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Forest for the trees

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There is a place in Durham where the Weyerhaeuser paper company, Charles Manson follower Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and author Wallace Stegner cross paths. The link is the Forest History Society, a 55-year-old research and historical organization affiliated with Duke.

A glance at the society's red brick headquarters on a lonely corner of Vickers Street doesn't portend anything quite so interesting. Once inside, the wood-paneled walls, clocks with fir-tree motifs and hallways lined with old photos hint that something interesting is going on.

Right now, what's going on is planning for a conference the society is hosting in Durham March 28 through April 1 called "Making Environmental History Relevant in the 21st Century." Steven Anderson, the group's president and CEO, says more than 300 scholars and other interested folks have already signed up. The gathering will feature local tours of such historically relevant sites as Research Triangle Park and a toxic waste dump in Warren County. There will also be a free public lecture by world-renowned fire historian Stephen Pyne, whose research focuses on the ongoing public debate over "whether to light fires or fight them."

A conversation with Anderson quickly moves beyond the society's immediate work to the full sweep of U.S. forest history and the current state of our nation's woodland resources. "Most people are amazed when I tell them we have more trees than we did 70 years ago," says the former forestry professor--although he acknowledges that they are not necessarily in the same places.

An impromptu tour of a basement wilderness of file cabinets and cardboard boxes reveals the quirky riches of the society's archives. Librarian Cheryl Oakes was the guide on a recent visit that turned up the following:

On Weyerhaeuser: The roots of the Forest History Society reach back to a grant the Weyerhaeuser family made to the Minnesota Historical Society almost three decades ago for a library for their paper company's records. Originally called the Forest Products History Foundation, the society evolved from a corporate repository into a scholarly organization headquartered first at Yale University, then at the University of California at Santa Cruz and, since 1983, at Duke.

On "Squeaky" Fromme: Because of the support it receives from forest industry companies, the society at one point found itself on a hit list kept by Manson disciple Fromme. Anderson says this happened when the group was located at UC-Santa Cruz, although the public relations office there couldn't confirm the information. It's clear that "Squeaky" was concerned about the environment. At her 1975 trial for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford, she was repeatedly thrown out of the courtroom for her rambling diatribes on conservation issues. At her sentencing, Fromme beaned the prosecutor with an apple.

On Wallace Stegner: Among the thousands of books, still photos and journals cataloged in the society's archives are more than 400 novels that touch on woodland themes. Anderson's predecessor, Harold Steen, created the collection that includes Wallace Stegner's Joe Hill and James Stevens' Paul Bunyan. Steen's personal favorites are books by James Oliver Curwood (could it be the name?).

Quirkiness aside, the society has a solid reputation. Its membership roster includes many journalists and academics. Its Web site is now receiving 500 daily hits from researchers around the world. And it boasts a $7 million endowment that supplements the individual, corporate and foundation gifts that comprise its budget.

While he admits that the society's dispassionate approach to forest issues sometimes puts it at odds with environmental activists, Anderson says his group still plays an important role in policy debates.

"The main thing we're trying to do is advocate the use of lessons from history to improve the management of our forests," he says. "We're now growing more wood than we're harvesting, but there are challenges there we can't ignore. What we hope to do is get people asking the right questions."

Information about the society and its upcoming conference is available online at http://www.lib.duke.edu/forest/index.html, or by calling 682-9319.

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