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Sierra Magazine
Field Guide: Flaming Propaganda

By Editor-in-chief Joan Hamilton

A U.S. Forest Service staffer called recently to inquire about one of our freelance writers, Rebecca Solnit. Did I know much about her? What has she written? Had I seen her business card?

Her business card? I knew Solnit only from her work. She has penned seven Sierra feature articles over the past eight years on topics ranging from environmental art to Irish ancient forests. No matter what the topic, she has consistently delivered vivid, solid, provocative prose.

Solnit helps environmentalists see the world from a perspective midway between the fields of ecology and art. An environmental activist, historian, and art critic, she is the author of two volumes of American history: Savage Dreams, about the resource wars of the West, and Secret Exhibition, about Beat-era artists. She writes in art publications about "identity-shifting, self-mythologizing" postmodernism. Sierra appeals to her more down-to-earth activist side, providing a coveted audience she describes as "half-a-million readers who might actually do something."

Solnit's favorite Sierra assignment was a raft trip down the remote Tuchodi River in British Columbia, "which under the crew's lavish care," she reported in our March/April 1996 issue, "resembled Cleopatra on the Nile as much as Powell down the Colorado." She hoped that her most recent assignment, to report on the fate of the giant trees in the southern Sierra Nevada, would be equally "fun and easy." It was not to be. In Sequoia National Forest, which has more sequoia groves than any place else on Earth, she found the Forest Service placing timber revenues and two-by-fours before stewardship. In Orwellian fashion, the agency's staff had been calling clearcuts "grove enhancements" and discussing the sound economics of sales that are actually being subsidized by taxpayers. What Solnit hoped would be a walk in the woods became an introduction to Forest Service mismanagement and duplicity.

Given these circumstances, it's not surprising that Solnit's business card caused consternation in official circles. "Rebecca Solnit: flowery prose, ghostwriting, and flaming propaganda"-the Forest Service caller read the card to me, and said that she did not find the self-mockery amusing. The story of our unconventional reporter's encounter with the powers-that-be in Sequoia National Forest starts on page 30.

Also in this issue, we introduce two new departments: our revitalized environmental news section, "Lay of the Land," and a one-page feast for the eyes, "Photo Op." Elsewhere, you'll find plenty of high adventure. Sheryl Clough paddles solo amid the ice chunks of Alaska's Inside Passage. Kathryn Wilder paints a dramatic picture of life in the flood plain. And one of Sierra's senior editors, Paul Rauber, roams the corridors of Washington, D.C., in search of clues to the future of environmentalists' "Great Green Hope," Vice President Al Gore.


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