Passionately engaged citizens like Victoria Sturtevant never retire—they just get busier. Since becoming an emeritus professor, Sturtevant has continued her collaboration with SOU students, faculty, and alumni through grants from foundations, environmental groups, and the federal government. That includes working with Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology Mark Shibley on research for the Ashland Forest Resiliency project in the watershed. She has also been establishing pilot forest restoration projects with the Small Diameter Collaborative that focus on the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. Sturtevant continues to guest-lecture and mentor SOU students. She recently contributed to a national program that evaluates the community and environmental benefits of USDA Forest Service American Recovery and Reinvestment Act projects. As a member of several national teams, Sturtevant contributes her expertise on the interrelationship between social and ecological resilience, with emphasis on wildfire. She is a scholar-facilitator for “Landscapes and Livelihoods: A Sustainable Future for Rural Oregon,” sponsored by the Oregon Humanities Conversation Project.
The self-described “citizen activist” first arrived at Southern to teach sociology in 1980, having earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from a small liberal arts college like SOU. As an undergraduate, she lived and conducted research in the coal-mining region of Kentucky, which inspired her to pursue a PhD in rural sociology from Cornell University. During the 1990s, Sturtevant became instrumental in mediating conversations between traditionally opposed parties, bringing timber workers into discussion with environmentalists to work together toward common goals. She was appointed to participate in the ecosystem assessment for President Clinton’s forest plan and was special consultant for the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project. A nationally renowned expert on the social dimensions of forest management, social assessment, ecological monitoring, wildfire planning, and collaborative stewardship, Sturtevant works with Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition, Alliance of Forest Workers and Harvesters, and Applegate Partnership. She has been frequently published in such journals as Society and Natural Resources, Journal of Forestry, and Journal of Community Development. Sturtevant is co-editor of the book Forest Community Connections.
E-interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels in November 2010 (based on excerpts from a 2008 video interview)
VS: I came here in 1980 to teach sociology. I am continually captivated by the rural landscape and culture of this unique region, where I have lived and done sociology for thirty years. In the eighties, we had the timber recession, and in the late nineties, southern Oregon experienced what were called the Timber Wars. A majority of the forested land in this region is managed by the federal government, and I was asked to help the federal land management agencies understand the local communities, particularly attitudes toward timber management, given the influx of urban people into rural areas and the conflict between environmentalists and timber interests. While I continued teaching in the Sociology Department, much of my research and involvement in the region regards the social dimensions of forest management.
Coal wash plant in Clay County, Kentucky (by Jfacew)
MM: What were some of the issues that drew you to sociology early on?
VS: During college, I spent a semester in the coal-mining region of Kentucky. That experience in a resource-rich region controlled by coal companies was a lesson in the political economy of poverty and compelled me to seek a degree in rural sociology. In southern Oregon, I became involved in organizations serving women living in poverty, trying to create economic opportunities and address childcare needs. I studied and taught about what was called the feminization of poverty. Southern Oregon was also a resource-rich region, at that time dependent on the timber industry. I began looking at issues related to forest management and people who were working in the forest and mills. In the 1990s, I joined local groups trying to bridge environmental and economic interests, such as the Rogue Institute of Ecology and Economy and the Applegate Partnership.
Because of this experience, I was invited to work on Clinton’s Forest Plan, assessing the potential impacts on communities of proposed changes in forest management that would protect spotted owl habitat. This work introduced me to leading forestry scientists, particularly social scientists, in the Pacific Northwest.
My involvement in the community and the region has created opportunities for students—not only in terms of training, doing surveys, and conducting social and ecological fieldwork, but also by providing connections for employment and graduate work. I like to think I bring to the classroom an understanding of the interplay of people and natural resources, helping students with a passion for the environment understand the role of local communities in stewardship.
MM: What was your own college experience like?
VS: I went to college in the sixties, attending a small liberal arts women’s college that stressed student empowerment and community involvement. One of the reasons I came to teach at SOU was that it was also a small school where students really mattered and faculty were cohesive. So it was nice to be back in an academic community unlike where I went to graduate school—Cornell University was very huge and specialized. Cornell provided the professional training needed for rural community development work, but I also yearned for that academic community I had experienced as an undergraduate.
Here at SOU (Southern Oregon State College then), I was able to teach core courses in sociology but also more applied courses related to the region. In addition, I could be involved in the community. My first stint was as a member of the Ashland Economic Development Commission.
Nontraditional student Richard Balzer, a Vietnam vet and small business owner who returned to school to earn his bachelor’s degree (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: What kind of diversity have you witnessed on this campus over the years?
VS: What’s important to me about this campus community is that we have a lot of returning students. Older students who have raised families or had careers bring a real depth and richness to the classroom discussion, a real commitment to their education.
Going down memory lane, I remember one year having a student call me about a night class. I called him back, and he had to walk across the factory floor, and there were all these men on the factory floor yelling, “There’s a lady on the phone for you!” It wasn’t like other places I’ve taught where students are eighteen to twenty-one and pretty homogeneous. That’s been a real joy about teaching here.
