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Climate & Energy
Breakfast, Ethics, and Forestry in a Changing Climate
Robert T. Perschel
The US Forest Service has moved away from timber quotas as the basis for managing its lands. Pictured here: Mount Bond on the White Mountaion National Forest. Image credit: Sean Munsin CC BY NC ND 2.0

The 25 years since the publication of the Grey Towers Protocol offers the perspective to ask and attempt to answer three intriguing questions: 
  • What has changed in forest management and what role does an ethical protocol have in fostering change? 
  • Are the ethical standards put forth in the Grey Towers Protocol still relevant in a time of global climate change? 
  • What can be done to foster and encourage improvement in forest management over the next 25 years?
The Grey Towers Protocol was developed in 1990, building on Aldo Leopold’s seminal 1949 essay “The Land Ethic.” The four tenets of the Protocol together posit a moral approach to forestry, focus on ecosystems as the scientific and ethical entity, extend the timeframe to future generations, and finish with a maxim to pass them to the next generation in better condition than when we found them. If one thinks about ethics as an evolving dynamic, as Leopold surely did, then the Protocol claims a key place in the ferment of ethical investigation in forestry that colored the period 1990–2000. During that period the Society of American Foresters reevaluated and rewrote its code of ethics, the Keystone Center led a major national policy dialogue on ecosystem management, the US Forest Service adopted ecosystem management as its new approach, the Northwest Forest Plan addressed the future management of a great and threatened ecosystem, and the Forest Stewards Guild was founded on Leopoldian ethical principles.

It is interesting to note how little climate change entered into any of these discussions. In fact, forest carbon management was not even an objective of the Northwest Forest Plan—a remarkable historical fact considering the intensity and breadth of attention that was given to the future of this ecosystem and the flurry of incentive programs and management advice related to carbon only a few years later. In hindsight the 1990’s can be considered a flowering in ethical thinking regarding ecosystems as well as a transition period between a first and second wave of environmentalism. Baird Callicott posits that the first wave of environmental crisis was about pollution and resource depletion, which are spatially circumscribed and temporally oriented to solutions over the span of a human lifetime. The second wave confronts climate change, and this makes the scope of our concerns global.1
Grey Towers Procotol

In the 1990’s, while the world was just beginning to develop an awareness of the challenges of global climate change, the forestry community was busy responding to the ecosystem-based ethic Leopold had published forty years previously. While forty years may seem like a long time, the field of study now known as environmental ethics was actually only developed in the 1970’s. So from that perspective we might admire Leopold for being well ahead of his time, and regard forestry’s eventual response to Leopold’s new land ethic as actually quite rapid. This response lag between a new ethical way of conceiving of a resource and its expression and integration into the relevant professions becomes important as we consider the next ethical evolution—one that addresses climate change.How long will it take to implement an on-the-ground management response?

If it is true that most lasting social change is anchored in a deep moral imperative then the ethical progress of the 1990’s, including the Grey Towers Protocol, should have resulted in new ways of managing our forests. We can look back at public lands, family forest ownerships, and industrial forest land holdings to gauge how management has changed over 25 years.

The state wildflower of New Hampshire, the pink lady's slipper often takes years to progress from seed to mature, blooming plant. Image credit: Fritz Flohr Reynolds CC BY SA 2.0On public lands, particularly the National Forests, there has been a definite movement away from timber quotas as the basis for line officer accountability and organizational advancement. Budget approvals and accountability to Congress also shifted away from timber yields. Most obviously the actual timber cut went down drastically, from 10 BBF in FY 1990 to 2.4 BBF in FY 2014, a clear signal that other ecosystem values were taking priority and thinking was shifting toward managing for ecosystem health.2

Given the millions of individual family forest owners across the country, the management changes on private lands are more difficult to measure, but there are ways to gauge trends. The development of water quality Best Management Practices for each state and the high rates of implementation of these standards signal improvement in management practices. Over the last ten years the adoption of guidelines for wood biomass harvesting for renewable energy also signals an ability to develop new safeguards in response to changing environmental pressures.The increased training and ethical direction through professional organizations like the Society of American Foresters and Forest Stewards Guild helps make well-qualified professional practitioners available to landowners. Landowner surveys consistently tell us that producing timber for wood products is not a primary management objective for family forest owners.3 Apparently, these owners have internalized some of the diverse objectives of ecosystem management, such as wildlife management and aesthetic beauty.

However, what actually happens on the ground is a different story. Nationwide the number of landowners who use a qualified forester when planning a timber harvest hovers around 20%, so professional scientific training and ethical perspectives often do not come into play.4 On the positive side, the growth and maturation of the land trust movement has gotten more citizens involved in conserving local landscapes. Hundreds of local land trusts offer new ways to communicate with and involve family forest landowners in conservation and forestry. Although many land trusts started strictly as land protection organizations, they are incorporating the need for professional forest management and communicating the importance of forestry to other landowners and the general public. In New England the New England Forestry Foundation is joining with the American Forest Foundation and a collaboration of land trusts in the MassConn Sustainable Forest Partnership to pioneer new ways to communicate with and educate landowners, and our early pilot projects are showing results.

pull quoteOver the last 25 years integrated forest products companies have largely divested themselves of commercial timberlands in the US. The timberland investment organizations (TIMOs) and real estate investment trusts (REITs) that purchased the lands manage forest primarily for near-term financial objectives. Enough time has passed to begin evaluating the effect of this change in ownership on management practices, ecosystem values, and consistency with the Grey Towers Protocol. We hope this reporting will begin soon. In northern New England, where more than 20 million acres have changed hands since 1980, it is difficult to evaluate trends in forest management. Data from the USFS Forest Inventory and Analysis Program can be used to compare the changes to the forest over time and in comparison to the other managed lands we do have information on. However, most of the detailed data is private and proprietary.

