Forests and Foresters: Managing to Survive and Thrive

Remarks by Steve Rogel, Chairman, President and CEO, Annual Meeting of the Society of American Foresters, Winston-Salem, N.C. – October 6, 2002

Good morning. It’s a distinct pleasure to address an audience of American foresters. In my opinion, you’re among the best in the world.

It’s also a pleasure to be here in the great state of North Carolina where Weyerhaeuser Company manages three quarters of a million acres of forestland and operates more than a dozen manufacturing facilities.

It was my privilege just two years ago to sign an agreement with the state of North Carolina and several conservation groups to preserve more than 7,800 acres of significant natural areas on Weyerhaeuser land.

Five years before that, Weyerhaeuser and the Environmental Defense Fund signed a groundbreaking agreement guiding the management and protection of 2,800 acres of the East Dismal Swamp. Last year, we donated a conservation easement on those acres – some of the most biologically diverse land on the Southeast Coastal Plain – to the Nature Conservancy and The North Carolina Coastal Land Trust.

Why do I mention these agreements?  Because – as you’ll learn from my remarks – just as I believe strongly that some percentage of the world’s forests should be allocated to the production of timber – so I also believe that some portion of the world’s forests should be preserved in their natural state. 

And, as you’ll also hear, I believe the survival of many of our natural forests is dependent upon the dedicated and effective use of modern forest management techniques. My comments today will revolve around four topics:

1. What I consider the appropriate role of managed forests in our world today. 2. Why some people have what I consider an unwarranted fear of managed forests. 3. The interdependent relationship between the forest products industry and the forestry profession, and, 4. What you can do to help maintain both healthy forests and a healthy forestry profession.

I’ll begin here at home in the United States.  Perhaps never before has the concept of managed forests been debated so heatedly as now … after what in the West could be called our “summer of fire.”

Day after day, night after night, we watched walls of flame explode across our television screens and engulf huge tracts of forestland.  Millions of acres were destroyed … thousands of people were displaced … hundreds of homes are now smoking ruins.  And, of course, millions of pounds of carbon dioxide and particulate matter were released into the atmosphere.

There are those who argue that forest fires are a normal, even welcome, event in the course of the forest cycle … that renewal inevitably follows destruction … that forest renewal will recapture much of the carbon released by the fires … that to intervene is to tinker with the natural order of things. That may be so if one removes people from the equation … if we ignore the fact that people live near or in those forests … if we forget the fact that human decisions over time have made those fires much more devastating.

In a briefing to Congress in June, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. forest chief Dale Bosworth said that if proper forest management had been implemented ten years ago – and if his agency weren’t in the grip of “paralysis analysis” from environmental regulations and lawsuits – the Hayman fire in Colorado would not have raged like an inferno.

He presented Congress with a sobering report on our national forests.  Of the 192 million acres the Forest Service administers, 73 million – more than a third – are at risk from severe fire.  Tens of millions of acres are dying from insects and diseases. 

Thousands of miles of roads, critical to fighting fires, are unusable.  Those facts back up a General Accounting Office report, which estimates that one in three federal forest acres is dead or dying. According to the Journal, a lack of forest management in our national forests has resulted in “millions of acres choked with dead wood, infected trees and underbrush.  Many areas have more than 400 tons of dry fuel per acre – ten times the manageable level.  This is tinder that turns small fires into infernos.”

What is the answer?  Again to quote Mr. Bosworth:  “There is a choice.  There is another way.  We don’t have to have this kind of fire burning in the national forests and threatening communities and burning homes.  And that way is by doing active management of the land.”

A nationwide poll released just 10 days ago shows that the vast majority of Americans agree with Mr. Bosworth.  Seventy percent support “thinning and harvesting trees” to reduce the risk of wildfire and agree that forests should be managed.

I would not advocate that all forests be intensively managed, but I believe almost all forests would benefit from some degree of human oversight.  When it comes to forests, the word “managed” need not be a four-letter word.

Three years ago, I argued for a greater use of managed forests worldwide to prevent deforestation … and relieve the pressure on forests we want to keep in a more natural state.

In an essay in Business Week magazine, I said:  “Half the world’s annual wood harvest of 3.5 billion cubic meters is being consumed for fuelwood … and where this is the case, reforestation is rare.  “But today’s sustainable forestry practices can grow trees in repeated rotations without depleting the soil. 

