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The Deceit of Yes/No Conservation


Heather Tallis

Global Managing Director, Lead Scientist for Strategy Innovation, The Nature Conservancy

August 2015

Redwood trees in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Photo © Harold E. Malde.
Redwood trees in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Photo © Harold E. Malde.

Not long ago, the questions and answers conservation and environmentalism faced seemed straightforward:

Should we save the whales? Yes.

Should we be ok with frogs having three legs? No.

Should rivers run free? Yes.

Should rain have acid in it? No.

Should rivers burn? No.

But today, the flattening of the earth has made being a thoughtful earth steward a lot harder. Seemingly obvious yes/no questions can end up a lot more entangled than many well-meaning people assume.

Say ‘No’ to Logging Santa Cruz’s Redwoods? Not So Fast

Take forestry in Santa Cruz, California. Although most of the hills for miles around Santa Cruz were cut bare at the turn of the 20th century, redwoods have done fairly well in coming back. They tower along a swath of coast, fueled by ocean fog.

Redwoods are an icon of nature to the communities that live here, and many people are quick to want to protect them. I’m one of them. I live in Santa Cruz and am one of thousands of people that flock to hike, bike and camp in these forests.

On an intermittent basis, the community is faced with a choice, framed in a familiar way: should we allow logging in the redwoods?

This seems like one of those simple yes/no questions with a seemingly obvious answer. I like redwoods, I want to be able to enjoy them, I want my son to be able to enjoy them, so “no.”

But this is not the only choice that is being made. A “no” to logging in Santa Cruz does not reduce timber demand. It just shifts it.

Put more bluntly, a no to logging in Santa Cruz is a “yes” to logging somewhere else, whether or not we want it to be. So the real question is, where do you want your wood to come from?

Things look a lot different when you consider the question this way.

A redwood canopy Northern California. Photo © Douglas Steakley.
A redwood canopy Northern California. Photo © Douglas Steakley.

How Well-Managed Forests Could Change Your Response

Another complicating factor: Santa Cruz County has arguably the best-regulated timber harvest practices in the world.

I recently got a tour of an actively harvested, commercially viable forest run by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County; the Byrne Milliron Forest. This property is run like most other timber property in the Southern Sub-district of the Coast Forest Management District. Common practice here follows strict forest regulations, and even most private companies, like Big Creek Lumber and others, go the regulations one further with a long view on managing forests.

I walked the land with one of the foresters that works in Santa Cruz County and writes harvest plans. I had never walked a forest with a forester before. I imagine this is true for most people. It was fascinating and mind-changing. I learned what forestry really looks like in Santa Cruz.

Forests harvested in this sub-district are largely full of native species, a mix of redwoods, Douglas fir, madrone, California bay laurel, and tan oak with understories of blackberry, sword ferns, redwood sorrel and other species. No eucalyptus or pine plantations anywhere in the district. All timber harvest in the sub-district is single-tree harvest, which means trees are cut one at a time, leaving many trees in place. It is common for a commercial harvest to leave 70 percent of the trees standing. For this to work, every tree’s fall path is planned out for minimal damage to surrounding trees.

This regime puts even the “sustainable forestry practices” in other regions to shame. It can take a year in Santa Cruz to write a plan to harvest a single property. Each property is walked over and over, individual trees marked for cutting, and the fall path of every tree mapped out.

A Timber Harvest Plan identifies existing and potential areas for specific sensitive species. Properties are monitored for these species at every stage of harvest, and activity is halted if any are found. Roads built before the tough regulations were in place are re-graded, and all roads are monitored and maintained by the harvesters for years after the harvest.

When the harvest happens, individual trees are felled and moved out on cables strung high above the forest floor wherever possible, so no other parts of the forest are impacted. When cables can’t be used, skidder paths are covered up with slash (basically, mulched branches taken off harvested trees), protecting the soil from erosion and starting the regeneration process for the understory community.

I walked through an area harvested just over seven years ago and strained to see any trace of logging.

"So many of the environmental questions people face today seem simple the way they are asked, masking the real decisions at hand and misleading people in their choices."
- Heather Tallis

Sustainability is Not the Way of the World

Obviously, this result is not the global norm. We have all seen pictures of commercially cleared tropical hills—scorched earth, horizon-to-horizon. This is legal logging, and I’ve seen it first hand in Borneo, Sumatra, mainland Malaysia, China and Myanmar. And in Oregon, Washington and Canada.

Seeing such devastation is one of the main things that drove me to work in conservation. In most countries—even developed ones—timber harvest rules are incredibly lenient, and clear cutting is the norm.

Under these practices, cut areas are usually replanted with non-native, fast growing trees that can provide less native habitat and may need more water than the native forest that’s been cleared. Or environmentally worse, cut areas are converted to even higher environmental impact activities like commercial agriculture or developed as buildings, parking lots and/or roads. Even usually progressive Canada is in the regulatory Ice Ages on timber: streams are not protected with no-cut buffers, clear cutting is common, rotation times are short.

Timber production done this way is on the rise, and China is leading the pack. When you say “no” to logging in a place like Santa Cruz, you say “yes” to these practices.

‘Complicated’ Doesn’t Have to Mean ‘Hard’

The next time someone asks me if we should allow logging in the Santa Cruz redwoods, my answer will be yes, in some areas, because it’s the best timber harvesting on the planet and we have enough forests here to balance it with protection. Try fitting that in a headline! It’s a complicated answer because it’s a complicated question, and we should stop pretending otherwise.

But complicated doesn’t have to mean hard. We have the science to know how much area needs protection and where and when forests and sensitive species are most vulnerable to impacts. And we have the regulations and pretty conscientious corporate practice in place to show the world what environmentally sound and profitable timber harvest looks like.

Do we want to shut that down? I don’t.

So many of the environmental questions people face today seem simple the way they are asked, masking the real decisions at hand and misleading people in their choices.

Isn’t local food better for the planet?

Aren’t GMOs bad?

Isn’t population growth the real problem?

None of these have a simple answer, if you care about a healthy planet. Conservation and environmental groups should stop selling these choices as simple, and concerned citizens should expand their understanding of global markets and dynamics to understand what’s truly at stake.

Originally Posted on Cool Green Science

August 17, 2015