What Do You Want From Your Forest?

What Do You Want From Your Forest?

A Speech By

James D. Petersen, Founder and President

The Evergreen Foundation

40th Annual Forest Vegetation Management Conference

“40 Years of Growth”

Gaia Hotel and Spa

Anderson, California

January 16, 2019


Thanks for inviting Julia and me to be with you today.

Let’s start with who I am and what we do.

I am the founder and president of the nonprofit Evergreen Foundation. Our mission – our goal if you will – is to help advance public understanding and support for science-based forestry and forest policy.

Mainly we work to translate forest science into plain English for our followers, including those who work in the forest policy arena in Washington, D.C.’s fever swamps.

I call them swamps because overcoming the hyperbole that echoes through the murky halls of Congress is a daunting task.

Our mission is made even more challenging by the fact that the U.S. Forest Service has not practiced the kind of forestry you practice in nearly 40 years. This is unfortunate on many levels, not least the wildfire pandemic that is currently sweeping across the western United States.

After he retired from the Chief’s post, I once asked my old friend Jack Ward Thomas what he thought the Forest Service’s mission had been during his tenure.

After a long pause, which was unusual for Jack, he said, “It was to conserve late succession species.”

“Did you do it?” I asked.

“Hell, no,” he replied.

My journalist’s ear detected disgust and disappointment in his voice.

If you’ve read Jack’s books you know why he was both disgusted and disappointed. The knot of conflicting regulation policy makers had tied – what Jack called the Gordian Knot – has created a lucrative feeding ground for serial litigators, making it virtually impossible to apply the many sciences of forestry in federally-owned forests.

In the interest of full disclosure, you need to know that I am not a scientist of any kind.

Were it not for the fact that I am a magna cum laude graduate of the Mike Newton School of Forestry and Hard Knocks I would probably not be here this afternoon.

What I am is a Bachelor of Arts graduate of the University of Idaho, Class of 1966. I majored in Journalism and Broadcasting. Back then, the Journalism and Broadcasting programs at Idaho functioned more like boot camps than, say the Business School, which held my attention for part of one semester before I ran screaming from the building.

Idaho’s journalism school was mainly a source of slave labor for major newspapers, radio and television stations and the wire services.

I was privileged to work alongside veteran journalists who learned their crafts in Europe and the South Pacific during the Second World War. It was a fabulous learning experience.

If I am a stickler for facts and fact-checking – and I am – it is because I worked alongside men and women who turn the air blue in a heartbeat and who had balls that “clinked” when they walked.

I understand that all of you get continuing education credits for listening to me rattle on for the next few minutes. I hope not to disappoint you.

A bit more about Mike Newton. We have known one another for some 30 years. He is a very active member of our Evergreen Foundation Board of Directors and I consider him to be trusted friend.

In his company, Julia and I have twice walked much of his Tree Farm west of Corvallis. No, that’s wrong. He walked on his long legs and we ran on our much shorter versions just to keep up.

Both Mike and his trees are marvels to behold.

The late Carl Stoltenberg introduced us when he was still Dean of the Oregon State University College of Forestry. Carl took an early interest in Evergreen and invited me to explore Peavy Hall to my heart’s content. I made my first pilgrimage in the spring of 1987.

The three most interesting people I met in Peavy Hall were Mike, the late Con Schallau, who was an Evergreen Board member for many years, and who encouraged my interest in the PNW Research Station and its Forest Inventory and Analysis Program, which I hold in high regard.

The third person I met in the spring of 1987 was a young scientist named Jeff Morrell. I recall walking into his dimly-lit work area and asking him what he was doing.

His quick answer was, “I am trying to figure out if we can make a wood composite that is lighter and stronger than aluminum that can be used to build air-frames.”

As you might imagine, he had my attention – especially when he explained that one of his biggest funders was Boeing.

I have no idea how much of Jeff’s research goes into the big jets Boeing and Airbus are building today, but I know both manufacturers use lots of composites.

I am increasingly taken by the idea that you can make almost anything from wood. In fact, my old friend, Wink Sutton, who taught at the University of British Columbia for several years, believes that wood science will soon find a way to replace fossil fuels with the molecules that are formed by photosynthesis.

I know this because Wink emailed me an advance copy of his millennium speech at a forestry conference in Durbin, South Africa and asked me what I thought of it. It was fabulous – full of good humor, insight and hope.

