Sustaining Forests: Balancing across the Spectrum
Some of you know me from the five years I spent working for the Forest Stewardship Council. During the past couple years I have been working on land-conservation issues, which is a different dynamic from engaging in the certification debate. However, both roles complement one another in that they reflect different positions on the spectrum of approaches to forest conservation.
At the base of the forest-conservation movement is a desire to maintain healthy forests across the planet. We need to do this for a variety of reasons, including ameliorating climate change, the fact that forests provide tremendous value in cleaning water, and forests are home to myriad creatures great and small without which this little planet would be quite lonely. Further, forests minimize the impact of natural disasters, such as mudslides and flooding.
So, with conservation as the goal, the question becomes how do we protect forests. It turns out there are many different ways to do this, all of which must be applied or ultimately we fail as so many forces drive change in our forests. These forces include ownership patterns, varying regulatory regimes or the lack thereof, market forces, climate change, bugs, fires, I won’t go on. In other words, we need a big tool box.
In my work with The Wilderness Society we actively seek the protection of lands as parks, monuments, recreation areas and the like. This often precludes logging but results in forest carbon sinks, refugia for sensitive wildlife, protection of vital water sources and the ability to adapt to shifts in ecosystems because of climate change
However, we do not suggest that all forests should be off limits. There are many forests in the U.S. and elsewhere that because of flawed fire-management policy, past logging abuses, and various kinds of infestations and disturbances require some level of active management to restore them to health. We at The Wilderness Society call this “restoration forestry.” Indeed, if left alone forests will ultimately level off and move back toward a natural balance, but active management can jumpstart this process within a century. In short, depending on the situation, full protection might be in order; in other cases, restoration and balanced management might be appropriate. It is still true that building with wood is environmentally preferable to steel and plastic. If the spill in the Gulf isn’t enough to convince you of the cost of using plastics, derived from oil, then please contact me.
There is not enough room in this blog for me to convey the science, theory and practice of restoration forestry. What I can tell you is that by preferring certified forest products, particularly FSC-certified and certified-reclaimed wood, you create market forces that signal back to the industry the old ways of doing business no longer meet society’s demands for environmental performance and social equity. Alternatively, buying any old wood could mean that you are in fact buying blood timber, or illegally harvested wood that contributed to a higher magnitude mudslide in a place you might not be able to find on a map. By driving change at this end of the spectrum, you enable a more rational market connection to good practice. This in turn enables improved forest health and gives those of us on the professional side more leverage to make the case for doing the right thing. To be clear, FSC-certified forestry and restoration forestry are not the same thing. That said, alternatives to FSC-certified forestry typically move us away from restoration and toward poor forest health.
Specifying FSC-certified wood complements the ongoing need to set aside and protect truly unique, rare habitats and special places that restore the human soul. This is the end of the spectrum I work on. If you will do your part, I will do mine. If we can meet in the middle, we all win.
Michael P. Washburn, Ph.D., is the senior director for Eastern forests for The Wilderness Society and a member of Eco-Logic's advisory board.