Teresa Damron Climbs a Tree and Saves a Forest
How a "typical middle-class suburban mom" saved a forest—and how you can, too.
Teresa Damron was, as she put it “just a typical middle-class suburban mom” as she approached her fiftieth birthday nine years ago. Her family ran the Sperry Tree Service in Eugene, Oregon, but Teresa worked out of the office; she left the actual tree-climbing to her male business partner, and her teenage son, Rob. Being more than “a few feet above mother earth,” she said, made her knees wobble.
Eugene offers an assortment of larger-than-usual trees, including old-growth forests sporting Douglas firs well above 200 feet. The town also takes pride in its streak of activism, a shared ideal that everyone should “do what you can to preserve our resources.”
All of these factors – Teresa’s career, her nervousness about climbing, her commitment to her hometown’s philosophy, and her mid-century pause―produced an epiphany: I could climb a big tree. I could conquer my fear. That would be the first of many epiphanies that followed as she worked her way up a 250-foot-tall Douglas fir.
“The adrenalin from being on rope during my climb put me in a hypersensitive state,” says Teresa of that first climb. “I noticed tiny insects running up and down the bark of this tree, nearly 100 feet up. I saw a red tree vole’s nest. The tree had been living longer than Europeans had inhabited North America, and it had taken these small rodents decades, and countless vole generations, to build this structure.
“I was overwhelmed with my incredible good fortune to be there. I thought: if the decision-makers who determine the fate of our old-growth, intact forests allowed themselves to experience the forest as I had, we might respect our forests more. It is impossible to climb into the canopy of an old-growth tree and not be moved. Making this experience possible for others is what motivated me to open Pacific Tree Climbing Institute. We all do what we can to make a difference. This is what I could do.”
And that is what she did: PTCI offers guided expeditions in the ancient trees of the old-growth forests of the Northwest. It uses the single-rope method – meaning you’re climbing a rope, not scraping off the bark with your boots. The purpose: to show that these legendary forests have more value as intact forests than as lumber. To share the idea that our forests belong to all of us, and that all of us must treat them as a legacy.
So far, it’s worked; PTCI has been instrumental in promoting the new sport of recreational tree-climbing and advocating the preservation of trees that might take six centuries to host such biodiversity (meaning that lumber companies cannot take down a 900-year-old tree and simply replace it with a new one).
But a funny thing happened on the way to changing the minds of politicians and “decision makers.” From the beginning, PTCI (which Teresa recently turned over to her son, Rob Miron, and another early guide, Jason Seppa) had a goal of providing educational experiences for young people. Partnering with middle-school teachers to get students up into the canopy has evolved into a thriving collaboration between PTCI, the U.S. Forest Service’s H.J. Andrews Research Forest, and the University of Oregon’s Environmental Leadership Program, giving birth to “Canopy Connections.” H.J. Andrews supplies the forests, the U. of O. students come up with a curriculum, and middle-school kids end up delighted not only with the biodiversity in the canopies but with their own ability to scale a giant Douglas fir.
Sure, Teresa says, “At first I thought I would take politicians climbing. You know, they tour mills. Recently Rob and Jason took a group of public forest managers climbing. They’ve devoted their careers to our public lands. Perhaps this is the more important group.
“But today’s kids have a larger stake in creating a healthy future, and they know it, than does your average middle-aged politician. So I guess you could say that we are helping trees educate our future decision makers, one middle-schooler at a time.”
What You Can Do
“Being right doesn’t really matter, because if you don’t have power, you can’t make things different,” says Todd Paglia, executive director of ForestEthics, an organization that has secured protection agreements for 65 million acres of forests in North America, largely by harnessing consumers’ purchasing power to persuade corporations to adopt more forest-friendly practices. How can you effect real change? Paglia has a few ideas.
If you have a minute . . .
Go to ForestEthics.org and enter your email address to receive action alerts with information on how you can email industry decision-makers or sign petitions with a single click. ForestEthics has an email list of over 100,000 people strong, who help persuade big companies with their buying dollars,” Paglia says.
If you have an hour . . .
Spend it in the woods or under a tree in silence, to remind yourself what you’re fighting for. “There are a million things the forests do for our world, but we’ve also seen how many good things happen to us when we go into the forest: blood pressure drops, immune response goes up, and we become more peaceful,” Paglia says.
If you have a month . . .
Volunteer to be a local community organizer or offer your skills to an organization working on forest conservation in your community. To get your hands in the soil, local chapters of the Sierra Club offer tree-planting and reforestation projects.
If you have $1,000 . . .
Support an organization that is actively working on large-scale forest protection, like ForestEthics, Rainforest Action Network, or Indigenous Environmental Network. “We know what we need to do ― and it’s not more research,” says Paglia. “Find a group who is building real power to make change happen. Looking at local or regional land trusts (is) great ― but we need to protect tens of millions of acres. This is the scale of protection required.”