Adapted from a presentation given at the 99th Pacific Logging Congress Las Vegas, Nevada, Nov. 2008
By John A. Helms, Professor Emeritus,
College of Natural Resources, University of California
Public Perception of Forestry
In both urban and rural areas, modern society is dissociated from the natural resources on which it depends. We have lost contact with where our wood, water, food, and energy come from and what it takes to produce them sustainably. Importantly, public attitudes on forests and timber harvesting seem to be based on completely out-of-date perceptions.
Cutting trees, especially on public lands, is decried, yet society cherishes wood for construction of houses, furniture, and churches. Society recognizes the need for energy independence, but is slow to consider using woody biomass as a source of bio-fuels. And despite evidence of global warming, society isn't seriously considering the role of forest management in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and using forest products as substitutes for other materials that have a far greater carbon footprint. Efforts to "preserve" public forests result in their becoming over-dense, losing vigor, and succumbing to increasing impacts of catastrophic wildfire and insect and disease outbreaks.
There is general recognition that perceptions obtained as kids persist into adulthood -- that is why those involved in marketing products focus their efforts directly, or indirectly, on shaping the opinions, attitudes, and behavior of kids and young adults. Overall, I suspect that children develop their attitudes primarily through peer group opinions, parent attitudes, media and advertising, and schools, teachers, and teaching materials. If this is true, what can we do to overcome false impressions from each of these sources?
Who are Our kids in K-12 Grades?
The National Center for Education Statistics shows that in Washington, Oregon, and California there are 2,275, 1,260, and 9,863 schools, respectively. The numbers of K-12 students in these states are 1,031,985, 552,194, and 6,437,202, respectively. These are huge numbers, and it seems impossible for us as individuals to make significant contacts.
The demographic makeup of these students is changing rapidly throughout the West with the proportions of white students in Washington, Oregon, and California being 69, 72, and 30 percent, respectively. Hispanics now constitute 11, 16, and 47 percent, respectively, in these states. The proportion of K-12 students in Washington, Oregon, and California having "limited proficiency" in English is 7, 12, and 24 percent, respectively. What kind of message on forest resource management is appropriate given the changing composition and diversity of student populations?
The critical question is how do kids from different demographic backgrounds, education performance levels, and with limited exposure to and incorrect understanding of forests, view the logging industry and forestry profession? It is important to remember that these kids will soon become adults, voters, and decision makers. Attitudes and perceptions gained in childhood will be retained into adulthood.
What Do College Students Think?
Interesting data on college students' perception of forest resource issues come from 15 years of presenting a questionnaire to students at the University of Minnesota and other universities. Annually, students in a general conservation class were asked their opinions on diverse resource topics including the amount of forest now in the U.S. compared with historic times, the level of forest harvest relative to net growth, the rate of deforestation in the U.S., the number of species extinction due to logging, and the effect of logging on species abundance.
The startling and consistent outcome of the surveys was not so much that answers to questions were consistently and pessimistically wrong, but that responses were wrong by a very wide margin. It indicates that perceptions are slow to change from those gained in childhood.
If we are to develop rational public forest policy and overcome the trend towards litigation and excessive forest regulations, it is critical to correct public misperceptions. We all must participate in communication and outreach in whatever ways we can -- especially to support K-12 teaching programs.
We must recognize rapid changes in demography and values in both urban and rural areas. It is especially important to support teacher training programs and provide field trips so that teachers and students can observe responsible and sustainable forest management and harvesting. Direct observation is the best way to demonstrate that forests can be conserved while providing critically-important, renewable wood products, and jobs.
Now, more than ever before, we need to promote the view that the health and welfare of society is dependent on the health and welfare of its forests and other natural resources. Current forest deterioration through misguided attempts at preservation does not meet society's long-term interests. In addition to providing adequate reserves and wilderness, most of our forest base must be managed to maintain its health, provide diverse habitat, reduce risk of catastrophic fire, and to provide sustainable levels of wood products' other diverse values.
This goal can only be attained if we have an informed society. And the place to start is with students and teachers in K-12 through college.
John A. Helms is Professor Emeritus, College of Natural Resources, University of California, Berkeley, California. He was also the 2005 President, Society of American Foresters.