Author Profiles 2007:
KATHIE DURBIN (Olympia, Washington)

Kathie Durbin authored Tongass: Pulp Politics and the Fight for the Alaska Rain Forest (1999 and 2005). And how does one generate a book about 40 years of business and politics in and around the planet's largest temperate rain forest? First, the best interviews require boats and planes. Second, you have to be a methodical reporter while making sure the plot remains lively. Third, you can't get so close to the "cause" that you forget about bread-and-butter project-management. See how Durbin deals with these and other challenges. In fact, this is one of the best Author Profiles for tracing the life course of a book -- from the first sponsorship conversation all the way to seeing it recommended as a gift for Alaska visitors... 

Biographical: Durbin covers the Washington legislature for The Columbian and, when not in Olympia, resides in Portland. For 16 years she worked as a reporter at The Oregonian, covering education, local government, and from 1989 to ‘94, environmental issues, in particular the controversy over the logging of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. She left that newspaper in ‘94, but those assignments led to her first book, in 1996, Tree Huggers, which in turn set the stage for Tongass.

The Tongass National Forest is part of the world's last intact temperate rainforest. Centuries-old trees provide critical habitat for wolves, grizzly bears, wild salmon, bald eagles and other wildlife that have disappeared from many other parts of the country. During the past 45 years, the Alaska timber industry has logged over one million acres of Southeast Alaska's old-growth forest and built over 5,000 miles of logging roads in the Tongass.

-- For more, see http://www.akrain.org/rainforest/logging

FRANK GREGORSKY: Both your parents have passed away, but -- let's talk about what your father did for a living, and what kind of a person he was.

KATHIE DURBIN: My father, Buss Barton, was a World War Two veteran. He was a fisherman up in Alaska for a while; he was a construction worker. He did a lot of different things in his life. He had wanderlust -- I got that from him. He was in the Army Air Force before it became a separate branch of the military (the U.S. Air Force). He was stationed in Italy. He did bombing runs over Bulgaria -- this is after the North African campaign, when a lot was still going on out of Italy. I never really took the time to ask him a lot about his military service; and I wish I had.

My mother grew up in Aberdeen, Washington, on the Pacific coast. As a girl, she was a beach bum. She loved the written word. So I inherited from her my love of literature and [pause] -- you know, it's kind of [pause] hard to say exactly what you get from your parents.

GREGORSKY: How about brothers and sisters?

DURBIN: I'm the oldest of four. My sister is three years younger, and two brothers. Both brothers work at Boeing. So, kind of a blue-collar family. And my sister works for a school district in Eugene, doing school-to-work stuff. I'm the only one who graduated from college.

GREGORSKY: It sounds like your father moved around some. But when you kids were growing up, was this totally a northwestern environment?

DURBIN: Eugene -- yeah. I was born in Eugene and grew up there. Mother, as I said, was from Aberdeen; and my father was from Lynden, right near the Canadian border. When my father worked in Alaska, he would go up during the summer salmon fishing season (this was when I was very young). He also worked construction jobs around the Northwest. But yes, we were very rooted in the Northwest.

My mother's people are from North Carolina, and I visited North Carolina with her twice -- met all of my "kin" back there. So my grandparents on my mother's side were the only members of their family who came out west -- I guess they were the adventurous ones. My grandfather was a logger. He logged in North Carolina, and when they ran out of trees there, he came out to Grays Harbor County. He wooed my grandmother, who was a schoolteacher, and they lived in the logging camps for a while, when my mother was very young.

I'm actually working on a memoir about my mother right now. So these details are very fresh in my mind; I'm really delving into the family history.

GREGORSKY: That's great. And what can we say about your mother?

DURBIN: She was a writer too -- poetry, essays. She wrote a lot about growing up in Aberdeen and what it was like, during the Depression. She went to a junior college in Aberdeen that -- because nobody had any money for tuition -- ran on kind of a barter system. People gave the teachers and professors food, room and board, in exchange for their work -- it was quite interesting.

GREGORSKY: Can you name a teacher from high school or college whose influence was so strong that, today, you still carry out some of their principles or methods?

DURBIN: Hmmmmm. Well, I had a creative-writing teacher in high school -- Lucille Payne. I believe she was a published writer too. And we wrote every day. It was good practice: Keep a journal, turn in our writing. I had an advanced-placement English teacher -- Dr. Kehl -- who was very rigorous and set high standards. Can't say I was real "fond" of him, but -- he was definitely an influence on my life. I loved the writing classes, I loved literature. I wrote poems in grade school.

GREGORSKY: Other than your mother, did anybody in the family nurture this interest?

DURBIN: Well, my mother was sort of enough [laughter]. But my grandmother and my uncles, they kind of doted on me. I memorized The Night Before Christmas when I was three years old. My mother got really upset about it -- she thought they were expecting me to do things that were beyond my ability. I guess I'd blame all those relatives for the fact that I'm such a Type-A person.

Both Kathie and her mother were first-borns, but Mom, who was a schoolteacher, did not fit the hard-driving first-born super-achiever mold at all. She was a happy-go-lucky type, very social, and something of a procrastinator -- yet able to do well enough with her quick mind. Astonishingly, when Kathie was in high school, she was offered money by her mom if she could get a C, instead of all As and Bs. (Ten to one you have never heard a story like that...) Durbin remains a striver -- "it's one of those things you don't outgrow."

Developing an "Authorial Voice"

GREGORSKY: If you hadn't written the two environmental books, what other topic would have been worth the struggle to produce two or more books?

DURBIN: [Pause] There's an infinite number of subjects I could write a book about. I love travel writing. Those two books, Tree Huggers and Tongass, were really books of reportage. And because I had worked in newspapers, I had to "unlearn" some things. I had to actually try to put myself into the books a little more. An editor on my first book -- Tree Huggers -- said I lacked an "authorial voice" and that I needed to develop one. She wanted me to step back and talk about what all these events really meant.

