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Just the Facts: Kathie Durbin

Former Oregon Wild Executive Director Andy Kerr reflects on the passing of journalist Kathie Durbin.

Just the Facts: Kathie Durbin

Kathie Durbin (photo courtesy of the Eugene Register-Guard).

By Andy Kerr

In the mid-1980s the organization now known as Oregon Wild was only a very small group, but despite our size, we resolved to end the logging of old-growth forests in Oregon. At the time, two square miles per week of Oregon's ancient forests were being clearcut.

We were desperate to make news in this pre-internet era, when daily newspapers were the sole papers of community record, and the majority of citizens actually read them.

 

The state's largest, and therefore most influential newspaper The Oregonian didn't even have an environmental reporter at the time. Rather, it viewed federal forest management as merely a log-supply issue, best covered in the pages of the business section. Nonetheless, the rapid logging of the Pacific Northwest's ancient forests were beginning to prompt news coverage, but not from local media, who were collectively blind to the story.

We knew things were changing when the arrival of a reporter from the Times of London (before Rupert Murdoch) created a stir. The reporter was in Oregon to specifically cover the logging of the state's old growth, something local reporters didn't consider news.

It also helped that Greg Nokes, son of the publisher of The Oregonian, returned home in 1988 to work for the paper after 25 years with the Associated Press. Nokes discovered, to his surprise, most of his colleagues and competitors couldn't see the forest for the logs.

As the coverage in The Oregonian's business page became obviously inadequate, Eugene native Kathie Durbin, who started out at the paper in 1978, began to get ink on the forest issue.

In 1989, the first court injunctions against old-growth forest logging to protect the northern spotted owl were issued, and the Oregon Congressional Delegation was suddenly scared to death. All but one had made their career delivering big timber to Big Timber, and that was now in jeopardy.

The Oregonian, in a fit of courage, published a six-part series entitled "Forests in Distress." In it, Kathie Durbin and co-author Paul Koberstein transformed the political debate in Oregon. Here's how the series opened:

    Years of overcutting have taken their toll on Northwest forests. As jobs vanish, the timber industry and Northwest politicians will have themselves — not just the northern spotted owl — to blame. The first part in a six-part series this week and in future special reports, The Oregonian studies the causes, effects and the future.


The series went on for pages and pages with powerful photographs. The Oregonian printed up bound copies and sold them as reprints. It went as viral as something could go before the Internet.

In subsequent years Kathie Durbin had big stories in the paper almost every day, and often on the front page. Meanwhile, the new President Bill Clinton sent half his cabinet to Portland in 1993 to try to solve the Pacific Northwest forest wars.

Tree_HuggersBy 1994, the forest wars had peaked politically and Durbin was pushed out of The Oregonian (it was complicated, but not really). She took the opportunity to write Tree Huggers: Victory, Defeat and Renewal in the Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign. Published in 1996, it is a classic, definitive history of the Pacific Northwest forest wars.

Kathie was a reporter just as a reporter should be. Tenacious, competitive, and always wanting to get the facts right and be first doing so. Like all great reporters, she prided herself on objectivity and fairness and was beyond scrupulous. I could never buy her a drink. She always insisted on buying her own.

I had once interested her in a proposed open pit cyanide heap gold mine in Malheur County, about as far from a forest in Oregon one can get. It was an all-day field trip from Ontario to see the proposed mine site, and we met a couple of local activists, Gary and Carolyn Brown, who were giving us the tour.

Gary and Carolyn are the nicest people you have ever met. Gary insisted on picking up the tab for breakfast and Kathie insisted on paying for herself. Gary and Carolyn would have none of it, and a polite battle for the check ensued. Kathie finally relented as Gary wasn't going to. I could tell it bothered Kathie to no end, but I thought it was nice Gary had won over scrupulous Kathie.

After returning from the all-day tour we bee-lined for an ice cream shop, where Kathie maneuvered so she bought the scoops all around. She then loudly announced for our benefit — but mostly for hers — that this expenditure settled her debt from breakfast.

Clearcut

I was a source and she gave me a voice. We were on friendly terms, but we were not friends. We used each other and the forests (and deserts and rivers and ocean) of Oregon were the better for it.

As she walked away from The Oregonian in 1994, she left on her desk for all to see a copy of the coffee-table formatted (oversized, lots of color pictures, etc.) book Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry.

Kathie Durbin reported the news and wrote the truth. She died this week at 68 of pancreatic cancer.

Andy Kerr served with the Oregon Natural Resources Council (now Oregon Wild) for 20 years, and today consults on environmental and conservation matters as the head of The Larch Company.

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