MM: What do you think is one of the most important things for students to take away from their undergraduate education?
VS: For me, what’s important when we send our students out into the world is not that they have a particular body of knowledge in their back pocket, but in gaining that body of knowledge, they’ve learned to think analytically, they’ve learned to process knowledge in a particular way, they can write, they can communicate. That’s the real value of the kind of education that we give our students. They won’t be pigeonholed into some kind of knowledge base when they graduate.
Lecturing on forest management issues (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: You’ve taught a course on sustainability in the past. That’s kind of a hot topic and one that’s particularly important both at SOU and in the world. What was your experience of teaching that course like?
VS: Everyone was passionate about the environment and living in a more sustainable way and reducing their carbon footprint. But no precise definition of sustainability exists. It’s a buzzword, easy to hijack to support various causes, which sometimes aren’t at all sustainable. So in this class, we depersonalized sustainability and looked at it more theoretically and structurally. We talked about how communities need to develop the infrastructure so people can be sustainable and how the market and the economy can encourage and enhance sustainability. We talked about different ways the government can provide incentives and support for sustainability. Students, therefore, learned now only how to measure their carbon footprint, they looked at sustainability as a social movement.
Evaluating a stream restoration project on a private ranch with the executive director of Wallowa Resources (driver) and Dr. Maria Fernandez-Gimenez of Colorado State University (courtesy of Victoria Sturtevant)
MM: How have your students help meet the local needs of the community?
VS: Our regional needs have changed over the years. A history of resource management has created our regional identity and landscape, for better and worse. We’ve been able to enjoy and benefit from the rich environment for generations, but at some cost to both the environment and people who depended on timber jobs. Our region has changed economically, and our cultural and social values about our environment have shifted. It’s important that we respect our natural resource legacy while changing and growing. I feel fortunate that I can enjoying our environmental riches, but I also share my understanding of environmental management in order that we might address both the social and environmental needs of the region. We have a lot of good, dedicated people who want to build partnerships with SOU, and we have a lot of expertise and willing labor on this campus, so those partnerships are important to teaching responsible and accountable stewardship.
Many highly skilled, charismatic people are drawn to this area and ready to contribute. Interestingly, many come here with a quest for community, often a community they haven’t experienced elsewhere. In areas like the Applegate Valley, they are willing put aside their differences regarding environmental values in the spirit of recreating the community, repairing the torn social fabric.
I’ve helped some of these partnership and collaborative stewardship groups work through some very difficult ideological conflicts as well as effecting change in the federal land management agencies. In the early 1990s, individuals were putting their professional and personal reputations on the line by talking to the “enemy,” recognizing they have to work collectively in order to protect natural resources and the economies that depend on them. Now, collaboration is mandated by legislation—federal and state planning rules. We’ve come a long way, and it’s been an honor to work with and study these pioneers during this period of history.
Ixel Sanchez window-shopping downtown (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: How would you characterize the local economy?
VS: For generations, we’ve been a boom-bust economy, at the whim of decisions made in Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. Over the years, a lot of the people who have lived in Seattle and San Francisco have been discovering what a wonderful place this is. Tourists come to Ashland and fall in love with it, and then they want to move here. Many of them live off what we call transfer payments, such as pensions and social security or their past home equity. Other people come and open small boutiques or operate B&Bs. That’s changed not only our economy but also our community in terms of the values people have and what’s important to them. As the population becomes older and wealthier, we’ve lost our young kids, as evidenced by the closing of elementary schools.
As a demographer, I could see that change coming. As a social scientist, I can serve as a facilitator and an interpreter of data, cultures, and viewpoints. I can help different interest groups talk to one another so people who often don’t have a voice aren’t left behind. I can also facilitate learning from the data we’ve collected. In the field, but also at SOU, I’ve stressed participation in learning and empowerment for everybody, not just those people for whom it’s easiest.
Local redwoods forest (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: You talked earlier about “sustainability” being a buzzword. Can you offer a fleshed-out, substantive definition that would be more useful than an ambiguous buzzword?
VS: Often, sustainability connotes living more lightly on the earth. We think of it as things like energy efficiency, riding our bikes to school or recycling. When some of us talk about sustainability, we refer to “three Es” or the triple bottom line. Sustainability is not only living more carefully and ecologically and it’s not only thinking about how we can do that economically, but it’s also about making sure it’s equitable. Making sure the benefits of our society are equally shared with everyone feeling empowered to make appropriate decisions. If people don’t see themselves as part of the solution, why will they sacrifice? Because I do think sustainability means we’re going to have to live in a different way. Sustainability is partly a grassroots process, and we need to grow it here in the way that’s most appropriate so we’re all participating.
