Public Relations for Working Forests

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:02/02/2012

Bob Williams, a forester with a mission, filmed "A Working Forest, Its Future with Fire, People & Wildlife" to begin a conversation . . .

“The forestry community has an image problem,” declares Bob Williams, “and I don’t believe they’ve recognized that it’s in large part due to our lack of PR."  Bob, a forester for over 30 years working throughout the Northeastern United States, is the producer of a film entitled A Working Forest, Its Future with Fire, People & Wildlife.  “Any approach to help the public understand forestry is almost absent, yet I’ve had the experience time and again of showing this movie to people who know nothing about forestry and they love it!  They’re shocked and surprised.  They’ll say, ‘wow, I didn’t realize this is what you do!’”

His one-hour film interviews a wide variety of people working in forests:  landowners, foresters, wildlife biologists, loggers, mill owners, cranberry farmers and Native American tribes, among others.  In straightforward, unrehearsed language they explain their perspectives, which have a consistent theme:  that cutting trees, when done right, is the essence of forest stewardship.  

The Art of Tree Harvest: Collaborating with Nature to Manage Forests

The film’s host is Chuck Leavell, world-famous pianist and keyboardist for the Allman Brothers Band, Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton as well solo artist in his own right.  Chuck also happens to be one of the most well-spoken and committed conservationists in the country.  Chuck, a certified tree farmer, conveys the film’s stewardship message by explaining that a lot of people think hands-off forest management is the best thing for trees and wildlife.  However, what’s really needed is for people to “collaborate with nature in managing forests” - neither neglect them nor manage them too intensively.

Many people don’t realize that what’s good for the forest is good, not only for wildlife, but for people too.  As one national forest biologist explains, “Forests have evolved with fire, both man-caused and lightning-caused.”  Therefore, after decades or even centuries of fire suppression, prescribed fire is needed for forest health.  But this same biologist hastens to explain that “prescribed fire equals hazard reduction” for the people who live in or near forests.  That’s because it eliminates “ladder fuels” that can lead to destructive, and expensive, crown fires.

Tree harvest is discussed as an “art” that is the opposite of the land clearing that occurs when land is prepped for development.  Thinning can mimic the role of fire and judicious use of “clear cuts” can open up a forest to allow regeneration of tree species that need sun - not to mention the grasses, wildflowers and shrubs that many species of forest wildlife require.  Science backs this up.  One example cited in the film is 9-acre cuts that were used in New Jersey to bring back Atlantic white cedar, a valuable tree both commercially and ecologically, which has declined precipitously since the late 1800s.

This message may not sound like anything new to many of our readers, but it is a message that absolutely has not penetrated popular culture.  That, according to Bob Williams, is something that really must happen before positive change can occur on a large scale.  I agree.  “The wonderful thing,” says Bob, “is our story is a winner!  It would be different if we were trying to promote drilling for oil.  But we’re selling a win-win!”

The Echo Chamber is a Death Chamber

“I intended this film to be used as a tool.  For example, I’ve given it to forest land tax assessors in New Jersey who generally consider it a waste that property taxes are reduced by 90% for landowners with managed forests.  Yet after seeing the film, they really understand the value of those forests.”

The lack of response from the forestry community has disappointed and confounded Williams.  Of the roughly 1500 copies he sent out, he got thank yous from about five percent.  Foresters, like many other groups in society, are understandably more comfortable in their own echo chamber than engaging with people who may disagree with them.  “But,” Williams argues, “that echo chamber is never going to make a difference.  We can’t set things up as 'them versus us' because if we do, we’ll lose and we won’t succeed in changing the status quo."

We Have the Better Story!

The narrative of foresters and many of the people profiled in this blog is that conservation got taken over by hands-off “preservationists.”  Let’s face it:  at one point in time, they had the better story.  Now, Williams and I and many others like us believe that we have the better story.  It’s a story that puts mankind squarely back into the ecosystem.  And who, given the choice, would choose to remain outside of nature rather than be a part of it?

But to get that message out requires engagement.  “Our target is Joe Schmoe driving down the road to his suburban house,” Bob says.  “With world population and demand for food and forest products growing, now is our time to actually say, ‘excuse me - we have a green story to tell you!'  You have to get your story in front of people so they can make up their own minds.”

Is Land Stewardship Ready for its Own Prime Time Reality Show?

Williams is an advocate for helping this message “percolate up” through nature and history channels, television specials and cultural events, and the use of stars like Chuck Leavell, as well as noted science experts.  I would add: include the people, many of whom are featured in this blog, who still live on the land and work anonymously every day to enrich it.  

“The Native Americans had it all laid out for us,” concludes Williams.  “They’ve been living off the land in North America for tens of thousands of years.  They burned forest and grasslands regularly, and today they believe in keeping up with technology to manage their land.  I’ll follow them.”

You may contact Bob Williams or order a copy of his film at Bob Williams or 609-221-0211.