The Ethics of Forest Land Management and Consumerism


The following is a guest post by Dick Powell.

I’ve long harped about the American’s disconnect between the management and use of natural resources. This disconnect leads to a question of ethics, a question I’ve raised a number of times on this blog but no one seems interested in addressing that question (certainly not our elected officials or members of the environmental community!).

I recently came across a book, The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise, by Jim L. Bowyer, Professor Emeritus (Univ. of Minnesota), where this question of ethics is raised.

Bowyer quotes from a speech given by Douglas MacCleery, then Assistant Director of Forest Management of the USDA-Forest Service, at the “Building on Leopold’s Legacy” conference in Madison, WI on October 4, 1999.

Though lengthy, what follows is part of what Bowyer quoted from MacCleery’s presentation.

“Over the last two decades there has been a substantial shift in the management emphasis of public lands, particularly federal lands, in the United States. That shift has been to a substantially increased emphasis on managing these lands for biodiversity protection and amenity values, with a corresponding reduction in commodity outputs. Over the last decade, timber harvest on National Forest lands has dropped by 70 percent, oil and gas leasing by about 40 percent, and livestock grazing by at least 10 percent. [Keep in mind, this was presented in 1999.]

Many have attributed the move to ecosystem management or ecological sustainability to a belated recognition and adoption of Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” – the idea that management of land has, or should have, an ethical content.

While a mission shift on U.S. public lands is occurring in response to changing public preferences, that same public is making no corresponding shift in its commodity consumption habits. The “dirty little secret” about the shift to ecological sustainability on U.S. public lands is that, in the face of stable or increasing per capita consumption in the U.S., the effect has been to shift the burden and impacts of that consumption to ecosystems somewhere else. For example, to private lands in the U.S. or to lands of other countries.”

MacCleery goes on to tell about how, between 1987 and 1997, annual federal timber harvests dropped from about 13 billion to 4 billion board feet. With high consumption, the effect was to simply transfer harvest to private U.S. lands and to Canada. Those Canadian imports rose from 12 to 18 billion board feet and from 27 to 36 percent of U.S. softwood lumber consumption – much of those imports came from native old-growth boreal forests. [That we strive to “save” our old-growth forests but then blindly consume Canada’s less productive old-growth boreal forests should, all by itself, raise a question of ethics!]

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, average American family size dropped by 16 percent while the average family home increased 48 percent.

MacCleery continues: “The U.S. conservation community and the media have given scant attention to the “ecological transfer effects” of the mission shift on U.S. public lands. Any ethical or moral foundation for ecological sustainability is weak indeed unless there is a corresponding focus on the consumption side of the natural resource equation. Without such a connection, ecological sustainability on public lands is subject to challenge as just a sophisticated form of NIMBYism (“not in my back yard”), rather than a true paradigm shift.

A cynic might assert that one of the reasons for the belated adoption of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic is that it has become relatively easy and painless for most of us to do so … because it imposes the primary burden “to act” on someone else.

The disjunct between people as consumers and the land is reflected in rising discord and alienation between producers and consumers. Loggers, ranchers, fishermen, miners, and other resource producers have all at times felt themselves subject to scorn and ridicule by the very society that benefits from the products they produce. What is absent from much environmental discourse in the U.S. today is a recognition that urbanized society is no less dependent upon the products of forest and field than were the subsistence farmers of America’s past. This is clearly reflected in the language used in such discourse.

Rural communities traditionally engaged in producing timber and other natural resources for urban consumers are commonly referred to as natural resource “dependent” communities. Seldom are the truly resource dependent communities like Boulder, Denver, Detroit, or Boston ever referred to as such.”

MacCleery then quotes Aldo Leopold (1928): “The American public for many years has been abusing the wasteful lumberman. A public which lives in wooden houses should be careful about throwing stones at lumbermen … until it has learned how its own arbitrary demands as to kinds and qualities of lumber, help cause the waste which it decries …The long and the short of the matter is that forest conservation depends in part on intelligent consumption, as well as intelligent production of lumber.”

Bowyer goes on to quote MacCleery:  “To take off on that theme, … the evidence that no personal consumption ethic exists today is that a suburban dweller with a small family who lives in a 4000 square-foot home, owns three or four cars, commutes to work alone in a gas guzzling sport utility vehicle (even though public transportation is available), and otherwise leads a highly resource consumptive lifestyle is still (if otherwise decent) a respected member of society. Indeed, her/his social status in the community may even be enhanced by virtue of that consumption.”

