It was a '53 Plymouth Suburban, a blue station wagon with a double hatch-back. Iíd sort of wake up in Dadís arms, wrapped in a blanket, walking alongside the roses in the morning darkness, loading the car to make the trip. It was Richmond, California, in 1957. It was an awakening.
I fell back asleep. Iíd wake up again in a canvas car seat, bombing along Marsh Creek Road out in the late spring flower fields of the Sacramento Valley, on our way to the Big Trees.
It was freedom: a place of joy and solace, a home to visit, with no reservations required. It was just there, as much a part of California as hydroelectric power Ė something we were told in school was wonderful, clean, and cheap, something far away and conceptual, something I never understood, until it came into being and took my love away. It was the New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River.
Mom told me about the Sierra Club and how they were fighting the dam, but it didnít mean much. I started to get the idea, though, when I was told that we needed to make that one last trip to my favorite riverbed, to gather those special, smooth skipping-rocks for the last time. I was looking up at the bridge, in shocked disbelief that anybody could ever need that much water, wondering how it was even possible that "my" secret place would be gone forever. Now it meant something.
In 1970, it was mountaineering. Just hitch a ride to University Avenue in Berkeley and seven hours later, arrive in Tuolumne Meadows to disappear for weeks at a time. There was barely a flight plan required; a thing called a "fire permit" upon which I routinely failed to file amendments. I discovered the special things one learns far from trails Ė things I would try in company versus those I would do alone, often out of necessity.
Summer journeys filtered into weekends spent in off-limits sections of Point Reyes National Seashore or the forgotten marches of various water districts. These were lands that had not graduated to the status of "parks." The challenge was to explore but not to get caught. It was, after all, private property; much of it abandoned ranch land. I learned a lot that I would rather not know about ecosystem health in these forbidden places: damage from cows, rabbits, landslides, overgrown brush, broken fences, impacted forests and other forgotten messes. It slowly dawned upon me that most of it was this way.
My Dad had quit the Sierra Club, muttering things about David Brower and lies, but it wasn't clear to me what it was about. Such things seemed insignificant to me. "We" needed to do whatever it took to save Glen Canyon or Prairie Creek, but it was all in the hands of the lawyers, whoever they were.
So I joined the Sierra Club, started to read about how dire conditions were in various places with which I was now familiar, and noticed that something was wrong: It didnít meet with my experience. I knew better than to believe that forestry was inherently destructive and I knew that government management had its failings too. Their hysterical and antagonistic approach left me with a gnawing concern that such simplistic measures just couldnít work. Chance encounters with Sierra Club "outings" in the mountains were equally disillusioning. The membership lapsed.
I returned to the Bay Area after a mere four years spent in LA learning respectability, only to find The Valley of Heartís Delight gone Silicon. It was favorite bicycling roads in the hills transformed into highways lined with bushes I had never seen. Whole tracts of land were unrecognizably different, buried under miles of identical ranch homes. It was a shock.
My new wife and I undertook the urgent business of saving a little piece of California before it was paved over. Together we scraped together our pennies and promises, bought an infested parcel, and found the condition of the land far worse than imagined. We built a house in the Santa Cruz Mountains and began the process of restoration, only to find the same self-proclaimed environmentalists, whose motives I had already found suspect, were suckling off my cash flow while doing considerable harm to the land.
I paid for my crime as an engineer, devising products, processes, machinery, and design-control systems for the medical device industry. An integral part of the job was obtaining environmental permits. You learn a lot about reality when you have to spend $25,000 cash and $300,000 in product introduction delay to get an air quality permit, to regulate less air pollution than emanates from just one tree. It is even worse when you have to risk your career to do it. We had enough risks going. It was 1992, the business was dying, and there had been 400 competing applicants for my job. Would you bet your livelihood to force a plant manager and a corporate vice president to comply with the law over an untested process (the justifying experiment had been run with a dixie cup and a popsicle stick) when you have a baby on the way, or when you are trying to qualify for the mortgage on the house you had just built? The process worked. The company prospered. It cost me a bonus, a promotion, and a raise. It was worth it.