Although our evidence remains anecdotal and spotty, the New England Forestry Foundation is concerned these lands are entering a downward spiral of ecologically unsound management that is not well-aligned with the needs of a carbon-challenged world. Periodically NEFF is involved in forest land sales either through our own interest in adding to our current ownership portfolio or as potential holder of new conservation easements. These properties invariably have forest stocking levels of 10–14 cords per acre. For comparison, the Maine Bureau of Public Lands maintains an average of 22–25 cords per acre.5 On our 150 NEFF fee-owned properties scattered across New England our stocking level averages 22 cords per acre, similar to other historically well-managed private holdings. Clearly, the investment-owned lands that we are aware of are being managed differently. If this is a trend then vast acreages clearly are not being left in better condition than when they were acquired.

From a land ethics perspective there are two things we can do to change this downward spiral.The first is to return to our ethical base. Leopold’s Land Ethic and the Grey Towers Protocol are based on ecosystems and ecosystem health. But global climate change shifts our concerns. Our current ethic is spatially localized and temporally aligned with human lifetimes. Climate change necessitates an ethic that is global in scope and encompasses many more future generations. Fortunately, philosopher and Leopold scholar Baird Callicott has built upon an early and unpublished Leopold paper to suggest how the land ethic can be updated to meet these global and generational concerns. In order to meet the challenge of climate change from a forestry perspective we need to be equipped with an environmental ethic that is commensurate with its spatio-temporal scale.6 This change would shift, among other management criteria, our concern for stocking levels from a measurement of localized ecosystem sustainability to one of carbon management in a global system.

A flowering perennial with a notorious odor, the eastern skunk cabbage is an early sign of spring warmth. Image credit: Nicholas A, Tonelli CC BY 2.0 The second ethical challenge is to address the lack of prescriptive direction in the Land Ethic, the Grey Towers Protocol, or a potential new Earth Ethic. In the world of ethical study these types of ethics are classified “moral theory” ethics and as such are criticized for lacking a basis for action, evaluation, and accountability.7 This limitation is apparent in the maxim to “leave the forest in better condition than when we found it.” How do we determine that? Is forestry sustainable when harvest cycles keep stocking levels at little more than 10–14 cords per acre? Is that kind of management addressing the carbon sequestration issues of global climate change? If there is no specificity in our ethic or associated management standards, then almost any kind of long term management is acceptable and much of our management clearly will not meet the challenges of carbon-constrained future. In order to help with this issue NEFF has initiated a project to identify clear measureable outcomes for the management of our own lands, to evaluate them, and adjust them to meet the challenge and ethical imperative of global climate change.

Addressing these ethical challenges is important, but is only part of the solution to changing forest management over the next 25 years to help address climate change. Ethics can lead to better management but it is doubtful it will do so if the economics of land ownership isn’t also addressed. Leopold reminded us that, “breakfast comes before ethics” to help us put things in perspective.8 TIMOs, REITs, and family forest landowners simply will not be able to follow ethical imperatives if the economics of forest management do not support them. In order to increase stocking levels on a property from 12 cords per acre to 22 cords and sustain forest carbon stocks, ecological values, and higher timber yields, private forest owners will need other sources of income from their woodlands in the next 20–30 years. Carbon markets will help, but we need much more innovative and creative financial models.That is why NEFF is working with our partners in the Maine Mountains Collaborative to investigate how private philanthropic funding targeted toward low rates of returns might seed long-term forest management that meets our ethical responsibilities.When we get the ethics and the economics right at the same time we will have the kind of forests we can truly pass along in better condition than we found them.

Bob Perschel is the Executive Director of the New England Forestry Foundation in Littleton, MA.
Well-managed forests provide many benefits like clean drinking water. Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire. Image credit: Jonathan Moreau CC BY NC ND 2.0

1 Callicott, J. Baird. 2013. Thinking Like a Planet. Oxford,UK: Oxford University Press. 374p.
2 USDA Forest Service Cut and Sold Reports, http://www.fs.fed.us/forestmanagement/products/sold-harvest/cut-sold.shtml
3 Butler, Brett J. 2008. Family Forest Owners of the United States, 2006. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-27. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 72 p.
4 Van Fleet, T., D.B. Kittredge, B.J. Butler, and P. Catanzaro. 2012. “Reimagining Family Forest Conservation: Estimating Landowner Awareness and Their Preparedness to Act with the Conservation Awareness Index.” Journal of Forestry 110 (4): 207-215.
5 FY 2014 Annual Report to the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry: Maine Public Reserved, Nonreserved, and Submerged Lands, 2015. Augusta, ME: Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Bureau of Parks and Lands. 35 p.
6 Callicott, J. Baird. 2013. Thinking Like a Planet.
7 Ethics for a Small Planet: A Communication Handbook on the Ethical and Theological Reasons for Protecting Biodiversity. 2002. Madison, WI. The Biodversity Project. 144p.
8 Meine, Curt. 1988. Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. 676 p.
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