Bowyer concludes quoting from MacCleery: “Ecosystem management or ecological sustainability on public lands will have weak or non-existent ethical credentials and certainly will never be a truly holistic approach to resource management until the consumption side of the equation becomes an integral part of the solution, rather than an afterthought, as it is today. Belated adoption of Leopold’s land ethic was relatively easy. The true test as to whether a paradigm shift has really occurred in the U.S. will be whether society begins to see personal consumption choices as having an ethical and environmental content as well – and then acts upon them as such.”

I’ve long understood that a very large part of American society does not like what I do for a living. If they want to put me out of business, the only thing they have to do is to quit buying wood – a very simple matter of economics. However, a forest landowner’s accountant/tax advisor would probably say that, if no one wants to buy wood, the landowner would have no reason to plant or otherwise take care of the forest and they’d be ahead to convert that land to some other use. Further, the consumer would have to depend much more heavily on alternative raw materials – petroleum, concrete, mining, etc. – all things that have far greater environmental cost both here and abroad.

Forest management and wood consumption are so inter-connected that one cannot be looked without looking at the other. To do so creates an ethical question.

21 thoughts on “The Ethics of Forest Land Management and Consumerism”

  1. One thing that has been omitted is the public’s selfishness to preserve their location specific views, their hunting spots, their hiking spots and etc. rather than allow for the incorporation of the forest science that will protect the dynamic forest as a whole.

    • Gil,

      I am a hunter, hiker, etc. And I do try to consume as little as possible. Before I buy things I try to ask myself whether I want it or whether I need it. Sometimes I forget. Yes, I can be a hypocrite. I am not perfect. Practice, not perfection.

      One of my lawsuits stopped a timber sale in one of my hunting spots. Aha! Hyprocrite I hear you say. Well, I received internal emails through a FOIA response that say the logging would do very little to protect the water in question, and the Forest Service tried to justify the timber sale by saying it was necessary to protect the water. Gil, should we blame the public for not trusting the agency?

      I’m not saying that we shouldn’t cut down trees. I’ll be the first to fire up my Stihl and lop some softwood or help start a prescribed fire if the Forest Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks say it is necessary before they reintroduce a new population of bighorn sheep onto Bighorn Mountain in southwest Montana. Should we have bighorn sheep on Bighorn Mountain, Gil?

      • John

        My words “the public’s selfishness” were not meant to be all inclusive and maybe I should have been more specific. You are not a hypocrite for checking on the validity of the proposed actions for an area of interest to you assuming that you wouldn’t have filed the suit if you hadn’t found the evidence. As a professional forester, had it been one of my hunting spots, I would have considered the needs of the forest as a whole rather my desire to not have my spot interfered with. So I would have just let it go and gone on and had the fun of finding another hunting spot but that does not fault you unless you interfered with a bigger plan. How would you like to have some non-lawyer looking over your shoulder second guessing your motive behind every word on every page. You wouldn’t get much work done would you?

        John, should we allow you to practice law because you have made mistakes that led you to loose cases or because you won cases by leaving out contradicting evidence? Would you agree that your mistakes are outweighed by the good you’ve done? Should our ancestors have chosen to let George Washington continue to command the continental army after a couple of years of failure? There is no perfection.

        As to the question “Should we have bighorn sheep on Bighorn Mountain, Gil?”, I’d ask why there aren’t “bighorn sheep on Bighorn Mountain”? I’d also suggest that there is a good probability that hunter’s killed them off just like they did buffaloes, carrier pigeons and on and on. So can we blame some of the public for not trusting hunters? But then there is that double standard isn’t there. Small imperfection in hunters is acceptable but not in forest management. Shooting a buck a little too early or a little too late in the day is no big deal for some people but logging a stand of timber to meet a plan to keep local infrastructure in place to assist in lowering the costs of maintaining a healthy forest – to a lot of people that’s just totally unacceptable and those are the people who I was referring to.

          • John

            I do not “believe that lawsuits that stop timber sales are okay when they are based on political interference”.

            Lawsuits should only be based on:
            1) Failure to apply established science where the expected long term negative consequences are significant.
            2) Situations where a particular timber sale doesn’t advance or maintain the health of the forest at the landscape level on a long term basis.

            At a minimum, forestry is all about what needs to be done now to lower the risk of a break in sustainability in the future.

            Have a fantastic new year.

            • Gil,

              For the sake of fun, let’s assume that we are the lawmakers.