The final straw was the constant battle being waged by the County of Santa Cruz over timber harvesting rules. I had heard the cries about the "crisis" of rapacious timber harvesting, investigated the claims, and found them lacking. I had expected competence and energy among the activists. Instead, I found them flabby, self-satisfied, and arrogant; trading in acculturated opinions as if they were proven facts. What was even more disturbing was how they showed so little interest in controlling the spread of exotic weeds or reducing the risk of catastrophic fire. I earned a bitter introduction to the "consensus" process, drafting the United Nations Local Agenda 21, a process all about power, money, and emotions, not the environment. That did it. I finished my projects, quit my job, and started to write.
You donít wake up in the morning wanting to write something like this. It isnít that it is a lot of work, or two years of your life without pay. It is the concern that you may not have the time and money to get it done, or that it might be too late. There is no pleasure to be found articulating the appalling consequences of pervasive injustice, corruption, and ignorance. There is legitimate personal concern for capricious distortion or reprisal against my family. There certainly isnít the expectation of making a lot of money. There is simply a lot at stake here.
That any government cannot directly manage an economy is obvious. Yet this nation has fallen to the notion that government should have a monopoly to manage something as complex as an ecosystem, with policies subordinated to political prejudice instead of technical judgement.
The environmental movement was born out of legitimate goals. There was greed and shortsightedness on the part of resource industries. I have experienced it first-hand. It was appropriate to go to government to get problems addressed. Much of the work that was done was necessary and successful and that is part of the problem with it.
The primary role of government has turned from forcing rapid economic growth to the exclusion of all else, to an obsession with constraining people from anything that can be construed as harmful. It is certainly not encouraging anybody to do "good." It is a politics born out of the paradigm that people are fundamentally incapable of harmonious interaction with each other or the planet. That misanthropic notion has been rolled into a quasi-religious set of beliefs that is being used by those with every intent of motivating the body politic to trade away its most precious freedoms out of unreasoned fear. Now that environmentalists and regulators are in power, we have greed and shortsightedness on their part. It must be stopped before we lose all that is dear.
I donít say this lightly. To these same organizations, I owe many of the pleasures of my youth for having preserved those places that taught me much of my first love for the land, but these are not the same people and they do not share the same purpose. This book is, in part, a response to the sense of having that love betrayed.
As environmental organizations have grown, their common agenda has diverged from its purpose. Their adherentsí principle goal has devolved to pursuit of funding to support a political and legal agenda. They have ignored scientific evidence and overridden legitimate discourse over technical differences in the name of preserving entrenched bureaucracies and political power groups feeding off taxes, grants, and lawsuits. It has even led to an odd form of corporate welfare: membership in an oligopoly in return for selling out or buying up smaller competitors. The consequences have compounded. Ruined lives have been rendered into political cannon fodder. In the conduct of battle, the environment has been subordinated to the status of a political hostage. Much like a child in a custody case, the object of the dispute is the one that suffers. The worst of it is, it does not have to be this way.
When one begins a process like this, it starts as a polemic, for much of what starts you writing is a sense of what's wrong. This book takes to task environmental activists, all levels of government, universities, developers, irresponsible loggers, lawyers, rural/suburban residents, bankers, the urban public, politicians, insurance companies, and more! Each of us is a user of the environment and anyone who would buy this book and read it shares such a love of nature and an investment in how we got here. Maybe we have to see the egg on our faces before we can work with those with whom we have struggled for so long. At least we all have something in common!
Perhaps for some it is enough to simply state an injustice, but love of the land won't let you get away with just that and will lead you to wonder what might be done instead. The polemic took nine months. Taking the answers from the abstract, to the concrete, and then to the elegant took far longer. I have done my best to make them simple. I ask your forgiveness for anything less, but this book had to get out. It is time.
One last thing, just to make it clear. This book was written without financial support from any person, corporate or individual. It was paid for with savings and personal debt. I was provided data from numerous sources from all sides of the arguments. There is no motive other than the reward of having helped people do a better job for nature and to find a way out of the injustices they rightly perceive. It is possible to prosper in harmony with the laws of nature once we begin to act in concert with all of them. Best that we start to learn.
No matter how intelligent people are, how much experience they have, or how much they care, we all have major degrees of ignorance when it comes to understanding our interactions with the environment. I have done my best, within my limitations, to make it honest.
Thank you for your time,
Mark Edward Vande Pol
August 8, 2001
Natural Process: That Environmental Laws May Serve the Laws of Nature, ISBN: 0-9711793-0-1. Copyrights © 1999, 2000, & 2001 by Mark Edward Vande Pol. All rights reserved.