Green Mail: The Social Construction of Environmental Issues through Letters to the Editor

Melody Hessing

Abstract: Press coverage of environmental issues constructs a public discourse of the dynamic relations between humans and the world they inhabit. In the daily newspaper, letters to the editor act as a forum for public dialogue on forestry issues, mediating perceptions of land use, economy, and environment. The publication of "green mail" concerning the proposed logging in the Carmanah Valley of British Columbia shapes and reflects issues of social conflict and economic transition. Through various means, letters to the editor uphold ideals of economic utility and democratic process as determinants of land use policy. Yet green mail challenges the dominant paradigm through its extension of public access to the agenda-setting process, its development of an ecological critique, and the articulation of an alternative environmental discourse.

Résumé : Les reportages sur l'environnement élaborent un discours public sur les rapports dynamiques entre les humains et le monde qui les entoure. À ce titre, le courrier des lecteurs dans les quotidiens joue le rôle de forum. Il est le site d'un dialogue public sur la foresterie, formant les perceptions publiques de l'emploi des terres, de l'économie et de l'environnement. La publication de « lettres vertes » (dans le sens d'écologiques) sur l'exploitation proposée des forêts de la vallée Carmanah en Colombie-Britannique reflète et maintient une interrogation sur les conflits sociaux et la transition économique. De diverses manières, le courrier des lecteurs soutient des idéaux d'utilité économique et de processus démocratiques comme devant sous-tendre les politiques d'emploi des terres. Les lettres vertes quant à elles posent un défi au paradigme dominant en proposant d'augmenter l'accès du public aux prises de décisions, en développant une critique fondée sur des principes écologiques, et en articulant un discours environnemental alternatif.


Human beings perceive and understand the biophysical world through the communication of symbolic representations of place. The "environment," composed of the biophysical systems supporting life on earth, is culturally constructed and negotiated through social interaction (Greider & Garkovich, 1994). What we know as the "environment" is constructed through social institutions - families, schools, religion, the media - which influence how and what we see and experience, and what we care about. Newspapers are a primary means of cultural transmission, for not only "reporting" the news, but for learning to perceive what is newsworthy and what is important.

The print media, especially daily newspapers, offer environmental coverage through reportage, editorial commentary, as well as documentation of environmental events and issues. The media serves an educational and political role in directing the popular discussion about environmental issues. Media coverage of environmental issues informs the public and provides the basis for political mobilization. The mass media promote "civil" discourse, providing discussion of matters of dominant public concern (Hackett & Zhao, 1998). Media coverage contributes to and upholds the politics of contemporary democracy by articulating a civic culture and fostering social cohesion around various issues.

In spite of the significance of the media as a source of environmental education and politicization, there has been little attention to the process by which environmental news is produced and disseminated. Letters to the editor, which act as a dynamic conversation about current issues, have been neglected both as a barometer and as an instrument of social change. This study investigates the social construction of environmental issues through the publication of letters to the editor. It explores the ways in which the economic, political, and geographic context of environmental reportage is developed through the posting of "green mail."

Environmental reporting in the newspaper

Environmental coverage has increased in the past four decades, in conjunction with developments in scientific knowledge, increased adverse "events" (such as oil spills and nuclear accidents), and a burgeoning environmental movement. Discussion about the links between media coverage and environmental awareness generally reflects a linear, transmission view of news (Hansen, 1991; Love, 1990). It is assumed that increased coverage corresponds to increased public awareness, and that "environmental meanings flow from certain sources through the media to the wider public" (Hansen, 1991, p. 446). Reportage of environmental matters is considered to be a preliminary stage in the mobilization of the public and the agenda-setting process. Newspapers notify the public about problems and provide information; they alert political actors to the character of emergent issues and the tides of public opinion. The media influence the kind and amount of environmental information accessible to the public and, in turn, generate public response to these issues.

Environmental issues have not been easily incorporated in the print media. The lack of environmental news networks along with the incongruence between daily-newspaper deadlines and the long-term time scale of environmental issues explain, to some extent, the under-representation of environmental news. Moreover, as Hansen observes, "environmental issues do not ordinarily articulate themselves" (1991, p. 449). The scientific character of many environmental issues does not translate easily into news coverage. The news media focus on direct, visible, and obvious environmental crises rather than "open-ended issues which are continental and extend over long periods of time" (Hackett & Gruneau, 2000, p. 172). "The disproportionate coverage - from the scientific perspective on risk - of chemical incidents, earthquakes and airplane accidents probably reinforces the public's well-documented tendency to overestimate sudden and violent risks and underestimate chronic ones" (Greenberg, Sachsman, Sandman, & Salome, 1989, p. 276).

Media are event-driven, and "much news is coverage of announcements, public debates and demonstrations" (Keating and Gallon, 1997), which deflects attention from chronic, long-term issues. When environmental pressure groups define news, they do so "primarily through the forum of 'demonstration or public protest action' (Hansen 1991, p. 450). While public protest over environmental issues may attract attention as a magnet to news coverage, it also suffers in credibility. The reactive character of much environmental protest and its lack of institutional legitimacy hamper the ability of public interest groups to act as primary definers of news.

