Environment: Do As You Say...or Else

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1994

Environment: Do As You Say...or Else

The cost of choosing the wrong neighborhood
By Susan Mulcahy

Andy Kerr, conservation director for the Oregon Natural Resources Council, has firm beliefs about how much commercial logging should be allowed on government land: none. His organization was a plaintiff in the lawsuits that used the northern spotted owl to halt timber sales on millions of federal acres in the Northwest. He's also against public-lands grazing. Hence, Kerr is an unpopular guy in many rural communities, where he's referred to with such tart sobriquets as "Andy Cur."

Not surprisingly, antennae started wiggling last winter in eastern Oregon's Wallowa County--an area that teems with loggers and ranchers--when word got around that Kerr, 39, and his wife, Nancy Peterson, had purchased a $205,000, 2,000-square-foot log home in the town of Joseph. While not exactly Ponderosa-size, the house instantly became a symbol of liberal hypocrisy to many locals. In the first skirmishes in a war of bluster that's likely to continue now that Kerr has moved in (originally he planned to hit town in June but, citing a desire to "cool tempers," arrived early in March), his loggy dream-house has become the target of spirited drive-by obscenity hollering, trespassing, and a nationally televised heckle from Rush Limbaugh, who claimed that the lumber it consumed, if milled, could have built "ten ranch-style homes" of approximately the same size.

Kerr has been justifiably irate about the trespassing, which at one point inspired him to make threats of his own. "I and my wife and her three mean dogs are moving [to Joseph]," he told a newspaper, "and I'm bringing my gun collection." In the first incident, in February, two men drove up his driveway, banged on the door, and loudly invited Kerr outside. Kerr wasn't around yet, but his friend and temporary house-sitter, Kate Joost, was, and says she was terrified. The climax came four days later, when Joost found Spokane television reporter Tom Grant poking around on the porch with a camera. Grant had been fetched at the airport and brought to the house by two anti-Kerrists, Wallowa County's chief administrator, Judge Arleigh Isley, and county commissioner Pat Wortman. Limbaugh's segment prompted a new, steady stream of blue-language yodelers.

"I had no idea hell was such a beautiful place," says Joost, who has since moved on. As a souvenir of the experience she's ordered a T-shirt that reminds the world, I'M NOT ANDY KERR.

With Kerr, one question springs to mind: Why move where you're hated? "All my friends are having midlife crises," he says. "So I tried to provoke one." Kerr took a six-week hike on the Pacific Coast Trail, which awakened his need to move from Portland to someplace more rustic. To those who criticize his decision to purchase a log house, Kerr answers that buying any existing home is environmentally preferable to building a new one. In the "spirit of reconciliation" he withdrew his trespassing complaint, and he's dropped the guns-and-dogs talk. "I was feeling defensive," he explains, adding that "the dogs aren't that mean."

Judge Isley, however, doesn't sound ready for group hugs just yet. Still lambasting Kerr--"He knows as much about ecology as a hog does about a holiday"--he refuses to acknowledge that he did anything wrong by giving Grant "a ride," which he describes as a typical expression of local neighborliness.

Heck, he says, he'd even give Kerr a lift. To what end? "I might have a conversation with him that would bear some fruit."

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