So I consciously have tried to do that -- because newspaper journalism is very different from writing a book. And I didn't realize that while I was writing Tree Huggers. Under a very intense deadline, I had to basically rewrite the entire manuscript. The publisher wasn't satisfied with it, and a commitment had already been made to print it. So they hired an editor to do an intensive content edit. Every day, she sent me chapters by Federal Express, and I had to turn them around the next day. It was one of the most stressful periods of my life. But I learned a lot from rewriting that book.

GREGORSKY: She was a good collaborator.

DURBIN: She was. We became friends, actually. But there was no arguing with her -- you know, it was pretty much: Do this, do this, do this. And some of [the changes] were organizational. That's a real challenge [given the fact that] both of my books cover a span of history. A lot is going on, simultaneously, and in different places. And so I had to struggle with those kinds of organizational challenges. In the Tongass book, I did that by kind of stepping back from the chronology. For example, when I wrote about the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the logging that occurred under that law, or when I wrote about the antitrust activities, I just pulled out those parts [and turned them] into their own chapters, and tried to gracefully and seamlessly weave [those chapters] into the narrative. Nobody really tells you how to do that; it's something that you learn by doing.

GREGORSKY: And the reader can be misled by that -- a "neatness" is being imposed on the history that's somewhat artificial.

DURBIN: Well, I wouldn't say it's misleading. In those chapters, I make it very clear what time period we're talking about. The Tongass book really started to be a book about the campaign, which was successful, against all odds. No one had even heard of the Tongass National Forest when those kids went back to D.C. and started that campaign. The pulp mills had these monopoly contracts. And how do you come up against that and prevail?

As I got into the research, and traveled in Alaska, I made the decision to write the story as not just a straight chronology of the campaign, but really to look at a lot of issues. Some of them were really difficult to research -- the antitrust stuff, for example. But that was a very important part of the book -- it required a lot of original research. I talked to people who had investigated the pulp mills for the U.S. Department of Justice.  

Reporting for Oregon's Biggest Newspaper

GREGORSKY: We'll come back to how the book was built. Let's go back to 1989 when you, as a reporter for The Oregonian --

DURBIN: That's when I started covering the environment.

GREGORSKY: Exactly. And you wanted to do that?

DURBIN: I did. I'd done a lot of other things. For several years I covered education. I'd covered local government. I'd gone off to Michigan for a journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan, an eight-month fellowship. I came back thinking that I might cover labor issued, but the paper had done away with the labor beat while I was gone. So I ended up spending a year writing about drugs and gangs, and other urban issues.

Then the paper decided to expand its environmental coverage because there was so much going on. The first spotted-owl injunctions had come down; things were happening with salmon. So I applied for the beat, jumped right in, and never looked back. Had quite a ride for five-and-a-half years. Covered a lot of environmental issues, but mainly forests, because those were front and center. Oregon was affected more than any other state by the [endangered-species] listing of the spotted owl and the federal court injunctions.

My Tree Huggers book is used in college classes and environmental-law classes -- in fact, I'll be speaking to a law-school class at Lewis & Clark College in Portland about the book in a couple of weeks. Most of the reporting that I did for that book was while I was at The Oregonian. The full title of the book is Tree Huggers: Victory, Defeat and Renewal in the Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign. It has some history about the years when logging was at its peak -- 1970s and ‘80s.

The companies that owned the timberland in the northwest, until the mid-80s, really did not want the competition from the national forest land. But they cut their own lands at such an unsustainable rate that they were on the verge of running out of timber. Their second-growth was not going to be ready to harvest, and they faced about a 20-year gap.

So they put incredible political pressure on the Forest Service, and on members of Congress from the Pacific Northwest, to increase logging levels in Oregon and Washington. That is what brought things to a head -- it resulted in the court injunctions and the shutdown of logging. The Forest Service was being pushed politically to violate the National Forest Management Act, which requires them to protect species viability. And I got the Forest Service -- the people who were involved at that time -- to talk freely about how resentful they were. They were being forced to log more than they felt the land could handle.

GREGORSKY: To talk on the record for publication.

DURBIN: Yes, in The Oregonian. Everything kind of hit the fan in 1989, and played out during the first Bush Administration and then the Clinton Administration. I had a ringside seat for all of that. I went back to DC to cover some of the hearings there. I had the contacts in the timber industry as well. Went up to logging sites and interviewed loggers. Had very good contacts in the scientific community. All of this is in Tree Huggers -- it puts the reader right in the middle of that time. I'm very proud of that book. It was a lot of work and other writers were also writing about these issues.

Something I did in that book and also in Tongass was in-depth interviews with the environmental activists -- how they got involved, what were the pivotal moments.

GREGORSKY: That's the thing that distinguishes [the '99 book] from any other policy account or history I've seen. And the distinction didn't hit me until about halfway through. Something was different about the tone of the book. Obviously you were critical of the bad guys, citing a string of facts etc. But instead of castigating them -- instead of "demonizing" the black hats -- you were celebrating the white hats. So it doesn't come across as a bitter book [the way some political accounts do]. "These are my guys and gals, and I was cheering them on, and now we're sort of telling what they did." Was that deliberate?

DURBIN: Well -- I was writing a book about a successful environmental campaign. That was the main thrust, and so of course the activists ended up being the heroes, the protagonists. The other thing is that the pulp mills were really "bad actors" -- on so many levels. They drove the small logging contractors out of the business. They engaged in blatant antitrust activities. They killed these bays where their pulp mills were operating. They broke the unions. I mean, you name it -- so I didn't have to do much other than just lay it all out there. I didn't have any long in-depth interviews with the folks from the pulp mills. I did attempt to talk to them, but at that point one of the mills had already closed.

