked with the programs/organizations he mentions in this article.