I spent most of last week in Madison attending the Great Lakes Forest Alliance’s conference, Crisis or Opportunity: Sustaining and Strengthening Forest-Based Industries in the Great Lakes Region. A full account of the three-day event, with links to presentations, will soon be posted on the GLFA website. Below I’ve penned a summary of my take on some of the conference highlights. I encourage others of you who attended to use the comment function to share your impressions as well.
In his opening remarks, GLFA chair and Michigan State University professor Daniel Keathley explained that GLFA’s goal in convening the conference was to initiate actions to help address the escalating loss of the forest products industry from the Great Lakes region. Loss of the industry from our region will destroy our capacity to sustainably manage our forests, he said. Peter Ince of the USFS Forest Products Lab underscored the challenge facing the industry, noting that 40% of all U.S. pulp, paper and board mill jobs have been eliminated since 1997. Industry-related job losses in Ontario have been even more dramatic.
Patrick Moore, chair and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies, Ltd., forcefully delivered his message that “trees are the answer” to many of society’s challenges, including: what materials to build with, how to pull more carbon out of the atmosphere, how protect habitat, clean air, make healthy soils and keep our planet green and beautiful.
Dr. Moore recounted his role in founding Greenpeace and crafting and advancing Greenpeace’s original message of insisting that the environment be taken into account in all decisions we make. Moore asserted that a focus on “sustainability” is the next logical step after environmental activism, and expressed his dismay at what he termed the “greatest myth of today’s environmental movement,” namely that “the forest industry is responsible for the destruction of forests and the species that depend on forest habitats.” (While acknowledging the persistence of some extremist “us-versus-them” views among some environmental organizations, other speakers disputed that this remains a prevailing view among environmentalists today, pointing instead to a growing track record of creative industry-environmental partnerships to address our common challenges). Moore asserted that growing more trees and using more wood is one of society’s most potent tools for addressing global climate change.
Many others agreed: Documenting and articulating the significant role that forests and forest management can play in mitigating the threat of global climate change emerged as a key theme of the conference. Telling the forest-and-forest-products-as-carbon-sink story was highlighted as one of the most promising opportunities for strengthening the region’s forest products industry.
In particular, presentations by Jiaxin Chen from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and by Sara Hines, of the USDA’s Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry and Northern Research Station on the contributions of managed forests to climate change mitigation described the potential for private landowners to engage in emerging carbon markets and greenhouse gas registries. Dr. Chen showed that forests store 80% of Earth’s above-ground terrestrial carbon and 40% of below-ground terrestrial carbon.
To increase the effectiveness of forests as a tool in mitigating global climate change, Dr. Chen offered the following solutions: 1) reduce deforestation; 2) use forest management to enhance sequestration in forests; 3) avoid emissions by promoting the use of wood as a substitute for fossil fuel; and 4) promote the substitution of wood products for petroleum-based products.
Dovetail Partners Director and Vital Forest/Vital Communities Advisory Board member Jim Bowyer discussed how growing markets for green building materials, sustainable design practices and associated certification systems represent important new opportunities for the region’s forest products industry. Documenting the history and proliferation of green building standards and third party forest certification regimes, and noting that the Great Lakes Region is a leader in forest certification, Jim called on the region’s forest products sector to become more proactive in embracing these new market opportunities.
In his keynote presentation Conservation Fund president and CEO Larry Selzer called for an “investment-based” approach to forestry that recognizes and embraces healthy ecosystems (“green infrastructure”) as not just a “nice-to-have” amenity but as critical to the very survival of our species and life itself on the planet.
“Asphalt is the last rotation,” he said. Larry pointed in particular to the need to ensure that the next generation is prepared to be good stewards of the environment that we are working hard to protect. Noting that many children today have few opportunities to connect with the natural world, and that this problem will continue to intensify as our populations become ever more urban, he said that nature has become “like a foreign country” for many young people.
He challenged the audience to address the challenge of reconnecting children to nature, not only by bringing kids to nature, but by bringing nature to kids, including through the creative use of technology, which has become a “security blanket” that the young use as a mediator for exploring and understanding the world.
Establishing and maintaining a relationship with the natural world is good preventive medicine against many of society’s ills, he maintained. Having defined nature as wilderness, we now need to redefine it as something accessible and nearby. We need to find ways to help kids connect to nature in city parks, in vacant lots, in their own backyards. He cited research showing that among children who play on paved playgrounds, those who emerge as leaders are the most physically mature. When children play on green playgrounds, it’s the most creative children who emerge as leaders.
Menominee Tribal Enterprises (LINK) President Adrina Miller described how his enterprise uses “humility and common sense” to implement an approach to forestry that is economically viable, environmentally feasible and socially desirable. He told the story of Chief Oshkosh who introduced the concept of managing forests for the “seventh generation” to ensure continuous improvement in the quality of the forest while meeting the current needs of the tribe.
The premiere showing of the new video, Forest Floor to Showroom Floor: Marketing “Green Forestry” in Minnesota, created for VF/VC by Fretless Films writer/director John Whitehead was well received. This 13-minute video documents Aitkin County’s recent FSC audit and describes the positive impact certification has had on Aitkin’s forest management and local economy. Please contact us if you’d like us to send you your own copy.
During her presentation of the results of the nation’s first in-depth research focused on the next generation of family forestland owners and what they think, Catherine Mater, President of Mater Engineering, Ltd and Senior Fellow at the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, gave an account of one such new partnership she’s exploring – with Blue Cross Blue Shield. Huh? Here’s why: Mater noted that her research has uncovered an unexpected direct public policy link between human health and forest health. Namely, that the single most cited reason family forest land owners give for selling their land is to pay for health care costs. (Note: for a full discussion of these results see the VF/VC Family Forest Conference proceedings from Fall 2007).
Closing speaker Bill Ginn, Director of Conservation Markets and Finance for The Nature Conservancy, left participants with a message of hope. Ginn is an advocate of bringing new innovative business and finance models to conservation. This is a classic case of “Nature without prices is like an all you can eat smorgasboard,” he said. “Everyone overeats.” While underscoring the urgency of addressing the accelerating loss of forest land in the U.S. and around the globe, Ginn said there are plenty of reasons to remain hopeful:
- Unprecedented new coalitions of forestry professionals and environmentalists
- New market opportunities in bio fuels and ecosystem services (assuming we “get this right” and avoid unintended consequences like we’ve seen in the corn ethanol industry)
Third party certification as a tool for building carbon markets and increasing public confidence in wood as an environmentally sustainable resource
Ginn called on the audience to join hands with environmentalists and other new partners to take advantage of these opportunities and find new solutions.
The conference ended with a brain-storming session seeking participant input on what specific strategies the GLFA should pursue to promote industry competitiveness in the region. Vital Forests/Vital Communities will be tracking these results closely. We are eager to follow up on opportunities to partner with others across the Great Lakes to help strengthen our region’s forest products industry and bring the “Trees are the Answer” message to a broader public.