Sustainable? Yeah, right.

An Imaginary Oration to a Group of Foresters

We hear much about “sustainable forests” in the news and within the profession.  Oddly enough, forests have been around for thousands of years.  We have enough forest to put tens of millions acres into non-management classifications.  The U.S. has two-thirds of the forest area that it did 200 years ago.  Obviously, the words “sustainable” and “forest” have a diversity of definitions and built-in expectations. 

This is beside the point I would like to make.

Nothing is sustainable without support from the public-at-large.  Even if the perfect plan were devised, expertly blending biology, economics, and socio-cultural factors, it would be destined to failure if the public doesn’t buy it. 

We, the forest community, have done a pretty lousy job of addressing the role of public attitude.  Not that there haven’t been successes, but when we look at the big picture, I believe the juice just isn’t there. 

Many of us don’t even fully recognize the importance of public attitude, until it hits between the eyes with a 2 x 4 (probably made of steel, not wood).  Ask the rural communities of the Pacific Northwest about this.  When was the last time a major public policy was promulgated based primarily on science? 

Start with our private, non-industrial forest owners.  We have only affected a discouraging low fraction of the owners and acres, even with some of our best programs and efforts.  We have argued and experimented for decades over the matter.  A zillion conferences, seminars, and workshops have exposed many excellent ideas.  Yet, we need to understand that the PNIF owners are only a tiny fraction of the tens of millions who live in the Great Lakes basin.  And they’re the ones who make many critical decisions about forests, if for no other reason it’s because they vote with their consumer dollar.

What are public attitudes that have shaped the management of forests?  This isn’t just public policy and public lands.  Talk to the AF& PA members about their investment in SFI, or look at forest certification programs in general. 

How have these attitudes changed over time?  Why?  How might they change over the next several decades?  What can we do to impact those trends?  Should we do anything? 

I don’t know the answers to these questions.  I’m pretty sure they aren’t getting asked very often, though. 

As an forester weenie, I have my own set of programs and networks.  I like to think I do a good job.  I work with schools, a wide variety of publics, and fellow natural resource folks.  But I often wonder how effective my efforts are in the big picture.  A difficult result to assess. 

Some would argue that we should have a clear picture of where we’re going before we start in order to achieve success.  Try telling that to Christopher Columbus or Meriwether Lewis.  I think public outreach and education, at least in the forest management arena, is in the pioneer stage.  It’s exciting.  It’s full of danger.  And, we’re often highly-skilled people that really don’t know what the heck we’re doing much of the time.  Well, sort of. 

Knowing more about where we need to go might provide outreach efforts with better coordination and outcomes.  Probably.  Yet, there is SO much distance to cover, across such a huge landscape, that even the perfect level of coordination will leave us embarrassingly short of where we need to be, wherever that is.

I see outreach at the stage where we should just “do it”.  To those who obsess over process, I like to repeat a favorite quote of mine attributed to Albert Einstein.  Perfection of means and confusion of ends seem to characterize our age.”

Now, this isn’t meant to be a proscription for chaos.  Coordination of effort is, indeed, an important issue.  Yet, the lack of coordination shouldn’t keep us from engaging in outreach campaigns. 

The environmental education community has been at the business of raising the public awareness of nature for decades.  Arguably, they have done a pretty good job instilling a degree of respect and appreciation of the natural world.  However, most EE educators have failed to make the critical connection between the natural world and all the demands we, as a society, place upon it, particularly wood use among those demands. 

Unfortunately, and not usually intentionally (I think) this heightened awareness has led to the perception that natural resource utilization somehow compromises ecosystem integrity.  Gradually, activities such as timber harvest, hunting, and campfire construction are regarded as “evil” by a growing number people.  We might tend to point fingers at the EE educators, but where were we when environmental education really started to get going? 

The success of environmental education leaves us with at least a couple of good lessons.  One, it IS possible to affect public perception.  However, it takes persistence (not necessarily a lot of coordination, at least if we use EE as an example).  Two, decisions are made by those who show up at the table.  The forest management community, by and large, has been working hard in the forest.  We have missed the boat with the public and it’s past time to get on board.  As we like to sometimes say; “The best time to plant a tree was 30 years ago.  The next best time is now”. 

What is our advantage?  We have an exciting success story to tell about a product everyone loves . . . forests.

Our forestry social scientists have proven what we intuitively know.  People love trees and forests.  Forest management has an amazing legacy of success in the perpetuation of forests and forest values.  Too often, however, we are equated with the historic logging era, which was not management.  Neither was it all nasty business.  Much of our country was built on the outputs of that era. 

Since I have the floor, I’ll use the rest of my time to submit a couple ideas for success.  After all, I was asked to be here.

Don’t focus on jobs, taxes, and GDP.  If people believe we’re doing the wrong thing, this sort of preoccupation will only feed that misconception.  Not that jobs, taxes, and GDPs are unimportant.  But, those things will not capture the imagination of the public.  If you think “capturing an imagination” is secondary to good forest management, think back to when you decided to become a forester or wildlife biologist.  Was it because of the promise of jobs or high salaries or learning about cords and boards? 

Focus on successes such as habitat diversity, growth exceeding harvest, regeneration and restoration, and ecological bases of management, such as succession, shade tolerance, and species longevity.  Impress your audiences with the depth of your knowledge and care for the forest.  Few of us are intellectual powerhouses, but basic knowledge that you and I take for granted is unknown to most people, and fascinating to nearly all. 

Something as simple as knowing that white pine and jack pine have remarkably different biology lends credibility.  Or, that quaking aspen has male and female trees and ruffed grouse prefer male catkin buds.  And yes, it’s the pileated woodpecker that excavates those large ovals in trees.  Begin your discussions in this way and you will find yourself among friends. 

Share your passion. 

Establishing the notion that forest management requires an intimate knowledge of forests lays the groundwork for explaining “sustainable” forest management.  Explaining the differences between FSC, SFI, CSA, and ISO will give most people a reason to find the bathroom. 

I have in mind a particular forester in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan who has earned tremendous support in his community.  He has shown that he cares about the forest, and the community, too.  His knowledge, while regularly challenged, is respected.  He has reached a point where many fellow citizens look to him for answers about forest management.  He is trusted. 

Somehow, we should work to do this across the continent.  We can use our love of the forest to introduce concepts and justifications for good forest stewardship, or sustainable forest management. 

As a final observation, as foresters and natural resource managers, we seldom need to fight negative perceptions from a particular group about what we do.  Most people have an innate love for trees and forests.  In my experience, it’s a short jump for most people to see that our knowledge equips us with the ability to manage, especially if they perceive how much we care about the forest.  Few people are “radical environmentalists” and most people don’t pay much attention to them anyway. 

I think many of us unreasonably fear that our profession is looked down upon.  Actually, and again from the forestry social scientists, most people are unaware we even exist.  They have neither a negative nor positive opinion.  They don’t have any opinion at all.  With few exceptions, we don’t need to relate to the public from a defensive position.  To do so is a mistake.  I urge the profession to engage the public with a positive message of success and a bright future.

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