The passing last week of Kathie Durbin hit me hard. We lost not only a great journalist. She was a friend to the fragile forest ecosystems that give life to the Northwest and set them apart from the rest of the planet. To me, she was a friend and mentor. I worked alongside Kathie for many years, first as an environmental reporter for The Oregonian, and later at Cascadia Times, where she was a co-founder and co-editor. In fact, Cascadia Times came to life in 1994 at a meeting on her dining room table in her home in southeast Portland.
She dedicated herself to writing about environmental issues, which often resulted in the preservation of things that she cared about passionately, most notably our ancient forests. She was never an activist, but she didn’t have to be to be effective. Instead of screaming slogans or carrying signs at rallies, she quietly dredged up facts, and let the facts speak for themselves.
She did her most notable work for The Oregonian when the timber industry and their friends in Congress were hell-bent on liquidating the last of the Northwest’s grand ancient forests that once blanketed the landscape from Northern California to Canada.
The fight was about more than trees. The existence of hundreds of wildlife species — like salmon and the spotted owl — that depend on the old forests were at stake. But all the industry could see were billions of dollars of inventory standing on the ground, and it aimed to turn it all into profits. But then Kathie Durbin came along and exposed their plot.
In times past, The Oregonian along with other mainstream newspapers, had always reported stories about forests in terms of timber production and dollars per board feet. Kathie changed the terms of the debate.
“The story of the Pacific Northwest’s vanishing virgin forests is written on its mountains, in its foothills and along its river valleys,” she wrote in one of her most memorable pieces, a six-part series entitled Forests in Distress that The Oregonian published in September 1990.
“It’s a story best read from the air, where 140 years of logging has torn the deep green carpet that once covered the land into a tattered quilt of large and small clear-cuts, threaded together by thousands of miles of logging roads. In the Northwest, the timber industry is running out of places to cut.”
The old-growth debate had captured the nation’s attention. She continued,
Now the Northwest is facing basic truths: The forests do not go on forever. The land has limits. Past and present stewards of the Northwest’s forests have failed in many ways to safeguard and conserve them for the benefit of future generations.
A powerful new conservation ethic has taken hold, not just in the Pacific Northwest but nationwide. Americans want their forests to produce abundant wildlife and fish runs, pure drinking water and pristine rivers, scenic beauty and wilderness solitude, as well as wood.
Oregon is in the throes of a painful but long-predicted transition from an economy built on the wholesale harvesting of its virgin forests to one more complex and diversified. Washington, which is far less dependent on timber-driven jobs, has nearly completed that transition.
The hard reality confronting this region in the fall of 1990 has been building for half a century.
As a co-author of Forests in Distress, I shared some of the work, but most of it was Kathie’s. As Jim Britell of the Audubon Society said in 2011, “The series Forests in Distress was probably the turning point in the long battle over the fate of our forests. If you two never did anything else, that contribution to ours and other species by itself would more than justify two lives,” Britell said.
Kathie went on to write for the Vancouver Columbian and authored three books, including Tree Huggers, Victory, Defeat and Renewal in the Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign, as well as books on the Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska and the Columbia River Gorge. Material from all three books appeared in Cascadia Times.
Environmental journalism has lost a towering presence. But our ancient forests will continue to stand forever, a monument to the hard work of many people, including especially Kathie Durbin.