Partners in Stewardship – The Intertwined Questions: (12.22.10)
A recent comment by an Oregon gubernatorial candidate caught my attention and stirred my thinking. As part of his stump speech the candidate asserted that we should look on our state’s forestry and forest products economy not as a “sunsetting” activities but as a “sunrising” part of a better future. While this came as encouraging news, I couldn’t help but ask myself “but how does he know? What makes him so certain?” It strikes me that the future, instead of being preordained and knowable, hinges on the choices we will make in the coming months and years; what future will we choose? One way to frame our choices is to consider the following two pairs of questions. As I assess Oregon’s forests and forestry – past, present, and future – I conclude that the question of whether we can turn the “sunset” around into a “sunrise” will be strongly shaped by how we answer these intertwined questions.
The Old Question – While many Oregonians are supportive of the logging choices of forest owners, regardless of the outcomes, a significant portion of Oregonians have, over recent decades, asked those who make logging decisions to modify their practices – will you stopping clear cutting? reduce the sizes of your clear cuts? Stop broad scale spraying of herbicides? Do more to maintain and enhance habitat….protect water… store carbon…?”.
For the most part the response from forest decision makers has been ”No, given the economic pressures that we are under, we cannot afford to make those changes – even if we would like to”. Over time, change has come, driven, in most cases, by the force of regulation. In contrast the general trend, in all parts of the state there are forest owners who have responded, through their actions, “yes, we will experiment to see what changes might be possible”. Before either of these group’s of forest decision makers answered, perhaps we should have asked a reciprocal question.
The Reciprocal Question – The question that we should have asked, and those of us who did change continue to ask is: “If we do change, will you, as consumers, change your buying behaviors?”. This question matters because if wood consumers are willing to work in partnership with growers to change their buying habits, we are on the path to reformed forest economics, yet if the grower is expected to make changes independent of the choices consumers make this a path to economic suicide. A parallel would be to expect a grower of organic blueberries to go to the trouble and expense of meeting the organic standards, but then watched their berries be mixed into the pool of non organically grown berries and receive the same price as the other growers. To date, Oregonians have been quicker to call for changes in forestry than they have been to change their own wood consumption habits in ways that make reformed forestry possible.
Intertwined with this pair of questions is a second pair. The first is pertinent to the forester and the second applies to us all.
Possibilities – In the Forests? As forests across the state become, on average, increasingly ecologically simplified and young, and we experience some of the negative consequences of this trend, it seems important to ask foresters: “Do we have the skills and knowledge necessary to transform more ecologically simplified forests into more complex forests?”. Though we have much more to learn, it seems that through such combined experience as the USFS NW Forest Plan, the State Forests’ work with structure-based management, and a breadth and depth of related experimentation on private forests, we have the collective skills and knowledge necessary to grow productive, ecologically complex forests.
Possibilities – In the Marketplace? If we have the ability to grow more complex forests, why aren’t more landowners choosing to grow complex forests, and why does the trend toward forest simplification continue? The answers lie in the answer to a partner question to the one posed above: “Do we have the skills and knowledge necessary to grow ecologically complex forests in ways that are economically viable for a rational forest owner?”. As a person who struggles to do this on our own family forests and is involved with efforts to do this on the State Forests, it seems clear to me that the answer is “no, we have not yet figured out how to do this”. Experience teaches us that efforts to do this, when the sole revenue stream is proceeds from the sale of sawlogs into conventional markets, will not be successful, because revenues are too low to offset the added operational costs. To change this from a “no” to a “yes”, we are challenged to muster the will, creativity, and innovative spirit necessary to adapt our current wood markets, and develop new markets for non wood forest goods and services. Ecologically complex forests provide a wider range of values than simplified forests, and economic sufficiency depends on our ability to connect these additional values to viable markets. Is this the work of foresters? Absolutely, but they cannot reform and develop markets single handedly. This work will only succeed if grower, consumers, and all others in the chains that link the two work in partnership to reshape and develop markets that more completely reward growers for the goods and services that complex forests provide.
Levers of Change – Of all the players whose actions will determine whether we choose the sunrise or sunset path, I feel that those with the greatest leverage are often those least appreciated and engaged, the consumers. By consumers I mean the average Oregonians who rely on our forests not only for wood, but also for clean water and air, biodiversity, climate moderation, and recreation and renewal. As long as these consumers continue to send the message, through their actions in the marketplace, that all that they value is a cheap and plentiful source of wood that can compete with cheap wood from global forests on the path to degradation, our forests and forestry will continue to headed into the sunset. The sunrise path requires Oregonians to know and engage with their local forests in ways and to a level that they never have before. The forms of engagement are many, but here are six possibilities for how to start:
- Buy Local – Find and use local wood that comes to you with the face of the forest and forester on it. Take advantage of the growing number of opportunities to buy wood with a story that you can know and take pride in becoming part of.
- Buy FSC, or Better – Use wood that comes from forests that are cared for in ways that meet, or exceed, the standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council. These represent growers who have answered “yes” to the “Old Question” posed above.
- Get Connected – Develop an ongoing, mutually beneficial relationship with a working forest near you. Go visit working forests. The forester(s) involved in a dialogue with the land, and you, can both learn and contribute by becoming part of that dialogue.
- Double Quality – Only buy wood that is double quality, meaning that both the quality of the wood is high and your choice to buy it contributed to maintaining or enhancing the qualities – ecological and social – of the place where it grew.
- Beyond Wood – Learn about how you benefit from the goods and services that forests provide and consider the ways that you can and will participate in reforming and developing markets that reward foresters for growing quality, ecologically complex forests.
In Conclusion – Oregon is rich in forest owners – private and public – whose enthusiasm and determination to work in partnership with others to shape a positive future for our state’s forests and forestry is high. As one of them, I know that forest owners cannot do this alone. We must reach out and build powerful partnerships in ways that we never have before with Oregonians of all stripes. Though I believe that “talk is cheap” and that action is what ultimately counts, I also believe that our actions will be stronger if they sit on the foundation of common understanding that may be enriched by considering and discussing the two pairs of questions posed and explored above. The choice of what future we want for Oregon’s forests and forestry is one that we can only make together – as growers and consumers working as partners in stewardship.