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Climate & Energy
Introduction - Forest Stewardship and the Land Ethic: A Fresh Look
V. Alaric Sample

Forestry professionals have a special responsibility for the conservation and sustainable management of one of the most important natural resources on Earth. Forests represent a third of the planet’s land area, but they are home to two-thirds of the world’s animal and plant species, and represent almost three-quarters of the carbon present in living organisms. Forestry professionals today are highly educated in the science of how these ecosystems work, and are increasingly skilled in understanding the economic, social, and cultural contexts that make sustainable forest management possible. However, science and economics are not always enough. Aldo Leopold taught that there is an underlying land ethic in what foresters do, a moral responsibility to conserve and sustain these ecosystems for future generations and for the diversity of species that depend upon them. Foresters are the stewards of these important resources, with a responsibility to reflect this land ethic in their own actions, but also to educate and to lead.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Grey Towers Protocol, which established a set of guiding principles for forest managers, based on the “moral imperative” of land stewardship. It also came to define in the minds of many the values, mission, and purposes of the Pinchot Institute. The Grey Towers Protocol was the outcome of a symposium held at Grey Towers National Historic Site in November 1990, in conjunction with the centennial of the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. It was published by the Pinchot Institute in 1991 as a book entitled Land Stewardship in the Next Era of Conservation, and is still available from the Pinchot Institute in print and at http://www.pinchot.org/pubs/550.

The Grey Towers Protocol reflected the fundamental reexamination of forestry that was taking place at this critical juncture in the history of US forest policy. In the intervening 25 years, we have witnessed major changes in forestry toward the conservation and sustainable management of forests as complex, biologically-diverse ecosystems, supporting equally complex economic, social, and cultural systems in human societies. Ideas and approaches that were bold and controversial 25 years ago now have become widely accepted as standard practice on many private as well as public forest lands.

In this issue of The Pinchot Letter, we explore the ongoing evolution in both the philosophy and the practice of forest stewardship and the land ethic. Senior Fellow and leading Gifford Pinchot biographer Char Miller examines the tacit understanding that binds together even today’s increasingly urbanized and technology-driven society. It is the Earth’s natural resources that are the fundamental basis for our entire system, and we each have a responsibility to care for the resources that sustain us all. The irony in the supposed conflict between environmental stewardship and economic consumption is that environmentalism is not about saving the planet. The planet and most of its life forms will persist long after the Earth is no longer fit for human habitation. Environmentalism is as much about humans’ responsibility to one another as it is to saving Nature. The two are not separable. They are fundamentally the same.

Aldo Leopold biographer Curt Meine takes a fresh look at the land ethic and what Leopold called the “conservation aesthetic,” and how they have evolved since the 1949 publication of A Sand County Almanac. Meine explores the influences of Gifford Pinchot’s conservation philosophy on Leopold, and vice versa, while Leopold was a young forester for the US Forest Service and over the remainder of their parallel lives. In his chapter on “Land Health and the A-B Cleavage,” Leopold differentiates between “group (A)” foresters who are “quite content to grow trees like cabbages, with cellulose as the basic commodity” and “group (B)” foresters who “manage a natural environment rather than creating an artificial one.” Today this is not an either/or proposition. Both are essential as we strive to protect the world’s “last great places,” but also to de-carbonize the world’s economy through a greater reliance on renewable resources and new technological breakthroughs in bioenergy, natural structural materials that are stronger than steel, and the use of nanocellulose for everything from computer screens, to saltwater filters, to body armor.

But how has this evolution in forest stewardship and the land ethic affected the everyday practice of forestry in the field? Forest Stewards Guild president Fred Clark explores the dilemmas in which field foresters sometimes find themselves when directed to take actions that, although not legally prohibited, are ethically questionable. His observations have challenging implications for the exercise of individual responsibility, but also for collective action by an ethical profession and the value of professional licensing.

Bob Perschel, president of the New England Forestry Foundation, takes the concept of land stewardship one step further, from sustainably managing an already functional forest ecosystem to restoring those degraded by actions in the past. Recalling the major shift in timberland ownership from forest products companies themselves to a new investor class over the past two decades, he describes how an increased emphasis on near-term financial returns by investors with no stake in long-term resource sustainability has left its signature on the land in New England forests. He looks to a new class of “social investors” with a truly long-term buy-and-hold approach to investing, to help acquire millions of acres of degraded forests and restore them to ecological health and economic viability.

Gifford Pinchot III further challenges the impression that corporations and other for-profit organizations must choose between rewarding their investors and contributing to a more sustainable society. He describes how a new generation of entrepreneurs is connecting the dots differently, and demonstrating that novel approaches and new technologies that advance resource efficiency and environmental sustainability are increasingly in demand, and will reward their innovators in the marketplace of the future.

The commemoration of Gifford Pinchot’s birth 150 years ago—and the 25th anniversary of the Grey Towers Protocol—offer opportunities for us to reflect on the conservation ethic at the roots of forestry as it developed in America, and the moral responsibility we share for conservation education and leadership today. Sustaining forests for all their environmental, economic, social, and cultural values in a world soon to be 10 billion people will require continuing improvement in our science, our practice, and in our ethical commitment to the current and future generations.
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