News coverage in the print media is popularly understood as objective, independent of the issues it reports and exempt from political partisanship. Yet there are numerous constraints to the impartiality of newspaper coverage. Political agendas are served by the news industry, and the influence and control of corporate interests jeopardizes the impartiality of reporting. Inequalities among the political and media elites, news sources, and other interests shape the production, character, and amount of news coverage (Domfeh, 1999; Fletcher & Stahlbrand, 1992). And the increasing concentration of the print media ownership restricts the availability of alternative coverage.

Although there is coverage of environmental issues in Canadian journalism,

the Canadian media do a rather lackluster job of covering the systemic and ongoing connections between global environmental degradation and the ordinary everyday workings of the economy, including the pursuit of corporate profit and the promotion of consumerism and materialism as the path to personal fulfillment. (Hackett & Gruneau et al., 2000, p. 169)

The press is an industry supported largely by advertising sales that in turn are dependent on readership numbers. Off-road vehicles, luxury clothing, and household items and other hallmarks of the consumer culture sell the same newspaper that reports environmental degradation. In keeping with a dominant social paradigm promoting the maximization of material wealth (Dunlap, 1983), coverage of environmental issues would be expected to favour industrial over non-consumptive interests. Sherman & Gismondi have observed how headlines reflect "upbeat wording, images of competition, jock vocabulary, and team spirit" (1997, p. 17) to convey corporate interests. In this light, more "environmental" coverage is provided in the business section in the context of resource extraction, sales, and production than elsewhere in the daily paper.

Thus, while newspapers provide an instrument for the articulation and dissemination of environmental knowledge, they are also the product of socioeconomic forces that remain diffused and unacknowledged as factors in their production. The direct dependence of the newspaper on processed pulp as newsprint is invisible in reporting on softwood trade or forestry practices. Press ownership, format, economics, and culture influence the character and content of environmental issue reportage, but are externalized as factors of news production. The "regime of objectivity" (Hackett & Zhao, 1998) of the press legitimates the authority of both the media and contemporary governments.

Letters to the editor

This study complements the above critiques by focusing on the dynamics of media coverage, specifically through the "letters to the editor" section of the newspaper. Letters on environmental issues, referred to in this paper also as "green mail," are written by members of the public in response to newspaper coverage of events or issues. They are selected and published by editors in this section of the newspaper as an ongoing feature. Letters to the editor are reflexive, referring to language, issues, and discussion that have previously been reported and discussed in the newspaper. Their publication creates the appearance of dialogue. They make visible the individual response of reader to reportage, but they also provide for public response to both events and to editorial positions. They define the salience of issues for readers. They indicate not just what people are thinking about, but how they are thinking about it.1 Letters to the editor uphold the democratic process. Written by members of the public, they articulate competing points of view, balancing and amending prior coverage. They represent and uphold the "paper's image of providing an open and representative forum for its readers" (Hackett & Zhao, 1998, p. 91).

Although these letters appear to reflect an open dialogue on current events, they reflect editorial policy, implicit both in terms of the prior selection of subject matter to which they respond and in the process by which they are selected. The criteria by which they are selected are invisible and discretionary, and there is no editorial accountability concerning their publication. Letters to the editor do not necessarily represent a full spectrum of topics or positions, nor do they identify which issues or positions are those most widely endorsed by the public. They are not a public opinion poll. Although letters to the editor appear to be a conversation,

it is a conversation that is very much structured in dominance. Editors have the overriding power to select and reject, to alter, delete, juxtapose, and to affix headlines and photographs, so that the writers of letters are always either being silenced or granted permission to speak. (Hackett & Zhao 1989, p. 91)

Letters comprise a significant process in the construction of environmental discourse. This study of letters to the editor observes the ways in which economic change and social conflict, especially with regards to forestry and land use issues, are culturally negotiated. Green mail provides a forum for political discussion of land use policy; it becomes an arena of conflict. Support or opposition to environmental policy is expressed, but letters do more than reflect the news. Their exchange of views "puts a human face" on current issues, transports issues into the everyday world inhabited by readers. Letters comprise a process of cultural diffusion through which new definitions of environment emerge. Letters to the editor are part of the agenda-setting process through which land use policies are contested and revised.


Forestry conflicts have been the most visible environmental issue in British Columbia during the past century. British Columbia forests are extensive, covering almost 51% of the land base, and logging continues to be the most economically significant resource industry of the province (Travers, 1993, p. 185). Timber cuts escalated in recent decades, and 50% of all the public timber cut in the province has been felled in the last 13 years (Travers, 1993, p. 189). Yet in recent decades the direct forest industry percent of the gross domestic product has decreased from a high of 15% to about 10% (Travers, 1993, p. 197). Due to increasing timber scarcity and inaccessibility and increased reliance on technology for timber processing, the rate of harvesting has diminished, and employment in the forest sector has dropped. The transition of the Canadian economy from a reliance on staple resource exports to a more diversified service and information economy has not been smooth.