              Under your criteria #1, is a lawsuit appropriate if the Forest Service fails to apply, let alone acknowledge, the science from its own scientists?

              Under your criteria #2, is a lawsuit appropriate if the Forest Service fails to consider how a particular timber sale cumulatively impacts the health of the forest at the landscape level on a long term basis?

              2017 is going to be my best year yet. I hope it is for you too.

              • John

                Arguing used to fun but as I’ve aged, I no longer find that to be the case – so this is a discussion in search of common ground. Failing that it will at least lead to a better understanding between two people with a desire to improve the state of our federal forests.

                Not to be a smart alex, the answer to both of your questions is the same as what I stated in #1 in my previous comment: Only “where the expected long term negative consequences are significant”. Like a lot things in forestry and life, there is no one size fits all answer. Case in point, scientific specialists ignored the forest science and on the ground evidence showing that the NSO was doing well in and around intensively managed industrial plantations. Now $125 million later, those same plantations are the only place where the NSO is holding its own. Should I sue the gov’t and the chief NSO person for malfeasance? Oh! Another $120-130 million is in the works for the next stage of trying to stop evolution and this time they are serious because they are shooting the more adaptable competitor. Better yet, I have in print where the NSO honcho admits that they just took a guess. I guess that was the best available science since foresters couldn’t possibly know anything. Now they have doomed the survival of the NSO because they didn’t plan for long term continuity of habitat. When the lack of replacement stands creates a gap in habitat everywhere but on and around a relatively small acreage of industrial forests, I guess we should sue the gov’t and all enviros for harming the NSO and deteriorating the health of our federal forests and significantly increasing the risk of catastrophic loss. Too bad that people don’t understand that global warming requires more control of stand density in order to compensate for the associated reduction in availability of water and other associated resources.

                Why don’t you sue the enviros and non-forester wildlife specialists for practicing forestry without a license? That has had (and will continue to have for a century) a significant long term impact on the environment.

                I hope that I have given you enough insight to change your priorities in terms what is worth suing over. 😉

              • I do think that the next four years will be good for eco-lawyers. The next administration will not “take a hard look” at all the issues, being overconfident in their business-friendly mindset. The management of public lands has become a tragic comedy, for me. I heard of one southern eco-lawyer saying, “Hey, it’s just business”. Go for the gusto and slow down that pendulum swing.

                • Yes, unfortunately. I was talking with a cutter who worked on some the fires in Northern California the last few years. Noting how they don’t really try to put them out, and it is really about money. It about the only economy they have going in Forests.
                  So the way things have been going it ok to spend millions of dollars burning our Forests up, including our so valuable remaining old growth, just as long as we don’t do anything else like manage it or harvest it. I still think our current Forest management practices will be looked backed upon with the more shame someday than the days of clearcutting old growth, at least then we were all working creating something.

                    • So, the most expensive wildfire in U.S. History was last year’s Soberanes Fire near Big Sur, which cost $236 million. Anyone have any idea how much saw timber burned up in that fire? My guess is very, very, very little.

  2. I remember reluctantly agreeing with MacCleery on this. I think you would find that most people who oppose logging national forests have a less consumptive lifestyle than those who don’t. But that doesn’t solve the problem of what to do when we’ve mined the world’s old growth. Has anyone ever looked at tree farming the same way we are now looking at energy facility siting – where can it be done with least impact (but world-wide)? And regardless, there should be forest “preserves” in all ecosystems, and I don’t think this speech can be read as an argument that public lands should be the first place to go looking for logs.

    • I think most American’s in today’s highly urbanized world are fairly clueless where things come from. For instance, at school career fairs, I ask the kids if they can think of anything, anything at all, they use that does NOT come from natural resources; a high school girl said her electric hair dryer and a high school boy said his modeling clay. On a field trip to the woods, I asked the same question to a group of juniors and seniors from their ‘consumers and the environment’ class. Given the nature of the class, I was astounded that they weren’t even sure what natural resources were; after some discussion, they weren’t sure but they thought maybe a dairy cow. (A year later, I took that class on another field trip and, this time, they knew what natural resources were. That told me that their teacher had learned something on that first field trip!) A graduating senior had no clue where the concrete floor we were standing came from; it had simply never occurred to him. Though they’ve learned about the food chain, most kids are surprised to learn that every bit of their lunch came from the soil!

