A View From the Top of the Food-Chain : IN A DARK WOOD, By Alston Chase (Houghton Mifflin: $29.95; 535 pp.)

Frank Clifford is a Times staff writer

For years now, people who make a living in the woods and prairies of western America have been saying that the environmental movement doesn't understand how nature works.

Environmentalists are wrong, they say, to believe that all the trees of the forest and wild creatures would be thriving if man hadn't wandered into the garden and messed things up. Since the age of the dinosaurs, nature has shown an inclination to eat her own children. Natural history is a record of disturbance, not of equilibrium. There never was a garden. So the idea that people, by hunting wild game, clearing homesteads, harvesting forests, mining mountains or putting cattle out to pasture are interfering with the balance of nature is poppycock.

It's a theory that only recently has made its way into the public policy debates over endangered species and natural resources. And for good reason. Once you've acknowledged the possibility that there is no natural order--no fragile web of life that we damage by snuffing out the smallest creature--it becomes harder to fashion politically effective strategies for leaving things alone.

That is the uncomfortable place author Alston Chase leaves us at the end of his new book, "In a Dark Wood," an assault on the scientific bona fides of the environmental movement. Chase began developing his theme several years ago in his book "Playing God in Yellowstone," an account of official malfeasance and outright cruelty committed in the name of natural regulation--the theory that plants and animals will achieve a sort of steady state if left alone.

Set among the giant redwoods of Northern California, Chase's latest book weaves tree spiking, car bombing and corporate greenmail into a sprawling intellectual history of American forestry and of an environmental movement run amok. The confusion of ecology with ideology and the resulting backlash, Chase argues, has sabotaged the cause of legitimate conservation. But Chase cuts a wide swath through the woods, and by the time he is done, there isn't a lot left to build any kind of conservation movement out of.

On one level, Chase's book is an informative addition to the growing body of literature that holds that nature is more resilient than we have been led to believe over the last 25 years. Chase emphasizes the work of evolutionary ecologists who believe that "competition among creatures and not self-regulating, purposeful ecosystems characterize the dynamics of nature." Old growth forests "favor some species, such as spotted owls and flying squirrels, they are hostile to others, such as Kirtland's warblers or silverspot butterflies. . . . Habitat can be good for deer or good for owls, but never merely good for wildlife."

The notion that old growth forests--"dark, mysterious, ancient, spiritually evocative"--are the last remnants of a primeval forest that stretched from one end of the continent to the other is largely myth, the evolutionists contend. More likely, North America "was a place where you could drive a stagecoach from the Eastern Seaboard to St. Louis without the benefit of a cleared road." Now, when people log the big trees and plant seedlings in their place, they become part of an age-old process of change, mimicking the lightning that burned the old trees and the fire that allowed the new seeds to spring up.

But the idea that change is natural, even healthy, was clearly unacceptable to a movement dedicated to preservation. And it is in the discussion of the movement that Chase reveals what he is really about in this book.

As Chase sees it, the environmental creed that took root in the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest became the church of the latter day Luddites and a bastion against technology, materialism and the corporate state. Earth First! and its founder, Dave Foreman, represented the movement's apotheosis. "Foreman truly believed civilization is a plague on Earth. . . . He focused on rolling the clock back. Monkey wrenching, he believed, 'symbolizes our fundamental strategy for dealing with the mad machine.' "

Mainstream environmentalists rejected the monkey wrenchers' tactics but were otherwise in accord, writes Chase. Their policies served the same purpose as protest--the restoration of an Edenic pre-settlement balance of nature that never existed. In the forests, that meant abandoning the old conservationist goal of selective cutting, leaving enough trees to ensure both forest health and the survival of communities that depend on timber. Instead, the new forestry all too often meant no more cutting, which, of course, has meant no more jobs.

The upshot was a class war in the woods, with well-off, well-meaning Democrats like Al Gore and Bruce Babbitt reviled by the rural working people who are supposed to be their loyal constituents.

Chase calls himself an environmentalist or at least a lover of the Western landscape in which he lives. But he is really an apostate and one whose repudiation of the movement makes you wonder about his faith in the cause.

At one point Chase agrees that it is probably a good idea to minimize the loss of genetic variations. "Many life forms contain genetic materials that could prove valuable to medicine or other human endeavors," he writes.

Yet, he seems to dismiss the possibility that people might exhaust the land, that there are places where population pressures are pushing the pace of natural change so fast that we may lose trees and plants before we understand their benefits. There is no extinction crisis, he says, referring to "Noah's Choice," Charles C. Mann's and Mark Plummer's thoughtful study of endangered species. But that's not exactly what Mann and Plummer said.

The Earth is not facing an "onrushing, all-destroying wave of extinction. . . ." Plummer and Mann wrote. But it is facing "an immense aggregation of small individual situations that is not reducible to a single equation. . . . These situations are nudging a large fraction of North American biodiversity down the path toward extinction."

If Chase is right that fanciful notions of pre-settlement biodiversity and overblown alarms about endangered species have dictated bad policy, what is the alternative? He says the environmental movement went wrong when it took a perfectly justifiable love of the land and turned it into a religion, forgetting "that nature is merely one value among many, not the supreme source of all good."

Society can get itself out of the present fix, Chase writes, by using common sense, by acknowledging man's rightful place at the top of the food chain and granting him a reasonable share of nature's bounty.

Yet, the failure of common-sense conservation is one of the more interesting minor themes of Chase's book. Just when the foresters have convinced the timber barons that selective cutting is the best policy for trees and people, along comes the post-World War II housing boom, and the demand for wood sparks a riot of clear cutting. Much the same thing happened in the 1980s, Chase points out. Well-managed timber companies fell into the hands of venture capitalists who regarded giant redwoods as so much debt service. By 1990, Chase laments, extremism ruled the environmental debate. "One side sought to maximize profits, the other to dismantle the economic system."

In the end, Chase pins his hopes on old-fashioned neighborly negotiations. He points to the small High Sierra town of Quincy, where loggers and local environmentalists forged a compromise to keep sawmills in business without decimating forests. The loggers had room to strike a deal, says Chase, because they were not bound by the Draconian spotted owl regulations that polarized the Pacific Northwest. But the Quincy loggers came to the table precisely because they did face the prospect of similar regulations, and they hoped to head them off by coming up with a less painful local plan.

The idea of voluntary conservation is a popular one these days. But it is not new, and history and Alston Chase have noted its limitations. There was a time when the Endangered Species Act imposed no penalties for killing rare plants and animals. It trusted people to do the right thing, and it foreshadowed the reform legislation that Republicans in Congress are pushing today. But, as Chase points out, "the [old] law did not stop the slaughter of animals." To his credit, Chase owns up to the potential consequences of laissez faire environmentalism, even if he is willing to write off the "slaughter of animals" as part of the natural course of things.

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