During this period of escalating harvests and economic diversification, forestry policies have been challenged by public-interest groups, which have identified problems ranging from amounts and rates of cut to logging practices. The Greenpeace Foundation, Sierra Club, Western Canada Wilderness Committee, and Friends of Clayoquot Sound are among those organizations expressing concern over the destruction of old-growth forests through non-sustainable timber harvests. A climate of increased environmental protest, technological change, decreased employment, and the pressures of a competitive global economic regime have contributed to the newsworthiness of forestry issues. Public-interest groups have identified many areas of the province slated for logging - the Stein Valley, the Valhalla, Clayoquot Sound, and the Stoltmann - as warranting protection.

The Carmanah Valley is a watershed in central Vancouver Island, one of the province's remaining temperate old-growth forests. MacMillan Bloedel held licences to log this region in the 1980s. Public-interest organizations opposed the logging of the valley, calling for its protection. As rationales for protection, they cited the rapid decline in the number of British Columbia old-growth forests, their biological and aesthetic significance, as well as global declines and uniqueness.2 Public protests escalated in 1989 and 1990. In 1991 Carmanah Pacific Park was created, protecting the western half of the contested area, the lower Carmanah, and permitting logging in the remainder. The Province agreed to compensate MacMillan Bloedel for the loss of timber harvesting rights in the preserved area. In 1994, the government announced the creation of Upper Carmanah Provincial Park, completing protection of the contested area.

The focus in this paper is on the ways in which the news media contributes to the varied and evolving perception of forests - from timber (for harvesting) to areas to be protected for ecological, aesthetic, and recreational purposes. The Carmanah dispute reflects not only a regional issue in the evolution of the British Columbia resource econoy, but a larger social and ideological transition from the "dominant social paradigm" of industrial societies identified by Dunlap (1983) to a "new ecological paradigm." The dominant social paradigm views nature as a limitless resource for human exploitation, emphasizing consumption and the accumulation of wealth as limitless. In contrast, a new ecological paradigm recognizes the importance of maintaining the balance of natural systems, especially through limits on population growth and industrial development (Harper, 2001).

This study investigates letters to the editor concerning the proposed logging of the Carmanah Valley. It asks several questions about the coverage of environmental issues: In what ways do letters to the editor contribute to the public debate on environmental and economic issues? How do these letters portray forestry as an arena of social and economic transition? What do letters to the editor tell us about environmental reportage? Is the newspaper a reliable source of news? In what capacities does the newspaper, through its publication of green mail, act as an instrument of social cohesion and social change? In response to these questions, the study identifies the salience of letters to the editor by examining their characteristics as well as their contributions to a public environmental discourse.

This study is based on the content analysis of letters to the Editor published in the Vancouver Sun newspaper.3 The letters printed in the Vancouver Sun regarding logging in the Carmanah Valley represent the largest group of responses to any environmental topic in a three-year period of study (1998-1991) at the crest of traditional timber harvesting regimes in British Columbia. Forty-three (15%) of the 295 letters examined from 1998 to 1990 addressed the subject of logging in the Carmanah Valley. The Vancouver Sun, the major British Columbia newspaper, reported on the issue and carried a series written by Nicole Parton in support of logging.

Karlberg notes the use of several "frames" used in news reporting to contextualize environmental issues: the disaster narrative, the wounded earth metaphor, the financial context, the warfare frame, and an adversarial frame, pitting loggers against environmentalists (1997, p. 23.) This study confirms the adoption of similar frames in letters to the editor concerning forestry land use issues. The publication of green mail in this study actively constructs the following: the representation of diverse environmental interests, the assertion of economic utility as the basis of policy, the invocation of authority as a legitimation of position, the articulation of ecological interests, and the construction of social conflict.

The representation of interest: Who speaks for the trees?

An initial investigation of Carmanah green mail is directed to questions of authorship and representation. Interests, the definition of one's relation to the issue, are self-designated. Writers represent constituencies to which they claim relevance. They establish themselves as involved in, impacted by, and/or knowledgeable about the issue under discussion. The identification of multiple and competing interests in letters to the editor is congruent with the pluralist assumption that a variety of interests, and perspectives, are represented within the larger policy process. In the context of the Carmanah Valley, green mail is posted by stakeholders who establish themselves as interested parties to the issue of logging and preservation, primarily within the context of existing economic activity (allocation of timber licences, regulation of forestry practices).

Letters adopt a position or stance consistent with their interests. Positions define where people stand on an issue; how they represent an interest. In this study, 16 of 43 letters (37%) support logging in the Carmanah Valley. In comparison, 23 (53%) are opposed to logging and support the preservation of the area. Three writers (7%) endorse logging, provided that it takes place within a larger context of preservation. Writers employ a number of methods to adopt these positions: they represent a variety of interests, frame their argument by invoking economic and ecological perspectives, and legitimate their voice through claims to authority.

