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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Know Thy Neighbor

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Robert Leo Heilman lives in two worlds. His home is in rural Oregon, but through his books and essays, he has a hand in urban life. Once he was called on to help bridge the gap. Commentator Robert Leo Heilman's latest book is "Overstory Zero: Real Life in Timber Country."


KNOY: Commentator Robert Leo Heilman lives in two worlds. His home is in rural Oregon. But through his books and essays, he has a hand in urban life. Once he was called on to help bridge the gap.

HEILMAN: The caller turned out to be a Forest Service scientist at the Department of Agriculture's Pacific Northwest Research Station, who had a problem and hoped I might be able to help. He said, "We're conducting a botanical survey on private lands in southwestern Oregon this summer. I was hoping that you could talk to my crew about the local culture and how to avoid conflicts with landowners.

I told him I'd do it, and ever since I've felt torn. Glad that somebody cares enough about my neighbors to try to understand them, but disappointed, since they care because they're afraid of them. On one level it makes sense. These are college-educated professionals, people who've spent years accumulating a set of suburban fears and prejudices. It's no wonder they're uneasy. Rednecks with pickups and shotguns, oh my!

My neighbors have their own fears. They are members of an oppressed minority, rural Americans, and they believe that the Federal Government promotes that oppression. Within the last 10 years, environmental activism and regulation have become synonymous with oppression in many people's minds. It started with the spotted owl controversy, hooked onto private property rights, and became part of a volatile mix of paranoid politics, fundamentalist religion, and white separatist racism. There are certain doorsteps around here that I'd avoid standing on if I was representing the Federal Government.

So, what can I tell them? That to be respected you must be respectful? There's no secret to getting a long. A little common sense, a measure of humility, and a bit of decency is about all it takes. You don't need to be a scientist to figure that one out.

KNOY: Commentator Robert Leo Heilman's latest book is Overstory Zero: Real Life in Timber Country.



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