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When I read stories or emails like this one, I remember the first time, as an adolescent, I took my mother out to the woods behind our house in New Hampshire. I clearly remember the confusion in her eyes as I talked about how much I loved the woods, how beautiful they were, and how much I enjoyed listening to the animals that inhabited the woods. Her eyes glazed over while I talked about my deep joy of all the forest held since time immemorial as though nothing I said held any significance for her.

I suspect many people today feel much as my mother did those many years ago. Maybe even the owners and stockholders of the company to which this email from the Sierra Club refers.

healthy forests

Almost two weeks ago, my colleague Sarah Matsumoto and I wrote a letter to one of the largest landowners in America, Red Emmerson.

As two workaday environmentalists, united in our devotion to forests and the service to the planet they provide, we made a simple request.

We would like Mr. Emmerson to be clear about his company’s clear cutting. We would like him to let consumers who visit his company’s website—and there are people who do such things before they buy wood to build a new house or remodel a kitchen—get a clear picture of his company’s clear cutting practices.

Emmerson, a timber titan whose own story suggests the protagonist is not your average Joe, got his start in California logging mills as a teenager in the late 1940s. He joined forces with his father, a mill builder, and grew Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) into one of the largest and most powerful lumber companies in America.

As the company’s name suggests, a big chunk of the family owned business’s holdings are in the Sierra Nevada. Unfortunately, the awe-inspiring part of the story stops there.

Here’s why: Much of the company’s nearly two million acres are destined to be clear cut. That is, they have already been or will be totally wiped clean of trees, shrubs and other living plants, then doused with pesticides before replanting with seedlings that will require decades to mature.

If you fly over parts of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges today—or watch a Google Maps-assisted flyover produced by the Sierra Club—you can see what clear cutting means. It creates a checkerboard of bald spots across the forested mountains. At ground level, it dramatically changes habitat, microclimates and ecosystem services. Clear cutting eliminates breeding and living space for most animals, makes cool places hotter, and reduces the essential water-storing services of the bare land left behind.

When author Cheryl Strayed stumbled across a clear cut during her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail (recounted in Wild, one of my favorite books of 2012), it unsettled her. “I felt sad and angry about it, but in a way that included the complicated truce of my own complicity,” she writes. “I used tables and chairs and toilet paper, too, after all.”

So do we consumers of wood products have to accept clear cutting as a necessary evil? No, not at all.

There are better ways to do forestry. Most logging companies in California are moving away from clear cutting, and some do almost no clear cutting. They employ more selective ways to harvest timber. These ways preserve more trees and do less damage to the habitat and the forest’s ability to recover quickly and keep providing ecosystem services.

SPI uses a range of harvest methods, but harvest plans filed with the state suggest it is leading the pack among those who continue to rely heavily on the outdated practice of clear cutting. How much clear cutting does the company do? That’s the question we think SPI should clearly answer for consumers.

That’s why Sarah and I wrote the letter. On the SPI website, the company implies that it practices sustainable forestry. There’s nothing sustainable about clear cutting—it doesn’t sustain forests and it doesn’t sustain jobs.

Clear cutting is to forestry what clubbing baby seals is to the fur trade: an ugly, archaic practice so unnecessary that it is almost hard to believe it continues.

So SPI needs to be clear about clear cutting. We want it to disclose on its home page the number of acres the company clear cuts. Let consumers consider whether Mr. Emmerson’s SPI is really practicing sustainable forestry. Then consumers can vote with their pocketbooks.

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Mea Culpa

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colfax1

Dear Readers,

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve not posted anything to my blog. Not even about those little known stories the mainstream media tends to ignore…and I love. It’s not that those stories don’t exist. Heck, plenty of them exist everywhere; just look at any issue of Wired Magazine’s Wired Science blog. I’ve just been occupied elsewhere.

I admit to having “liked” Bruce Bartlett’s facebook page which supplies me with endless conversations (and articles) on economics and politics as well as the absurd. Of course, I still read the news every morning in the Washington Post (especially Wonkblog) as well as The Atlantic, The New Republic, The American Conservative, Bloomberg, and a few others like the Financial Times and the Economist.

But over the course of the last year I’ve become more involved in volunteering my expertise to community non-profit groups. My little, rural town in the Sierra Nevada foothills can’t afford paid services for the help it needs. We’re still suffering from the severe recession.

Wages are below median average for California, and industry, as we generally think of it, is practically unknown here. For years, Colfax, where I live, was ruled by a “no expansion” crowd that hamstrung local businesses and the community at large. Finally, that hold is breaking as a result of the Great Recession. Businesses, hard hit by lack of customer revenues, are finally speaking up and demanding revenue growth in order to stay in business and to fill the empty storefronts. Residents are seeing the need to build sustainable businesses that can help support necessary, and even desired, community services.

I’ve spent most of my adult years in large towns where governmental actions made a huge difference in both the local economy and in people’s lives. When governments partner with the business community, local service non-profits, and residents great accomplishments occur that better the lives of everyone in the community. The current Tea Party inspired, Ayn Rand anti-government fad fails to acknowledge the many benefits government provides communities via increased demand revenues and stabilizing taxes.

For me, when my local community chose to develop an Art Walk which promoted both local artists and main street businesses, expand the reach and profitability of our annual July 3rd Independence Day Celebration (yeah, I know it’s a day ahead of the real thing), and develop a community-wide business plan to promote our city, I volunteered. Unlike the Ayn Randers out there, there’s more to a good life than just me…and the financial perks I personally am getting. I saw these non-profit activities as a chance to rebuild and renew our business community.

Certainly, Social Security and Medicare made it economically possible for me to spend my time on efforts to help my community develop and become more profitable. Without those earned insurance benefits, as they currently exist, I’d be bankrupt…and be left wondering what to do to survive. It’s not that I didn’t save in retirement accounts throughout my 40-some working years. I had. I invested the maximum amount the federal government allows each working year. Regardless, between 2001 and 2009, following the great crash, I lost nearly 2/3s of my retirement savings. Over that decade, I continually bought more shares via my retirement accounts, but the values (profits) decreased. The end result became my need for these two primary insurance benefits into which I paid for over 40 years.

Nevertheless, those insurance benefits now afford me the ability to spend many hours each week voluntarily working for my cash-strapped community, rather than solely worrying about how I’m going to pay the bills or how to survive another month. I’m not forced to go begging for state or federal assistance. Or made to feel like I’m the lowest of the low for needing help. I still have my dignity and the knowledge that I’m taking financial care of myself.

But I’m no hero, by any means. Those earned insurance programs now have just provided me the means to the end of helping my community at large.

Strikingly, my community volunteering increased my skills far beyond what I learned during my career…and I really enjoy all I’m learning in the process of doing. Sure as heck beats vegetating and waiting to die!

But I guess, for me anyway, I feel valuable again. I feel like I really can make a contribution to my community and my fellow citizens…and that makes me feel important and good about myself.

I understand my senior’s path isn’t the same for everyone. But it’s working for me and adding to the renewal efforts of my community while not increasing costs. Most of all, though, I’m getting far more personal satisfaction out my volunteer activities than I’m putting in terms of time and my increased skills.

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