Letters to the editor extend representation beyond forestry companies and independent loggers to incorporate a range of voices. Because the Carmanah Valley, like more than 90% of British Columbia, exists as publicly owned Crown lands, all citizens share a de facto interest in the use of this property. Writers invoke notions of "community," most frequently in terms of the provision of employment through logging. In the context of preservation, letters cite the needs of future generations: they write on behalf of society, or even all of humanity. Green mail extends interest to encompass notions of biodiversity, by speaking on behalf of other species. The range of interests identified by letters extends the field of stakeholders, those assumed to represent an interest in the discussion.

Residence is a standard means of representation, achieved through the printing of the author's name and address with each letter. Residency in an area, usually marked by the author's address, connotes knowledge of a place as well as membership in a community. Residence establishes interest. People speak for and about an issue, and they speak from a place, both physically and ideologically. Studies on news indicate that proximity and local generation of news increase the likelihood of coverage (Domfeh, 1999).

In terms of regional representation, the majority of letters in this sample are of urban origin. Of the 43 letters examined, 27 (63%) were addressed from the Lower Mainland, four (9%) from the Southern Vancouver Island/Victoria region, seven (16%) from other parts of Vancouver Island, four (9%) from other rural areas of the province. How can we explain the urban origins of letters, when the area under discussion is located in the Vancouver Island hinterland?

The Vancouver Sun is an urban publication, primarily serving B.C.'s Lower Mainland, an economically diverse region. The disproportionately high number of urban postings of green mail, and the general endorsement of protection of the Carmanah voiced by writers, may be explained in terms of urban bias and economic transition. Residents of small, rural communities are more likely to continue to be dependent on resource extraction as a livelihood in comparison with their urban counterparts. Writers of letters are accountable for their words, additionally significant in a community in which the logging industry may be the prime source of paycheques. The urban, service-based economy provides a more anonymous lectern for environmental advocacy. Yet public ownership of the Carmanah Valley and other Crown lands and recognition of the ecological significance of temperate rain forests extends a collective stewardship of provincial forests to all citizens.

Is gender a factor in the representation of interest? The majority of Carmanah green mail is written by men, with a ratio of three letters written by men to one by women. Of 43 letters, 26 (60%) were written by men, eight (19%) by women, and eight (19%) were gender-neutral (identified only by initials, rather than names). Although this is a small sample, the overrepresentation of male authors might be explained in terms of the male-dominant forest industry, in which men comprise the majority of employees and hold the positions of authority, both in labour and in management (Egan & Klausen, 1998).

The representation of interest through geographic and gender identification contributes to the establishment of boundaries and stakeholders of an issue. Writers of green mail identify the Carmanah as a terrain of more than local and direct interest; it is an area of urban and provincial significance as well. As writer Philip Haddock of Vancouver states, "The forest industry does not own the Carmanah Valley; it belongs to the people of British Columbia" (August 27, 1988). Geographic address transcends the local roots of interest to confirm the greater social significance of forestry and preservation issues for the general population. Letters extend interests beyond their conventional utilitarian and industrial base to incorporate a more diffuse and varied public. While men, more directly employed in this sector, write the majority of letters, the significant contribution of women to this debate marks as well the diffusion of forestry issues into the public political arena.

Framing the argument: Economic and ecological perspectives

Letters to the editor are written to support a range of positions with regards to logging and/or preservation. They reflect as well as construct a debate that becomes public in part through newspaper exposure; they extend the public discussion by revisiting and reconfiguring the issues. Economic relevance is identified by letters as the primary definition of interest and the basic issue for consideration in the Carmanah dispute. Economic interest is the source of conflict as well as the means of justifying writers' perspectives and arguments in the discussion. Those who endorse logging most typically justify their position in terms of the employment of loggers and mill workers. The timber industry is upheld for its provision of jobs for loggers, profits for corporations, and continued support for communities. Forestry is constructed as economically beneficial to those employed by the forest industry, and to the province as a whole. Logging maintains a tradition of "business as usual" in a province traditionally based on resource extraction. Several letters to the editor defend logging's provision of "real jobs in real communities," supporting:

dozens of families who depend on the planned harvest of the hemlock, balsam and cedar timber in the valley beyond the spruce reserve. They too wish to remain in their communities forever and they will if the rest of the Carmanah Valley remains part of a working forest.

Economic arguments like this support the labour of loggers and increasingly locate resource activity within an ecological framework. Ecological economics arguments are an axe that can swing both ways: both in favour of logging and in favour of preservation. Preservation of the Carmanah Valley is framed in economic terms, pointing to the endangerment of the timber industry in old-growth forests. "If logging jobs truly depend on removing trees from areas that have never been logged, then the jobs will vanish one day soon anyway - and our forests will be gone as well" (Larry Roberts, June 22, 1989). Preservationist letters address the changing character of the industry.