The Forces that Shape Politicians in Alaska

GREGORSKY: Did you ever get to sit down with [veteran Alaska Senator] Ted Stevens?


GREGORSKY: The other Senator from Alaska 30 years ago, incredibly, is running for President now. Mike Gravel served from 1969 through 1980. He's the only candidate who, here in 2007, says U.S. soldiers have "died in vain" in Iraq. In high school, I remember him breaking down on the U.S. Senate floor opposing American involvement in Southeast Asia. Or, let him tell the story -- this is a chunk from his presidential-campaign website, http://www.mikegravel.org/bio:

Mike Gravel served in the Alaska House of Representatives from 1963-66, and as Speaker from 1965-66. He then represented Alaska in the U.S. Senate from 1969-81. He served on the Finance, Interior, and Environmental and Public Works committees, chairing the Energy, Water Resources, Buildings and Grounds, and Environmental Pollution subcommittees. In 1971, he waged a successful one-man filibuster for five months that forced the Nixon Administration to cut a deal, effectively ending the draft in the United States. He is most prominently known for his release of the Pentagon Papers, the secret official study that revealed the lies and manipulations of successive U.S. administrations that misled the country into the Vietnam War. After the New York Times published portions of the leaked study, the Nixon Administration moved to block any further publication of information and to punish any newspaper publisher who revealed the contents. From the floor of the Senate, Gravel (a junior Senator at the time) insisted that his constituents had a right to know the truth behind the war and proceeded to read 4,100 pages of the 7,000-page document into the Senate record. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Senator Gravel did not have the right and responsibility to share official documents with his constituents.

Yet, in your second book, Mike Gravel, a true "man of the Left," is a bad guy -- in sync with leading resistor Ted Stevens on forest-protection. Also, I see nothing on Gravel's campaign website about the environment. The truly startling stance is his wanting to abolish both the IRS and the federal income tax, to be replaced by a progressive sales tax -- I guess Alaska trains its politicians to be innovative. Anyway, what manner of man is Mike Gravel?

DURBIN: I haven't paid attention to his presidential campaign. But here's the thing about Alaska politics: It doesn't really matter which party you're in; you defend the oil industry, and you defend the timber industry in southeast Alaska. Why? Because they are Alaska's bread and butter. You just don't take on those industries, and no one should expect that the people who are elected to office in Alaska would do that. So --

GREGORSKY: I could guess the answer to this, but let me ask the dumb question: Why is Alaska so different from Oregon and Washington, where there are many pro-environment politicians, state and federal, who have had an impact over 30 or 40 years. Why is Alaska so "odd"?

DURBIN: [Pause] Well, that's a good question. Alaskans like to think of themselves as rugged individualists -- but they actually feed at the federal trough. Their timber program was so heavily subsidized -- there was no way timber could make a profit in Alaska without huge federal subsidies. There's a kind of mentality -- most Alaskans are from somewhere else.

GREGORSKY: Hmmm, that partially explains it. But subsidies would work their will in Oregon or Washington too.

DURBIN: Also, in Alaska, there's kind of an "ordinary rules don't apply to them" attitude. I don't pretend to be an expert on the psychology of Alaskans. And it's a tough situation for these environmentalists from other places. They come into Alaska and try to [pause] change the culture. And this affects people's livelihood.

GREGORSKY: Later I want to hear more about John Sisk, whose sense of strategy impressed me the most in your roster of activists. You quote him: "I think appeals and lawsuits are disempowering. Once it's in court, defendants can't talk about it. The role of citizens then becomes to raise money to pay the lawyers. I just wanted people to talk to each other [and understand] there was an alternative to becoming Oregon." But this next question isn't about Sisk. Instead, I noted his shorthand -- what did he mean by Alaska avoiding the fate of Oregon?

DURBIN: He meant that in Oregon all the large expanses of old-growth forest were gone, and nothing was left but a patchwork quilt of clearcuts and small fragments of forest. For Oregon, it was too late. For Alaska, there was still hope.

GREGORSKY: All right. Second question covers Sisk as a political strategist. I'm drawing from pages 117-120 in Tongass. This guy, still in his twenties, understood PR and community relations at the highest level -- he did what the advertising veterans call repositioning, and what an old political mentor of mine called "asking a different question." As you tell it: "Sisk held town meetings and asked people to talk about the places that were important to them." He also held a stance many of us fiscal conservatives could accept: "Sisk had no objection to logging. But he objected to pulp-mill monopolies and the long-term contracts."

DURBIN: When I talked with him, he had a very vivid memory of those years. You get the impression those were some of the best and most exciting years for John. I think he felt some affinity for folks who did manual work -- which is another interesting thing about environmentalists in Alaska. They have a lot in common with people who do the work. If you live in southeast Alaska, you want to have a boat, to get around. You get out, as much as you can, into the bush, into remote areas. There's really kind of a shared value system, I would say.

GREGORSKY: What you're saying, in so many words is: It isn't possible to be an elitist in Alaska.

DURBIN: No. Maybe if you work in Anchorage for the Sierra Club. But, even then -- I mean, the people who choose to work on environmental causes in Alaska are a self-selected group who want to "be there" for all the reasons that anybody else has for being in Alaska.

GREGORSKY: Which lets them identify more easily with fishermen and loggers.

DURBIN: Right -- who also love Alaska. I love Alaska too -- but I couldn't live there. When I was much younger, I might have been able to do it.

"It was Sunset, and We were Standing at the Rail..."

GREGORSKY: You cite your first experience up there. Page 326 says the beginning [of the second book] was "a trip by floatplane, cruise boat and ferry through the north end of Southeast Alaska" in 1996. Say a little bit more about it here.