“Depending on the region, modern forestry can grow from three to ten times the volume of wood per acre as an unmanaged forest – and much more quickly. 

“This provides society the opportunity to enjoy wood and paper products on a sustainable basis without placing demands on the world’s most ecologically significant natural forests – or those that people wish to preserve for scenic, recreational or other purposes.”

Some experts have estimated that less than 5 percent of the world’s forests would be required to meet present wood demand if all the timber came from high-yield, managed forests.  On the other hand, 20-40 percent would be required via unmanaged, naturally regenerating forests. At least one environmental group has acknowledged the wisdom of this path.  Last year, the World Wildlife Federation stated:  “If managed correctly, one-fifth of the world’s forests could provide the industrial wood and wood fiber necessary to meet projected future demands.”  I believe we can do it with even less.

Here in the South, the transition to managed forests has enabled the region to double its timber production without reducing the overall extent of forestland … while making possible a regional forest products industry that employs 770,000 people in family-wage jobs. 

It is true that the extent of naturally grown pine forests has dropped from 72 million acres to 34 million acres since 1952 … but, according to the recent Southern Forest Resource Assessment, this has little to do with the forest products industry. 

According to a co-author of this multi-agency report, “population growth and urbanization are the most significant challenges we face in sustaining forests.”

So if managed forests aren’t really a threat to natural forests, why do so many people seem to fear them?  I assure you that, as the leader of a large forest products company, I get to hear all about these fears. 

The experience is both ironic and vexing, since I believe that some of the most innovative and sustainable forestry anywhere is being practiced on private, non-industrial and industrial forestlands. Three decades ago, Dr. Norman Borlaug – a Nobel Prize winner in the field of agriculture – talked about the problem of getting affluent Americans to understand the benefits of managed agriculture and forestry. 

“The greatest challenge,” he said, “lies in the failure of the general public – especially in the relatively affluent United States – to understand the complexities of what it takes to provide food and shelter for a growing world population.” 

“Not only do they take it all for granted, but also many are bent on obstructing intensive agriculture and forest management at every turn.”

In fact, the U.S. Forest Service estimates the volume of wood in American forests increased by 44 percent between 1963 and 1997.  And in terms of acreage, the U.S. has about the same area of forestland it did in 1920 … even though there has been a 143 percent increase in population since then.

Like many fears, fear of managed forests is unfounded and stems substantially from ignorance.  These are some of the common misunderstandings among our fellow citizens.

* They some people in the Midwest believed that Washington state was nearly devoid of forests.  Instead, it is one of the most forested of all states. * They believe that harvested areas are not replanted.  Obviously, many people do not understand the economics of the forest products industry.  We have every reason to replant.  At Weyerhaeuser, weather and season of the year permitting, all our harvest areas are replanted within a year. * Our fellow citizens believe that America will soon run out of trees.  According to a survey by the Wood Promotion Network, 75 percent of the North American public believes we’re using more wood than we’re replacing, and more than half believe we’ll run out of wood in our lifetime.  Yet wood growth continues to outpace its harvest. * They also believe that commercial forestry leads to species extinction.  While it’s true that some different species live in young forests as compared with mature forests, there are actually more species dependent on young forests for their survival.

I might add – to the best of our scientific knowledge – no species has ever become extinct in North America due to forestry.

Demand for wood and paper products continues to rise with world population growth.  Why shouldn’t we set aside a percentage of our forests for the production of those wood and paper products we use every day? 

After all, as former Greenpeace founder Dr. Patrick Moore points out, “You would think that … since forestry is the most sustainable of all the primary industries … and that wood is without a doubt the most renewable material used to build and maintain our civilization … that this would give wood a lot of green eco-points in the environmental movements ledger.” 

Unfortunately, this is not the case.  Meanwhile, much of the world’s wood harvest each year is being burned for fuel and not replanted.

One action Weyerhaeuser has taken is to join with CARE International in a program in Nepal that promotes both literacy and  sustainable forestry.   The goal is to enable Nepalese citizens to earn a steady and reliable living and lift themselves out of poverty.  This program has been under way for two years now – and it is accomplishing its goals.  But this is only one small step toward ending deforestation in much of the developing world. 

We need to do more.  Large, responsible commercial forest products companies can do more.  But only if we’re both permitted and incented to do so. 