Jobs in the forest industry have been lost to modernization, greater efficiency, and corporate restructuring. Further jobs will be lost because reforestation has historically been inadequate, because the industry has consistently cut beyond the sustainable yield, and because felled timber is sometimes under-utilized. (Robert Powell, July 6, 1989)

Letters advocating protection use an ecological approach to extend and challenge conventional economic parameters. They speak to economic transition, arguing that tourism should take precedence over forestry as a sustainable industry for British Columbia's future; and accordingly that the forests must be kept "super-natural" to benefit this emerging industry. Proponents of preservation argue against the size, scope, and profit motive of multinational forestry companies, which are accused of ruining the world for human and animal survival.

Letters to the editor defend almost any position by supporting, contesting, and reworking the contemporary economic paradigm. While newspaper reportage assumes the existence (and viability) of the dominant resource paradigm, letters flesh out its social, economic, and ecological foundations. Letters expand the boundaries and context of the issue beyond the marketplace. Pro-protection letters attack not only corporations, but government policies and practices associated with traditional resource management.

That wilderness preservationists and loggers now squabble over such tiny parcels as Carmanah is testimony to the fact that this province's record of establishing parks and reserves is as poor as its record in preserving the forests that support the forest industry. (Robert Powell, July 6, 1989)

An ecological framework is used not only to extend and reshape the conventional economic paradigm, but to introduce additional criteria for preservation. Ecological positions are used to support, but more frequently to challenge, the proposed logging of the Carmanah. Many writers argue that old-growth forests should be kept in perpetuity, as national or global heritage sites. Others state that silviculture (reforestation) practices are inadequate and should be improved to ensure the viability of the forests for future generations.

Writers also use cultural resonance to establish their position, both in favour of logging, but more typically as a justification for preservation. Both editorial commentary and green mail embroider the Carmanah forest with symbolic meaning. Although her editorials endorse logging on the grounds of employment, Nicole Parton begins one piece with a celebration of the ecological, aesthetic, and historical heritage of this place.

The Carmanah is rich with hemlock, balsam and western red cedar, as well as ancient lichen and moss-draped Sitka spruce that will draw moisture from the mists of the open Pacific and rich nutrients from the floodplain silt . . . . Christopher Columbus was just beginning to explore the new world when these mighty trees were seedlings. Michelangelo had only just conceived David. (February 16, 1990)

Letters to the editor conform to an adversarial discourse that has been popularly defined as a debate between pro-logging (economic) and pro-preservation (ecological) forces. On closer examination, letters in fact challenge this dichotomy, either by appropriating the opponent's frame, as does Ms. Parton in this excerpt, or by extending the range of arguments in defence of one's position.

Letters favouring the protection of the Carmanah reflect a socioeconomic transition from a resource economy to one that incorporates, if nominally, ecological principles. Industry rhetoric has increasingly adopted terminology such as sustainable yield and the eco-certification of timber to accommodate an ecological approach. The new terms of reference required for this political and economic transition are identified by letters to include consideration of ecological principles in land use decisions, greater public input in resource decisions, consideration of a greater range of stakeholders' interests in policy formation, transparency in policy implementation, and accountability by both industry and government. The Carmanah letters contest a traditional economic determinism and point to the emergence of a more ecologically informed and socially accountable framework for land use decisions.

The voice of authority: The legitimation of position

Interest in an issue is bolstered through authority. By presenting themselves as authoritative speakers, writers legitimate their position. Speakers from all perspectives invoke claims to authority, but some have higher credibility. Hansen observes that media coverage of environmental issues is authority-oriented, but that "environmental activists do not fare well as 'primary definers' " (1991, p. 449). Interest groups are underrepresented as sources used in environmental coverage relative to government officials, scientists, and private industry (Greenberg et al., 1989). Letters to the editor draw on authority to support positions as well as to attack and discredit others. Bases of authority build on professionalism to include institutional practices, science, technology, and factual data. Authority also is constructed through residence and regional location.

Writers of green mail claim an interest in the Carmanah logging issue through the construction of profession as well. Letters to the editor may refer to authors' professional activity as a basis for their knowledge about forestry practices. Professional identity, if disclosed, may define position. Affiliation with a forestry company typically denotes a preference for logging, while environmental group membership is assumed to represent a position endorsing protection. Authors reveal affiliation with a professional association where it is relevant to their position or to legitimate their argument.

Authority is provided through personal reference to professional membership, typically an affiliation with forestry. Employment by the Ministry of Forests or the forest industry reveals a predisposition toward logging, but it also demonstrates experience in "the field." Writers refer to their own professional knowledge and experience to make themselves additionally credible. Knowledge of forestry practices or government regulations refers to a broader context of expertise beyond the issue of the Carmanah. Professional affiliation acknowledges bias, but it can also reframe the issue. The following writer shifts the frame by integrating facts and profession with an ecological, long-term perspective in his endorsement of logging the Carmanah.

