Transcript: James Balog, National Geographic, trees, Apr 07 2006

James Balog is a photographer with National Geographic. His latest book is "Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest". America has 95% deforestation across the country at large; people have forgotten. Shifting to coal and oil has reduced cutting of forests, but the new young forests are different to the old, and have less ecological value. The reintroduction of wolves.

Thom Hartmann interview with James Balog 07 April 2006 on KPOJ

[Thom Hartmann] With us in the studio here is James Balog, Balog? Am I..?

[James Balog] That's correct. Balog.

[Thom Hartmann] James Balog, who is a photographer with National Geographic. That's got to be an incredible gig in and of itself. Extraordinary book here. "Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest". He's going to be speaking tonight at the Portland Art Museum in the Whitsell Auditorium. 7:30pm. Free for museum members, $5 for non-members. And there's also an exhibition of your photography going on at the Photographic Image Gallery. That's at 79 SW Oak in downtown Portland. James, welcome to the program.

[James Balog] Thank you so much.

[Thom Hartmann] What's, you spend a lot of time apparently in forests.

[James Balog] I spent 6 years in forests working on this book. It was a big obsession.

[Thom Hartmann] Yeah. What is the state of our forests, from your point of view?

[James Balog] Well, we have a terrible case of cultural amnesia. We have forgotten to remember what used to be out there. Most of the United States has been deforested. We have 95% deforestation across the country at large. We have 99.5% deforestation of the most lush forest areas like the lowlands of the Pacific North West. So, things are not what they used to be and we don't even remember that fact any more.

[Thom Hartmann] We don't remember what they used to be like.

[James Balog] No.

[Thom Hartmann] Now, one of the points, however, that is made, well, I remember Ronald Reagan's old Secretary of the Interior James Watt...

[James Balog] Oh Yes.

[Thom Hartmann] ... who didn't have much concern for the environment because he said, any day soon the rapture will happen and, you know, who cares? And that was his justification for selling off western lands. But he made the point that we actually have more forest in the United States now than we did a hundred years ago. And there's actually some truth to that, because 100 years ago wood was a primary energy source and once we shifted to coal and then to oil, a lot, well for example Vermont where I used to live was almost entirely denuded and it's now probably 70% forest.

[James Balog] Yes.

[Thom Hartmann] Is, but there's a fundamental difference in the type of forest that we have now as a consequence of simply growback after massive clear cutting versus the kinds of forests that evolve over hundreds or thousands of years.

[James Balog] Yes, yes. That's exactly right and I may have been imprecise in my language when I said that. I was talking about 99.5% deforestation of the old growth; the primeval virgin woodland. And yes, we have a lot of standing trees today, but they're relatively scrubby, scrappy regrowth sort of a forest and they don't have the aesthetics and the ecological character of the original forests, not by a long shot.

[Thom Hartmann] What's it like to be in a virgin forest?

[James Balog] Oh, it's very powerful. It's fantastic. I, frankly, you know, I've spent a lot of my life outdoors, and I've been in a lot of forests. But until I worked on this I had not really focused hard on experiencing and seeing and being in these big old growth forests. And I was shocked at how visually rich it is, how emotionally rich it is.

[Thom Hartmann] Can you paint a picture for us in words? Give us...

[James Balog] You know, I think one of the most powerful things for me was I spent several years working on the redwood forests of Northern California and you know when your driving along, you're driving out to work in the morning. You've stayed in a motel at night. You're driving out, you're surrounded by the smells of coffee and the bagels you're eating as you're going out through the woods. You stop. You park your car. You open the door and it's like this wall of aroma surrounds you. It's like christmas tree fragrance multiplied by a million times. It's so intense. And then when you climb up in these trees you feel like you've entered some Jack and the Beanstalk giant's kingdom up above the clouds, you know, where nobody ever gets to see it. It's a different planet up there.

[Thom Hartmann] Yeah, now, other books you've written. You're the author of "Animal", "Anima", "Survivors :a new vision of endangered wildlife", "Wildlife in the Soviet Union", um, "A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union", a number of books about wild life as well as forests.

[James Balog] Yes. Yeah, I'm now working on a study of the inorganic world. I figured I've worked on animals and I worked on plants, and now I'm working on the inorganic.

[Thom Hartmann] Oh interesting.

[James Balog] But really it was my work on wildlife that set me up to do this tree work. Because the wild life taught me that these animals that I was seeing up close and personal were individuals. They were characters. They were personalities. They weren't just members of a species. Each one of these, a mandrill or a gorilla or a gazelle, they were individual entities having a reaction to you. And so that sensibility about understanding individuals is what I applied to this tree work and that's what's taken me on through that whole 6 years worth of work.

[Thom Hartmann] And you're doing this primarily through the photographic medium as opposed to writing about it?

[James Balog] Well, I'm writing quite a bit as well and the book has got 25,000 words in it and so I'm trying to relate my experiences about these individuals. But yes, by and large, of course, it's a photo book.

[Thom Hartmann] And tonight at the Portland Art Museum in the Whitsell Auditorium at 7:30, you're going to be speaking about what?

[James Balog] Well, I'll be speaking about what I learned from the animals; what I learned from all of these trips to do more traditional adventure and landscape photography. Kind of setting the scene for the revelation that the trees worked for me. So I'll be talking about the adventure work, I'll be talking about wild life and then we'll go into the trees and what the trees meant to me. What they mean to us as a culture. Why people's love for the trees matters. You know, why that matters in this point in history.

[Thom Hartmann] Will you be showing some of this extraordinary photography?

[James Balog] Oh, absolutely, yeah. I'm sorry. It's all a visual show and I'll be narrating over the pictures.

[Thom Hartmann] Yeah. Absolutely marvelous stuff.

[Heidi Tauber] James, going to throw one at you.

[James Balog] Please.

[Heidi Tauber] Talking about the animals and living in the Rockies, growing up in Colorado and the wolf controversy?

[James Balog] Yes.

[Heidi Tauber] Reintroducing wolves into, in particular, the National Parks. Do you have a side on that?

[James Balog] Well, take a wild guess. Sure I'm in favor of the wolves.

[Heidi Tauber] You're in favor of the wolves reintroduction, yeah, OK. Well, why? And what about the ranchers?

[James Balog] Well, this is a perfect example of the amnesia problem. You know, the extermination of the wolves was an act of amnesia and if had we let that go for another 500 years or 300 years we would have forgotten that the wolves were really supposed to be part of the system. And so, what's good about the wolf thing to me is a big, historical, systemic thing. And that is the reversal of the amnesia, and trying to set the ecological path back a little bit towards what it was supposed to be and what it once was. Now, we'll never get back there, we're not supposed to get back there, we can't get back there. You know, that's gone. But some redressing of the imbalance is necessary.

[Thom Hartmann] Well said. James Balog, tonight he will be speaking, you will be speaking, he will be speaking, tonight at the Portland Art Museum 7:30pm at the Whitsell Auditorium. It's free for museum members, $5 for non-members. There's also an exhibit of his photography at the Photographic Image Gallery. That's at 79 SW Oak in downtown Portland. James, thanks for being with us today.

[James Balog] Thank you so much.

[Thom Hartmann] Great having you here.

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