DURBIN: It was a cruise sponsored by a non-profit. It was for national reporters to have a look at some of the places that were at risk with the Tongass Timber Reform Act headed for a vote in Congress and efforts to protect the roadless areas hanging in the balance. I already knew a few of the places from the reporting I'd done for The Oregonian. I was really blown away by some of the places we had visited on that trip -- some of the little coves that you could get into that big cruise ships could never negotiate -- and the hikes we took. I really fell in love with southeast Alaska then.

On this trip I talked to Steve Kalick, who was also one of the early directors of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. Did he think someone should write a book about the campaign? It was sunset, and we were standing at the rail, just kind of talking it over. And somehow I heard that the Kendall Foundation was interested in helping to bankroll a book about the Tongass campaign as kind of a "textbook" on how to do it. They felt it had been a "textbook case." So I talked to the director, first of all through an intermediary -- somebody I knew at the University of Oregon. We just had some conversations back and forth. This was two years after I had left The Oregonian and money was an issue. My husband at the time was helping subsidize my work. But a book wasn't something I could plunge into without some kind of financial backing.

GREGORSKY: Tree Huggers is already on the stands at this point.

DURBIN: Oh yeah. Tree Huggers came out in '96, and I took this trip right about that same time. I was wondering what I would do next -- and this [story to be told] was right in front of me. After getting some encouragement from the Kendall Foundation, I needed to go out and find a publisher. I had an agent in New York who had helped sell Tree Huggers and I wrote up a proposal and -- bless her heart -- she did her best; she went to all kinds of publishers, large and small, on the east coast. She believed in the project. And everybody came back with: "This is a regional book. It would certainly not be of national interest. Thank you, but no."

GREGORSKY: How did you affiliate with her in the first place for the first book?

DURBIN: [Pause] Another environmental writer gave me her name, which is a big favor that writers do for each other sometimes -- share agents. Anyway, she finally said: I can't sell this book.

GREGORSKY: After what -- six months, 12 months?

DURBIN: At least six months. And then -- let's see -- I was contacted by the acquisitions editor at Oregon State University Press. And I can't remember exactly why. It was [a case of] they knew about Tree Huggers and "what are you working on now?" And so I e-mailed back with the Tongass idea: "I think you might be interested."

GREGORSKY: So now [the project is in] an academic setting.

DURBIN: And getting a contract with an academic press is a very different kind of thing. There is no advance. And the proposal is reviewed by an academic committee; they make suggestions which you are expected to take seriously. So I did all that. Finally they agreed to publish the book.

GREGORSKY: Had the Kendall [support monies] kicked in yet?

DURBIN: No. He had given me some positive feedback, but I had to go out and find my own publisher. That's not something a foundation does for you. Once I had the commitment from OSU Press, this foundation had an entity that they could deal with.

GREGORSKY: In a way it's sort of like a matching grant, although of course not a literal match. "We'll keep you alive to write, after you assure us you have a way to distribute what you write."

DURBIN: Yeah.  It was a $10,000 grant from the Kendall Foundation. I believe that sum funded two trips to Alaska -- plus basic maintenance for me.

GREGORSKY: Extended visits?

DURBIN: Not all that long -- two or three weeks. I did a lot of research at home, in Portland; I set up as many interviews as possible [while still] in Portland, so I could make the very best and most cost-efficient use of the time in Alaska. In Alaska, I was just going all the time.

GREGORSKY: Can't resist asking -- did you rent a car?

DURBIN: Let's see. I had three distinct trips, so -- the first trip was the cruise for reporters in the summer of ‘96. I actually used, in the book, some of the interviews I did on that trip. I'm trying to remember. There was a trip to Ketchikan and Petersburg when the Ketchikan mill closed in 1997 -- that's where I interviewed Glenn Reid, the man who brought the lawsuit that eventually produced a civil judgment against the pulp mills for antitrust activities that drove the loggers out of business. It was wonderful, talking for a whole day to this man who had been part of the early history of logging on the Tongass. And at the end of it he said: "You're not some tree-hugging environmentalist, are you?"

GREGORSKY: [Laughter]

DURBIN: Having him relive that experience -- he loved doing that too. I was able to get the flavor of what it was like to be a gyppo contract logger. He'd put in at some cove someplace, log everything he could reach, and then move on. I could still see those scars from that very early logging.

Manuscript-Debugging plus the Financial Side

Since this Q&A is as much a manuscript-production story as it is about environmental protection, I pushed Durbin deeper into the weeds of what nonfiction writers face in moving from the Great Idea to a finished quality product. We'll come back to Alaska soon. This next section will interest only those of us who have "been there" and lived to tell our tales...

GREGORSKY: Tongass earned a second printing [in 2005, six years after the first], which is a mark of a valued book. The second edition can bring back a few of the traumas of the first -- while giving an author a chance to remove mistakes. Any comments there?

DURBIN: When I was given the opportunity to revise the manuscript for a second edition, I went through the first edition with a pen and a highlighter, and found all kinds of little errors. I wanted to correct everything for the second edition. But even so, after it came out, some guy wrote to me from Alaska and said: "I loved your book and hesitated to write to you about this, but I found 15 errors or awkward wordings," or something like that. I wrote back and said: Well, thank you, I needed that information.  

Once you've written a book, and revised it, and have read the proofs -- there has got to be another set of eyes. Because you already know what the book says, so your eyes can just go right over something and not catch the mistake. You never want to see errors in your book after it's published -- you know, it's painful.

GREGORSKY: It's mortifying.

DURBIN: And I feel that this press, and most academic presses, simply don't invest in editing. They are used to dealing with academics who, you know, publish in professional journals, and perhaps those professional journals have editors. But that would be a different kind of editing. So, when they are presented with a manuscript that consists of reportage, the academic presses don't seem to have the skillsets to work with it. And then there's content editing that I would have appreciated. Every writer needs a good editor -- or two or three. I had friends read parts of the manuscript, but --

GREGORSKY: "Content" editing being smoothing of the language here and there, and -- what else?