When people look at a clearcut they see ugliness. That is a fact. But it is not . . . environmental disaster . . . . As a forester I see potential, a new forest. A forest grows slowly by the human time frame. A clearcut is not the end of the forest, it is the start of a new one, a midpoint in succession. (S.R. Holmes, August 28, 1989)

Letters refer to "science" as a means of adding authority to voice. Reference to scientific research extends the voice of any writer to a recognized authority, either an institution or a body of research. This extends the singular voice so that it becomes plural, establishes reference to an interest that exists prior to and separate from the current Carmanah issue, and provides it with legitimacy.

Reference to facts and data contributes to authority. Letters cite quantitative data to support their position, which makes an argument "scientific" and contributes to notions of objectivity (Richards & King, 2000). Reliance on documented facts counters the charge of "emotionalism" frequently used to discredit environmental groups. This letter, from Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, uses factual information to support logging in the Carmanah:

According to Decima's poll, the public remains ignorant of details about Carmanah, despite media attention. And the fewer facts people have, the more likely they are to support preserving the entire valley . . . . The fact is, less than two per cent of the valley is made up of Sitka spruce, and those giant trees are in no danger of being logged. MacMillan Bloedel has proposed a 538-hectare Sitka spruce sanctuary, surrounded by a 1,912-hectare buffer zone to protect the valley's largest trees. (G.W. Griffith, February 16, 1990)

The language of resource management also contributes to authority. Use of trade jargon, from annual allowable cuts (AACs) to "sustainable yield," conveys experience in the logging profession while it legitimates the harvesting of timber.

The war in the woods and the war in words: The construction of conflict

Media coverage does not create environmental issues. It does, however, shape and direct the way in which these issues are viewed and understood. The editorial process distills multiple interests into a debate between conflicting interests, analogous to coverage of sports, politics, and war. "Framing a story as conflict, with two clearly polarized parties, brings an element of drama to the story" (Richards & King, 2000, p. 483). The short length of submissions, emotional or volatile comments, reference to statements made by identified sources, and dramatic and personal character of letters to the editor confirm and elevate this conflict.

This study supports observations of the pervasive use of an adversarial frame in environmental news coverage, in which loggers are "pitted against 'environmentalists' in a struggle over the apparently conflicting interests of 'jobs' versus 'preservation' " (Karlberg, 1997, p. 23). Green mail portrays the Carmanah issue as a contest between two sides, "excluding the likely possibility that there are several sides in any given dispute, simplifying the complexities of the issue, and often exacerbating the conflict" (Richards & King, 2000, p. 479).

Letters distill concerns about land use policy into pro- and anti-logging positions. A 1995 study by Janet Ready on logging as an environmental issue found that media coverage was confined to three sources: environmental groups, government, and the timber industry. "By narrowing their focus to the perspectives of these three groups, the media played up the drama and conflict between 'loggers' and 'environmentalists' (with government standing in as the referee" (Hackett & Gruneau, 2000, p. 170). Letters to the editor perpetuate this narrow identification of interests by responding to already identified sources and positions. While they may expand the frame of the debate through the identification of alternative interests, they uphold the adversarial character of the issue.

Conflict over land use issues perpetuates an adversarial climate. Letters to the editor in this study often embraced an antagonistic style, whether they supported or opposed logging. Opposition is conveyed by direct critiques of an individual or group perceived as rivals or opponents. The pro-logging position is justified not only through a defence of community and employment, but in a verbal attack on environmental groups. Defenders of logging take an aggressive approach "by attacking the facts and figures of their critics and by portraying environmentalists as extremists who reject other strong values in society" (Sherman & Gismondi, 1997, p. 25). Those who support logging often accuse environmentalists of emotionalism and an illegitimate base of power. "We cannot allow preservationists to lock up any more of our major forests on the basis of emotional issues alone," states J. Dave Karran of Williams Lake (March 19, 1990).

In fact, those supporting logging also invoke emotional rhetoric. The Vancouver Sun's publication of a series of editorials written by Nicole Parton in support of logging promotes an oppositional dialogue. Ms. Parton begins one piece through an emotional description of the Carmanah. "It is without question the single most beautiful place I have ever visited. Breathtaking. Spectacular. Magnificent . . . . To stand among these towering spires is to worship in nature's cathedral - wondrous." From this aesthetic position, the editorial then attacks environmentalists so as to support logging.

Carmanah is also the next great battleground in the green war, because some want it all . . . . They believe the riches of this special place are theirs to use as they wish - their own exclusive preserve . . . . A single-minded selfishness has laid claim to the Carmanah Valley, but the rapaciousness is not the forest industry. It is the greedy hunger of B.C.'s preservationists. (February 16, 1990)

While letters from all perspectives may be emotional in tone, environmentalists are more likely to be labelled as such. In response to this Nicole Parton editorial, one writer states:

In fear of being labelled an "emotional environmentalist," I ask Ms. Parton to save her Carmanah columns for her grandchildren to read. I'm sure her foresight, or lack of it, will be painfully obvious. (Ron Abrahams, February 26, 1990)

Although letters may be directed to the statements of a previous writer or editorial, they have the potential to transform the personal to the political. Verbal attacks may not only be personally antagonistic, but may fail to identify sources and solutions to the issue. Karlberg (1997) notes, for instance, that if loggers' interests were framed in terms of job security rather than personal enmity, economic alternatives such as value-added manufacturing could be considered. Personal conflict is a "green herring"; it casts the conflict in individual terms rather than in terms of structural issues of corporate profit, environmental sustainability, and long-term employment.

