Can’t See the Forest for the Dead Trees?

By Jack Petree

The forest products industry needs to significantly modernize its message to the public.

Now is the time to work on that modernization. Forest management science is moving toward new paradigms with management professionals scrambling to adjust. In 2020, climate change has come to be the central focus of nearly all discussion by activist groups antagonistic to the industry, even as forest resilience (the ability to recover after a stand-changing event) is threatened across much of the continent. The need to find ways to address both forest health and resilience while still preserving the forest’s traditional role in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere is creating a new attitude of willingness on the part of the North American public to utilize the talents of the forest products industry in achieving the new goals the public demands of its forest managers. A “perfect storm” of events filled with opportunity for the future is sweeping over the industry; today, the industry is in a position to sink or wade ashore, changed in some ways, but strong and poised for growth.

It’s All About That Base

As usual the North American forest products industry is under assault from activist groups who would like to see it wither away. Those groups are developing new messaging and delivering it in new ways. Competitors (steel, concrete, plastics, imported fibers like bamboo and other grasses) also vie to be the building material of choice; the alternative to cutting down trees. The industry must develop compelling counterarguments using terms the public cares about or continue to face troubled times.

Half the population of the United States today is 38 years old or younger. Teethed on social media, they enjoy an almost unlimited ability to communicate; and communicate they do, especially regarding social issues.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GGE) are, for the present, a major concern for that 38 and under crowd. According to Gallup, 45percent of Republican and 88 percent of Democrat registered voters in the 38 and younger age group worry about global warming.

Simply put, if the industry’s message to the public does not begin to explicitly include strong arguments, beyond the “Trees remove carbon from the atmosphere,” tag line, the lines of communication with the social media generation will be permanently damaged; socially conscious youth would rather see carbon sequestered in a standing tree than in a standing building unless, GGE reductions can be seen to be realized as the result of cutting and milling that tree. It’s up to the industry to demonstrate those reductions can be realized.

An Opportunity to Shine

Constance Millar, an award winning Forest Service scientist, points out something new is afoot in today’s forests. “Exceptional droughts, directly and in combination with other disturbance factors, are pushing some temperate forests beyond thresholds of sustainability. Interactions from increasing temperatures, drought, native insects, pathogens, and uncharacteristically severe wildfires are resulting in forest mortality beyond the levels of 20th-century experience.”

Millar is not alone in her concerns. Tony Tooke, former head of the Forest Service, reported, “We have significant tree mortality from insects and disease in the Intermountain West. About 80 million acres on the National Forest System are at risk nationwide, and about a third of that area is at high risk.” The current head of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, told NPR in June, “A billion acres of land across America are at risk of catastrophic wildfires like last fall’s deadly Camp Fire that destroyed most of Paradise, California.” Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke recently announced: “According to data analyzed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the 2018 wildfire season in California is estimated to have released emissions equivalent to roughly 68 million tons of carbon dioxide. This number equates to about 15 percent of all California emissions.”

Wildfires make spectacular TV, so fires like the Paradise event are widely covered, but few realize that the damage caused by those fires is just the small tip of the GGE forest-related time bomb. It is no exaggeration to state that billions of trees in North America are dead or dying and becoming a GGE liability rather than serving to absorb and sequester carbon. Forests that were once carbon sinks are now, or in danger of becoming, GGE contributors, and that must become the heart of the forest industry’s message: “We have the will and the ways needed to return our forests to resilience and health, even as we reduce GGEs.”

Content, Believability, and Delivery

Today, in almost every arena of life, extremes have come to rule the discussion. Too often the “middle” is discouraged, disorganized, and disinterested in becoming actively engaged in discussion. If the forest products industry develops and delivers a believable message utilizing the same modern forms of communication activist groups have learned to use so well, the public most able to influence public policy can be activated to make their will known to decision-makers.

Solid science is available to support the effort. Modernizing our message means it’s time to utilize that science to develop an industry-accepted, rational, effective, common sense approach to Greenhouse Gas Reductions that recognizes changing public perceptions, and then deliver that message using every up-to-date messaging approach available to support the effort. This approach should benefit first the public and, as a side benefit, the forest products industry. The future of the North American forest complex—and the industry depending on those forests — is at stake, perhaps, as never before.

Jack Petree is a public policy consultant and owner of Tradeworld Communications. 

TimberWest November/December 2013
January/February 2020

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Guest Column
Can’t See the Forest for the Dead Trees?

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