DURBIN: Bigger stuff, like "this organization doesn't work" or "you need to flesh out who this person is." Even things like -- I had a couple of historical facts that were inaccurate in the book. One thing about writing for a newspaper is, for the most part, you get very close word-by-word editing. And you don't get that when you write a book. If you really want a good edit of your manuscript, you almost need to dig into your own pocket, and hire somebody to do it. But that doesn't seem fair.

GREGORSKY: Three cheers for real-world retrospectives like this. So many new writers think "writing a book" is mostly ideas and advocacy and public acknowledgment -- that stuff isn't even half of the picture. So let's stick with "reality." Can we talk about the book as an overall business proposition?

DURBIN: I didn't make any money on either book [pause]. Well, I did get a few royalty checks on the Tongass book. Since I didn't get an advance in the contract, I get a certain amount for each book sold. So, for a while there, I was getting a check, twice a year, for two or three hundred dollars.

GREGORSKY: You named Kendall and their $10,000 of support. Two other backers are named in the Acknowledgements.

DURBIN: I got $10,000 from the Kendall Foundation. Then I ran out of money -- but still had research and writing to do. I approached a couple of other foundations in the Portland area for small amounts, and got a thousand dollars from one. That allowed me to do my final trip to Juneau, which turned out to be really important. Traveling in southeast Alaska is expensive and complicated -- I needed to fly; I needed to take a boat to certain places. I put it together, but it was a challenge. By the time I finished that book, I was very, very broke. In fact, that's why I took my current job -- went back to work for a newspaper in July 1999, and this book came out the following October. I was working full-time and doing my index for the book at night. Because the book is published by an academic press, it had to have an index.

GREGORSKY: Hmm [as in: Learned something new here].

DURBIN: And an index is really time-consuming. You go through the whole book and find all the references to every subject or proper noun.

GREGORSKY: I did it one time and it was a nightmare. I'm told software can do it automatically now, but who could trust it?

We go back and forth on typos, and whether the galleys she marked up were faithfully corrected back at the publisher's. Durbin had no complaints or horror stories on that front. She also brought up photos, a relatively smooth part of the process: "A couple of photographer friends took photos and generously contributed them to the book." The cover of Tongass blew away my webmaster; you can see it in high-resolution near the end of this Q&A.

Third-Edition Speculation: Uniqueness versus Case-Study Format

GREGORSKY: Your original backers talked about a "textbook case." How the good guys finally prevail, beat the power structure, and so forth. I'm sitting here thinking of other markets for it, but [what they originally foresaw] would mean straining out "lessons" from the welter of situations and personalities. Let's grant that it was a "textbook campaign." But to make it an instructional book -- as opposed to an evocative historical account -- you would have someone who understands PR and political strategy go through and distill the principles.

DURBIN: But that's not the book I wanted to write. I would never write that book.

GREGORSKY: Okay, but the book as it stands now would not be changed. You'd have the same narrative, the same characters, the same flow. What I'm proposing is a tack-on, an instructional chapter, a follow-up on "lessons learned" -- you know, what worked and didn't work.

DURBIN: [Considering the notion] So, "do this, try that, and watch out for this other thing..." But Tongass is a unique case. It's a unique case.


DURBIN: The things that these conservationists and their backers did -- and they had some powerful foundations behind them, some well-heeled backers --

GREGORSKY: But the way John Sisk involved the community and had those listening sessions was a generic political approach. He was suspending the ongoing ideological schism. There's a principle behind that.

DURBIN: Um-hmm. That's true.

GREGORSKY: It could be used in all kinds of places.

DURBIN: And probably is! I was interested in writing the history and in bringing in the players. So we came to an agreement that the book was going to cover those things -- but I maintained from my first communication with Kendall that I would control the content; and they agreed to that, right off the bat. Otherwise I couldn't have accepted their money. It was serendipitous that I had already had the idea that this would be a book; and, all of a sudden, here was a funder who could help make it happen.

GREGORSKY: Plus you had the credibility of the first book.

DURBIN: I had the credibility, which certainly helped. It was kind of like it was meant to happen -- and I couldn't have written it without the funding. There's just no way.

GREGORSKY: Well, at the risk of pushing you on "how to make this more useful" if there is a third edition, let's say you could not -- for whatever reason -- have distilled "12 generic ways to be an activist" -- using your assumption that [the Tongass story] is unique. I still think -- I mean, I kept getting lost [in the book]. I would have liked to see a "glossary of players" --

DURBIN: Uhmmm, un-hmm.

GREGORSKY -- and what years they were each active. So many names to keep track off -- at least 50 -- and I wanted to track a few of those characters through the political drama. I resorted to making notes on the side [as a way to do this].

DURBIN: Really?

GREGORSKY: Yep. Another thing that would actually make it effective in a political-science application is, at the end of every chapter, or maybe every three or four chapters, you sort of have a freeze-frame or PAUSE and say: "Here's where things stand now. You are in charge of X, here are the questions and pressures facing you" -- not necessarily to have someone write an essay about it. I respect what you're saying about a unique historical situation, a magic moment stretched out over time. But the problem with making something so unique and special is that people look back at it and say "Wow, awesome, cool" -- and they don't learn from it. Other than some very high-level principle that "we have to preserve the forests."

DURBIN: Um-hmm. Well, it's a historical record.

GREGORSKY: The book can remain that -- yet still serve other, more generic applications for different markets.

DURBIN: No one else has written about the antitrust activities; and what happened to the natives of southeast Alaska.

GREGORSKY: But would the kind of sidebar [or tack-on] innovations take away from that?

