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GUEST COLUMN

Observations On Forestry From The Soccer Pitch

Susan Gesner

I coach soccer-a team of eight-year old girls. That means that every week I meet parents on a soccer pitch north of Toronto to cheer on the team and chat. I am sometimes asked about my day job. Too often, when I say I am president of the Canadian Forestry Association (CFA), the contest moves from the field to the sidelines. I find myself defending the forest industry and trying to debunk myths, wishing all the time that someone was doing a better job of communicating what is really happening in Canada's forests. 

But who is that someone? And how can they be expected to raise awareness of the basics of ecosystem management and simple forest ecology when most people -especially those in non-resource dependent communities-have made up their minds? I am convinced that if more average citizens had a better understanding of what was happening in the working forest, I could spend a lot more time concentrating on soccer tactics and a lot less time debating the pros and cons of clear cutting. 

As an environmental consultant and educator, I am also convinced that this is not an impossible dream. It isn't as though it is something totally new. The definition of informed decision making in the CSA - ZZ808-96 Guidance Document says part of society's responsibility to sustainable development is a commitment to improve our collective understanding of ecosystems. That means every member of Canadian society- including those parents at the soccer game-has an obligation and responsibility to understand the issues. 

They should express their position, but they should also understand and respect the positions of others. It sounds simple until you start thinking about the challenges involved in raising the level of understanding. There are three areas where I think we can make changes-training forest professionals to be better communicators, finding meaningful ways for industry to improve public understanding and increasing support for organizations like the CFA that are involved in forest education and information programs. 

The best place to start is by encouraging universities and colleges to train technicians and other resource professionals so they can communicate clearly with the public. Forest professionals are like any other professionals. They are comfortable with their industry jargon and they don't like to be challenged by people who don't fully understand their business. But they are also the people who represent our industry at public meetings and open houses. I don't think there is a better way to tackle suspicion than to make sure people attending these sessions understand what they are being told and know their concerns are being acknowledged. 

Forest professionals who graduate with better communication skills can not only accomplish this, but they are more likely to embrace day-to-day communication, education and awareness opportunities. They can respond appropriately if the news media or community leaders promote information that is inaccurate or not to their liking. After all, who is better able to talk about what is happening in the forests than the people who choose forest management as a career? These are people who care about Canada's forests and the health of the industries that rely on these forests. 

The forest industry itself can do a lot more to increase public understanding. We've long since passed the time when slick brochures, mall displays and classroom visits are adequate. It is time for more industry representatives to review their priorities and consider how they can deliver a long-term, two-way communications effort. There are many ways to achieve this. Some resource communities have longstanding public advisory committees that allow the local forest company to stay in touch with the community's concerns and provide information in a calm, non-confrontational manner. 

The Temperate Forest Foundation in the United States, which is openly supported by the forest industry, funds teacher workshops and education programs. Take a look at your company's public information activities and think about ways that you can enhance these efforts. Can you support an ongoing public advisory committee or link in with an existing citizen's group? Is there an opportunity to support development of a formal forestry curriculum? There's a lot we can do to help the public gain the basic knowledge that allows them to participate effectively. 

Finally, I would urge every one of us involved in the forest community-forest industry, government, schools, interested citizens and academia-to work more closely with their provincial forestry associations. The mandate of those associations is clear: to offer unbiased information and communication about the forest environment. Last year, Wolfville, Nova Scotia hosted the Canon Envirothon, North American's largest environmental science competition for high school students. Fivemember teams from eight provinces and 41 American states competed for college sponsorships totalling $25,000. 

The Canadian Forestry Association and provincial forestry associations are involved in Envirothon because we recognize that these young people are Canada's future decision- makers. We need continued and increased support, both financial and inkind, from forest companies across the country to provide this important education opportunity. As Canada's forest industry moves forward on certification opportunities, we will continue to have more requirements and opportunities for public involvement. We want these sessions to provide constructive debate, not bitter fights based on half-truths. 

It isn't necessary for everyone to agree with everything we are doing; but it is necessary for any opposition to be based on fact, not fiction. If we all do our part, I'd be more enthusiastic about joining those parents on the sidelines-assuming, of course, that I can still make sure their kids get enough playing time. 

Susan Gesner is president of the Canadian Forestry Association and an Ontario-based environmental consultant.


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