Ms. Parton's editorial unites logging supporters in a common cause, identifies environmentalists as the key problem, uses an inverse economic rationale (the greed of preservation as opposed to that of capitalism) for its argument, and adopts affective rhetoric, invoking the military rhetoric of "the green war." This editorial sparked many responses in support of the protection of the Carmanah.

I am incensed at Nicole Parton's Feb. 16 diatribe about "the greedy hunger of B.C.'s preservationists" who want to establish "their private playground in the Carmanah Valley . . . . This is pure Newspeak. If war is peace, then yes, the green generation is the greed generation. If, however, war is war and peace is peace, then any straight-thinking British Columbian will realize it's the forest industry that is greedy and that preservationists are simply trying to save some of what precious little untouched nature is left in B.C. (Michael Mundhenk, February 26, 1990)

The either/or character of debates proposes a singular solution to the issue, rather than accommodation or a search for additional explanations and resolutions. "Extremism becomes a ticket for admission to the public sphere, . . . (and its proponents) tend to reduce empathy, lessen willingness to listen and close minds" (Karlberg, 1997, p. 23). The majority of letters are oppositional, based on an either/or strategy.

Strategically, to offer a compromise admits defeat and validates an alternative framework. Compromise also indirectly supports the legitimacy of existing positions. It assumes a balance between opposing sides. A media representative from the forest industry here opposes "compromise" due to the perceived power of preservation forces: "I suspect many other members of the media agree that compromise on this issue is necessary, but find it uncomfortable to run against the views of the skillful and well-financed preservation groups" (D.M. Fraser, February 26, 1990). Opposition diminishes the potential for compromise by positing competing positions as contrary rather than complementary. Compromise may also be viewed as concession. Vicky Husband, of the Sierra Club of Western Canada, states, "Our old-growth forests have already been 'compromised' all over the province. We must not let the integrity of Carmanah suffer the same fate" (February 16, 1990).

The adversarial nature of letters to the editor is noteworthy for several reasons. The climate fostered by this exchange is provocative and generates public interest in an issue. The dualism portrayed by letters pits loggers against preservationists, rural residents against urban, resource against service economy, logging jobs against eco-tourism, short-term jobs against long-term employment. An adversarial approach is consistent with the competitive nature of economic forces. The oppositional character of this debate echoes the spirit of a market framework, focused on global economic competition. Evidence of competing views confirms the impartiality of the media. Rather than an ecological economic paradigm that would situate economic activity within or in conjunction with an ecological framework, this debate restricts innovation and new solutions. The Carmanah debate reflects an undercurrent of anthropocentrism, with human interests (employment and profit) represented in opposition to, rather than contained within, those of natural systems. Adversarial arguments obscure moral and ethical issues, reducing issues to disputes of material self-interest. In this way, the news media "promote a kind of ethical irresponsibility by framing public discourse as an ethical void" (Karlberg, 1997, p. 27).

Letters to the editor, forestry, and environmental discourse

The news media not only identify subjects for discussion, they tell us what and how to think (Mazur & Lee, 1993, p. 682). Newspaper reportage of environmental issues provides a forum for public discussion of environmental issues, while it constructs the character and parameters of these issues. Letters to the editor confirm and reproduce the salience of identified environmental issues, but also compose, both socially and ideologically, what we know as the "environment" and how we know it. Green mail forges an environmental discourse that links writers and readers to one another, to a political economic landscape in transition, and to the biophysical environment in which they are situated. Letters identify and extend stakeholders to represent a range of interests potentially affected by logging and provide for communication among multiple and competing interests. Letters invoke authority to support positions; they make a case through reference to a context bounded not only by economic parameters, but by scientific and ecological criteria as well. Positions are articulated, authority is invoked, and arguments are defined through this conversation.

Letters confirm and perpetuate the adversarial character of forestry issues through debates that are not only substantively based, but adopt personal and emotional tactics of communication and argument. Letters are a verbal medium expressing social conflict, but they also mediate and direct the conflict; they are a venue in which the "war in the woods" is fought as a war of words. The oppositional character of environmental reporting is perpetuated in the individual and responsive character of letters. Yet the complexity of positions they articulate complicates and diffuses the oppositional character of the "fighting frame." Green mail extends the context and content of the public discussion on forestry issues. While it reconfirms the significance of economic criteria in environmental policy formation, it also makes visible and validates alternative values, from the preservation of biodiversity to the well-being of future generations.