Wink is the brains behind “Our Daily Wood,” a pie-shaped block that we manufactured for many years. It represents the volumetric equivalent of the amount of wood consumed daily be every person on Earth.

I have two blocks left – this one and one with the same message in Italian.

We made 2,400 of the Italian version for a wood broker in Rome who ordered them as Christmas gifts for his customers.

We don’t make these blocks anymore – though we should – because they are handmade and silk-screened and cost about $30 apiece with box and shipping. No one wants to pay that much for them.

The disintegration of the old vertically integrated forest products companies was the death knell for most efforts to help the public understand the economic and environmental contributions all of you are making to the world we inhabit. There aren’t many of us left.

The ones that I knew and admired are all dead now: Dave James, for many years the vice president of corporate relations for the old Simpson Logging Company, Bill Hagenstein, who ran the long gone Industrial Forestry Association for his entire career, George Cheek, who pioneered Green America, which was the inspiration for Evergreen, John Benneth, who was the American Paper Institute’s man on the scene in Portland and Kirk Ewart, who was Boise Cascade’s government affairs guru during the spotted owl era.

These were polished, well-spoken professional men. They were well-respected and well-informed.

I don’t see men or women like them today. Your industry has sliced and diced itself into so many small pieces that it is difficult to know who is who or what is what.

Worse, the united voice that held all the messages together is gone because – again – the old vertically integrated companies are gone.

Though rarely told anymore, yours is still a powerful story: the free, non-pollution energy of the sun driving a process called photosynthesis that transforms carbon, water and sugars into the only renewable, recyclable and biodegradable material on earth – a marvelous and amazingly strong fiber used in building, packaging and print. Wood – a word or which there are English, German, Norse, Danish, Swedish and Irish pronunciations.

I’ve never turned down a trip to the woods to see and record what you do. Before he retired and moved to the back of beyond in Arizona, Russ Hudson and I spent a lot of time looking at the marvelous work he and Gene Yavah did during their long careers with the old J. Neils Lumber Company, which St. Regis bought and later sold to Champion International.

I’m guessing that some of you knew Russ. He was a founding member of the Inland Empire Tree Improvement Cooperative and was Neils-St. Regis Champion chief forester in northwest Montana for many years.

Russ and I drove a lot of miles together on the company’s lands near Libby. He was hell bent on having me understand the roles played by herbicides, pesticides and prescribed fire. And he wanted me to know something about the Inland Empire Cooperatives contribution to seed tree improvement.

Suffice it to say, I learned a great deal from Russ. After he retired and busied himself publicly-challenging what Plum Creek was doing in northwest Montana, he asked me if I had the time to re-photograph photo points he’d been monitoring for decades.

I considered the invitation to be a high compliment, so we did it together. I have one set of the last photographs taken, and he has the other.

Now the old J.Neils lands are owned by Weyerhaeuser and everyone I know wonders why the hell they bought the property. So do I. Maybe someday we will all know the story. The silence is deafening.

The trees that grow in northwest Montana are a lot different than what grows in the Douglas-fir region, and so is the forestry that some of you practice. I once asked a now retired forester I knew if he could explain forestry in the Douglas-fir region in one or two sentences.

I had barely finished my question when he said, “Cut it flat, burn it black and plant it back.”

For those of you who are counting, that was one sentence.

As you might imagine, I got a lot more than one sentence from Bill Stein when he was still at the PNW Station in Portland.

I spent a day with Bill on the Oregon coast maybe 20 years ago, looking at experimental plots in which he had tried various combinations of herbicides and prescribed fire. I was good in chemistry in high school, but by the end of a long day with Bill my head was spinning with formulas that I think had something to do with the physiology of various competing brush species and their effectiveness in treating the plots Bill was monitoring.

I took reams of notes, but later concluded that Mike Newton’s demonstration of the safety of 2-4-5-T was more easily understood.

He simply drank the stuff in a public meeting. Many of his colleagues were horrified, but I’m pretty sure that ordinary mortals understood his message. I know I did.

I would be remiss if I did not publicly thank Phil Aune, who is also a member of our Evergreen board of directors, and who invited us to be with you today. Phil and I first met on a woods tour near Lake Tahoe when he was still with the California Forestry Association.

The wildfire crisis you are facing wasn’t what it is today, but you could see it coming in the Sierras, and it was interesting to see how the Lake Tahoe Fire Department was responding.