Instead, as Borlaug observed, there are groups dedicated to fighting modern forestry, often proposing laws and regulations that could cripple our efforts.

Now, I’d like to change gears a little and talk about the relationship of forest products to you as foresters. 

I’m no forester, but I am a businessman … and I can tell you that the future of the American forestry profession is intertwined with the American forest products industry.  If the demand for American forest products declines, so will the overall demand for American foresters, regardless of the management regime you practice.

With that in mind, here are some facts for you to ponder:

* Substitutes for wood – such as steel, plastic and cement – have made serious inroads into some of our product lines.  Our industry is taking action which I’ll describe shortly. * Currently, there is flat demand for many of the world’s wood and paper products … although long-range forecasts encourage us to continue investing in our forestlands. *  A strong U.S. dollar has significantly hurt U.S. competitiveness vis-à-vis European and other providers.

We are dealing with a global recession. And here are some additional concerns the forest products industry faces:

* Real prices for many of our finished products have been declining over time. * One can grow trees faster and for less cost in the Southern Hemisphere – a global opportunity, but a challenge to commercial foresters in North America. * We also face much greater environmental and other regulatory constraints than producers in many other nations. * Finally, countries that once imported many American wood and paper products are now either sourcing them from other countries or developing their own capabilities.

Now, looking at the facts I just enumerated, let me ask you:  What does the future of American forestry look like?  Not as rosy as we would like.  But we shouldn’t throw in the towel.  We do have some advantages:  skilled labor … competitive freight costs into home markets … some of the highest-value tree species in the world … great forestry schools … an entrepreneurial spirit … and – to repeat – many of the best foresters in the world.

To compete, however, we must continue to drive costs down in our manufacturing and in our forestry practices – i.e., do more with less. 

In this regard, we need to continue improving the growth rates and commercial attributes of the trees we grow for wood and paper production.  We’re an innovative people.  We can do this. A second thing we can do is advocate for equivalent environmental regulations worldwide – regulations which ensure effective stewardship of the world’s working forests.  American forest products companies should not be penalized in the marketplace for achieving high standards of forest stewardship. 

One of the movements that’s helping level the playing field is the push for certification of forests and forest products. 

As one might expect in a democratic society, there is debate over whose standards should prevail.  As the Chair of the American Forest & Paper Association, I’m a supporter of AF&PA’s Sustainable Forestry Initiative standards – or SFI.

My interest is to make sure that the environment is protected … that American forest products can compete … and that American forest owners can control their destiny.  If we are prohibited from doing so, not only the forest products industry, but our nation’s forests, will suffer.

Another thing we can all do is promote wood products over those from other industries.  For two years now, I’ve been the co-chair of the Wood Promotion Network – or WPN. WPN is doing a great job of making the case for wood products, but funding is limited compared with plastic and steel.  I should also mention that the American Forest & Paper Association is involved in promoting wood products.

We should also be lobbying our governmental representatives for a more stable regulatory environment in which to make our long-term investment in trees.

Another thing we can do is help educate our neighbors and the public in general about the benefits of responsible, sustainable forestry.  And don’t forget our future citizens … our children.  For example, in Oregon, Weyerhaeuser sponsors a Forest Field Day for seventh-graders. We also help educate people through our Cool Springs Environmental Learning Center in North Carolina … and our Forest Learning Center near Mount St. Helens in Washington state.  In particular, the Forest Learning Center – and the view from it – make clear the stark contrast between the natural recovery rates of a forest after its destruction … and what Mother Nature can accomplish with a helping hand from man.

Finally, we must stand united as foresters and forest products manufacturers in promoting the benefits of managed forests … however we might define them … or however extensively we might apply them. 

I would encourage foresters to focus on common opponents:  those who would deny legitimacy to any forestry anywhere … and those who are deforesting large portions of the world through poor, or nonexistent, forestry practices.

As Dale Bosworth has said:  “We’ve got to quit arguing about who’s right and start doing what’s right.”

My hope is that one day managed forests will be seen as a solution and not as a problem … and that deforestation will be ended.  My hope is that one day forest products will be universally viewed as the most environmentally friendly products people can buy and use.  My hope is that one day everyone involved with modern forestry will be accorded the respect and praise they deserve. With your help – as professional, dedicated and thoughtful foresters – this vision just might one day come true.