DURBIN [Pause] No. And I actually like the idea of a "cast of characters." I've seen that in other books of this type.

GREGORSKY: The players, the activists, are so important to this story. They're not literally "your gang." because you're the historian -- but you're cheering them on. And turf battles and personality squabbles intrude, but not that much. And so another way -- again, if there's a third edition -- and I'm not taking anything away from the historical uniqueness, I really don't see it as a tradeoff. Instead of having just a glossary of names, and the years they were influential, have a center section, of three or four pages, where you have pictures of those key players.

DURBIN: Um-hmmm.

GREGORSKY: Because I'm still wondering in my mind what this John Sisk guy looks like.

Maybe he'll see this on the Web and drop us an e-mail. Either at age 32 or 45, it really doesn't matter much, John. We'll tack your update onto this Q&A. Write FrankGregorsky@aol.com or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.

DURBIN: If I were doing the book now, of course, with a digital camera, everybody would be photographed -- I did take some photographs, but most of the ones we used in there are from Trygve Steen.

The Essence of Old Growth; Natives who Had to Go "Corporate"

GREGORSKY: This gives away my conservative political background, but -- despite 25 years in and around politics, I never heard the case for "old growth" made coherently until reading Tongass. But even my Democratic friends and clients speak more in terms of national parks and clean water and taxing SUVs. Maybe they think redwoods are awesome, but still that's different from valuing old growth in a non-mystical way. So, in a couple of paragraphs, can you make the case for old growth?

DURBIN: For not logging the last 10% of it, you mean? Because that's what's left -- just 10%.

GREGORSKY: Ten percent of what was there -- when, 80 years ago?

DURBIN: Before industrial logging. Think of it this way: Old growth is a gene bank. It's the building blocks of biological diversity. It's irreplaceable -- you cannot grow a new old-growth forest after it has been logged. It's not the same as what happens with fire, which is a natural force. A nation as rich as the United States, with the resources it has, should be able to save a small portion of this natural legacy that people can enjoy, and where people can find solace or spiritual renewal, or whatever, from visiting these forests. I've had spiritual experiences in old-growth forests, and I've been in some of the most beautiful old-growth forests in the world.

So that's my case.

GREGORSKY: But there's also an ecological-balance case for it too.

DURBIN: What do you mean "ecological balance"?

GREGORSKY: Somewhere in Tongass, you explain that deer could not find food [because] some of the replacement forests had the effect of turning the floor into the functional equivalent of a desert.

DURBIN: Right. Well, when I talk about the forest, I'm including the wildlife. I'm talking about the forest ecosystem -- everything from the insects, the muskeg bogs, to the deer and the wolves, the brown bears that live in the forest. You can't separate out the trees and the fauna and the forest.

When biologists got the resources to study how logging was affecting bears in particular, and to some extent wolves, they came up with very compelling information. The roads -- logging roads -- are barriers for wolves, and the brown bears need a very large and undisturbed range. I learned about that research, and also about how that research was suppressed by the Forest Service. Some very concrete examples of that are in the book -- and it was fascinating. Scientific research into the ecological impacts of clear-cutting is what actually turned the debate, especially in the Pacific Northwest, and to some extent in Alaska.

GREGORSKY: One of the most "unintended consequences" subplots in Tongass is how, thanks to the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlements Act [ANCSA], the Native-run corporations became super-loggers themselves. Some years they cut down more trees than the private companies did. You say [re the ANCSA] on page 145: "For many Alaska Natives, it was a form of cultural genocide, inflicted ironically by their own hand." This was one of the rare times when I saw you stepping out of mainstream advocacy journalism and using an incendiary term.

DURBIN: And I don't really think that issue is original to me.

GREGORSKY: "Cultural genocide."

DURBIN: Yeah. I mean, when you visit these Alaska native villages, there's the traditional tribal government. And tribal government celebrates traditions -- traditional foods, ceremonies, and places to hunt. Then there are the Native corporations, which don't even operate in the villages. A lot of Native corporations are in Juneau or Anchorage, and their only real connection to the villages is that people in those villages share in the dividends.

GREGORSKY: The book alludes to a few upsides, in the form of dividends flowing to every single person in each tribe or traditional community. But let's take 10 or more minutes and diagram this whole subdrama in Tongass. For example, going back to 1971 and the founding Act, was it really the result of greed or ruthlessness? Or was it more a case of groups and players in a very strange situation having to do too much improvisation?

DURBIN: There was a calculated decision in Congress to resolve the land claims of the Alaska Natives so the oil companies could begin drilling at Prudhoe Bay. But Alaska did not follow the model of the Lower 48. The federal government did not sign treaties with the native people; there were no reservations. Instead, the decision was made to turn the natives into entrepreneurs. It was like at those Indian boarding schools -- there's one in Oregon (Chemawa) -- that tried to turn the Indians into farmers: Don't allow them to use their native tongue or their native dress, just basically try to turn them into white people.

Well, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was a more sophisticated version of that. The individuals who represented the Native villages and went back to D.C. didn't understand what was being proposed. "You get to choose some land, but here's the other part: You'll be a state-chartered corporation, and obliged to make money off that land -- for your people."

They selected their land from the Tongass. Then they hired outsiders -- a lot of the new Alaska Native corporations in Southeast hired logging companies to come in from Oregon and run their operations. There was no Forest Practices Act in Alaska, and the corporations were not bound by the Forest Service rules. So they really nuked entire islands -- no trees were left. It was shocking to see. And the faster they logged, the more money they lost. They were just getting up and going, and a timber depression hit.

GREGORSKY: Mid-1980s?

DURBIN: A little earlier than that. It's a very, very sad situation.