It’s important to recognize that conservation has been an ongoing concern, whether for loggers or forest managers. The community-based stewardship movement recognizes that and embraces the idea that forests can best be cared for by the people who live in them, who depend on them for their livelihoods. For the last several years, I’ve been studying initiatives that shift decision making from Washington and regional offices down to forest and district levels and the communities in those forests. There’s a tension there because these forests are a national treasure, and they’re owned at the national level. But most of the forests on federal lands have been affected by peoples’ actions—if it’s not the miners who were burning them down so they could find their gold, then it’s the loggers who were cutting them down so we could have our two-by-fours to build houses during the post-war boom. And now we’re discovering that years of wildfire suppression have disrupted ecological processes important to forest health. So now we have forests that have been burned (or not burned) and harvested (often clear-cut and replanted with single species) and need to be taken care of. How are we going to do that? Who’s going to pay, and who’s left to do the work? I’ve been working with people who have been trying to address those questions with new paradigms. One of my jobs has been to try to articulate how we will benefit as a society from this new way of managing forests.
It’s difficult because the benefit stream from forests is not only income. It’s clean water, air, and carbon sequestration. But communities need economic security as well—schools that are open and soccer coaches, because young families can stay. And civic leadership and entrepreneurs, not just people who depend on their mailboxes for income. Social and ecological scientists need to work together to figure out how resilient economies and ecologies are connected.
It’s a tough nut to crack. It’s not linear; Western science doesn’t have all the answers. Technology alone is not going to get us where we need to be. First, we to need to define quality of life as distinct from opulence or wealth. Then we need to figure out how to provide access to that good life to more people—in fact, everyone. Until we do, we’ll be wasteful and destructive in a way we can’t sustain, as we’ve seen in the recent recession.
Environmental studies faculty (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: Tell me about the shift you have observed from discrete disciplines to a more interdisciplinary approach in both academics and problem solving.
VS: Our environmental studies program is going through some growing pains right now because in the past, we’ve been independent academics in cohesive disciplines that have bit off our own little pieces of the pie. Now, we’re shuffling that pie up and trying to redefine who we are.
We need to re-examine our separate disciplines because they are not the best way to approach our regional biosphere and ethnosphere. It’s not enough to approach these complex issues simply as technicians in the lab, although that can be a start. Foresters and land managers have told me they know how to create a healthy forest and conserve resources, but social values shift more rapidly than forests can catch up. Environmental studies, therefore, needs to include policy and social dimensions, not only biophysical.
On this campus, we are working to integrate the various disciplines and recognize that environmental issues are not discrete. Land managers work in ID (interdisciplinary) teams, why shouldn’t we? We need to create a learning environment where our students recognize they can’t know everything about an issue but can collaborate with others. One of the things that’s exciting about our community-based learning and capstone opportunities is that we give our students the skills they need to work as teams, to approach a problem in a multifaceted way, and to share knowledge. And to have confidence in their own expertise but also be open to others’ ways of knowing, not only other students and teachers but also the people who are working on these issues in their community and region. We need to teach students to be humble and inclusive, at the same time confident and articulate about what they know.
(left to right) With Jack Shipley, chairperson and founding board member of Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council, and Marty Main, forester with Small Woodland Services and City of Ashland contract forester (courtesy of Victoria Sturtevant)
MM: It takes exceptional diplomacy skills and empathy to bring conflicting parties together for discussion. How do you establish a sense of trust with the various groups you work with?
VS: I’ve learned to listen carefully to peoples’ core values and beliefs. I carefully help them see how their worldviews are connected to their interests and actions. When we can pull these disparate interests and viewpoints into common goals, we can build an appreciation for new ideas and creative solutions.
The other really important thing about trust—and I’ve learned this from people who have participated in groups like the Applegate partnership—is the value of taking personal risks. One can’t put on a white coat and retreat to a safe, remote place. We all have to put our values and interests on the table for scrutiny. Demonstrating that willingness to take risks is critical for getting others to do the same and to develop trust.
Environmental Studies and Sociology Professor Mark Shibley (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: You’re now an emeritus professor. In what ways are you still involved in the campus community, and what projects have you been focusing on lately?
VS: I still have research grants from federal agencies that involve SOU as a cooperator. Students still participate in the research, but mostly alums. I guest lecture and mentor a bit, but mostly I’m doing research and becoming a “citizen activist.”
Locally, I’ve been collaborating with Mark Shibley on research for the Ashland Forest Resiliency project in our watershed; regionally, I’ve been working with the Small Diameter Collaborative on setting up some pilot forest restoration projects that meet that triple bottom line I mentioned before.
I just finished contributing to a national project that evaluated the community and environmental benefits of USDA Forest Service ARRA (stimulus) projects, and I’m on a couple of other national teams studying how social and ecological resilience are related, especially regarding wildfire.
MM: What has been one of the most satisfying experiences of your career?
Most satisfying have been my students’ accomplishments. Four of my advisees have taught sociology at SOU; others have gone on to great places and accomplishments.