The North Coast deserves a thriving economy that celebrates our magnificent natural resources, rewards innovation and supports communities with family-wage jobs.
Despite incessant calls for greater diversity in our economy, no business sector has stepped up to drive an economic revival. Ecotourism has yet to be a significant economic factor in our economy.
Perhaps Arbor Day/Week March 7-17, with its focus on conservation and planting trees, will shift attention to an often overlooked path toward economic stability.
Conservation is the key. It leads to sustainability and the wise use of resources.
Conservation is also vastly different from preservation.
For decades, efforts to preserve North Coast forests have reduced active forest management, made forests increasingly off-limits and brought the forestry industry to its knees. From 1988 to 2008 harvest levels on public forests in the state plummeted 95 percent percent, hundreds of jobs have been lost, and 40 percent of the California’s sawmills have closed since 2000. North Coast unemployment now hovers near 12 percent with few predictions for imminent improvement.
Preservation ignores the fact that it is literally impossible to preserve dynamic forest ecosystems in a static state. It fails to consider that people have been a natural part of forested landscapes for thousands of years or that we have a responsibility to manage natural resources for the benefit of current and future generations.
Whereas preservation makes us passive observers of change, conservation lets land managers take an active hand in our forests’ future.
California’s North Coast has emerged as a hot spot for sustainable forestry. More has been done to advance science and technology in the woods in our own backyard than perhaps any region of the world. More spotted owls live on California’s actively managed private forest lands than on public forest lands left to nature. Our area has invested more money in watershed restoration and salmon research on actively managed private forest and ranch lands than anywhere else.
Imagine if local forestry were actually supported. Maybe California wouldn’t import 75 percent of its lumber. We could sequester more carbon in healthy forests and tap tremendous potential to produce bio-energy and replace fossil fuels. We could enhance biodiversity and put communities back to work taking care of the forests that have sustained North Coast livelihoods for generations.
But instead, preservationist policies restrict forest management and limit investment opportunities. Tax incentives pay twice the dividend for renewable wind and solar energy than they do for renewable biomass energy. Regulatory costs to forestry companies and taxpayers alike have skyrocketed even though the harvest levels have dropped dramatically.
We’re all for diversifying the local economy. But encouraging an existing, job-producing, sustainable business sector is more cost effective than trying to lure new ones that may or may not bring the family-wage jobs forestry provides.
The forestry companies that have survived perform to the highest environmental standards in the nation. While research shows that California law sets among the most stringent regulations anywhere, most North Coast forest landowners have taken the additional step of being certified sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council or Sustainable Forestry Initiative.
The “locally grown” movement has inspired people to rethink their food consumption habits and support local food producers. It should cause us to rethink forests, too. As Dr. Keith Gilless, UC-Berkeley dean of the College of Natural Resources notes “the arguments to promote local food are no more or less valid when considering one’s consumption of forest products.”
It’s time to choose conservation over preservation, to actively shape our forests and rebuild our economy by supporting working forest landscapes that provide perpetual employment opportunities.
Support locally grown. North Coast forests just might drive an economic recovery.