      For many years, I organized an Ag/Forestry Expo for third and fourth graders. In one of the activities, the kids had to place in the proper bucket where common household items came from (bread, macaroni & cheese, paper towels, etc.); they tended to put most things into the store bucket, not the farm, forest, etc. buckets. As I watched, I’d frequently overhear a parent say they’d learned something, too.

      I’d also guess that environmental groups, along with the media’s help, have done such a good job of presenting a very one-sided agenda that this agenda has become reality. E.g., I go to environmental educator’s conferences and find “educational” booths that are clearly anti-forestry (pictures of ugly 70-year old clearcuts of the type that are outlawed by today’s standards). At the same time, attendees would rip into me about how terrible loggers were (as they sip their coffee from a paper cup, eat a snack served on a paper plate, and wipe their lips with a paper napkin)! In preparing for a national youth environmental conference, a high school teacher told me that his students were talking to some of their peers from California; the California kids asked if it was really true that there were only 300 trees left in Oregon !!!!

      I have urban-dwelling relatives who know nothing about the forest or forest management though they watch TV have some very strong anti-forestry beliefs.

      I think all these folks are pretty typical of the average American and many oppose national forest management. We have become a very urbanized society and can no longer associate the things we use to the natural world.

      I’m not suggesting we log all the old-growth nor am I suggesting we preserve all the old-growth. I am suggesting we think about how we use the natural world as we consume things extracted from the environment and how use manage the forest. Nor do I think MacCleery is suggesting we “mine” public forests; rather, take our consumerism into account as we more ethically manage the forest.

  3. Hi Dick, Seems like a lot of cherry picked facts and opinions here. I mean, the speech is nearly 20 years old, so much of the data is old. And for example, who’s house is in the picture? Is in the home of a prominent environmentalists? Or is the home of members of the Sierra Club? I have a feeling that I could fit my tiny house (built 75 years ago) in that house’s living room. For whatever it’s worth, we just got our power/gas bill and it averages $78/month and our water bill averages under $30.

    You honestly believe that environmentalists don’t want to talk about consumption? Weird. Plenty of us do. My wife and I also made a choice to not have any kids. I often talk about over-population and over-consumption issue when talking about environmental issues like public lands management, wildlife and endangered species, etc. The choice to not have kids may not be for everyone, and there is still a lot of stigma associated with married people not having kids, but it might be the single greatest thing any one (or two) people could do to reduce consumption long-term. I mean, is see plenty of people buying lots of things for their kids, grandkids and great-grand kids. My wife and I will skip all that consumption, for example.

    Also, lots of people ID themselves as a “Christian” but don’t lead a very Christian-like lifestyle. I suppose the same is true with the fact that lots of people ID themselves as “environmentalists” but may not lead the most earth-friendly lifestyle. I’m pretty sure the suburban family you choose to highlight above that lives in a 4000 square foot (McMansion), drives 4 cars and commutes long distances doesn’t work in the environmental movement. Perhaps they ID themselves as “environmentalists”…perhaps not. I suppose that’s their choice.

    I do agree with Jon’s point that “I think you would find that most people who oppose logging national forests have a less consumptive lifestyle than those who don’t.” I also think, in general, people who work in the environmental movement or have dedicated their lives to environmental activism, in general, consume less, buy local more, use less pesticides and toxic products, etc than people who could care less about their impacts on the earth.

    Finally, I have to say that this just sort of seems like another attempt to blame environmentalists for things. It almost seems like you think it’s the fault of the environmental movement that there is over-consumption in America, instead of blaming corporate America, the government, Madison Avenue, the Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and supporters of corporate ‘free trade.” Yes, if only the environmental movement was more effective and could counter the onslaught of Ads, pressures and new shiny pieces of consumer crap placed before Americans 100s of times every day. Clearly this shows the failures of the environmental movement.

  4. I agree that more attention could be paid to the disconnect that Sharon mentions. I think the market might help address it. We need to make building materials (and other material goods) more expensive by internalizing all the externalities of habitat loss, GHG emissions, water pollution, etc.

    I wonder if this trend still holds, 6 years after the housing market crash, but in 2009 the Wall Street Journal reported that houses are getting smaller on average:

    The American housing market continues to drag, with the Mortgage Bankers Association reporting Thursday that applications for home-purchase loans have hit a nine-year low, plunging a seasonally adjusted 11.7% in the week ending Nov. 6 from the previous week. U.S. sales of newly built homes have fallen sharply as well, from 1.3 million in 2005 to 485,000 last year. The latest Census Bureau data suggest that this year’s sales will be even lower. Just 294,000 new homes sold through the first nine months of this year.
    Slimming Down
    More often than not, builders say, post-crash buyers of new homes want smaller and simpler. The average new single-family house peaked at 2,507 square feet in 2007 and has since slipped to 2,392 square feet, according to Census Bureau data.