I admired their patience with mansion owners who had thinned their properties, then stacked all the wood under their porches. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but the situation was a powerful illustration of just how far we still need to go in the forestry education department.

I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about my late father-in-law, Julia’s dad. His name was Wes Rickard, and he invented what most of you do every day. Perhaps a few of you knew Wes. He was the first forest economist hired by the old Weyerhaeuser Timber Company, and it was he who developed High Yield Forestry.

The story here begins with George Weyerhaeuser Jr. inviting Wes into his office one day not long after he was hired. Mr. Weyerhaeuser was then the company’s executive vice president and was clearly on his way up.

“Wes,” he said, “I want you to pretend that everything we’ve ever done on our land was wrong. Now tell us how to do it right.”

Wes being Wes, he very methodically assembled a small research team and went to work. His work space was in the old Weyerhaeuser corporate office in Tacoma. The company’s mainframe computer was upstairs. For nearly three years, he and his colleagues fed IBM punch cards into it.

As Wes explained to me many times, the goal was to use soil data and other factors that influence tree growth to compute a new rotation age for company lands.

At the time, the board-approved age was 140 years, the goal being to make sure that timber harvesting never ran ahead of mill capacity.

Well, to make a long story short, the answer that tumbled out of the mainframe three years hence was 70 years. Knowing that the company’s directors would never approve such a dramatic increase in harvest, Wes and his team picked 90 years and headed upstairs to visit with Mr. Weyerhaeuser and his board of directors.

Shall we say that the conversation was spirited. It was all of that and more.

Several directors were horrified, but the data was solid, and in due course Wes and his colleagues were given the thankless task of explaining the new rotation age to Weyerhaeuser’s regional foresters, who were equally horrified.

Wes and his team called their baby “Target Forestry,” which was an apt description for what it was – a target which may or may not be achievable based on multiple factors explained in their report.

But Weyerhaeuser’s wordsmiths didn’t like “Target Forestry,” so, much to Wes’ consternation, they renamed it “High Yield Forestry,”

If you are old enough to remember the early days of Monday Night Football, you may also recall that Weyerhaeuser produced a series of quite well-done television commercials that explained the many benefits of high yield forestry, including its very positive impact of deer and elk habitat.

And if you remember those commercials, you may also recall that they were narrated by the always plaid-shirted Bill Lawrence, an affable PhD wildlife biologist who was then the company’s Director of Environmental Science.

I know the story of what Wes and his colleagues did because I have a copy of a very animated October 1986 conversation between Wes, Bill and the formidable George Staebler, another PhD, who was then Weyerhaeuser’s Director of Forestry Research. It was Staebler who ran the company’s world-class forestry lab at Centralia.

The three-way conversation between Bill, George and Wes leaves no doubt about the significant role that Wes played in inventing and advancing high yield forestry.

Of the three, he seems to have been the only one whose focus was riveted on target forestry’s statistical model and the model’s reliance on the limits and necessities of soil productivity.

Others were more singularly focused on tree growth rates and internal rates of return, but

“We can’t save the trees,” I heard Wes say again and again, “but we must save the soil because without good soil we can’t grow anything.”

So it was that, in the tree growing game, Wes was just as comfortable starting with bare soil as he was old growth Douglas-fir.”

To the astonishment of all who knew Wes, he resigned from Weyerhaeuser in 1968. Many fretted that he was upset because, with his resignation, came an unprecedented handwritten letter addressed to the company’s board of directors - a letter in which he cautioned against investing too much money in soil fertilization without first understanding the cost-benefit ratio, and how fertilizer might add to or subtract from high yield forestry’s economic principles, which were rooted in science-based forest practices that protected the soil.

“No,” Wes assured Lawrence and Staebler in their 1986 conversation. He wasn’t upset at anything or anyone. He simply wanted to go it alone in his own consulting business.

No one should have been surprised by his decision. Wes pretty much sailed his own ship for 84 years. So far as I know, he never wavered from his very principled and disciplined approach to his professional and personal life.

He was, above all else, honest to a fault.

I have a copy of Wes’s resignation letter if any of you would like a copy. It makes for fascinating reading.

I also have copies of a couple of growth and yield studies he completed while he was working for Carl Newport at the PNW Station in Portland before Weyerhaeuser hired him.

