Culture Not Clear-Cuts are Forests’ Biggest Threat

We are so disconnected with our natural resources, we often misinterpret these two scenes.

We are so disconnected with our natural resources, we often misinterpret these two scenes.

“People see a tractor bailing hay and think: beautiful farm scene. They see a clear-cut section of forest and think: environmental destruction.” Joe Orifice, a young forestry professor at Paul Smith’s College, explained to me that although the work of a forester and a farmer are extremely similar—both manage a biological process in order to produce goods for human consumption—our culture holds them in two very different lights.

Entire anti-forestry campaigns have been built around bleak images of clear-cut forests, whereas corn growing on formerly forested land evokes a much less emotional response. But clear-cuts can be part of ecologically minded forest management. For instance, a forester can clear-cut in patches, rather than huge swaths, just as a diversified farmer might rotate the land on which crops grow. Moreover, the clear-cut area is often seeded with the next tree crop and let to grow wild from there.

The Audubon Society actually supports certain clear-cuts for their ability to provide habitat to birds that thrive in young forest growth. But in a society where most of our environmental knowledge comes from images that drive emotional reactions, how is anyone supposed to make those wider connections? And even if you do, how do you know when a clear-cut is truly beneficial or destructive for a forest?

Our misunderstanding of clear-cuts is one symptom of a greater disconnect between people and our products. Because products now pass through extremely complex and often perverse economic chains before we get them, better understanding may come only by re-localizing business. This means foresters reconnecting with their communities, and community members shifting their tastes to a narrower range of local—and seasonal—products and services. Maybe we’d even reduce timber and pulp demand such that large-scale clear-cutting is no longer needed. If so, foresters must have other opportunities to apply their business savvy and knowledge of the forest.

Last week, at the New England Society of American Foresters’ Winter Meeting, I gave a presentation on Worldwatch’s Transforming Cultures project and proposed that “the long-term interest of foresters depends on helping to drive a broad cultural shift away from consumerism.” In a culture of sustainability, we provide stewardship in exchange for myriad things beyond timber, paper, and pulp, including ecosystem services, educational value, a place for traditions, and physical and psychological well-being.

This message rang true with many of the foresters in attendance, and I realized that I was preaching to the choir in many ways. Foresters understand resource sustainability at a very deep level. Their business depends on stewardship of the land and on long-term planning. Many foresters told me they would love to develop a broader set of lucrative forest offerings, especially as many of their traditional markets are on the decline and their economic security hangs in the balance.

Demand for domestically produced paper-based packaging has dropped as manufacturing and packaging plants move overseas. The U.S. paper and pulp industry has also been getting much of its input from recycled paper rather than from fresh forest material.

As foresters now look for local markets and for non-destructive uses for trees, their neighbors and clients (no longer just “consumers”) need to think along the same, sustainable, lines. The message I heard over and over again was that cultural change is a two-way street. Businesses can have the greatest of ecological intentions, but if clients don’t demand the most sustainable choices, those intentions get dropped.

Yes, demand for certified forest products—those coming from sustainably managed forests—is on the rise. But certification based on timber, paper, and pulp products will not in itself provide long-term security for New England’s forests. More logos plastered on more consumer products fails to address the fundamental aspect of our culture which drives people to consume excessively – pushing our ecological footprint beyond sustainable levels, and causing forest-damaging climate change.

Government efforts to put value and legal protections on forest-based ecosystem services, as well as mandatory environmental education programs, could help ignite more sustainability-minded demands. And imagine the forest protection that would result from making “green burials” the norm. Instead of rotting in a resource-intensive coffin in an artificially landscaped cemetery, we might come to prefer that our remains be left to nourish old-growth trees!

Real forest protection will not come until we fundamentally re-understand our forests, how we manage them, and where they fit into our culture.

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