May 23, 2009

Evergreen no more?

"We must always consider the environment and people together, as though they are one, because the human need to use natural resources is fundamental to our continued presence on Earth."
- Jim Petersen, Editor, Evergreen Magazine 1989

So opens the Evergreen website, an online resource for archives of the the Evergreen magazine. Started in 1986, articles about forestry, biological diversity, forest health, and wildfires have graced the pages of this singular, often plaintive voice in the forest wilderness. An example...

"To see what will happen next in eastern Oregon, look at what is already happening in northern Arizona and New Mexico. Federal forests in both states have been devastated by catastrophic wildfire in recent years. But because there is no wood processing infrastructure left in the Southwest, neither state possesses the structural nor financial means to mediate their forest health problems. And until the Congress decides to stop paying environmental groups to sue the socks off the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, there is zero chance that new infrastructure investments will be made in the region, despite quite valiant Forest Service efforts to recruit wood processing businesses.

"Many environmentalists know this, and are worrying aloud on their own websites about the loss of credibility they are suffering as urban support for thinning in at risk forests tops 80% nationally. While we applaud their more conciliatory voices, environmentalists have no way of controlling their own radical fringes."

The magazine preceded the establishment Evergreen Foundation whose mission is to help advance public understanding and support for science-based forest policies and practices. I became aware of this publication and its editor, Jim Petersen, when I received a copy of a speech Jim gave to the Montana Loggers Association last week (available for download here). He introduced his speech with the same combination of chagrin and optimism that motivates me.

"So much is at stake and so few seem to get it – the “it” here being the fact that Montana’s timber industry is teetering on the brink of collapse at the precise same moment when it ought to be laying the cornerstone for its own bright future.

"I want to talk about the elephants in the room that no one else ever seems to want to talk about. This being the case, I decided on the following title: “When you are up to your armpits in elephants, it is difficult to remember that your original job was to drain the swamp."

"And no mistake, we are all mired in a swamp. And we are up to our armpits in elephants. But I think I finally see a way out of the muck and mire that has been sucking us into the abyss for so many years. And the way out – the route to a better future – is biomass. So I am going to talk about biomass too.

Jim lists 22 different elephants. Here are a few of the most interesting:

"Elephant No. 1 is the one that perennially irritates me the most: Congress. It’s bad enough that Congress continues to twiddle its thumbs while the West burns to the ground. Worse though is the current debate over whether to include federal biomass in renewable energy legislation that is slowly making its way through Congress. If you wonder where this insanity begins, I’ll tell you. It begins with an unholy alliance between Elephant No. 2, several large pulp and paper producers, and Elephant No.3, the Natural Resources Defense Council. Elephant No.3 doesn’t want federal biomass to be included in the energy standard because it fears resurgence in the timber industry that it loves to hate. Elephant No. 2, the pulp and paper producers, are in league with Elephant No. 3 because they fear that including federal biomass in the legislation will drive up the price of fiber.

"I’ve got news for Elephant No. 2. Your problem is far more serious than whatever competitive headwinds you may face if federal biomass is included in federal renewable energy legislation. Your problem is that you aren’t competitive on the global pulp and paper stage. You are being eaten alive by Scandinavian companies that are investing billions of dollars in South America, where land, labor and regulatory costs are a fraction of what they are in the U.S.; where pulp mills actually sit in the middle of plantations, not 40 or 50 miles away from them, and where trees reach pulp-size maturity in 5-7 years.

"Imagine my horror on learning that some of the biggest publicly traded forest products companies in the country were working furiously behind the scenes to sabotage the Bush Administration’s Healthy Forests Restoration Act. Why? Because they saw the thinnings that forest restoration would yield as competition for their own wood – and their fiduciary responsibility is to their shareholders, not the nation’s dead and dying federal forests. It’s the same in pulp and paper. These companies – all of them publicly traded – have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, not to you, not to me and not to the economic or social well being of our country. Those fiduciary responsibilities, those trust obligations, reside in our elected officials."

"Some people believe this new elephant – he is Elephant No. 6 – is a good for nothing slacker and doesn’t care if he ever brings us any wood. But I think they are wrong. I think Elephant No. 6 – we’ll call him Woody for lack of a better name – I think this new elephant whose last name is Biomass would like to show us what he can do, if only the Congress will let him.

"It is long past time for the Congress to give Woody Biomass, No. 6 in our string of elephants, the legitimate chance he needs to show us what he can do in our dead and dying federal forests. Let’s stop fiddling around on 10 or 20 or 100-acre show-and-tell plots; let’s put Woody to work on tracts of federal forestland that are large enough to make a difference both ecologically and economically.

"Some of you have heard me say that I think it is time for our nation to return its national forests to Indian tribes from whom we stole them more in the 1800s. I still believe this, but I don’t think it will happen in the near term, if ever. Nor do I believe that the Forest Service is to blame for our current state of affairs. The Forest Service is a public agency – albeit one that has wandered far from its original mission. Today, it serves at the behest of political parties and special interest groups that have vastly different visions for the future of our nation’s publicly-owned forests.

"My cynicism aside, the climate change debate gives us an unprecedented opportunity to argue the case for managing our federal forests in ways that increase their carbon storage capacity, no matter its source, no matter the guilty party, no matter the amount.

"I want to have this debate with every environmentalist in the country, because if we are really serious about replacing air polluting fossil fuels with lesser polluting renewable fuels, including solar, wind and woody biomass, and if we are serious about reducing CO2 levels in our atmosphere, we simply cannot ignore this next elephant that is standing quietly in our midst, waiting to be recognized. He is Elephant No. 13, and he possesses the miraculous ability to transform carbon dioxide into wood fiber through a process called photosynthesis – a process that powers itself with the free, non-polluting energy of the sun. He can thus increase the carbon storage capacity of our federal forests.

"Yet despite his miraculous powers, our Photosynthesis Elephant will need our help, and he will need the help of No. 6, our new Forest Service elephant. Working as a team, which is what elephants do best, they can design perpetual thinning and stand tending programs capable of increasing the carbon storage capacity of our federal forests while, at the same time, decreasing the billions of tons of pollutants that wildfires spew into our earth’s atmosphere every year.

"I emphasize the word “perpetual” because we cannot thin our forests once and expect that they will magically hold themselves in perfect balance until the end of time. They won’t – because there is no steady state in nature. Chaos is constant, and everywhere. But we can limit nature’s wild swings by dedicating ourselves to the constant task of forest stewardship – the thinning and stand tending work that we must do if our forests are to provide the long list of things that we Americans want and need."

I highly recommend reading the Spring 2006 issue of Evergreen with the feature article written by Dave Skinner titled "Ring of FIre." It is difficult to read about the demise of forest product mills at the same time that the forests are so unhealthy. Even worse is the realization that this article was written a full two years before the current economic collapse - which imperils the future of all the mills that remain.

What will become of the forests? What impact there be on the communities that have been stewards of our forests? What will be the climate change consequences of this demise?

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