From Tongass, referring to a mid-‘80s analysis by retired British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Thomas Berger: "In Berger's view, ANCSA was the nation's ‘domestic application of economic-development theories previously only applied to the Third World.' He concluded that the law's drafters had fully expected the Native way of life to disappear. To prevent that, he recommended the ‘retribalization' of Native lands under tribal governments that would restore traditional uses." Durbin quotes Berger's report: "Undercapitalized, without corporate experience, with virtually no business prospects, the [new Native] corporations were at the mercy of the lawyers, advisers, and consultants who flocked to the villages like scavengers. Now the money is largely gone, and the land itself is at risk." See pages 144-47.

DURBIN: In the end, using a provision of the '86 tax bill, they sold their tax losses. Now, some of them have done well. They invested in enterprises in other parts of the country. The Native corporation for Juneau operates a tram that goes up the mountain near Juneau. It makes some money on that. Some of the corporations have pretty sophisticated business operations. But in their early years, all they had to work with in southeast Alaska was cut down the trees, as fast as they could. On Admiralty Island, adversarial relationships resulted -- between the Native villages and the corporations that were cutting down the trees.

GREGORSKY: Why didn't more of the tribal elders or the tribal governors help run these [what amounted to] Native logging companies? I mean, it sounds like two different leadership groups here.

DURBIN: The Native corporations had the job of making money off the natural resources -- a role that's opposite from the role of the tribal governments, which had no experience at running businesses. They were a subsistence culture. So they had to hire from outside to put together any kind of a business plan.

GREGORSKY: But the village elders could be on the board of directors. They could have a vote, even if they didn't set the schedule.

DURBIN: That's true -- and probably some were. You still ended up with kind of a schizoid identity for these Native corporations. But this model is not confined to southeast Alaska. There were Native corporations all through Alaska, some of them very rich from oil revenue -- the ones with land up on the north slope. But in southeast Alaska, the thing that could be sold was trees. So I think that that chapter really speaks for itself.

GREGORSKY: Agreed. I'm just trying to --

DURBIN: Yeah -- it's kind of a side story. A lot of the research I did there was "book research." I did visit two of the -- I visited Angoon and Hoonah. And my source in Hoonah, Floyd Peterson, is half Alaska Native. He's the one who told me the story about how the hunting grounds had been logged. After that, the people had to go out so far in dangerous waters, into Icy Strait.

First "Ecosystem Management Plan" as a Model for Forests

GREGORSKY: I'd like to get your evaluation, as I did with Bill deBuys in Santa Fe, of Interior Secretary [1993-2000] Bruce Babbitt. Not related to Alaska, but just on general stewardship and policy.

DURBIN: I know Bruce Babbitt really well. I've had many, many talks with him. I run into him at the SEJ conferences. I went on a hike with him in the Headwaters Forest down in the redwood country -- one of the most taxing hikes I've ever been on. (He has very long legs -- walks very fast.). Babbitt was a visionary. In his Interior Department office, he celebrated the great conservationists of the 20th century.

GREGORSKY: You had to cover him sometimes?

DURBIN: Yes. He came to speak at Lewis & Clark College after Clinton was elected, but before he took office. The rumor was that Babbitt would be picked for Interior Secretary. But he came to this conference as a law professor and conservationist, to talk about the Endangered Species Act -- and his rhetoric was, you know: This is the most powerful environmental law, and we need to use it to protect our ecosystems. He was an unabashed advocate -- of using the Act. Once he became Interior Secretary, he had to cool his rhetoric a little bit. But you always knew where he stood.

Before the Forest Conference in 1993, he came out --

GREGORSKY: Explain that conference.

DURBIN: When Bill Clinton was running in '92, he made a promise to the timber industry that if he were elected, he would come back to the Northwest, hold a "timber summit," and solve the problem of the forests being locked up in the courts. He kept that promise. Soon after he took office, he brought people from all walks of life in the Northwest to this amazing one-day event in the new Convention Center in Portland: An all-day thing, with three panels. Clinton crammed for this by reading, among other things, a series of articles I wrote (it was sent to him, so I know he read it). Most of his Cabinet was there. Babbitt was there. This was a really big deal.

GREGORSKY: But wouldn't you need more than a day for that kind of endeavor?

DURBIN: Well, they started at 9 in the morning and finished around 7 in the evening. We had a whole team of reporters covering that.

GREGORSKY: But when you have that much talent and advocacy coming together in a high-gloss environment, what happens? Everybody gets one-and-a-half minutes on the average?

DURBIN: Actually, everybody got a good five or six minutes to talk. One of the Oregonian reporters called it the northwest dysfunctional family --

GREGORSKY: [Laughter]

DURBIN: -- on display that day. So Babbitt was very involved in that, and I got to ask questions during two group interviews with Clinton and Gore.

GREGORSKY: This sounds a lot like Clinton's Economic Summit [that took place a couple of weeks after the 1992 elections].

DURBIN: It was modeled on that, yes. And isn't it interesting that nobody ever writes about that? When they write about Clinton and his legacy, nobody recalls how he brought together -- at this Northwest summit -- the best scientists of the Northwest and asked them to write a plan. They came up with this forest plan to get the program out of the courts. It was the first "ecosystem management plan," and it became a model for forest planning. The environmentalists weren't crazy about it, because it didn't create "inviolate reserves" -- you could still go in and do some thinning in the reserve areas that it created. Definitely some compromises were struck. But it did eventually get the program out of the courts. Logging resumed, but at a much lower level. And the Bush administration has been trying to dismantle that plan, ever since 2001. They haven't been too successful, because environmental litigators here in the Northwest really know their stuff.

GREGORSKY: One of my think-tank friends, around '94, described Clinton as governing in a different kind of way. He meant this positively, too, describing Clinton as a "rolling focus group." He moves around the country, handing the mike to various people.