Letters to the editor convey, challenge, and mediate specific substantive information; they create an arena of discussion about environmental issues. In this arena, environmental discourse on forestry issues is identified as issue-specific, newsworthy, economically salient, and the locus of conflict. Logging the Carmanah Valley is flagged by green mail as important and controversial, both in terms of its immediate and local ramifications and symbolically as a resource issue replicated in other provinces throughout the country. Letters confirm newsworthiness, reflecting the controversial nature of the issue and warranting attention.

The limitations of the newspaper as a medium appropriate to environmental coverage are also revealed by this study. The construction of a polemic between two contrasting positions controls the flow of discussion so as to obscure the existence of more chronic and pervasive environmental issues. While environmental issues elicit attention as a momentary crisis, "the more subtle, ongoing, and systemic threats to our ecological survival continue to be under-reported" (Hackett & Gruneau, 2000, p. 170). Other systemic features of the environment are less likely to be identified and discussed. Environmental systems are complex and interrelated, while media reportage is typically issue-specific and discrete. Thus, those issues most likely to be featured by letters are short-term and immediate, acute rather than chronic issues. While forestry issues may be generic to contemporary British Columbia, only contested forestry practices, such as the proposed logging of a specific watershed, will likely be a news issue. Although technological innovation and a general drawdown of available timber have decreased the long-term potential for employment for loggers, these trends are less likely to attract headlines.

Furthermore, the economic interests of newspapers reflected in their dependence on advertising revenues as well as the potential alliance of editorial interests with other economic actors diminishes their potential neutrality. This limits the usefulness of newspaper reportage as a reliable source of environmental news. Rather, the newspaper functions as a limited interactive barometer, identifying, sorting, and embellishing discussion of events of public interest, within frames of reference that have already been established by the conventional political and economic framework.

Letters to the editor thus uphold the democratic potential of journalism but they exhibit limited potential to challenge news content and editorials. The vested economic interests of the newspaper are obscured and neutralized through the publication of green mail, which provides an accessible forum for public participation. Letters provide opportunity for the mobilization of the public and enhance their access to the agenda-setting process. The public becomes a "primary definer" of news through its participation in this process. Letters to the editor form a selected public commentary on environmental policy, generally upholding and extending both the form and content of existing issues. Although letters complement newspaper reportage, they accomplish much more than the confirmation of old news. They extend the parameters of media discussion to include different interests, perspectives, and responses to an issue. They integrate and divide issues, writers, regions, and positions.

Environmental conflict is confirmed, embodied, and perpetuated by green mail. The salience of environmental issues to the public is confirmed as well; letters provide a watchdog function, indicating the public pulse of environmental coverage. This in turn provides editors with an evaluative mechanism through which they continue to identify newsworthy issues. Letters not only reflect a point of view, they are published intentionally to do so. By providing a dynamic public arena for discussion, letters (re)construct stakeholders who express an interest in forestry and environmental issues. In turn, green mail upholds the objectivity of the press as a neutral source generating and mediating environmental discourse. As this study indicates, newsworthy events are and will continue to be directed by an active and engaged newspaper readership. As the media continue to evolve, opportunities for feedback and participation in the social construction of environmental news have the potential to expand.

Letters to the editor enliven and personalize environmental issues; they extend the parameters of our symbolic construction of the environment; they redefine issues and point to new forms of resolution; they have the potential to influence policy. In this example, following years of controversy the Carmanah Valley was protected by legislation, arguably in response to public concern expressed by green mail. The lower Carmanah valley was declared a provincial park in 1990, and the upper Carmanah valleys were added to the park in 1995, thereby completing the protection of the Carmanah Creek watershed.

Possible responses to conflict as well as ideas for a new relationship between humans and the environment may be gleaned through a reading of the daily newspaper. While the news is inherently an exercise in anthropocentrism, letters illustrate how it may be perceived, framed, and written with an eye to the biophysical context in which human events take place. Rather than a linear parade of discrete events, human activity may in this context come to be understood as an ongoing relationship with a dynamic environment.

Letters to the editor play a crucial, if unacknowledged, role in the formation of environmental discourse. They identify interests and actors, positions and arguments that configure the policy agenda. They mediate social conflict and social change. Letters reinforce the dominant political and economic paradigm, confirming the priority of market-based economic forces, a plurality of interests, and an accessible policy process. Green mail also reshapes this paradigm, introducing ecological interests as political economic forces and expanding our understanding of the complexity and significance of the biophysical environment.


  1. Mazur & Lee, summarizing public-opinion research, state, "Put succinctly, the news media are not successful in telling us what to think, but they do succeed in telling us what to think about" (1993, p. 682).

  2. The Sierra Club, for instance, states that B.C.'s rain forests, which comprise almost one quarter of the world's remaining ancient temperate rain forests, face destruction due to the high rates of clear-cutting (, p. 2).

  3. Former students Ken Schulz and Michael Shaw contributed to the research for this paper.


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