I understand every fifth or sixth word in these reports, but I suspect they will make perfect sense to you.

After Wes left Weyerhaeuser, he did an enormous amount of consulting work for private timberland owners in Washington, Oregon and California – including the appraisals for the settlement George Pacific received from the federal government when Redwood National Park was expanded some 30 years ago.

At one time or another, I suspect he did appraisal and planning work for most of the landowners represented in this room.

Wes also became one of the nation’s most sought-after expert witnesses in a dazzling string of courtroom dramas that won billions of dollars for his clients, many of them Indian tribes that found it necessary to sue the federal government for mismanaging their timberlands.

Wes lost two cases in 48 years. His frequent courtroom partner, a wonderful Seattle lawyer named Don Badgley, told me Wes was the best courtroom witness he ever saw. I don’t doubt it. Nothing rattled him. He had a warm smile, twinkling eyes and a deep, sonorous voice that juries loved. Transcripts of his testimony reveal an economy of words that is jaw-dropping.

Wes and I loved to talk shop. Long after everyone else in the house had gone to bed, you could still find us at the kitchen counter, discussing the forestry news of the day, or his great disappointment with the federal government’s outright rejection of most of forestry’s basic principles.

No matter my question, his answer almost always began with a question:

What do you want from your forest?

If I could tell him what I wanted, he could give me a detailed answer.

What was my objective:

Was I in it for profit, did I want to create or maintain wildlife habitat, were aesthetics a primary goal, perhaps a wooded homesite?

What did I want?

If I could tell him what my goals were, he could tell me how to achieve them.

We could start with bare soil or in a stand of old growth and his question was always the same: What did I want from my forest?

I can only imagine that he ran his landowning clients through the same drill. And I’m sure they heard his admonitions about protecting the soil in which all forest life begins.

People naturally trusted Wes. When he was manning a Marine radio tower near the 38th Parallel in 1953, a South Korean woman implored him to help her young son. He had stepped on something awful and his foot was badly infected, so Wes commandeered a Jeep and took the boy to an aid station.

In a manner of speaking, Wes spent much of his personal and business life commandeering Jeeps and rescuing people who needed his help.

I miss him.

Speaking of Wes’s concerns for soil and soil productivity, your Conference had a wonderful mentor and long-time association with the late Bob Powers. I knew Bob through the Pacific Logging Conference. In 2007, the year I was President, he was kind enough to tour us through the King Kamehameha eucalyptus plantations that thrive on old sugar plantations on the Island of Hawaii. It is my recollection that harvests support local schools.

Improving our scientific understanding of the relationship between forest soils and soil productivity was a big deal to Bob.

His research in productivity, nutrients, the effects of plant competition on reforestation survival and early growth have provided as strong basis for your work today, and you are to be commended for establishing a scholarship in his honor. Now the torch passes to you and it is your responsibility to see that Bob’s exceptional work continues.

So where does this leave us:

It leaves me with a great deal of admiration and enthusiasm for the work you do.

Your patience and your attention to detail have been richly rewarded in recent years. High quality, uniformly-sized logs are driving sawmilling technology, advanced product developments and market innovations at warp speed.

Who would have thought it possible to build skyscrapers from cross-laminated timbers or veneer-based Mass Panel Plywood manufactured from trees no more than 14 or 15 inches in diameter?

Architects who a decade ago were skeptical about the environmental advantages of wood now have plans on their drawing boards for structures 60 to 80 stories tall.

Less ambitious CLT and MPP projects are already going up in major cities around the world. Their presence is giving rise to a new more hopeful conversation about the countless economic and environmental advantages of wood.

Biofuels made from wood waste and residuals still can’t compete with fossil fuels, but I have no doubt that someone is going to master this Rubik’s cube sometime in this century. Then we can start some new and exciting conversations about carbon sequestration, carbon neutrality and the importance of growing trees for harvest.

You and those who came before you did this. Never forget this truth.

You are the reason why the nation’s privately-owned forests are so productive. Investor dollars make the world go round, but your knowledge and commitment are what drives innovation that begins with the soil and ends with a dazzling array of cellulose-based products that have no environmental equals in metal, concrete or oil-based plastics.

Your boots on the ground story is filled with faith, vision and innovation.

I only wish more people could see it, hear it and touch it.

Maybe someday.

Thanks for inviting us to be with you today.

We wish you well in all your endeavors.

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