DURBIN: He's a wonk! He's a policy wonk, totally. [Laughter]

GREGORSKY: But a lot of wonks don't listen very well. They just go into an ivory tower and come up with a policy. Clinton was also sounding people out --

DURBIN: And he does listen. He did listen, as President.

GREGORSKY: Yeah, he did. I voted for Clinton in '92, believe it or not.

DURBIN: [Laughter] And then you went to work for Gingrich!

GREGORSKY: No, I was on Gingrich's staff in the ‘80s. And I never had trouble defending the Clinton-Gore fiscal policies. Bill Clinton ended up making a lot of policy compromises -- welfare reform, capital-gain tax cuts, two conservative Treasury Secretaries -- that hacked off the Left.

DURBIN: He did. He was not an ideologue. One of my good friends was so furious with him over his "welfare reform" that she refused to vote for him a second time. And I have a lot of problems with a lot of his decisions. But the Clinton Administration never got enough credit for getting the U.S. government out of the red -- a lot of it was government efficiency, a push led by Vice-President Al Gore. The nitty-gritty drudgery of going through the entire federal budget with a red pencil.

GREGORSKY: I agree. Give Gore credit for that.

So, would you say that Presidents, and Governors, and maybe Cabinet secretaries, if they would use that model -- kind of town hall meetings with a lot of preparation; bring all the groups together, in public, on the record -- many of these bitter-end polarizing controversies could be solved?

DURBIN: [Pause] It can never hurt to bring together people who are on opposite sides of issues. Now that I've been covering the Washington legislature, I see it happening all the time. It's how deals are cut and how legislation gets passed.

I also think there's a limit to how much consensus can be achieved in those settings; I've actually written quite a bit about this. They have to find some common ground -- even if it's kind of at the margins of the issues -- where they can work out an agreement.

Some of that has happened around the West over restoring the role of fire in forest ecosystems -- the idea of "fire-proofing" forests and doing thinning. That is a place where some groups have found common ground. But when it comes to clear-cutting old growth, consensus groups can't work -- because you have two diametrically opposed philosophies.

200 People at a Portland Audubon Event

GREGORSKY: What is on your professional horizon?

DURBIN: I would love to write more books, and I would love to write books that are beautifully produced -- because both of these books were kind of produced on the cheap. Tree Huggers first came out in hard cover. But OSU Press made the decision to do soft-cover for the Tongass book to keep it under $20, on the theory that people would pick it up on the cruise ships -- they'd come in the gift shops and buy it.

Actually, it's done pretty well in that setting. It's in the Glacier Bay gift shop; it's in the Visitor's Center in Ketchikan, which is run by the Forest Service. Whenever I'd be in a city or town or Alaska, I'd go into the bookstore to find out if they had it and how it was doing. The woman who ran the bookstore in Ketchikan told me she made the decision to put the book in stock -- the Forest Service wasn't very enthusiastic about having it in their Visitor Center [smiling].

And every once in a while, something will happen that makes it all worthwhile.  A woman called me and said: "I hope you're the Kathie Durbin who wrote Tongass. I just have to tell you how much I appreciate your  doing this book; it's wonderful, I want to get involved, and I have already joined the Alaska Rainforest Campaign. Thank you so much for writing it." Another guy called: "Someone said I should read your book, and now I finally understand the history of this place." He had moved to southeast Alaska, and hadn't really been able to figure it out.

GREGORSKY: What stands out as being different between the two books after they came out?

DURBIN: [Pause] My mother died shortly after Tongass came out. And I was still in mourning. I had agreed to do a reading at Portland Audubon, and it was a big turnout -- 200 people.

GREGORSKY: Impressive.

DURBIN: Everybody bought books -- both of my books. It was very rewarding to be able to -- I guess what I 'm saying is: The experience I've had with Tongass is more intimate. Tree Huggers had a book tour, I went to several places, including Elliott Bay Books in Seattle. We set up readings, and the book was reviewed by Publishers Weekly.

I have my little excerpts from good reviews of both books, and still use them in applications for fellowships. But writing Tongass was a more personal experience. It was a labor of love -- even the really hard parts. Because I knew nobody else had written this story. Whereas with Tree Huggers, other journalists -- my peers -- had written about the same conflict. With this book, I was breaking new ground. And no one else seemed about to write it. I worried about being viewed as a "carpetbagger," coming in from Oregon to write about Alaska. But that didn't really happen.

GREGORSKY: You said you were viewed as an outsider, which I guess is not as bad as being seen as a carpetbagger.

DURBIN: Well, I was an outsider. But -- and you know this, being an interviewer -- people love to talk about themselves. And they love to talk about the transformative experiences in their lives, those times when they just jumped off the edge of a cliff to see what happened.

GREGORSKY: [Appreciative laughter]

DURBIN: In this case, they just packed everything up, put it in the pickup truck, and drove up to Alaska. So it wasn't hard to get people to talk about that. Some of them had really painful experiences back in D.C. -- felt betrayed by some of the deals that were being cut -- and we talked about those things too.

GREGORSKY: Any other comments on packaging and marketing?

DURBIN: Yes, I wanted to point out to you, given your Capitol Hill background, that when Congress was discussing the "bridge to nowhere," on Gravina Island -- well, that's my final chapter, the one I researched and wrote new for the [2005] edition. I don't know of any other reporter who toured the island and really talked to people who use the island, and the waters around the island. And if I had any marketing sense at all, since that became such a huge issue in Congress during the 2005-06 fight over earmarks, I probably could have sold that chapter to a national magazine! That would have been a smart thing for me to do -- because it became very, very topical. It still is -- you know, the cost of building a bridge to this island.

GREGORSKY: Are you happy with the book's cover?

DURBIN: I am, and that was Trygve Steen's photo.

GREGORSKY: And [while holding the 2005 edition] this was not digitally contrived? It's a real rainbow?

DURBIN: Oh yeah! Yep.