    Builders Downsize the Dream Home. NOVEMBER 13, 2009

  5. I was in no way pointing a finger at the environmental movement or, for that matter, any other segment of American society. Rather, I’m pointing the finger at the typical American consumer.

    As for the house, when I googled ‘McMansions’, dozens of homes showed up and I simply chose one that was a high quality photo; there was zero indication of its owner. My hunch is that, while some would choose to live in a smaller house and leave a smaller footprint on the planet, if they could afford to own such a house, most people would opt for this sort of house. As MacCleery said in his speech, a consumer who, “otherwise leads a highly resource consumptive lifestyle is still (if otherwise decent) a respected member of society. Indeed, her/his social status in the community may even be enhanced by virtue of that consumption”. I think the typical American consumer would aspire to own a home and lifestyle like this and would have little idea of that home’s or that lifestyle’s environmental cost; at 2467 sq. ft., today’s median home is certainly bigger than most families need (it is almost twice the size of my home and I reared a son and twin daughters). Further, if what is found on the media and comes out of political offices is any indication, I’d guess a fair number of those homeowners would oppose public forest logging. Thus the question of consumption vs. ethics.

  6. Dick: I scrolled back to the very top with the pictured house to revisit your basic question of ethics…
    It seems to me (as I note in my book) your ethics question is fundamental in the tension between economy and ecology. I believe global commerce is largely driven by economic forces that tend to (necessarily) operate at the expense of our shared ecology. It seems free market capitalists trust that getting things cheaply, wherever at whatever cost, is simply the fair, egalitarian working out of commerce. Raising ethical questions related to sustainability, perverse work environment, env degradation, and the like, only serves as a nettlesome drag on the way societies should function.. I mean once you start with imposing ethics on economy, where does it stop?

    Sorry, drifting into cynicism… I argue that (as others have said) if you want golden eggs, keep the goose alive. Thus, taking care of our environment ought to be the highest priority, and this should bound economic activity. Commercial production of goods and services is appropriate and necessary, provided that economic forces do not erode the principal. I think there is no question that economic factors have driven our environmental policy for a very long time, and, far from seizing and holding the high ground, enviros have been fighting rear guard actions. I don’t care whether you talk about Iowa topsoil, blue fin tuna, old growth forests, or CAFOs, I don’t see enviros “winning” much of anything consequential.

    If you want to see what tipping the scales in favor of the economy looks like (again), keep your eyes open for the next 4 years (or more).

  7. Jim — I’d agree, the question of ethics has been missing for eons as economy was the primary consideration. From the beginning of human civilization, people have always manipulated their environment to better suit their needs and that, necessarily, will continue to be the case. [One of the reasons for the Roman Empire is that the Romans had largely deforested their homeland and conquered their neighbors for a source of wood. Also, the English saw N. America as a source of wood because so much of their forests had been turned into charcoal and the peasants couldn’t afford firewood.]

    However, the numbers of people continue to grow while the planet’s resources do not; i.e., what we have is all we’re going to get. That means we MUST learn to live more sustainably if the planet is to continue to sustain us. That also means we MUST quit treating other countries as if they are mere colonies as we extract their resources. As third world economies expand (China, India, Brazil, and others) and they grow more prosperous and demand more consumer goods, they may be less inclined to export their resources.

    For example: southern California does not live within its means when it must import its wood (from the Pacific Northwest, Chile, or elsewhere), its oil (from Ecuador or Alaska), its water via long-distance aqueducts, its lettuce (from the Central Valley or Mexico), etc. In other words, as MacCleery points out, southern California is a highly resource-dependent community. But, is it ethical to import so many of its needs as it exports the costs? Is it right for these people to impose their belief systems on those who provide for their needs? [For more on that, see today’s post about California seceding from the Union.]

    Without modern technology (trucks, railroads, ships, aqueducts, electrical transmission lines, fertilizers, etc. – all highly resource dependent technologies), southern California would wither away.

    For some food for thought, I’d highly urge everyone to get a copy of Dr. Jim L. Bowyer’s new book, “The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise”. He presents questions and data far too lengthy to post on this blog.


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