Libby logger cuts across the grain

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Bruce Vincent

In 1984, Bruce Vincent was a logger in Libby, working the family business in a town with five vigorous mills in operation. Now, after seeing through “the timber wars” of the 1990s, Vincent is a public speaker who travels the world with his message, and whose book, “Against the Odds: a Path Forward for Rural America” with co-authors Nicole J. Olynk Widmar and Jessica Eise, was published on March 13.

The three authors admittedly come from very different backgrounds, said Vincent. But what they have in common is “the need to discern the difference between fighting and leading.”

Co-author Widmar, associate professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, adds: “Lack of progress is often blamed on the inability to convince someone else that you’re right. But progress doesn’t require consensus. We tried to embody this very thing through our co-authorship. The three of us do not agree on everything, but we shared a common goal of progress for rural America and the environment, and healing the divide that so painfully separates Americans today.”

Eise, a former journalist, adds her own perspective:

“Working across differences is challenging, but that is exactly what the three of us managed to do. Who can say who gained the most from this book? Because I, for one, will never look at our political and social debates in the same way again.

“It is my greatest hope that people who read this book might not just be warmed by the perseverance of Bruce and his family, but will also consider their own ability to move the needle and facilitate progress and even, just possibly, change their minds about something after seeing the world from another viewpoint.”

In his quest to define a new environmental vision for rural America, Vincent draws from his life experience in Libby during the 1990s. As his community fractured into two opposing camps, Vincent was torn in half: “I’ve always considered myself an environmentalist and a logger,” he says.

Good forest management includes some burning and thinning, Vincent said, and would “mimic the natural cycle of management the native Americans used to manage forests. It was not pristine wilderness. Native people burned this valley every 10-12 years. So I would go back not 20 years and replicate management, but more like 300.”

It doesn’t make sense, Vincent said, to import raw product from countries which have out-of-date standards when we have the makings of a productive timber industry right here.

But the ongoing conversation about the management of public lands in the West must take into account “that economy and ecology have the same root. We cannot maintain a healthy economy without a healthy ecology and vice versa.”

What’s needed, Vincent believes, is to able to “stick your feet in the shoes of the other side and see their world.” Lincoln County is at an advantage in this respect after having 25 years of sitting around tables together, he said, referring in part to the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition.

Vincent’s son Chas, a state senator, is “a big believer in finding common ground” said Bruce. “He has years of experience of sitting around tables with different groups and finding the common goal.”

It takes, Vincent adds, “a great deal of listening. In the end, we often all want the same thing. In this case: healthy forests. But it takes turning enemies into friends to get to a place where we can agree to disagree and move on to meet that goal.”

Asked about the recent change of government and how it may affect public land decisions, Vincent replies “We’ve overturned the apple cart, and in my opinion it needed to be overturned, but now we need to make sure we end up with more than a food fight.”

“Against the Odds: A Path Forward for Rural America” is available on Amazon.

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