Commentary: Certification of National Forests Debate

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 06.01.2006


Looking Controversy in the Eye


One of the great challenges to resolution of complex environmental issues, particularly those involving our beloved forests, is the simple fact that the differing sides are often actually debating different issues, on parallel paths, and with no clear way to resolve what are often two very different and very closely held points of view. To a certain degree it's a bit like one person saying “wow isn't the sky really blue” and the other responding “I just got a great new truck!” Huh? While one is responding to the specific stimulus of the sky, the other is thinking, what a great day… to wash the truck. It's only an increased understanding of each other that facilitates any ability for either of these two individuals to transition the verbal conversation to an intuitive recognition that a blue sky means two different things; and that both meanings are ok, just very, deeply different.


In the realm of forest management issues in the United States, few topics trigger a greater range of responses than harvesting in national forests. Some are passionate in their view that harvest activity cannot be justified within federally owned forests. Others are equally forceful in insisting that prohibition of harvesting within these forests makes no sense. Nonetheless, these are public lands and it is important that the public constantly challenge the priorities on significant issues such as the purpose, use, and oversight of the federally managed forests.


A key element in the ongoing national forest debate lies in the fact that American consumers do not operate in a closed system, and that consumption is the major force that drives our economy, often at the cost of a host of externalities like environmental impacts. Within this context it is important to consider the purpose of our national forests as envisioned today and how that has changed over time, and how changes in our thinking mesh with the global nature of our sourcing activities.


If we go back to the time of the original formation of national forests, the nation's biggest concerns were in protecting water supplies and ensuring a continuous supply of timber (meaning lumber for everything from shelter to industrial uses). At that point such things as biodiversity, wildlife protection, ecosystem sustainability, and recreation were not central issues. Lumber was one of the key drivers of the initial establishment of national forests.


Today a front burner question is whether or not the U.S. Forest Service should pursue certification of our national forests using independent, international or third-party standards. From my point of view this is not actually a debate about certification but about usage.


If national forests are to be managed for wood use, then we should manage those resources according to the highest standards and use every available tool to ensure that best practices are occurring. Certification is one of those tools.


On the other hand, if we believe that the role of national forests has changed and commercial harvesting is no longer appropriate or necessary on national forest land then it is actually a different issue. It is no longer about certification; it is about harvesting and therefore should be addressed through a different venue, e.g. the political system.


As if this isn't confusing enough already, I am in the rather unique situation of personally being in favor of certification of our national forests, but generally against commercial harvest on those forests. Perhaps I'm schizoid. But my reasoning is that I believe that if the general public, as indicated through our open and democratic political system, has decided that we need to harvest wood from national forests, then we ought to do so in the most sustainable, transparent, and accountable manner possible. And I also believe that we have more control over environmental impacts by harvesting and managing our own forests rather than exporting our environmental problems to forests of other countries. On the other hand, if through our democratic system the mission of those national forests were to be revised to increase the level of protection and further limit harvest levels then it seems to me that we must put in place systems that ensure that as consumers we act in the most responsible manner possible. One way to do this would be to require the certification of all wood products imported into the US. The idea here is that the same standards should apply to all.


The challenge for some of us is that this is not even simply a bipolar problem (to harvest or not to harvest), it is really about something completely different – consumption. As long as we focus our economic stimulus on one side of the equation (demand) and base it on a model that is almost exclusively focused on delivering quantity and price (the commodity model), without consideration of the sustainability of the model, we have a problem. We must seek alternatives to “more-faster.” This isn't a new idea. For the past twenty years we have built few power plants in the US (perhaps too few) basically because it was realized that it was cheaper for the power company to help fund energy savings than it was to invest in a new plant. Yet consumption still grew.


The real challenge to complex problems is that not only are there a variety of closely held opinions and a number of perceived key issues, but they are all interwoven to the point that they cannot be resolved independently. Environmental issues cannot be resolved without addressing consumption. The issue of harvesting on national forests cannot be resolved without addressing emotional attachments. And neither of these issues can be addressed in isolation. Creating the first national forest took some creativity, collaboration, and certainly compromise; but it was done at the highest levels of our nation's government.


Today, the approach to environmental issues such as harvesting within national forests and oil drilling in ANWAR is to treat them as though there are only two sides to each issue, with each side seeing only a right and a wrong. This too closely represents our current political model. Perhaps the first step to changing our approach to environmental problem solving should be to recognize that the world simply isn't black and white. For many, the sky is blue.


Dr. Jeff Howe

June 2006